Remember the name – Fahmi Reza, the worthy winner of the Freedom Film Festival 2007. Last night I headed for the opening day’s screenings at the Actors’ Studio in Penang, mainly to see Fahmi’s “Sepuluh tahun sebelum Merdeka” – and I was not disappointed. It was the best local political documentary I had seen. The film focused on the first multi-ethnic political coalition in the country and depicted the events leading to the 1947 nationwide hartal or total national strike.
The visionary women and men behind the hartal were nine years ahead of their time in coming up with constitutional proposals for a “Melayu” citizenship covering all the major races. In fact, the term “Melayu” to describe citizenship for all was surprisingly well received even by the non-Malays.
The hartal had the backing of left-wing Malay nationalist groups, middle-class English-speaking non-Malays, even the Chinese Chambers of Commerce, women’s groups, and yes, the MIC too! It was a broad-ranging movement that was determined to seek Independence.
Of course, the British preferred to deal with Umno, which did not threaten colonial economic interests at that time, and completely ignored the Putera-AMCJA coalition’s constitutional proposals.
One of the surviving Malay leaders in the Putera coalition interviewed in the film revealed that several of their leaders who were previously with Umno had been unhappy with Umno’s proposal to include the keris in the party’s flag. “Why put the keris in?” they asked.
In the audience at the Actors’ Studio was one of the main characters in the documentary, Lim Kean Chye, who was one of the founders of the Malayan Democratic Union and of the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA) of which Tan Cheng Lock was chairman.
Kean Chye, who was warmly applauded by the audience for his role in the coalition and the hartal, was clearly impressed with Fahmi’s effort. Fahmi had spent days with him trying to extract as much information as he could for the film, which covered the period 1945-1948.
After the movie, Kean Chye disclosed a surprising historical nugget. It was Cheng Lock who had suggested the hartal, seeing that the Putera-AMCJA alliance’s efforts were being completely sidelined and ignored by the British. Cheng Lock had spent the war years in India and it was there that he was influenced by Gandhi and Nehru’s tactics of non-violent resistance.
The hartal itself was a resounding success across the country. It may not have stopped the British-Umno-royalty negotiations for the Federation, but it was the first example of a genuine multi-ethnic coalition – long before the Umno-MCA alliance. So it’s a great pity that our history books gloss over this period in history.
For someone so young – he was born 20 years after Merdeka – Fahmi’s depiction of events was remarkably perceptive, thoughtful and engaging, capturing the sense of excitement of the period even in the absence of raw video footage.
Remarkably, he had never been interested in history when he was in school. The emphasis on memorising dates and events put him off – a telling indictment of our teaching pedagogy. It was only after he left school that he started poring over history books to discover the hidden stories of “the other side” – not just those narrated by the victors.
After the screening, I spoke to this bespectacled, scrawny young producer and he told me excitedly that his next film project would focus on the “Emergency” years from 1948-1960. People tend to think of this period as a largely Chinese communist insurrection against the British. But thousands of Malay activists were also detained during that period as the British tried to crush the left-wing nationalist movement.
I came away inspired and encouraged. Who says young Malaysians cannot think or be creative?
Here is a trailer from his Sepuluh tahun sebelum Merdeka: