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Thesis in lieu of a paper in History

for Joint Honour School of Modern History and Politics




Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Malay-Muslim Singapore, 1911-1915


2 Neracha: a radical manifesto


3 Neracha’s campaigns


4 Utusan Melayu: a critical loyalist


5 Utusan’s core concerns


6 Conclusion: Contrasting visions of modernity


7 Bibliography


Malay-Muslim Singapore, 1911-1915

British rule over its corner of the Malay world, centred on the metropolis of

Singapore, was at the turn of the century being challenged by significant streams of

indigenous opinion that questioned and held that rule to account, even if they did not

directly challenge it. This challenge was most pronounced in the emergence and growth

of a native press, which questioned many foundations of colonial dominance in its

attempt to come to terms with the changed realities of a modernising world. Print was

more than a new medium that saw these issues debated, it ‘helped shape the perception,

language and articulation of the problems themselves’. 1 While some elements of the

native press were antagonistic towards the status quo, other elements actively sought an

accommodation with and within it. It was a debate about hedging bets – to stick with the

way things were, or to challenge them head on. These two elements represented

conflicting approaches to modernity, amply reflected in editorials in the two Malay-

language newspapers published in Singapore in the early 1910s, a period of shock and

self-realisation for the Malays in a city undergoing rapid development. Singapore was the

most modernised part of Malaya, but it was a city where the Malays – virtually all of

whom were Muslim – were on the verge of oblivion. As a cosmopolitan port city,

Singapore offered a template for the future – of the progress that could be brought to the

still largely Malay peninsula, and of how the Malays would be dominated by the

colonially-encouraged influx of other races. By 1911, there were equal numbers of

Chinese and Malays in Malaya. The Chinese had already for a half-century been the

overwhelming majority in Singapore. There was thus a very real fear that the Malays

1 Juan R.I. Cole, ‘Printing and Urban Islam in the Mediterranean World, 1890-1920’, in Leila Tarazi Fawaz and C.A.Bayly eds. Modernity and Culture: From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean (New York, 2002) p.361

would be further marginalized and eclipsed. It was therefore no surprise that these two

newspapers emerged to educate their community on this state of affairs, and to highlight

ways out of their decline in a climate of colonial capitalism.

The papers were the Islamic modernist Neracha (balancing scales; the Malay

word for the Arabic al-mizan) and the loyalist Utusan Melayu (The Malay Messenger).

These terms are used because in Neracha, ‘problems which confronted the Malays were

viewed from an Islamic perspective’. 2 Utusan Melayu (hereafter referred to as Utusan)

was critically supportive and even praiseworthy of British rule. Previous work comparing

Al-Imam and Neracha to Utusan has asserted that the secular-religious distinction

between them has been more apparent than real. Neracha’s predecessor, the religious

monthly Al-Imam (1906-08), participated in the same discourse of modernity as did

Utusan. 3 However, a closer scrutiny of the editorials and correspondence columns in

Neracha and Utusan over this period reveals that at the very least, the Malay elite, and by

inference the reading public, was being split into two camps – those more inclined to

seeing the world solely through a religious lens, which tended to be antagonistic in its

view of colonial rule; and those more inclined to a broader, liberal frame of perception,

one accepting and accommodating of colonial rule, albeit with a dose of criticism. The

former opted for a discourse of resistance, the latter, one of mediation. Members from

one camp often engaged in debates with and within the other camp, camps could as

always be crossed, and the newspapers were symbolic markers of each.

This thesis will highlight the key orientations and concerns of each paper, which

constitute the nuances and crucial assumptions of the views each camp advocated. It will

2 Khoo Kay Kim, Malay Papers and Periodicals as Historical Sources (Kuala Lumpur, 1984) p.23

3 Anthony Milner, The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya (Cambridge, 1995) p.189

assess how they see their underlying concerns from different ideological bases. 4 It further

argues that such a distinction is, despite the similarities and common concerns of both

camps, at heart an irreconcilable one. The emphasis of Utusan was on religion as a lever

for progress but never as an entirely dominant overarching framework that should

regulate human endeavour. The emphasis of Neracha was on religion being dominant, as

the be-all and end-all of life in this world with the possibility of a surface adjustment to

modernity. Both papers’ visions competed for the hearts and minds of the Malays in this

period. Both papers saw the Malays in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula as defining the

Muslim community, which they formed an overwhelming part of. The Malays were

debating the parameters of their community, because although Islam was a defining

feature of the Malay, a Muslim was not automatically Malay. Among the key figures in

Malay and in the Malay press in this period were naturalised Arabs and Indian Muslims,

known as Jawi Peranakan, incidentally the name of the first ever Malay paper published

in Malaya, in Singapore in 1876. The papers were thus also concerned about shaping a

notion of communal identity – the community was construed more as a broader Malay-

Muslim one rather than as a Malay one, whose better-off members helped the less able

ones – as they were about adjusting to new social and economic processes that evolved

under colonial rule.

Colonial rule demanded that loyalties be reassessed. The outbreak of war in 1914

tested the loyalty of Muslims in the British Empire to their colonial masters. Pan-Islamic

sentiment, which Neracha campaigned, saw leadership for Muslims in the person of the

4 This perhaps sees a more recent parallel in the UMNO-PAS (United Malays National Organisation – Pan- Malayan Islamic Party) faultline in Malaysian politics – a continuation of these two different approaches to urbanisation, modernisation and colonial rule evident in this early and active stage of Malay print journalism in the 1910s. Comparing both papers does seem like comparing Malaysia’s pro-government dailies Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian with the PAS’ weekly Harakah today – the former accepting the status quo and editorialising that people should be grateful to the government and make the most of what opportunities lie before them, the other focusing on its dissatisfaction with the status quo, both drawing upon scripture to articulate their view of religion in the political sphere.

Ottoman Sultan. Utusan, however, saw loyalty to government preceding extra-territorial

loyalties. It defended the Empire and its just governance in its pages, while Neracha

challenged the Empire, criticising the British for marginalising the community and for

supporting the Greeks and Italians in their offensives against the Turks in the Balkans.

For both papers, scripture mattered as a discursive tool. Islam was a key element in

Malay attitudes to modernity and change, in coping with a feeling of displacement and

marginalisation in a colonial milieu. But a faith central to the lives of Malay-Muslims

was inevitably interpreted in different ways by editors, correspondents, readers and

listeners, as the following chapters reveal.

Neracha: a radical manifesto

Neracha began publication in 1911 as a successor to Al-Imam (1906-08), the first

Islamic reformist periodical in Malay, which had ceased publication due to financial

constraints. Neracha was initially published three times a month and subsequently

weekly owing to demand from its readers for news of the First Balkan War (1912-1913).

Neracha was the first Islamically-oriented Malay newspaper giving adequate coverage to

external affairs notably in the Muslim world. With an initial circulation of 700 copies, at

a cost of 10 cents a copy or 3 dollars for a year’s subscription in Singapore and Malaya, it

had a readership in the Malay Peninsula, the Netherlands East Indies and also in southern

Thailand, India and the Middle East. 5 Compared to Al-Imam, which Noer asserts was

censored and had its distribution restricted in Netherlands East Indies territory, Neracha

adopted a more measured tone. Unlike Al-Imam, it made no outward call for the Malays

to free themselves from bondage against their colonial masters. But like its more radical

predecessor, it reasserted the point that the Malays’ position in their own country would

be in jeopardy if they did not change their attitudes and assert themselves. 6 Neracha

defined its existence as a newspaper not merely to report the news, but to benefit its

community and make it aware of its condition, so that its members would feel the need to

participate in educating themselves on matters of worldly and religious concern in order

to progress. 7 At the same time, Neracha was fulfilling what its editors saw as a ‘religious

obligation’ (kewajipan) to guide its community on the path of progress and success. If the

Prophet in spreading his message was taunted and vilified, the editors observed, whatever

5 Straits Settlements Blue Book, in Ian Proudfoot, Pre-war Malay Periodicals (Kuala Lumpur, 1985)

6 Khoo Kay Kim, ‘Malay society, 1874-1920s’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 5.2 (1974), 191

7 Neracha, 68, 15 Jan. 1913, p.1

criticisms the paper faced were nothing by comparison. What mattered was that it had

done its work and was of service to its readers. 8

The primary concern of Neracha was religion, an issue which was central to its

editorials and to a significant majority of its correspondents’ letters. The issues and topics

touched upon were predominantly religious, touching on Europeans’ perceptions of

Muslim success, awareness of the precepts of the faith, concern at the Christianisation

efforts of missionaries towards Muslims, the role of religion in daily life, advice provided

by the Qur’an and Hadith (prophetic traditions), the romanisation of Malay notably in the

Netherlands East Indies, and the need for a pan-Islamic solidarity with the wider umat. 9

This did not entail a neglect of other concerns, for where they were not ostensibly

religious, they were treated and addressed by Neracha’s editors within a religious

framework. Thus commentary on declining social capital, the lack of progress of the

Malays compared to other races, education, economic prosperity, football, the benefits of

cooperation and forming associations, emulating Europeans, and the education of women

were all referenced to the broader principles of the faith and supported by quotations

from the Qur’an and the Hadith.

Neracha ceased using the Gregorian date on its front page from its edition of 19

March 1913, publishing only the Islamic calendar or Hijri date where previously it

published both dates, giving no reason for the change. This suggests a hardening of its

line, especially as its sister periodical with a clearly defined religious orientation, Tunas

Melayu (Malay Sapling), was first published that same month. Surprisingly enough,

Tunas Melayu (1913-1914) gave Gregorian dates alongside the Islamic dates. This sister

publication, also edited by Neracha editor Haji Abbas bin Muhammad Taha assisted by

8 Ibid.

9 Umat’ is synonymous with and the Malay form of the Arabic ‘ummah’ (Muslim community).

K. Anang and Abdul Hamid and others, was the first Malay magazine to be published.

Tunas Melayu aimed ‘to benefit its community so they would not be hindered or

hampered by its weaknesses and shortcomings’. 10 It only published 16 issues, which

carried relatively lengthy features on Islamic history, issues pertaining to religious

practice, contributors’ letters and questions on matters of fiqh (religious laws), and had

pictures of Islamic sites and of the Balkan wars.

Islam, in Neracha’s perception, was critical to all aspects of everyday life, yet it

was also a modernist reading of Islam which its editors espoused, one that was amenable

to progress, modernity and capitalism. In one editorial, Neracha defined its religious

vision of progress, and stressed the need for mutual help as prescribed by the Qur’an.

Telah kita sebutkan kemajuan kita ialah mengetahui dan berpegang dengan agama kita maka boleh dipercayai ada setengah orang tatkala dilihatnya kemajuan Eropah dan kelemahan muslimin iaitu disangkanyalah keadaan kemajuan dan kenegerian itu bukannya dengan kerana agama padahal bahaya dan kejatuhan yang membawa kepada lembah kehinaan itu ialah sebab meninggalkan agama dan tiada menurut titahnya. Maka bangsa asing mengerjakan pekerjaan yang bersetuju bagaimana yang disuruh didalam agama maka mereka itu yang mendapat dan merasa kemajuan dan kemuliaan. Tidakkah Qur’an kita menyuruh kita tolong menolong pada pekerjaan yang berguna dan adakah kita mengerjakan tolong menolong itu bagaimana yang dikerjakan oleh bangsa asing yang bertamadun. 11 (‘Agama dan Kemajuan’[Faith and Progress], Neracha, 86, 21 May 1913, p.1)

A constant theme in Neracha’s editorials was the hadith addin al-nasihat

(religion is advice). A constant Qur’anic verse it cited translates into Malay as ‘dan

ingatkan olehmu kerana peringatan itu memberi manfaat orang yang mukmin’ (and

remind ye because reminders give benefits to those who believe and have faith). Faith, to

10 Tunas Melayu, 1, 1, 12 Feb. 1913, p.1 11 We have mentioned that progress for us is knowing and holding steadfast to our religion. Half of us who see European progress on one hand and Muslim weaknesses on the other infer that the condition of progress and statehood is not because of religion. But this is dangerous, because what has led to our decline to despicable depths is our leaving religion behind and not following its commands. Foreign races undertake what is prescribed by religion, hence they are among those who obtain and realise progress and respectability. Does not our Qur’an ask us to help one another to do useful work and do we do so, as civilised races do?

the men who edited Neracha and whose letters appeared in its correspondence columns,

was in one contributor’s words, self-contained and all-encompassing.

Maka di dalam Islam terkandung sekalian alatan mengadap Tuhan Raja mengadap kaum mengadap sahabat mengadap musuh mengatur kerajaan pemerintahnya penimbang perasaan sama manusia mencari kehidupan tabib hakim pelayaran adab santun dan sebagainya hingga peraturan perlingkahan perjalanan tidur baring berkenderaan dan sebagainya dengan sempurna. 12 (‘Agama Islam’[The Islamic Faith], Neracha, 71, 5 February 1913, p.1)

Islam was the prescribed cure for social and economic ills in Malay society, and a

core preoccupation of Neracha was the material problems of the Malays, material well-

being having been viewed as an essential part of the faith. In a rebuttal to a contributor

who suggested that Malay youth were more attuned to football and leisure, being less

inclined to the pursuit of wealth as Chinese youth were, Neracha’s editors stressed the

links between prosperity and faith. A contributor elaborated upon this succinctly.

Sebabnya diberi ingat dan nasihat supaya kita sedar keadaan orang yang mendatang ke tanah air kita dengan ‘sehelai sepinggang’ atau tikar bantal segulung di dalam sedikit masa sahaja ia telah jadi tuan kita dan tauke kita dan memerintah kita segala barang yang lazim bagi kehidupan hari2 semuanya di tangan mereka itu ialah kerana berhati berkehendakan kekayaan yang Tuan kata kebanyakan orang kita tiada berkehendakan dia. Pada hal harta dan kekayaan itu terlalu besar gunanya hingga di dalam rukun agama kita berkenaan sekali dengan harta dan kekayaan itu. Dan kita tiada dapat menyempurnakan cukup rukun Islam melainkan dengan harta maka sejahat2 fikiran yang tiada berkehendakan kekayaan yang boleh memberi sangat besar kegunaannya itu. Hendaklah dibuang sama sekali fikiran yang keji lagi memutuskan cita2 yang berguna itu maka satu daripada yang menjatuhkan kita ialah pikiran yang keji semacam itu. 13 (Neracha, 89, 12 Jun 1913, p.5)

12 Islam contains all the tools to face God, King, community, friends, foes, to organise government and administration, to balance feelings for fellow men, to seek a living, doctor, judge, journey, custom and manners and so on until rules, disputes, travelling, sleeping, lying, taking vehicles and so on with perfection.

13 We should realise that the condition of those who come to our homeland with only the shirts on their backs or just their bedding in a short span of time have become our masters and employers and govern us and every daily essential is in their hands because they cautiously desire wealth and you, Sir, say many of our people do not desire that. In reality goods and wealth are extremely useful to the extent that our religious precepts significantly touch on goods and wealth. And we cannot properly fulfil the requirements of Islam without goods, so bad is the thought of not wanting wealth that can provide numerous uses. We need to discard such despicable thoughts that in reality lead to our downfall.

The above suggests that the influences and driving forces behind capitalism,

notably self-reliance and industry, were to the paper’s editors very much in line with

Islamic precepts. Indeed, it was in capitalist Singapore that modernist Islam flourished

and thrived in this period, it was Singapore that served as a centre for printing, publishing

and the haj. The Islam Neracha urged its readers in the Malay world to abide by

emphasised material progress and economic betterment as a prerequisite of the faith, a

point less emphasised by the Middle Eastern reformists. Seemingly incongruous with the

hardline stance Neracha more commonly adopted, this appears to be shaped by the

influences of Singapore’s economic growth in this period. Neracha’s editors and













Archipelago, who reinterpreted Islamic ideas imported from the Middle East to fit the

needs of the new political and social environments in which they came to rest. 14 Thus in













associations and commercial enterprises among their readers, a community that was not

materially well-off was not a successful one.

Eunos Abdullah, the founding editor of Utusan, saw the newspaper as an

educator, contributing to informed public opinion, and an arena for discussion and

debate, encouraging the creation of a new public sphere. 15 The same could be said of

Neracha’s publisher, Haji Abbas bin Muhammad Taha, and editor, K.Anang, who

actively encouraged contributions to the paper and often lamented the lack of space,

which constrained their ability to include as many letters as they would have liked. Born

in Singapore in 1885 to parents of Malay origin hailing from Minangkabau, Haji Abbas

was sent to Mecca as a teenager to study and returned in 1905 to become a teacher. When

14 Fred R. von der Mehden, Two Worlds of Islam (Gainesville, 1993), p.15

15 Anthony Milner, p.130

invited to help with Al-Imam in 1906, his agreement was immediate to the opportunity to

help publish an independent organ to voice reformist concepts, ideas and activities. 16 He

became assistant editor of Al-Imam under Sheikh Tahir Jalaluddin and was made full

editor in March 1908 while remaining an imam at his village mosque in Tanjong Pagar

where he subsequently became a kadi (religious law official). K. Anang was the alias

used by Mas Abdul Hamid, who according to a later British intelligence report, was

expelled from the Straits Settlements in 1915. A religious teacher at his Minto Road

home in Singapore who was educated at the Raffles School, K. Anang was later

described as ‘continually drawing attention to British troubles in India’, and ‘a well-

known Khilafat agitator’ when he was alleged to be the editor of a religious paper Islam

Bergerak (Islam Astir) in Java that began publication in 1922. 17 The harsh unrelenting

idiom of the religious ideologue in Haji Abbas was however tempered with a distinct

tolerance and willingness to represent alternative views and dissent against the editorial

line, even if at the end of the day, he made it clear where his ideological preferences lay.

This was evident in the lengthy debate on the permissibility of football, which the

following chapter expands on. Neracha’s editorials and contributors, like those of

Utusan, continually exhorted Malays to unite together in a purposeful manner in the

interests of the common good. 18 Yet over previous decades, the growth of a religious

division within the Muslim Malay community had been noted and commented upon by

civil servants and missionaries. In an editorial commenting on the foundation of Al-

Ittihad, a fortnightly Malay-language newspaper set up by Malay students in Egypt in

1913, Neracha noted that this would bring the number of ‘completely Malay newspapers

and periodicals’ (suratkhabar dan majalah Melayu semata2 pada serba-serbinya) to five

16 Abu Bakar Hamzah, Al-Imam: Its Role in Malay Society 1906-1908 (Kuala Lumpur, 1991), pp.127-8

17 The Malayan Bulletin of Political Intelligence (Mar. 1922) in Colonial Office Records C.O. 273/516

18 William Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism (New Haven, 1967), p.183

Neracha; Warta Palembang in Palembang, Al-Moenir in Padang, Al-Ittihad in Egypt

and the forthcoming Tunas Melayu - and hopefully this would increase. 19 Implicit in this

listing was the fact that Utusan was not an independent Malay paper in its entirety as it

was affiliated with and owned by the Singapore Free Press, although it had independent

editors. Neracha made no discernible direct reference to Utusan, unlike the latter, which

was more generous in this regard.

Neracha, like Al-Imam before it, presented an alternative template to loyalist and

traditionalist conceptions of social and religious life in the Malay community. Its

prescriptions for the progress of the umat in the Malay world were presented in a heavily

Islamic register, relying strongly on the teachings of Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and

Rashid Rida (1865-1935) in Egypt, seeing in a thorough implementation of Islam, in

particular the rigid application of the shari’a, a solution to Muslim weakness. There was

no doubt that the editors of Neracha, who had been involved in the production of Al-

Imam, were modern men who, according to Anthony Milner, ‘enunciated the religion and

law of Allah in a new idiom’. 20 But it was also an idiom that was fixed on the primacy of

the religious dimension in everyday life. At the same time, Neracha contributed to the

homogenization as well as the diversification of experience between its readership and

the wider umat. Neracha linked Malays throughout the archipelago, and made them




events. 21








advocated another stringent element of its view of the faith – solidarity with the rest of

the umat. An editorial response to a reader sceptical of Neracha for its pro-Turkish

coverage of the Balkan war strongly reaffirmed two other commitments: to convey the

19 Neracha, 66, 1 Jan. 1913, p.1

20 Anthony Milner, p.189

21 Virginia Matheson Hooker, Writing a new society: social change through the novel in Malay (Leiden, 2001), p.79

truth regarding people whose homelands were raided and seized and who fought

wholeheartedly facing death and injury; and to show solidarity with the oppressed, be

they Muslim or of other faiths. 22

Befitting its radical orientation, Neracha admonished Muslims for indulging in

leisure activities, notably football, when fellow Muslims were suffering the effects of war

in the Balkans and of colonial rule elsewhere. It urged its readers to cease playing

football ‘to commemorate the sorrow that envelops our Muslim brothers in their large

lands’ (kerana meraikan dukacita yang mengelubungi saudara kita muslimin di negeri

yang besar2) and to have faith in a religion that urged fraternal sentiment, to weep in

unity and to rejoice together.

Di mana kita taruh iman kita dan kepercayaan kita dengan agama kita yang telah menyatukan semua muslimin di seluruh dunia ini bersaudara tiba2 saudara kita yang menjaga kerajaan khalifah mengidap sakit dan mengerang siang malam dan kita zahir ramai2 bertempiak sorak dan bersuka2 ria maka begitukah kita muslimin mesti hidup di atas muka bumi ini atau itukah yang dihitungkan jalan kemajuan bagi bangsa Melayu innalillahi wainnailaihi rajiun. 23 (‘Perang dan Bersuka2’[War and Enjoyment], Neracha, 66, 1 Jan 1913, p.1)

There was, however, a further side to Neracha’s international outlook. A

contributor urged readers to travel to get what is good from abroad for the ‘watan’ and

tanah air’ (motherland) for future generations. 24 The role of the press in the emergence

of a Malay nationalism as well as the popularisation of associational life has been

highlighted by Roff, and Milner tracked the political development of the Malays through

his comparison of Utusan and Al-Imam in the period immediately preceding this study

(1906-1908). But a study of Neracha also reveals the depth of sentiment and reaction

among the Malays to changes in their society and in the wider world. Evincing a growing

22 Neracha, 31, 1 May 1912, p.2

23 Where do we place our faith and belief in our religion that has united all Muslims in this world as brothers? When suddenly our brothers who preserve the Caliphate are sick and suffering day and night we cheer and enjoy ourselves day and night. Is this how we as Muslims should live, is this counted as a path to progress for the Malay race? To God do we come from and to him do we return.

24 Neracha, 32, 8 May 1912, p.3

awareness and consciousness of a burgeoning civil society, Neracha highlighted the

significance of the wider elements of religion, race and country – which fed later

nationalist sentiment – in the Malay perception of the world in this period. Ahmat bin

Adam observed that once native Indonesians ‘had acquired a press of their own, their

awakening to the various problems of a colonized society gave them further impetus to

remedy their backward situation’. 25 The same could be said of the inhabitants of British

Malaya, with newspapers and periodicals from Malaya and West Sumatra being read on

both sides of the Straits of Malacca. Neracha offered scant coverage of developments in

the wider context of Singapore’s multi-racial, or plural society in Furnivall’s term, ‘with

different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same

political unit.’ 26 Each ethnic community was rather self-contained, usually maintaining

only a tenuous economic link with other ethnic communities. It was through this link,

aided by the press, that the Malay-Muslim reader was aware that the other communities

were moving far ahead of his own. The Malay community’s resulting bitterness at this

situation was reflected as well as reinforced by Neracha. Not only had colonialism

exposed the Malays to challenges from immigrants and left them impoverished in their

homelands, their efforts to remedy their dire condition were often thwarted by colonial

authorities who feared a proto-nationalist backlash. An editorial on Sarekat Islam

(Islamic Association) formed in 1912 (originally established as Sarekat Dagang Islam –

Association of Muslim Traders – in Surakarta, Java, in 1911 by Indonesian Muslim

merchants attests to this.

Sesungguhnya telah kita dengar tuduhan orang yang tinggi tamadunnya di atas Syarikat Islam yang dibuka oleh saudara2 kita yang di bawah perintah Belanda.

25 Ahmat bin Adam, The Vernacular Press and the Emergence of Modern Indonesian Consciousness (Ithaca, 1995), p.181 26 Carl Trocki in Nicholas Tarling (ed.), Cambridge History of Southeast Asia vol.2 (Cambridge, 1992),


Maka tidaklah sekali2 kita fikir inilah nasib dan bahagian kita orang Jawi ini tiada boleh membuka satu2 pekerjaan yang besar2 manfaatnya bagi kaum dan bangsa sendiri melainkan ada sahaja bencana dan tohmah oleh yang tinggi tamadunnya diatas pekerjaan yang tersebut itu. Melainkan jika kita buka permainan yang besar boleh melalaikan banyak saudara kita supaya tercebur ke dalam lembah kehinaan dan kejatuhan pada kehidupan dunia dan agama maka yang demikian itu boleh mendapat puji dan tiada kena tuduh apa2 daripada orang yang tinggi tamadunnya. 27 (‘Syarikat Islam’, Neracha, 91, 25 June 1913, p.1)

Although this bitterness was primarily apparent in urbanised Singapore and

Penang, similar sentiments prevailed throughout the Malay States, in Borneo, and among

Malay students in the Middle East. There was significant correspondence from the

Middle East, and Neracha remains a major source of information on the Malay student

community in Cairo and Mecca throughout this period. Malay students in these cities

subscribed to Neracha to keep abreast of developments back home, remaining closely













developments in the Muslim world and being active contributors of opinions. Indeed, a

contributor challenged Malay students in Europe to take a similar initiative in setting up

their own paper. Another suggested that studying in England, America, Japan, France,

and Germany had its merits. 28 This drew a reaction from a student at Al-Azhar, the

citadel of traditional Muslim scholarship, who argued it was better for Muslims to pursue

worldly knowledge in a Muslim university such as Al-Azhar. This was refuted by

Neracha, which argued that modern and scientific education available in Europe and

elsewhere was not comparable to that available in Egypt, and that as with all things,

Muslims should learn from the good and not follow the bad. Neracha was stern in its line

27 We have heard accusations by those of noble civilisations, pertaining to Sarekat Islam which was started by our brothers under Dutch rule. Not once have we thought that this is our fate and portion as Jawis unable to start any one initiative that would bring much benefit to our community and race without there being disaster and curses from those of noble civilisations regarding those works of ours. Unless we start big entertainments that can lull many of our brothers into complacency so that we are sunk in despicable depths and falter in this world and in our religion, only then can we get praise and not be accused of anything.

28 Neracha, 74, 26 Feb. 1913, pp.2-3, 84, 7 May 1913, p.1

that what Egypt had to offer was different from what was available in the Malay world,

and that there were some things that could not be learnt from Al-Azhar.

Pada hal berapa ilmu kepandaian dunia yang terlalu besar manfaatnya tidak ada diajar di Mesir dan orang2 Mesir sendiri beberapa banyak meninggalkan tanah airnya kerana pergi menuntut ilmu yang manfaat itu di Eropah bagaimana yang disuruh oleh Rasul Allah menuntut ilmu walau di negeri Cina pada hal negeri Cina pada tempoh itu tiada ada orang Islam di sana melainkan yang ada beberapa kepandaian2 pada tempoh itu sahaja dan satu daripada yang menjatuhkan kita pada kepandaian dunia ialah kita tiada belajar ilmu Eropah melainkan kita diiktikadkan belajar ke Mesir sahaja sudah cukup. 29 (Neracha, 96, 30 July 1913, p.5)

A verbal dispute between Neracha’s editors and contributors and Al-Ittihad’s

contributors ensued with one Neracha correspondent chiding students in Egypt for

disliking criticism because ‘they are religious men and over here people are not like

them’ (mereka orang alim dan orang di sini tidak macam mereka) because they did not

know European languages or much more about what knowledge was available in the

Netherlands East Indies. A student in Mecca described Al-Ittihad as being uncertain of its

purpose unlike Neracha, changing stance as issues arose, and that the difference between

the two was vast. Neracha’s contributors ridiculed Al-Ittihad as amateur for believing

that what was available in Europe was available in Egypt. If this was the extent of

knowledge at Al-Azhar, one correspondent wrote, it would be better to remain in the

Malay Archipelago. 30

Where Neracha adopted a critical stance against seeking knowledge solely in the

Middle East, it stressed the importance of education nearer to home in the quest to

improve its kaum (community) and bangsa (race), one of its core concerns. Knowledge

was not merely demanded by God, but was essential in developing a sense of community.

29 In reality a certain amount of worldly knowledge that is of immense value is not taught in Egypt and many Egyptians themselves leave their homeland to seek that knowledge in Europe. The Prophet urged the seeking of knowledge even in China, when in his time there were no Muslims in China. One of the reasons for our decline in worldly knowledge is that we do not seek European knowledge and think studying in Egypt alone is sufficient.

30 Neracha, 106, 8 Oct. 1913, p.1, 108, 22 Oct. 1913, pp.5-6

Some teachers in the Malay States had requested to use Neracha and Tunas Melayu in

schools and met with their European school administrators to campaign for this, but were

rebuffed in their attempts. Neracha urged them to not be disheartened, for after all, the

editors noted, there were those in the community who appreciated its value and

program. 31 In the end, while much of its criticism was directed at others, its strongest

criticism was reserved for its own community. In its eyes, the community was highly

culpable for the parlous state it was in. But only the community could remedy this, and it

was with this in mind that the paper espoused its causes and campaigns.

Baca dan dengarlah hal mereka itu di dalam surat2 khabar di dunia ini nescaya boleh mengambil insaf dan iktibar tiadalah sesia mengetahui ehwal dunia ini iaitu mana yang baik disimpan dan mana yang jahat dibuang dan hendaklah diingat2 dan difikir2kan kejatuhan dan kebelakangan kita supaya bangkit rajin dan usaha hendak bergerak dan berkisar kepada mendapatkan kemuliaan dan kemajuan maka yang dituntut bagi kaum kita ini bukannya bagaimana yang dituntut oleh orang2 Turki atau orang2 Mesir akan kaum mereka itu hanyalah yang dikehendaki bagi kaum kita ini biarlah keadaannya itu satu kaum yang boleh

dipandang orang

Dan tidakkah satu daripada kejatuhan kita iaitu keadaan kita

ada berpuluh2 milion dan ada orang besar2 kita dan ada orang kaya2 kita dan ada ulama kita tiba2 jika tidak ada daripada kita orang yang berhawa hendak mekhidmat dan memajukan kaumnya dan menuntutkan supaya bermutu sedikit bangsanya tidakkah yang demikian itu tanda mati kita berperasaan yang sebegitu banyak kita tidak ada bagi kita satu madrasah yang besar yang kita sendiri bangkitkan supaya kita tanam perasaan yang manfaat bagi anak2 kita dan mengajarkan ajaran dunia dan agama mereka itu. 32

(‘Kaum Melayu’ [The Malay Community], Neracha, 42, 17 July 1912, p.1)

31 Neracha, 76, 12 Mar. 1913, p.3 32 Read and listen to their situation in the papers in the world in order to be remorseful and to remember. It is not pointless to know of the affairs of this world – that which is good is retained and that which is bad left aside and it must be remembered and considered, our decline and backwardness, so that we rise again diligent and striving to progress and advance to gain respectability and progress. Thus that which is required for our community is not that which is sought by the Turks or the Egyptians for theirs – all that we

Is not one of the reasons for our decline

seek is to be a community that can be well-regarded by others

that our notables and wealthy members and clerics do not strive to serve and help our community progress and demand that their race be more up to the mark. Is this not a sign that we have lost any sentiment as a

community, that among so many of us not one large school have we ourselves built up to inculcate a feeling of purpose for our young and to instruct them in worldly as well as religious teachings.

Neracha’s Campaigns

It is no surprise that Neracha was at heart a campaigning newspaper. The three











segments of the Singapore Muslim community, against football, which it viewed as

unseemly and a waste of time given the dire situation of the Malays and the condition of

the ummah, and against the romanisation of Malay which it viewed with alarm as the thin

end of the wedge to Europeanise the language and draw Malays away from their Islamic

tradition and Arabic script. A fourth campaign – against the backwardness of its kaum

and for the need for education and self-awareness – was also keenly pursued. Yet, for all

the bitterness of sentiment and angry tones, Neracha’s editors and contributors reflected a

strong sense of self-confidence. This was rooted partly as a result of conviction in the

divine, but partly perhaps as a reflection of their increasingly comfortable material

circumstances. Singapore in this period was prosperous, and more than anything else

Neracha was a contributor, if not the primary vehicle, for cohesion among the Malay

Muslim elite. In this context, it was aware of how it could effect social change both

within and outside its community. Its unflinching sense of mission was constantly

reflected in its editorials, which reiterated time and again the conviction that it existed to

serve and present reminders to its community as expounded by the Qur’an.












missionaries in Singapore. A contributor from Perak noted that while an archbishop was

reportedly glad that there were no restrictions on Malays embracing Christianity under

agreements with the Malay rulers, there were also no restrictions on white men

embracing Islam under agreements with the European governments. This contributor

therefore suggested that Islamic associations in Singapore should hold an open reception

along the lines of what had been done by Christian priests who were seeking to convert

Malays. When they begin to persuade the community to convert to their religion, this

contributor suggested, ‘our imams should come forward and invite these priests to

convert to our religion, as they have done to our people – after all, it was they who started

this, not us’. 33 In another editorial, the editors noted with disdain the formation of a club

for Malays in Pasir Panjang, Singapore, headed by a missionary who attracted new

members by organising football games. 34 They linked this trend to developments in the

wider world as conversion efforts were also reported in the Egyptian newspapers from

which Neracha extensively culled reports on the declining fortunes of the Ottoman

Empire. Yet the journal also invoked its mission to provide advice (nasihat) to its

community, and did so out of religious obligation. Its editors also went beyond the call of

journalistic duty to take some form of action against the efforts of these missionaries,

pledging to visit Pasir Panjang and speak at the surau (prayer house) on religious matters.

As men who believed in their faith, they felt an obligation to give advice on religion

against the efforts of missionaries. 35 The main missionary involved, a retired agent for the

British and Foreign Bible Society John Haffenden, had indeed gathered members for

team sports but also to discuss contemporary issues and study the Bible. Neracha’s

intervention saw Haji Abbas and some forty men visiting the surau at Pasir Panjang and

challenging the missionaries and club members to make themselves known. This act,

regarded as little better than thuggery by the missionaries, nevertheless cooled the

openness of the young club members towards missionary advances. 36

33 ‘Maka imam kita tampillah pula memujuk paderi itu sendiri suruh ia masuk ke agama kita. Yakni ikut

paderi itu dan ikut segala perbuatannya bagaimana2 jalan dilakukannya itu

orang putih yang memulakan bukan kita.’ Neracha, 30, 18 Apr. 1912, p.4

34 Neracha, 77, 19 Mar. 1913, p.1

35 Neracha, 78, 26 Mar. 1913, p.1

36 Robert Hunt, ‘Interreligious Conflict and Compromise in Late 19 th and Early 20 th Century Singapore’, Sejarah, 4, 1996, 73-74

kita diikut sahaja yakni paderi















acknowledging the pluralism and choice that had to be offered to its readers in a

cosmopolitan society, recognised that in the end it was up to readers to follow whichever

path they chose. Quoting from the Qur’an, ‘whosoever wants to will have faith and

whosoever wants to will disbelieve’ (siapa mahu hendaklah ia beriman dan siapa mahu

hendaklah ia kafir), they managed to combine wisdom and irony. This campaign

attracted supporters telling Neracha to continue its good work, but it also had its

detractors. A member of the aforementioned club sent a letter of complaint regarding

Neracha’s coverage to the All-Malaya Football Association which was sent on to

Europeans. Neracha noted wryly:

Zaman sekarang ini zaman ada ‘Malaya’ menjadikan setengah orang ada yang tiada puas hati dengan satu suratkhabar Melayu ini diterbitkan dengan niat hendak memberi manfaat bagi yang ramai dengan menjalankan kewajipan menanam perasaan yang berguna dan mengeluarkan peringatan yang sememang2nya telah disuruh oleh Qur’an kita. 37 (‘Pasir Panjang’, Neracha, 79, 2 April 1913, p.1.)

Neracha’s campaigning extended to football and leisure, which Malays were

more inclined towards. A surface consideration of Neracha’s stance might make its

opposition seem overly rigid and certainly the issue of football generated widespread

debate and dissension amongst its readers. Yet the editors were aware that while

developed societies played football, the Malays, whom they viewed as being in a state of

‘weakness’ (kelemahan) both in terms of this world and the hereafter, should prioritise

education first. They should not be playing football when they did not know such

essential requisites of worldly life as reading and writing. How much more so, when so

37 In these times in [colonial] Malaya, some people are not contented with this Malay newspaper published with the intention of providing benefit to many by carrying out its obligation to inculcate useful sentiment and issue advice, as urged in our Qur’an.

many knew nothing of religious matters. 38 Readers urged a more balanced approach to

football, suggesting that football kept youth from fighting and that Malay youth had

different interests from Chinese youth. They thus proposed that football clubs be

combined with educational projects. After all, the editors argued, the Malay proverb

‘rambut sama hitam hati berlainan’ (hair is the same black but hearts differ) implied that

there are those who like football just as there are those who like to write or converse or

seek wealth or fame. Perhaps we should bridge all sides? Neracha’s editors were,

however, insistently against all football. This was backed by a reader from Penang who

lamented the loss of social capital since the setting up of associations. He pointed out that

funerals and weddings were now less well attended and longed for the old times before

the community ‘had sunk to such deplorable depths’ (sudah termasuk di dalam lubuk

yang hina itu). 39

When it came to combating the decline of Malay written in Arabic script, referred

to as Jawi, in favour of the Latin script, a broader campaign was called for. In a piece on

the soon-to-be-launched Tunas Melayu, Neracha’s editors urged a move against the

abolition of Jawi, which was seen as another move to draw the Malays away from their

religion. They urged the community to discard the modern custom of publishing Malay in

Latinised form, and instead revert to using Malay script – a term applied to Arabic-

scripted Malay – which had been all but eradicated in the Netherlands East Indies where

Malay newspapers and books were largely lettered in Latin script. The editors argued,

Malay could not be properly articulated in such script, whose use would damage the

Malay language, but worse still, was an accessory to removing their religion from the

38 Neracha, 87, 28 May 1913, p.1

39 Neracha, 89, 12 June 1913, p.5, 90, 18 June 1913, p.1

backward Malays. 40 Neracha also referred to new journals published in Padang, West

Sumatra, and expressed concern that the death of Jawi would spread to the Malay

Peninsula if the Malays were not careful enough to uphold Jawi. Laffan notes that the

decline of Jawi in the East Indies had already weakened bonds with the Malay Peninsula

there. 41 Warta Palembang had, however, changed from Latin script to Jawi and the

editors hoped the community would support it. 42 They also noted that an article in the









announcing the publication of another Malay newspaper in Malay script, Soeloeh












dissatisfaction with the modernist Al-Moenir. Neracha did not dwell on the divisions

between these papers. Instead, it was glad with this growth in the number of Malay

language newspapers, but hoped both ‘torches’ would be united rather than divided on













(menambahi terang lagi) condition whereas division would lead to all-round darkness. 43

This growth came sooner for Neracha also recorded, in approving tones, the arrival of a

copy of traditionalist-oriented Suara Melayu published in Padang. Although published in

romanised script (Rumi) like half of all the other Malay papers, it nevertheless had items

of interest and benefit that merited its continuance and progress. Al-Moenir also

mentioned a new paper to be published in Padang in Jawi, called Al-Akhbar. 44 In a much

later editorial, Neracha suggested that ‘the decline of the Malay script would lead to the

decline of the Malay race’ (telah dikatakan, tidak ada bahasa, tidak ada bangsa). 45

40 Neracha, 66, 1 Jan. 1913, p.1

41 Michael Laffan, Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia (London, 2003), p.180

42 Neracha, 34, 22 May 1912, p.3

43 Neracha, 78, 26 Mar. 1913, p.1

44 Neracha, 81, 16 Apr. 1913, p.4

45 Neracha, 172, 10 Feb. 1915, p.1

Throughout its operation, however, the decline of Jawi in the wider archipelago

was not as great a challenge as that posed by Chinese immigration, the effects of which

were felt ever more keenly. Certainly, the wider setting and outstanding role of Singapore

and Penang as ‘cultural brokers, translating the new purity, rationalism, and vitality of

Islam into the Malay language… and also into terms relevant to a local Malayo-

Indonesian frame of reference’ made the Straits Settlements very much part of the Malay

world even if ‘their vigorous and cosmopolitan Muslim groups were exceptional: small

groups living in the shadow of thriving Western and Chinese mercantile communities that

could afford to ignore Islamic activism, not being in the least challenged by it.’ 46 At the

same time, the greater participation of the non-Malays in the colonial economy, borne

most sharply in Singapore, in all likelihood engendered amongst them a sense of

superiority towards the Malays. Immigrant – mostly Chinese – industry, thrift and

adaptability to modern ways contrasted with the Malays’ perceived indolence and

rigidity. By the 1910s, the Malays saw their economic and political eclipse in colonial

Singapore, submerged as they were in a European-ruled Chinese city ‘with limited

opportunities for social mobility in a harshly competitive pioneering society’. 47

In this context, Neracha did not so much attack the colonial political order for

creating a plural society through immigration and for the subtle penetration of Western

values through Christian missionaries, but urged the Malays to turn these situations to

their advantage. Neracha featured criticism of the Malay community for being lazy,

quarrelsome and complacent, and depicted the kaum as a diseased organism that needed

remedying. 48 Certainly, part of the remedy lay in a return to the teachings of religion. Yet

readers were constantly urged to take a leaf out of the ‘industry’ (rajin) of Chinese

46 Harry Benda, in Holt et al eds., The Cambridge History of Islam vol. 2A (Cambridge, 1977), pp.184-185

47 Lily Zubaidah Rahim, The Singapore Dilemma (Oxford, 1998), pp.51, 71

48 Neracha, 138, 3 June 1914, p.1

immigrants, some of whom had gone on to study medicine and related disciplines in

Europe and others who actually lived there, but ‘wanted to treat their community and

cure them of the dangers of decline’ (dia hendak mengubatkan kaumnya di seluruh dunia

ini dan hendak disembuhkannya daripada bahaya kejatuhan). 49

A contributor from Japan, Ibrahim bin Ahmad, was scathing about the decline of

the kaum both from a religious and a political aspect. Football and games had led to

Malays neglecting the Maghrib dusk prayer, and made them indifferent to their condition

of poverty, and the way they were now ‘governed and enslaved by other races’ (kita ini

tinggal di bawah perintah dan perhambaan bangsa2 yang lain). Many who worked in the

cities were lowly office boys (thambi), while those employed in the orchards (dusun2)

were gardeners. The number of those who were clerks or plantation owners was

minuscule. 50 Ibrahim bin Ahmad drew upon the experience of the Japanese in not wasting

time. Indeed, the Japanese were constantly cited by Neracha as an example of a people

(bangsa) that had advanced on a par with the Europeans. In another edition, Neracha

featured a report from Egyptian newspaper Al-Muayyid concerning a speech made at a

gathering of ulama in Lucknow by Rashid Rida, who spoke of the unity of all Muslims.

Brandishing a pamphlet published in English on the condition of the Malays and

Javanese, Rida had described their situation as the most deplorable amongst all the

Muslims. Neracha’s comment on this report was equally scathing of its community.

Orang2 lain telah mengambil tahu hal kita dan semakin tersiar dan diketahui oleh orang dunia akan kelalaian dan kejatuhan kita ke dalam lubuk seduran maka tidakkah juga kita sendiri hendak mengambil endah dan sedar diri supaya bersatu perasaan boleh tolong menolong pada mengadakan gerak yang berkenaan dengan pengetahuan dan pelajaran dan kita taruh dahulu permainan itu pada pengikut yang habis di bawah sekali dan kita biarkan walau dipuji oleh Sultan sekali telah pun permainan itu. Kerana kita lihat Cina2 telah membuka beberapa madrasah

49 Neracha, 43, 24 July 1912, p.1

50 Neracha, 30, 18 Apr. 1912, p.3

untuk anak2 mereka dan bersusun2lah baris2an kanak2 mereka itu jadi seperti permainan kanak2 itu maka patutlah pula kita bersatu fikiran. 51 (‘Melayu-Jawa’[Malay-Javanese], Neracha, 37, 9 June 1912, p.1)

As unforgiving as Neracha was in this instance, the journal could be said to take

such a stance because it believed this to be the best way of serving its community’s

interests. It never wavered from a commitment to being bold and taking unpopular

stances. Despite its pan-Islamic credentials, Neracha maintained a determined insistence

on editorial independence. Its editors did not want to be under any external pressure on

what they should publish, and reaffirmed their policy of even publishing features that

went against their editorial convictions (walau menyalahi fikiran kita) and rebutting them

because they believed their readers would be sufficiently discerning. They declared their

willingness to cease publishing should they have to do anyone’s bidding. 52

Neracha’s bold social criticism and emphasis on progress was matched by a

sturdy and frequently heated exchange of views and comment, often carried out in

forceful language and imagery that had quite an impact despite its heavy and overbearing

style which stemmed from a deep but understated paternalism on the part of the editors,

and an obligation to transnational concerns given its international readership and

contributors. What would the Neracha reader, in the more than four brief years of its

existence, garner about Malay society and the wider world, and about the religion the

journal professed to? Neracha’s underlying message was that of the link between

progress and religion. The paper’s pronouncements and arguments, whether on meeting











51 Others have known of our condition and others are increasingly aware of our recklessness and decline. Should we not then take heed and be aware ourselves, to be of united sentiment in helping one another to create a movement with knowledge and education, and place games at the lowest level and leave them aside even if praised by the sultan[s]. Because we see the Chinese have set up several schools for their children whose lines are orderly as in a children’s game. Hence we should be united in thought.

52 Neracha, 38, 19 June 1912, p.3

authorities, consistently involved a broader, modern interpretation and enunciation of

faith and scripture for a changing age.

Criticising the numerous Malay clubs in Singapore and elsewhere, which were

both disunited and leisure orientated, Neracha brought up the matter of Japanese clubs

that organised a speech pertaining to Islam at least once a month. Neracha argued that

this showed ‘the Japanese to be more observant of Islamic precepts than Malays because

of their knowledge’ (Orang Jepun terlebih menurut titah Islam daripada kita oleh sebab

pengetahuan mereka). 53 This observation was made in the hope that the community

would open its eyes and develop a self-realisation that it should not be negligent. Because

the Malays had fallen so far behind in many respects, it had to take a leaf out of the many

organisations and support structures other races had established and emulate them,

otherwise the Malays themselved risked being left further behind. Neracha also displayed

a frank openness towards recognising the plurality of religions, induced by its operating

in a cosmopolitan city. An editorial noted that religion was a guide for various

communities and ‘each community had its own religion, even if it were man-made and

arose from reason’ (tiada kita lihat satu2 kaum di atas muka bumi ini melainkan masing2

ada dengan agamanya walau agama yang dibikin2 oleh manusia dan diterbitkan

daripada akal). 54 Another editorial also noted that disputing with other religions was not

beneficial because it led to strained relations and hatred, something anathema to religion.

Neracha further differentiated between missionaries and the government, presumably so

its readers would not misread the government’s intentions:

Adapun kerajaan tidak sekali2 menaruh ganggu tentang kebebasan agama masing2 ialah daripada adil kerajaan maka pekerjaan2 yang dijalankan oleh penyeru2 agama itu tiadalah kena mengena dengan kerajaan melainkan boleh diumpamakan agama2 itu seperti anak dan kerajaan itu seperti ibu bapa iaitu

53 Neracha, 29, 8 Apr. 1912, p.1

54 Neracha, 67, 8 Jan. 1913, p.1

semuanya sama sahaja pada pandangannya maka bagaimana yang lainnya boleh mengajar dan menyeru kepada agamanya – begitu juga kita boleh menjalankan yang berkenaan dengan kewajipan agama kita seperti memberi ingat dan nasihat kepada kaum kita daripada tercebur kedalam pentas penyeru agama asing maka memberi ingat dan nasihat sememang2 telah dititahkan oleh Qur’an kita (‘Addin alNasihat’ [Religion is advice], Neracha, 109, 29 October 1913, p.1)


This measured outlook was, significantly, grounded in religion and Qur’anic

prescriptions. But for all its concern with manifesting and propagating a reading of

religion that would ensure success both in the present and in the hereafter, Neracha was

also a newspaper that kept its faith in its readers and its community, fully convinced of

the value of its programme in the Malay-Muslim world it operated in. Even as progress

was inevitable, it had to be anchored in faith and good deeds, without which it would be

of little value as these two extracts illustrate.

Maka pihak Bangsa Melayu yang kurang kepandaian dan pelajaran patutlah sudah daripada yang kecil martabat hingga yang besarnya sedar akan diri yang kita sama manusia bagaimana bangsa2 lain jua akan tetapi bangsa kita jatuh ke belakang pada hal bangsa2 yang lain2 telah jadi orang kayangan terbang diudara dan kejatuhan kita ialah daripada kurang usaha dan tiada berpengetahuan hendaklah dibangkitkan perasaan yang merajinkan berusaha dan menggemarkan menuntut ilmu dan kepandaian maka yang dikehendakkan daripada orang2 Melayu bukannya supaya berkepandaian boleh jadi syaitan manusia pada merosak binasakan bagaimana yang tersebut di atas itu melainkan yang dikehendak dan


ialah supaya mereka jadi kelak daripada bangsa yang terbilang

dengan berusaha dan berpengetahuan tinggi setanding yang bagaimana lain2 bangsa hidup dengan bertingkah laku yang terpuji dan jauh daripada yang keji (‘Kekerasan dan kebengisan manusia di dalam peperangan’[Violence and cruelty of man in war], Neracha, 187, 26 May 1915, p.1)


55 And the government not once interfering with the freedom of the various religions is due to its justice, hence the efforts that are carried out by missionaries of other religions have nothing to do with the government and it can be said that the religions are like children and the government like parents, that is, all are the same in its estimation. Hence just as others can teach and invite people to join their religion, so can we carry out the same like giving reminders and advice to our community from falling into the trap of missionaries, as our Qur’an has prescribed reminders and advice.

56 Thus the Malay Race which lacks intelligence and education should from the low in status to the elite realise that we are the same men just as other races, except that our race has fallen far behind. Whereas other races have become men of the heavens flying in the sky, our decline is from our lack of effort and not having knowlege. There must develop a sentiment that encourages diligence and inculcates a love for learning and intelligence. What is required from the Malays is not intelligence to become human devils that

to be among

spoil and destroy as has been mentioned above but to do what is required and encouraged

the races that are characterised by endeavour and a wealth of knowledge, on par with other races, living with commendable character and staying away from the despicable.

Dan sungguhpun berhenti Neracha ini tiadalah berasa sesal atau jemu daripada penat lelah dan kerugian kerana tujuan dan haluannya itu semata2 kebaikan bukannya kerana mencari hal kehidupan atau kekayaan dengan pekerjaan yang seumpama ini akan tetapi berkhidmat dan hendak mehidupkan ilmu dan menggemarkan supaya orang2 menuntut dan belajar dan sebagainya daripada kebajikan. 57 (‘Kenyataan - Hendak diberhentikan Neracha ini’ [Statement – Neracha will cease publication], Neracha, 190, 16 June 1915, p.1)

57 Although Neracha will cease publication we feel no regrets or exhaustion or loss because its objective and orientation were to do good, not for us to seek a livelihood or riches, but to perform a service and generate knowledge and delight people to seek knowledge and perform similar good deeds.

Utusan Melayu: a critical loyalist

Utusan Melayu began publication in 1907 and served as a counterweight to Al-

Imam (1906-08). By the 1910s, it was published three times a week, on Tuesdays,

Thursdays and Saturdays. Like Neracha, it accorded prominent coverage to news of the

First Balkan War of 1912-1913. Yet in contrast to Neracha, it also covered news items of

broader interest, from crime news throughout Singapore and the Malay States to wire

reports on international stories of interest. Utusan was a Malay-language sister paper to

the Singapore Free Press, yet it was very much a paper in its own image by this period.

In competing for the support of the Malay community in this period, the financial

backing of the Singapore Free Press was crucial. Equally significant was support from

the colonial government, which allowed it to be used as a tool for Malay language

teaching in government schools – that two pages of every edition were in Rumi,

conceivably facilitated this. Its circulation was thus on average twice that of Neracha,

and almost the same as that of its publisher’s Singapore Free Press at 1200 copies. By

comparison, the bestselling The Straits Times had a circulation of 3000 from 1911-1913,

and 4000 for 1914 and 1915. 58 Utusan’s editor in these years was Abdul Hamid bin

Miskin Sahib, who was described as one of the pioneers of the Malay press. 59 Abdul

Hamid, who was born in 1880, was involved with the paper from 1909 till 1918,

becoming its editor after pioneering editor Eunos Abdullah resigned.

Utusan declared that it was produced to provide the Malays in the Malay

Peninsula with updates and commentary on news and events from around the world, but

also with a journal in which Malays could debate various issues concerning themselves

58 Straits Settlements Blue Books, 1911-1915

59 Warta Malaya, 6th yr, 13, 16 Jan. 1935, p.12

so they could broaden their minds and views as to how they were being governed, on

their roles as citizens, and on the conditions of life in general. 60 It also saw itself as a

pillar voicing sincere concerns on issues concerning Malay rights and privileges and













Consequently, it urged readers to not hold back or be reticent, shy or unconcerned, but to

be forthright in voicing their thoughts on these issues. The paper itself, it reiterated,

would readily make known its views concerning the progress and welfare of the

community. 61 On both counts, Utusan performned commendably, and exceeded these

stated declarations in articulating its broader conception of how the community should

proceed on the path to modernity. But in bringing its readers all forms of news, it

declared its aim of also ‘soothing and pleasing the hearts of its readers’ (kerana hendak

menghibur dan menyukakan hati sekalian tuan2 pembacanya) in an editorial marking its

thousandth edition. That same editorial also acknowledged the support of the government

of the Straits Settlements and of the Federated Malay States, which enabled the paper to

continue being published and thereby serve its readers. 62 Unlike Neracha whose primary

concern was with religion, Utusan openly declared that it was ‘not a religious newspaper’


bukan suratkhabar bagi ugama). 63 It did not feature explicitly religious articles, and

covered broader social and political developments, notably crime news from Singapore

and the Peninsula, without a religious gloss. And although it was owned by the Singapore

Free Press, the paper had an editorial line of its own, which on the whole was upbeat

about the prospects of the Malays progressing into the modern world under colonial rule,

while at the same time critical of many aspects of that colonial rule, as well as of the

60 Utusan Melayu, 504, 18 Feb. 1911, p.1

61 Utusan Melayu, 822, 25 Mar. 1913, p.1

62 Utusan Melayu, 1000, 26 May 1914, p.1

63 Utusan Melayu, 15 Feb. 1908, cited in Milner, p.133

attitudes of the Malays in coping with that rule. Its correspondents were equally critical,

expressing a variety of views on various matters ranging from education to pan-Islamic

solidarity. There was no doubt that the editors did not publish all letters they received,

certainly not those that they found not constructive, that merely insulted and outrightly

criticised other correspondents. 64 They did however carry a diversity of opinions from

that criticising Neracha and its polemical arguments (perbantahan) to that expressing

support for ‘our Islamic community’s government’ (kerajaan kaum Islam kita), Turkey,

in its war against Italy. 65 One letter cited the merits of fundraising and a shared feeling

for Muslim fighters in Tripoli and Istanbul against foreign aggression, but also wondered

if that money was not better utilised in helping the community at home in building

madrasahs for the education of future generations, for instance. 66 In the following edition,

a correspondent congratulated the Sultan of Perak on receiving a distinction from King

George V. 67

Utusan’s view and vision of colonial rule was measured. It noted that the arrival

of the British, who had assisted the Malay rulers in administering their states, was ‘akin

to an act of mercy bestowed by God’ (seperti suatu rahmat besar yang diturunkan oleh

Tuhan) because their wise and just administration had developed these states. Roads and

railways had been built throughout the Peninsula from Seberang Prai in the North to

Johore Bahru in the South, and the paper noted that the wealth and prosperity that

accrued to states as Perak, Selangor and Negri Sembilan was like that which was

available in the territories directly under British rule – Singapore, Penang and Malacca. 68

Tin and rubber had clearly made the Malay states prosperous, and the just rule of British

64 Utusan Melayu, 504, 18 Feb. 1911, p.1

65 Utusan Melayu, 954, 7 Feb. 1914, p.5, 965, 5 Mar. 1914, p.3 66 Utusan Melayu, 855, 12 June 1913, p.4

67 Utusan Melayu, 856, 14 June 1913, p.4

68 Utusan Melayu, 923, 22 Nov. 1913, p.1

officials in their administration had ensured that the fruits of prosperity and stability

filtered through to inhabitants and traders in those states. Even if many of those who

received much of this wealth were not Malays, the Malays nevertheless benefited from

the wealth and stability as well. For even if this was not greater than or similar to that

gained by outside races, their conditions were nevertheless better than in previous times.

An editorial listed in detail the inventions and developments which previous generations

were not able to experience – steamships, trains, cars, planes, bicycles, the post office, the

telegraph, gas and electricity, better clothing, cigarettes, lemonade, coffee, tea, pistols,

cannons. 69 Utusan went further in articulating the importance of this development.

Hatta sesungguhpun segala yang tersebut di atas itu haruslah menyebabkan kita semua orang2 Melayu mengucap syukur kepada Tuhan oleh sebab rahmat yang telah dikurniainya itu tetapi adakah memadai dengan mengucap syukur sahaja dan membiarkan negeri2 tanah air kita sendiri tertinggal di dalam pemerintahan yang bergantung kepada bantuan dan pertolongan bangsa asing sahaja selama2nya. Tidakkah patut dan wajib bagi bangsa yang mempunyai negeri itu mencuba pada mencampurkan dirinya dalam pekerjaan memerintah akan negerinya sendiri tentu sekali patut.

Tetapi adakah orang2 kita bangsa Melayu yang cukup layak yakni yang ada mempunyai pengetahuan sama seperti pengetahuan orang2 yang menjalankan pemerintahan negeri2 kita pada masa ini? Nampaknya tidak ada. Jika tidak betapakah boleh kita hendak menjalankan pekerjaan2 yang berkenaan dengan pemerintahan negeri2 itu. Dari sebab itu selagi kita ada dalam keadaan seperti yang ada pada masa ini dan tidak hendak menambah dan meninggikan pengetahuan kita dan anak2 kita nescaya tertinggallah kita selama2nya dalam keadaan yang ada ini dan jauhlah kita daripada segala syarat2 yang melayakkan kita boleh masuk ke dalam bilangan bangsa2 yang maju dan tamadun di dalam dunia ini. 70 (Utusan Melayu, 923, 22 November 1913, p.1)

69 Utusan Melayu, 951, 31 Jan. 1914, p.1 70 What has been mentioned above should make all of us Malays express our thanks to God for the mercy that he has bestowed upon us. But is it enough to be thankful alone and leave the states of our own motherland to remain under an administration that depends on the assistance and favours of foreign races alone forever? Is it not fitting and seemly that the race to which these states belong tries to involve itself in the business of administering them?/But are our people the Malays of sufficient capability, possessing knowledge comparable to that held by those administering our states at present? It seems not. If so, how then are we to carry out the business of administration? So long as we are in our current condition and do not want to enhance our knowledge and that of our children, then forever will we be left in this condition, far from the prerequisites that would justify our entry into the ranks of the advanced and civilised races of this world.

Four key elements of the general slant of the paper’s editors are revealed in this

forceful editorial. First, the editors put things in perspective, comparing the material

benefits of their age to that of their parents’ age, noting that although the immigrant races

gained much from the states’ prosperity so did the Malays. In a modern era the Malays

lacked sufficient skills to effectively administer their own affairs and had much to learn

about fair and just governance from the British. Second, they acknowledged and

recognised that religion mattered, that crucial to the Malay mind and understanding of the

world was a sense of belief in God, albeit a belief that again had to be seen in perspective.

Thus the benefits of just governance were possible under British rule, there was therefore

reason to be grateful to God for this blessing. Third, they articulated a proto-nationalism

and an interest in the affairs and welfare of the Malay community. The language

employed urged Malay readers to think of themselves as a communal whole, and to view

the states they lived in as their possessions, which ultimately they should themselves

govern. More than that, it advanced the notion of tanah air (motherland) around which

Malay concerns for development ought to centre, as a place where the progressive Malay

would make his home and govern himself according to modern standards as exemplified

by the British. The Malays were seen to be as capable as the other advanced races of the

world, and Utusan desired their entry into the ranks of these developed races. 71 Fourth,

they had a clear and confident view of development. The Malays had to acquire the

knowledge and capabilities required to govern states and their resources well, because

development was a prerequisite for civilization. The benefits of British civilization were

evident, and the Malays had to match up to this. These four themes are evident in the

paper’s editorials over this period.

71 Utusan Melayu, 1000, 26 May 1914, p.1

Utusan’s bold and vocal stance in articulating the aforementioned points in its

pages was evident. The editors spoke their mind and often commended the benefits of










representations of British rule such as those of Ahmad bin Ambac, a Singaporean who

taught at the foreign languages institute in Tokyo, Japan who at a club noted the suffering

of the Malays under British rule, cited British insincerity in promoting education for the

Malays, and suggested that the Japanese relieve them from their present predicament. 72

What oppression had the British perpetuated, Utusan asked angrily, what more when if

the British were insincere, the learned scholar could travel to Japan and teach the Malay

language there? The paper thought Ahmad had been influenced by Indians’ sentiment

against the British at that meeting, and hoped that in future he would be more considerate

and thoughtful on the matter. At the same time, the editors were unrelenting in suggesting

that the Malays ought to be as good as the British were in order to progress – to learn

from the example set by foreign races in striving and finding employment and in

administration so that in a short while they could ‘do as other races did without

depending upon them to initiate and preserve the prosperity of their (Malay) states’

(dapatlah kita berbuat seperti bangsa2 luar itu dengan tiada bergantung kepada dia

semua pada menerbitkan dan mengekalkan kemakmuran negeri2 kita di sini). 73

The paper’s correspondents were thus critical of the British for restricting certain

administrative positions available to Malays in the Peninsula.

Adalah agaknya fikiran kerajaan sekarang belum ada daripada bangsa Melayu yang layak memegang jawatan nazir itu jika demikian sudahkah disudi kepandaian anak2 Melayu sekarang? Pada tahun2 dahulu bangsa Inggeris sahaja yang menjadi Settlement Officer (Pemeriksa Sempadan) sekarang sudah boleh

72 Utusan Melayu, 859, 21 June 1913, p.1

73 Utusan Melayu, 596, 28 Sept. 1911, p.1

Melayu membuat pekerjaan itu dan kita harap supaya Melayu pun boleh jua memegang jawatan inspektor itu adanya. 74 (Utusan Melayu, 859, 21 June 1913, p.4)

The paper had a clear idea about its vision of the immediate future for the Malays

and for Malaya. Commenting on the proposed donation of a warship by the sultans of the

Federated Malay States to the British war effort in 1913, an editorial noted that the

sultans were doing what had been done by larger states such as Australia, Canada, South

Africa and New Zealand. The intended comparison was evident – the Malay states were

seen as having come into their own as advanced colonies of the British Empire. 75 While

expressing reservations that such a significant gift should only be embarked upon after

the welfare of the residents of these states had been seen to, the paper clearly saw itself as

a key player in not only guiding the Malays on the path to modernity, but in being loyal

citizens of the British Empire. The implication of the editorial on the gift of the warship

was evident. Although the Malays had some way to go before they could be as capable as

the Britons and presumably as the administrators of the White Dominions were, they

were certainly as loyal subjects of the King as were citizens of these dominions. In a note

rarely heard in the indigenous press in colonial territories, an editorial on Kelantan’s

joining the Federated Malay States was upbeat about the prospects of an extension of

formal British administration to the then-unfederated Malay States.

Dari semenjak dijadikan persekutuan itu telah bertambah2 kemakmuran di dalam negeri itu dan sekalian isi negeri2 pun duduk di dalam bertambah2 kesentosaan dan kesukaan. 76 (Utusan Melayu, 978, 4 April 1914, p.1)

74 Does the government now think there are no Malays fit to hold the post of inspector (of schools) and if so is the intelligence of Malay youth now satisfactory? In previous years only Englishmen could become Settlement Officers now Malays can take up the post and we hope that Malays can soon hold the post of inspector.

75 Utusan Melayu, 768, 12 Nov. 1912, p.1

76 From the formation of the Federation its member states have seen an increase in prosperity and all in them live in increased tranquility and comfort.

At the outbreak of war, the paper also demonstrated its loyalty to the Crown,

reiterating the benefits of colonial rule and taking pains to point out that the war was not

a war against Islam or a crusade as viewed by certain quarters in the Muslim world,

quoting Snouck Hurgronje who pointed out the incongruity of a non-Muslim power –

Germany – asking the Muslims to ensure the success of a crusade, moreover, in doing so

they would also be fighting other Muslims themselves. 77 It highlighted the munificence

of the British in ensuring the welfare of pilgrims in India, stating that this revealed their

government was sincere in assisting them in their hardship, what more in the matter of a

pillar of their faith. 78 When a renegade troop of Indian Muslims began a short-lived

mutiny in Singapore in February 1915, Utusan publicised a public meeting of Muslims in

Singapore held to reaffirm the community’s loyalty to the Crown, with the community

sending a note to the King stating that the loyalty of Singapore Muslims to his rule

remained as steadfast as it had been before the outbreak of war. Utusan had already

underlined its commitment to the Crown much earlier, when it asked its readers to pray

for British victory.

Maka berdoalah kita kehadrat Tuhan supaya melanjutkan dengan berkekalan akan kejayaan2 bagi pihak Inggeris itu. 79 (Utusan Melayu, 1036, 15 August 1914, p.1)

77 Utusan Melayu, 1110, 11 Feb. 1915, p.1

78 Utusan Melayu, 1025, 25 July 1914, p.1

79 Let us pray to God to eternally ensure victory for the British side.

Utusan’s Core Concerns

Utusan, like Neracha, was a campaigning paper. Its campaigns, however, pursued

different trajectories to those of its counterpart. Where Neracha campaigned mainly

against Christianisation and football, and in favour of the Jawi script, Utusan invoked

pragmatism. It highlighted the broader missionary contribution to medical care and

education and took a gentler approach to football, but was equally insistent and vocal in

its editorials and campaigns to rationalise the community’s interests and sketch out its

vision of how the Malays could progress, not least through education.

In an editorial on female doctors in the Malacca Medical Mission, who had

allegedly been proselytising by offering free medical services, Utusan noted that such

allegations were erroneous. What the doctors had said in their defence, that truly no

medicine or assistance would have an effect were it not with God’s sanction, was true,

and furthermore, the doctors said they did not proselytise to Muslims they administered

to. The paper advocated that Muslims contribute to the doctors’ efforts instead, as many

Christians and the government had already extended financial and material support given

that medicine and the running of clinics involved significant costs. Interestingly, just as

Neracha had published lists of donors towards medical assistance for the Turkish war

wounded, Utusan indicated it would publish the names of donors, so that others would be

encouraged to contribute as well – this suggests how much the community had been

affected by capitalist modernity in requiring material inducement to be charitable,

contrary to religious as well as traditional practice. Yet the papers also appealed to a

deeper sense of charity, and Utusan noted it was worthy to support the cure of the sick. 80

80 Utusan Melayu, 912, 25 Oct. 1913, p.1

Differently from Neracha, Utusan put the issue of the Malay passion for football

in a broader perspective. It did not see the rapid establishment of football clubs as an

issue that created divisions in the community just because supporters of rival clubs

occasionally found themselves in post-match brawls, or as an unnecessary preoccupation,

but regarded the clubs’ emergence as a helpful first step in shifting the Malays’ attentions

from living in disagreement and enmity, to co-operating and working together, which

were regarded as necessary to meaningful progress. A correspondent noted:

Jauh daripada berfikir futbol itu merosakkan bangsa kita sahaya rasa adalah ia suatu tanda juga bagi kemajuan kita. Tetapi hendaklah ahli-ahlinya ingat maksud kita berhimpun-himpun mengadakan kelab-kelab dan association itu ialah menghendaki muafakat yang sempurna menurut aturan tertib Alhamdulillah, sekarang sudah mula-mula kita mengetahui muafakat meskipun muafakat bermain-main sahaja mudah-mudahan tiada lama masanya lagi kita pandai pula bermuafakat menambahi kepandaian itu beransur-ansur sedikit- sedikit lama-lama sampai ke atas. 81 (Utusan Melayu, 835, 24 April 1913)

Utusan proactively called for Malay participation in public life, and railed against

the apathy of the Malays. It urged more Malays to attend public Municipal Council

meetings, to join the police, and called for public support in its assertion of Malay rights

and support for political organisation to bring about change. A clear failing of its

community in Singapore, be it just the Malays or including other Muslim races, the paper

noted, was in not being concerned with the politics and administration of the colony,

whether in campaigning for their rights or voicing out their views and concerns on

policies as other races did. After all, the paper argued, they paid taxes to the government

and municipal administration. 82 It railed against the community for its dismal attendance

at a public meeting in September 1913. When the colony was evidently a Malay land

81 Far from destroying our race, I regard football as an indicator of our progress. But players need to remeber that our purpose in coming together to form clubs and associations is to create mutual benefit along proper lines. Thank God, now we begin to see the benefits of forming associations even if just to play sport, and shortly may we learn to work together and increase our adeptness in co-operating to attain greater heights.

82 Utusan Melayu, 594, 21 Sept. 1911, p.1

before and when Malays were still a significant constituency, they should have a say in

public matters; but if having had the chance to do so they do not bother to ensure their

rights, then then how would these accrue to them? What Utusan’s editors had in mind

was clear – and the editors said as much: the administration would not go running after

the Malays to seek out their opinions if they did not stand up for themselves. Because the

Malays were not vocal, many from the other races thought the Muslim population had no

stake in the administration of Singapore, and they were left behind as foreigners in their

own land. All the Muslims did was to complain about the inflexibility of legislative

initiatives when the reality was they did not bother contributing towards them when they

could. 83 On its part, the paper did what it could. When new legislation requiring deaths to

be certified was introduced, Utusan explained the difficulties this might entail for Muslim

burial, especially when the corpse had to be kept overnight at times. The editors

expressed their hope that the members of the Municipal Council would take this into

account and ensure that officers issuing this certification would arrive as soon as they

could upon receiving notice of death. 84 As Utusan urged its readers to utilise government

disease facilities, it urged the authorities to be mindful of Muslim sensitivities in these

institutions, foremost when it came to dietary requirements and cleanliness for Muslim

patients. 85 The paper also publicised a public meeting of the Muslim community

convened in 1913 to discuss its proposed lobbying of the government to make Hari Raya

Puasa, the day following the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a public

holiday. The government did not recognise it as a public holiday when it should have

owing to pressures from the business community which feared the loss of a working day,

but a number of Europeans shared Muslims’ sentiment that a holiday was deserved. Just

83 Ibid.

84 Utusan Melayu, 863, 1 July 1913, p.1

85 Utusan Melayu, 851, 31 May 1913, p.1

because a community was united and mobilised to effect change did not mean they were

fighting the government or committing an offence, the editors pointed out, in effect they

were stating their demands just so the government would be aware of their wishes and

negotiate these wishes. 86 Utusan was satisfied with the outcome of that meeting,

highlighting it as an instance of what could be accomplished through co-operation and

community-wide consensus. The editors noted, it would be notable (istimewa) if the

meeting did not result in a downgrading (kecelaan) of the reputation of the Malay race

because such a step was taken only out of consideration for the improvement of its

general welfare, not for the interests of those who had worked to organise the meeting.

Furthermore, no distinction was made between the wealthy and the less well-off at the

meeting, for all had equal right to speak their thoughts. The editorial went on to note that

governments that were just in governing all over the world sought popular opinion in

deliberating on a contentious issue, because the situation of a government is ‘as a

representative of its residents’ (seperti wakil bagai orang2 yang di dalam negerinya), and

hoped that consequently the government would consider the community’s concerns

fairly, especially as it involved the Malays ‘who were indigenous to the colony and who

were in a state of constant weakness and backwardness’ (yang ternak bagai negeri ini

dan yang senantiasa ada dalam keadaan yang lemah lagi daif itu). The meeting, Utusan

hoped, would serve as a lasting model for Muslims in the colony to co-operate and have

consensual sentiment (sebulat fikirannya) on matters affecting its welfare. 87

Utusan had its take on Islam and (limited) democracy – the editors noted, civic

participation had its roots in the Muslim faith. Undoubtedly, reference to scripture and

early Islamic precedents was part of the paper’s appeal to its core constituency of Malay-

86 Utusan Melayu, 891, 6 Sept. 1913, p.1

87 Utusan Melayu, 894, 13 Sept. 1913, p.1

Muslim readers – a legitimising tool that was also heavily influenced by the editors’ own

convictions that Islam was a guide to modernity and that Islam’s history contained

invaluable lessons on securing success in the modern world. Above and beyond this, the

paper argued that Muslims should reconsider their notions of Islam being incompatible

with modern methods of government, noting that on matters concerning the welfare of

all, no one person or group had more right to a voice than others, because the voice of the














Maka saksi yang besar sekali dalam hal ini ialah dalam beberapa masa yang orang Islam masih lagi menurut akan teladan yang dijalankan pada zaman Nabi kita Muhammad saw iaitu senantiasa bermuafakat dan menggunakan fikiran orang2 ramai besarlah nama kerajaan2 Islam tetapi dari semenjak telah berpecah belah muafakat itu dan digunakan fikiran raja2 dan menterinya sahaja hancur luluhlah nama kerajaan2 Islam seperti yang ada pada masa ini dan porak-perandalah rakyat negerinya bertabur-tebar merata2 negeri di dalam dunia ini masing2 fikirannya sendiri dan mendewa akan kebesaran nama bangsanya dalam masa dahulukala itu seolah2 seumpama ayam2 sabong yang telah patah tajinya berkokok akan tuahnya sahaja. 88 (Utusan Melayu, 897, 20 September 1913, p.1)

Utusan lent due emphasis to issues of Malay identity and security, and explored

the underdevelopment of the Malays. An editorial noted that when one race protected or

governed other races, a major difficulty is that ‘each race perceives that the others should

have a common perception on any matter’ (tiap2 bangsa itu hendak bersetuju fikirannya

diatas sesuatu perkara sama seperti yang difikirkan oleh bangsa yang lain itu jua) – thus

to the Englishman who worked hard and saved up, those who did not do as he did were

on an erroneous path. This, the paper noted, was why Europeans who were not as well

informed frequently described the Malays as lazy and unwilling to help themselves. In

88 The best instance in this matter is when Muslims were following the example of the Prophet Muhammad, when they were constantly co-operating and considering the opinions of the masses, and the reputation of the Muslim governments was notable. But when that consensus was broken and only the views of kings and ministers were listened to, that reputation was lost as in this day and its citizens lost direction throughout the nations of the world, each having their own views and stressing the achievements of their race in the past, like cocks who have lost their claws but who continue crowing about their fate only.

reality, Utusan commented, these Europeans did not realise that the Malays were content

with their condition, and it was the Europeans who wanted more and consequently were

driven to work harder for more money. 89 As Alatas notes, what the Malays lacked was

not the will to work but the will to acquire greater and greeater wealth in the Western

capitalist sense. The Malays were judged to be opposed to steady work because they

avoided colonial capitalist ventures. 90 Utusan did not however deride the Malays – it

ventured that people in India and China shared a similar outlook to the Malays, but

because of overpopulation in these countries there was a lack of agricultural land, and

consequently, people were forced to work hard in producing goods to buy food. This led

to the Europeans perceiving that the Indians and Chinese were far more diligent than the

Malays were. The remedy to racial disagreement on this level, the paper ventured, was

that each race ought to try to learn about what conditioned other races’ outlook to life, as

this would prevent them from being angry with others out of their own failings in not

understanding different approaches to life and to work. 91 Alatas captured this sentiment

in a more direct manner in the 1970s, questioning the expectation that Malays should

hasten to the mines and estates, when their life in the villages offered them greater

satisfaction. Utusan understood that the generic Malay lifestyle of contentment and ease

was not enough. Education and land ownership were two significant socio-economic

indicators that showed the Malays were being left behind in continuing with their current

way of life. It was with this concern that the paper therefore exhorted its readership to

campaign and be involved in public affairs, and to also seek an accommodation with

changing circumstances.

89 Utusan Melayu, 882, 14 Aug. 1913, p.1

90 Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native (London, 1977), pp. 213-215

91 Utusan Melayu, 882, 14 Aug. 1913, p.1

Its editors led the way in defining and in defending a sentiment of Malayness.

Utusan articulated the Malay definition of progress, criticising those who lagged behind.

An editorial noted how Europeans’ writings highlighting Malays’ indolence in contrast to

the labour of Chinese and Indian immigrants were read all over the world, thus it was

widely known that the Malays were a lazy race who loved ease and contentment, who

had no hopes or ambitions for wealth other than to have enough to live life day by day.

Was it any wonder, the editors asked, that foreign races looked down on all Malays,

refusing to believe that they were as capable as the Chinese and other races who ran

farms, traded in various goods and saved up to guarantee wealth and contentment in old

age and to repatriate their earnings home. The editors voiced their disagreement with

these conclusions on the Malays, because they knew that these commentators, a number

of whom were government officers in the Federated Malay States, did not really know

the Malays. These writers only observed Malays in these states’ towns, not those who

were to be found working industriously gardening, farming and in various occupations in

Kelantan, Trengganu, Malacca and other states. But the editors had a deeper motive for

highlighting these perceptions of the Malays.

Tetapi maksud kita menulis ini ialah supaya segala sangka2 orang2 bangsa asing itu dapat diketahui oleh orang2 kita Melayu yang suka melatu di jalan2 raya dan menghabiskan masanya di kedai2 kopi dan di rumah bola pada setiap hari itu dan dengan sebab itu diberhentikannya tabiat yang memberi malu kepada bangsanya ramai itu dan mencuba pada berusaha dan bekerja mencari kehidupannya bagaimana yang dilakukan oleh saudaranya yang lain. 92 (Utusan Melayu, 928, 4 December 1913, p.1)

The ultimate irony of all this was perhaps bound up with the implicit paradox of

the paper’s proto-nationalism – that the Malays had a distinct sense of identity, but that

92 Our intention in highlighting this is so that what foreigners believe about us Malays is known by those of us who like to loiter on the streets and while away their time at coffee houses and football clubs every day. Hopefully they will end these dispositions that bring shame to their race, and instead they will strive and work for a living as their other brothers are doing.

they had to catch up with the modern world to maintain their way of life. Yet in being

modern, the very definition of Malayness was inevitably and irretrievably altered. This

was evident in the paper’s coverage of education. The paper consistently highlighted the

achievements and efforts of individuals who contributed to the educational development

of the community in their efforts to help it into the modern world. Mohamed Ismail

Saheb, previously a student and teacher at the Raffles School, had completed his studies

in law in England in 1911 where he received several distinctions, and Utusan stated that

his achievement was a source of pride to the community, more so when he was not on














accomplishment should, an editorial ran, be an example to the community whose children

were in school, because intelligence and knowledge could be accomplished ‘if there was

effort and significant support’ (jika ada usaha dan tinggi hemah) from parents – only

accomplishments like Mohamed Ismail’s could elevate the reputation and condition of

the Malays, therefore the community should try its best to increase its numbers of the

well-educated, such as by pooling its resources together to support such individuals. 93

The papers’ editors had views on studying abroad, and Europe was held up as a model of

progress and development, but also as a means to acquire respect and status for the Malay

race in the colonial world order. Yet Utusan


not always cosying up to the

government or sharing a similar political view of development. Commenting on an

announcement that the government had great hopes for the Malay College in Kuala

Kangsar (regarded as the Malay Eton), which would educate Malay youth to enable them

to participate in the administration of their own states, Utusan’s editors were glad that the

British had intentions of grooming young Malays for such duties alongside British

officials. Yet the editors were also sceptical about the extent to which such involvement

93 Utusan Melayu, 565, 15 July 1911, p.1

was desired, and questioned how far young Malays ‘could get involved in the business of

administration, to what rank and in what areas of work?’ 94 The editors observed that

many graduates from Kuala Kangsar were inducted as trainees in various government

departments of the Federated Malay States, but doubted that the skills and knowledge

garnered at the college exceeded or even matched up to that possessed by British officals,

and wondered how these graduates could then reach these officials’ level. The paper

therefore urged the government to ensure, if it truly wished the Malays to run their states

as well as the British did, that these Malay graduates received comparable instruction –

those those deemed capable should further their education in England and subsequently

sit qualifying examinations taken by aspirants to government positions in the Straits

Settlements and Malay States. Malays who had truly proven their mettle could then be on

par with European officials, and only then would it be ascertained whether or not Malays

could run their states ‘according to the expectations of the present order’ (menurut

perjalanan tamadun sekarang ini). 95

Another editorial cited a speech made by Dr Lim Boon Keng at the Civil Service

Club in Johore, that the editors noted revealed what the other races thought of the

condition of the Malays, as well as what the Malays therefore ought to do to uplift its

image and prepare it to compete with races that had progressed and prospered in the

modern era. 96 The editors reiterated their hope that those running the Malay states wanted

to see the Malays prosper, while revealing their anger that not enough was being done to

further that direction.

Telah beberapa kali kita menulis di dalam akhbar ini mengatakan jika sesungguhpun pihak yang menjalankan pemerintahan2 negeri2 Melayu itu suka hendak melihat akan kemajuan bangsa Melayu yang diperintahnya itu haruslah

94 Utusan Melayu, 597, 30 Sept. 1911, p.1

95 Ibid.

96 Utusan Melayu, 874, 26 July 1913, p.1

diadakannya pelajaran yang berkenaan dengan perusahaan lain daripada pelajaran di sekolah yang ada pada masa ini tetapi nampaknya perkataan2 kita itu tiada sekali2 memberi bekas sehingga pada masa ini”. 97 (Utusan Melayu, 874, 26 July 1913, p.1)

Yet they did not hold back from suggesting how the government could win over

the Malays, such as by supporting schools that were recently established to teach Arabic,

the language of the Qur’an and of Muslim scholarship, even though English was the

language of administration. The editors noted that government spending on education and

the Malay language in hundreds of Malay schools in the Malay states (it is doubtful that

the editors knew of colonial policy objectives to restrict English language education to an

elite) when Malay was not used in most government departments had received the

support of Malays. 98 The editors therefore hoped that if similar initiatives cropped up in

future, state governments would not hesitate to encourage them.

The paper was also critical of the manner in which the Malays had been

marginalised by the appropriation of their land. It grudgingly accepted the 1913 Malay

Reservations Enactment, which created reserves in the Federated Malay States that could

not be sold or leased to non-Malays and which was instituted as a means to protect the

Malays from further divestment of their land. Noting that the damage had been done,

Utusan highlighted and lamented the plight of the Malays in Singapore.

Hatta cubalah lihat keadaan orang2 Melayu kita yang di dalam Singapura ini bagaimana mereka itu telah terhambat hingga ke tepi hutan daripada tempat kedudukan mereka yang asal di dalam bandar dengan berumah tangga yang

setirehat dan pada masa ini mereka itu diam pada daerah2 hutan itu di dalam rumah2 yang dibangunkan tersangat rapat di antara sebuah dengan sebuah dan

Mereka terpaksa jalan jauh ke bandar jika mereka

kerap kali tiada berhalaman bekerja di dalam bandar

mereka itu membayar sewa rumah 8 atau 10 ringgit…

97 This paper has several times noted that if the authorities administering the Malay states desire the success of the Malay race under their administration, then they should provide education that is relevant to industry above that which is currently provided in schools. It seems that our words have not hitherto had an effect at all.

98 Utusan Melayu, 865, 5 July 1913, p.1

Pada fikiran kita barangkali sekarang ini telah terlambat sangat pada melakukan sebarang ikhtiar di dalam Singapura ini. 99 (Utusan Melayu, 1006, 11 June 1914, p.1)

The editors were of the view that if the Malays wanted to maintain the integrity of

their race and their way of life (jalan kehidupannya), they needed to find a way to release

themselves from having to live by renting shophouses. There had to be assistance, the

paper suggested, to allocate special rent for houses built according to the Malay scheme

of things, with compounds for small gardens and with rent appropriate to the location of

these houses, which would be healthier than shophouses were. As it was difficult to

obtain reserve land in the city, the only spaces for these would conceivably be in the

outlying areas.

Utusan also played a role in the conflict between Neracha and Al-Ittihad. The

dispute between these two papers’ respective editors was chided by correspondents for

causing fitna (dissension). One noted that the harm both had caused the community

outweighed their benefits, that both papers were a letdown to sensible readers. In turn, he

was rebuked by another correpondent for trying to put down the two Muslim-oriented

papers. 100 Utusan gave fair space to these differing views while not directly intervening

in the dispute, highlighting its role as a forum for varying conceptions of the role of

religion in the community’s development. Nevertheless, Utusan lamented the closure of

Neracha with regret. It had previously been upbeat about the arrival of its ideological

rival, welcoming the latter’s emergence immediately preceding Neracha’s first edition in

99 Consider the condition of our Malays in Singapore, how they have been sidelined to the edge of the

forests from their original places of residence in the city with their households, able to rest well. Now they

They are forced to

walk long distances to the city if they work there… they pay rent for their houses of 8 or 10 dollars. In our

opinion, it is now too late to embark on any initiative to alter this in Singapore. 100 Utusan Melayu, 942, 948, 950-1, 953: 10, 24, 29, 31, Jan. 1914, 5 Feb. 1914

live in forested areas in houses built so close together and often without compounds

1911 as ‘evidence that the Malay race had yet to wither’ (bukti “bangsa Melayu belum

layu”). 101

Adalah sahabat kita Neracha itu bolehlah diumpamakan seperti penyuluh bagi bangsa dan agamanya kerana tiada pernah sekali pun di dalam ruangannya itu kosong dengan perhiasan nasihat-nasihat dan fikiran yang berharga. Maka pemberhentian Neracha itu menjadikan suatu kehilangan kepada kita dan demikian juga kepada pembantu-pembantunya yang telah ditinggalkan bagi sementara oleh perasaan kasih sayang di atas kaum dan bangsanya itu. 102 (Utusan Melayu, 1162, 19 June 1915, p.3)

Seen in this light, Utusan was conciliatory to Neracha in the end. It recognised

that it was engaged in a dialogue over the legitimacy of its proposals and strategies for its

community as was Neracha. But even as it was aggressively modern in its line to push

the Malays into the modern world, it held fast to Malay adat (custom) more effectively

than Neracha perhaps did. There was no need to brag about the decline of an alternative

paper, which was not so much regarded as a competitor as a debate partner. After all, the

debate that they were engaged in was not a contest over whose ideas were better received

Utusan recognised, more so than Neracha did, that a strong explanation for its

continued support lay in its being able to manifest a deep affection for its race and

community without alienating that same and very critical constituency.

101 Utusan Melayu, 14 Mar. 1911, cited in Abdul Rahman Haji Ismail, ‘Neraca “Menendang” Bola’, Kajian Malaysia, 9(1), Jun. 1992, 56

102 Our brother Neracha can be compared to a light for its race and religion because not once have its columns been devoid of invaluable advice and thought. Its closure is a loss to us and to its assistants who have temporarily been deprived, with their feeling of deep affection for their race and community.

Contrasting Visions of Modernity

On the day of reckoning, a Muslim belief holds, men’s deeds in this world will be

weighed on the scales, al-mizan (Arabic), or neracha (Malay), of good and evil.

Neracha’s intention, as its name implied, and which unfortunately may never be

decisively ascertained as no early editions of Neracha (the earliest available copy being

the 28th edition) have surfaced, was to weigh the scales in Singapore and Malaya in

favour of what it deemed in the interests of the Malay-Muslims. Unfortunately, the scales

in 1915 were weighted in favour of the worldview that Utusan subscribed to. The papers’

print runs are the only available if inadequate quantitative indicator of their success. In

1911, Utusan’s average print run was 1050 while Neracha’s was 700. By 1914, the year

before Neracha folded up with no successor of a similar ilk to follow in its footsteps as it

did in Al-Imam’s, Utusan’s print run stood at 1200 whereas Neracha’s was only 500. 103

While Utusan’s use for instruction in government schools stood in its favour (it continued

publication till 1921), the gap in the papers’ readerships remains the best indicator of the

popularity of their worldviews and of the stances they adopted.

Both papers’ editors and writers expressed their sentiments and vision of what

modernity should be for the Malays. Both papers took the debate about a vision of the

Malay future beyond the debate on kerajaan or royal government. The Sultans were, as

both papers reported them, marginal if still respected figures in colonial politics, but they

were no longer active determinants of what the future would be. Life in the Malay states,

which remained sultanates, was featured, but more as news items – the Sultans were left

behind. Singapore was the hub of the Malay world and of its immediate future – with the

city as their springboard, both papers were essentially concerned with looking at,

103 Straits Settlements Blue Books, 1911-1915

understanding and attempting to navigate the world in a new light. How they did so was

what differentiated them. While both papers claimed to benefit the Malays, and while

their readerships and correspondents did overlap, their readers and the Malays throughout

the Peninsula but especially in Singapore, were rather adeptly presented with two visions












marginalisation, and alienation by colonial authority.

The tension between adat (custom) and agama (religion) has been regarded as a

divisive element in Malay society, but these papers went beyond that tension. Both















development and progress. For both papers, only the Malays themselves could determine

their own future, and the papers offered their contrasting paths to that future as a

refraction of their two visions – one with religion dominating modernity, the other with

religion moderating it. It was a contrast that had deepened since Al-Imam and Utusan first

postulated their differing takes on the way forward and by 1915, it was a difference over

which Utusan had prevailed.

Why was this so? Three reasons can be advanced. First, even in the context of

1910s British Malaya, Neracha was more radical and strident in its tone and in espousing

its editorial line while Utusan was more balanced in its tone. Neracha was harsh,

uncompromising and stern, while Utusan was gentle, guarded and measured. But both

were equally radical to the Malays, Neracha for its pan-Islamic views and Utusan for its

espousal of a Hegelian view of progress. Both strongly advocated that their readers think

as individuals, use their reason and debate and challenge commonly accepted ideas and

views. Neracha, like Al-Imam, contained a good deal of self-condemnation and self-

vilification – it traced the state of affairs of the Malay community to internal weakness,

and its stance can, like its predecessor’s, be described as ‘the agonised intellectualisation

of reformists throughout the colonial-dominated world, symptomatic of their cultural and

religious revivalism’. 104 But at the same time, colonial authority was not to be shunned or

repressive, it was ‘indifferent, uncaring and niggardly’. 105 Utusan tried to change this

facet of that authority.

Second, both papers took their sides for and against colonial rule. Neracha was on

the less desirable side at the time, while Utusan was on the safer side. Of course, the

financial strength Utusan derived from being owned by the Singapore Free Press cannot

be discounted, whereas Neracha very often struggled financially and eventually folded up

due to financial difficulties. Utusan, meanwhile, was exploring the Enlightenment




















providing an alternative programme of reform – that which drew heavily upon the

shari’a, but which at times represented a far cry from what the Malays in Singapore and

in the Peninsula were commonly accustomed to. Neracha went further than Utusan did in

its critique of liberal tradition, of living for the day, synonymous with the Malay adage

kais pagi makan pagi, kais petang makan petang’ – and this leads on to the third factor

for why Neracha lost its readers’ faith.

Neracha was essentially negative. Utusan was hopeful. It is this that crucially

ensured Utusan’s continued readership and enabled its ideas and arguments to resonate –

and to engage the Malay reading public to consider its platform. In an uncertain world in

which the prospects facing the community seemed bleak, the vision that offered greater

promise – that of a more accommodating and attractive path to worldly betterment – held

out better.

104 Edwin Lee, The British as Rulers (Singapore, 1991), p. 264

105 Ibid., p.268


A) Primary sources

Al-Imam, 1906-1908

Colonial Office Records C.O. 273/433 and C.O. 273/516

Federated Malay States Government Gazettes, 1911-1915

Majalah Al-Islam, Jan 1913

Neracha, 1912-1915

Straits Settlements Blue Books, 1911-1915

Tunas Melayu, 1913-1914

Utusan Melayu, 1911-1915

Warta Malaya, 16 Jan 1935

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Abdul Rahman Haji Ismail, ‘Neraca “Menendang” Bola: Sedikit Tentang Sikap Terhadap Bola Sepak di dalam Dua Akhbar Melayu Menjelang Peperangan Dunia Pertama’, Kajian Malaysia, 9 (1), Jun 1992, 42-61

Abu Bakar Hamzah, Al-Imam: Its Role in Malay Society 1906-1908, Kuala Lumpur, Pustaka Antara, 1991

Ahmat B. Adam, The Vernacular Press and the Emergence of Modern Indonesian Consciousness, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1995

Alatas, Syed Hussein, The Myth of the Lazy Native, London, Frank Cass, 1977

Evans, D.H., ‘The “meanings” of pan-Islamism’, The heyday of colonial rule: India and Indonesia from the 1830s to 1914, Itinerario Special Issue, Leiden, Grafaria, 1987, 15-34

Fawaz, Leila Tarazi and Bayly, C.A. eds., Modernity and Culture: From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, New York, Columbia University Press, 2002

Holt, P.M., Lambton, A.K.S. and Lewis, Bernard, eds., The Cambridge History of Islam vol. 2A, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1977

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Khoo Kay Kim, Malay papers and periodicals as historical sources, with a list of pre- merdeka periodicals, Kuala Lumpur, Bahagian Koleksi Kebangsaan Perpustakaan Universiti Malaya, 1984

Khoo, Kay Kim, ‘Malay society, 1874-1920s’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 5 (2), 1974, 179-98

Laffan, Michael Francis, Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma Below the Winds, London, Routledge Curzon, 2003

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Mohd. Sarim Hj. Mustajab, ‘Neraca 1910-Jun 1915: Penyambung Nafas Islah Al-Imam’, Jurnal Budaya Melayu, 3 (1), 1978, 93-107

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Milner, Anthony, The Invention of Politics in Colonial Malaya, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995

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