Sultan Idris Murshidul ‘Azzam of Perak was a far-sighted Malay Ruler who saw the need for young Malays to be equipped with modern education if they were to succeed in life. His Highness and fellow Rulers pressed the British to found the Malay College where sons of the Malay upper class (later on to include commoners) would be educated. His stand for Malay rights helped to sow the seeds of Malay nationalism and with Malay College the nationalistic spirit began to grow.
Much encouragement had come from R.J. Wilkinson, a noted Malay scholar and educationist, who wanted Malay boys to become ‘a vigorous and intelligent race of young men’ who were strong-minded and able to stand on their own feet. European teachers at the College saw to it that this noble purpose was achieved.
The British needed a pool of qualified Malays to assist them in the administration of the country and graduates of the MCKK with the right education and personal qualities were sought. They had proven themselves to be able administrators and worthy of the trust placed upon them.
Zainal Abidin Ahmad or Za’ba was a teacher at the Malay College between 1921 and 1923. His nationalistic writings and propagation of a modernist Islam made him an icon in the Malay society. As a teacher, he inspired the boys to be proud of their Malay roots. He helped them to publish a Malay magazine in jawi called ‘Semaian’ just before he left the College.
The Malay Rulers who had accepted British rule began to question the encroachment to their power under the Residential System, Sultan Iskandar of Perak went to the extent of going to London to press for a policy of decentralization. The British acceded to this wish and had taken various steps to return the power of the Ru;lers in their States. This helped to advance the cause of Malay nationalism.
When the Federal Council was constituted in 1927, it included three Malay members representing the Rulers. Among them was Dato Abdullah of Rembau, who was an old Collegian and Raja Chulan who was chairman of the Malay College Board of Governors. They not only voiced the need for Malays upliftment, but believed in education as a means to achieve progress. Their erudite speeches were typical of modern Malay minds at their best.
Stirrings of Malay nationalism came to be felt in the 1930’s with ordinary Malays being influenced by developments in the Middle East and nearby at home, Indonesia. An old Collegian, Ishak Haji Muhammad, refused to be inducted into the Civil Service by the British. Instead, through his satirical novels such as Putera Gunung Tahan, he agitated for the return of indigenous rule.
At the same time Malays in the Penisula began to form associations (persatuan) to fight for their interests, including participation in government administration, the economy and education. One such association was led by an old Collegian, Tengku Ismail bin Tengku Mohd Yasin. He and several others managed to hold two national congresses to discuss related matters before the World War II.
One negative results of the World War II was the British’s loss of faith in the Malays despite the loyalty shown by Malay leaders to the British government. Among Malay Collegians, Raja Aman Shah and Captain Yazid Ahmad, had fought to their death to help defend the British in Malaya and Singapore.
The British hatched a political scheme by the name of Malayan Union which would unify the country and put an end to the myth that Malay Rulers had a right to their States via agreements that had been signed. The country would be thrown open to all races who were domiciled, Malay special rights abolished and the Rulers relegated to an inferior position as religious heads.
The Malays felt that the scheme, if implemented, would cause their demise as a people. Za’ba by now leading the Selangor Malay Association realized the grave danger the Malays were in and acted in concert with other Malay community leaders to rise and thwart the scheme. He proposed that Dato’ Onn lead the struggle.
At the First All Malaya Malay Congress in March 1946, it was decided that a political party by the name of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) be formed as the vehicle to realize the Malay aspiration. The method used should be through peaceful negotiations rather than physical confrontation as was the norm in the struggle for independence elsewhere.
Dato’ Onn, an old boy of the College, became its first President when the party was launched at the Instana Besar, Johor Bahru in 1946. A well known figure before the was for championing the Malay causes, he was imbued with strong nationalistic spirit and fought with vigour until the Malayan Union Plan was shelved.
UMNO General Assemblies which debated policies and steps to be taken in the struggle against the Malayan Union were often held in the palaces of Malay Rulers. They were invariably old Collegians who identified themselves with UMNO for its defense of the Malay traditional position besides having a modern outlook.
Among the policy makers around Dato’ Onn were coterie of old Collegians such as Dato’ Zainal Abidin Abas, Dato’ Nik Ahmad Kamil, Raja Ayob Raja Bhot and Dato’s Hamzah Abdullah. Experienced in law and modern administration, they were able to assist Dato’ Onn in the complex negotiations with the British to replace the Malayan Union with the Federation of Malaya Agreement.
UMNO was not just a political party. Right from the beginning it had drawn plans for the improvement of the Malay in various fields encompassing the economy, education and social progress. Its National Education Funds had awarded scholarships to bright Malay boys to study at the MCKK in the years after the war.
Malay College graduates, who held important posts in the administration, towed the British line in order to achieve upward mobility. But they began to question the policy which had hindered their progress. As aspiring nationalists they were prepared to rid of the British who had come to doubt the existence of the Malay College as an institution. With their modern education and understanding of democracy, they were the most effective for negotiating for self-rule.
When the Federation of Malaya was established February 1948 to replace the Malayan Union, an agreement was signed by the Malay Rulers and the British to give effect to the new political arrangement. Malays Rights were restored and the Rulers regained their former status. The Mentris Besar who were appointed thereon were mostly Malay Collegians, so was the first Speaker of the Federal Legislative Council.
On th Federation Day itself, the College held a special celebration with the UMNO flag hoisted by the headmaster and flying side by side with the flags of the Malay States and the Union Jack. The UMNO flag, the biggest of its kind in the country, was presented to the College by the boys themselves, reflecting their heightened national spirit and awareness of political development around them. It was a day of significance that bound the College with the party of the future.
A new development in UMNO had caused Dato’ Onn to relinquish his post and Tunku Abdul Rahman took over as President of UMNO in August 1951. Tun Abdul Razak, a friend of the Tunku during their student days in Britain became the deputy. He was a former Head Boy at the College and had been the UMNO Youth Leader at the time of his election. Many important tasks of the party were undertaken by him.
In the formation of the Alliance Party, Tun Razak was among the central UMNO figures that were involved in the negotiations to spell out the rights of each community in the country. This was soon followed by the mission to London to seek Malayan Independence. The Alliance representatives included Tun Abdul Razak while on the Ruler’s side Tan Sri Nik Ahmad Kamil, an old boy, was among the four to represent them.
After the complex negotiations involving the Alliance leaders, the British and the Malay Rulers’ representatives that led to independence, Tun Razak was given the onerous task of collating the numerous proposals that had been forwarded by the Alliance side to be submitted to Reid Commission for its consideration. The Merdeka Constitution was promulgated based broadly on the Alliance proposals.
With independence achieved came the task of nation-building, not the least of which was bringing the races together and developing a prosperous economy for the benefit of all. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong or King became the symbol of this unity and common purpose, while the political leaders together with the administrators, many of whom were Collegians, harnessed their energies towards the realization of this goal.