Ya’acob Mohamed, the forgotten Singaporean pioneer
By Nurfadzilah Yahaya and Daniel Goh
Over thirty years ago, Ya’acob Mohamed was acknowledged as a “pioneer leader” (Straits Times, 1990). His political career spanned the formative period of Singapore’s and Malaysia’s political journeys. However, today he is a lesser-known first-generation PAP leader than his contemporaries Othman Wok, Ahmad Ibrahim, Rahim Ishak, and Yusof Ishak, whom Zuraidah Ibrahim (1999) collectively calls the “Malay mobilisers.” Born in January 1925 in Kelantan and raised in Mersing in the state of Johor, he was active in politics from 1946 until October 1989, when he passed away due to leukaemia at the age of 64. Who is Ya’acob Mohamed, what ideas did he represent and why is he forgotten?
The Anti-Colonial Malayan
Ya’acob Mohamed attended a madrasah in Johor, was orphaned at the age of 12, and was subsequently adopted by his school principal. At 16, he was denied a spot at the Tanjung Malim Teachers’ college which he remained bitter about for years — he applied to the college as a top student and was rejected simply because he was not from Johor (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 22). He wrote to the director of study, Andrew Shaw, “If people who were born far from Malaya such as in India could be given opportunities here why not me? Why was I denied a chance to be a trainee teacher?” (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 29) “I am from Kelantan, the colonialists hate us,” he told his biographers. This significant early brush with colonial prejudice was pivotal since he permanently carried this sense of injustice. As he entered political life, the insistence on meritocracy constantly ran through his public discourse.
He moved to Singapore in early 1941 to stay with relatives and attended Madrasah Khairiyah for a year before the Japanese invaded Singapore. Ya’acob’s political decisions were driven by his desire for freedom from British colonial rule. Being very much attuned to power shifts, his ideas significantly shifted over time such that his journey as an intellectual remarkably aligned with that of Singapore’s history. During the Japanese Occupation, he enthusiastically joined the Indian National Army (INA) led by Subhas Chandra Bose in Singapore after claiming his father was from India. Joining the INA, he told his biographers (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 35), was a common move back then and he was treated very well by everyone.
Towards the end of the Occupation, he became familiar with the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA), being drawn to their anti-British activities when he moved to Johor. He vehemently opposed the idea of the Malayan Union proposed by the British colonialists led by Harold MacMichael because the proposal sought to strip away the powers of the Malay sultans and enact new immigration policies. Ya’acob came up with one of the anti-Union slogans, “Don’t let Malaya be a second Palestine” (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 38). The unpopularity of the Malayan Union led to the formation of United Malays National Organisation, more commonly known as UMNO, in May 1946. Subsequently, the Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya in 1948.
Drawn to a pan-Malayan Nusantara ideal based on a united Malaya and Indonesia with strong grassroots in both countries, he joined left-wing parties Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) also known as the Malayan Nationalist Party and later its offshoot, Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API). When the British banned left-wing parties in 1948, including PKMM and API, he moved back to Singapore to begin his political career. It was a smooth transition for him since he did not differentiate the politics on the peninsula from that of Singapore, conceiving of Malaysia and Singapore as one political entity. In Singapore, he became a Malay school teacher, and quickly became very active in the Bukit Panjang branch of SMNO (Singapore Malays National Organization) and later in Bukit Timah where he made several speeches printed in Utusan Melayu.
Over several years, he repeatedly urged Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya not to forget about Singapore in his quest for independence but the Tunku constantly disappointed him by prioritizing the Malay peninsula — “What’s important, Tunku calmly stressed to me, we get independence for the ‘mother’ first. After that we will discuss the matter of Singapore’s independence” (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 61). After Malaya was assured of independence on August 31, 1957, Ya’acob poignantly wrote “Don’t forget Singapore, Tunku” on a map of Singapore and gave it to Tunku (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 64). By referring to Singapore as “Tanah Tambak Johor” in the Singapore Parliament when he was an MP later (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 96), he highlighted the physical link between the two countries, a one-kilometer causeway that was partly a bridge and partly reclaimed land.
Over time, he also disagreed more explicitly with UMNO’s preoccupation with bumiputera (indigenous) superiority and unwillingness to accommodate Singapore’s brand of multiculturalism. While he declined an invitation to join the People’s Action Party (PAP) at first, he later decided to join the party in 1958 because he had become disillusioned with UMNO and was persuaded by the insistent invitation of Lim Chin Siong and A. Samad Ismail. The PAP was keen to court Malay votes at this time. With great sadness, he left UMNO and joined the PAP. He accepted the invitation of Toh Chin Chye to run for the Bukit Timah seat in 1959. He did not think he would win because the constituency was more than 90% Chinese but his wife persuaded him to say yes to Toh. Ya’acob won the Bukit Timah seat.
In the crucial elections of 1963 when Singapore was part of the Malaysia, Ya’acob competed for the Southern Islands seat. The population of the 25 islands was overwhelmingly Malay and economically marginalised, constituting a forgotten community under British colonial rule. They supported UMNO, so he was the underdog in the elections. While Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew thought they would vote along racial lines, Ya’acob predicted that they would vote for the better party which was able to give them aid (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 131).
This was characteristic of him, as he often downplayed racial divisions as the root cause of differences by holding fast to the opinion that it was a matter of philosophy (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 94). In the end, he won by a narrow margin against the Singapore Alliance Party, which was allied with UMNO. The working class on the islands did not identify with the feudal-oriented elite of UMNO, being more aligned with leftist ideals of radical Malayan and Indonesian nationalists (Rahim, 2008, 103).
Like most minority politicians in the ruling party, Ya’acob was expected to serve his own community. He was a champion of the Malays in Singapore although he constantly underscored that he did so because they were economically marginalised.
“I help the Malays not because they are Malays, but because they are a community who is the least advanced in Singapore. If I do prioritise the Malays, I would not have joined the PAP, I would have remained in UMNO…If there is ever such a complaint (that I prioritise Malays) to the party leadership, I will resign from the PAP.” (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 135).
Separation from Malaysia in 1965 knocked the wind out of his sails although it was not a complete shock to him. Ya’acob professed to being “a small politician” because he was not asked to be involved in the negotiations — an omission he deemed “a big problem” since his presence and rapport would have made a difference. None of the other Malay PAP members were involved in negotiations, he lamented. While nursing his own disappointment, he persuaded ordinary Singaporean Malays to have more faith in themselves and in the Singaporean government (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 197–200).
In private, he regarded Tunku Abdul Rahman’s betrayal of Singapore to be more egregious than British colonialism in Malaya, and even worse than Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdul Rahman granting the English East India Company control over the island of Singapore in 1819 and 1824. Ya’acob considered separation between Singapore and Malaysia in August 1965 nothing less than a “big tragedy and sin” (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 202), because Singapore was left with no military defence and government bureaucracy since everything was tied to the central government in Kuala Lumpur. Crucially, because Singapore had a small Malay minority, he believed the Malays would be deprived of political power.
“Malays played a huge role in the political development in Singapore. But Tunku robbed their political power till they had none at all. This is different from the British, a colonial power in the past, who recognised the sovereignty (kedaulatan) of the Malays. The Malays still had political power and sovereignty.” (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 203)
Ya’acob’s religious faith was very much part of his political ethos, something that Lee Kuan Yew often mentioned. In February 1977, a few months before Ya’acob left to be Singapore’s ambassador to India, Lee named him as one of the 24 MPs whom he could depend on. He said “I do not know from where Ya’acob gets his strength, perhaps from Islam, I think I would like to have Haji Ya’acob around because we have gone through some very tough times. The real test was when there were race clashes and the police were not in our hands in 1963 to 1965.” (New Nation, 1977, 4). In 1980, Lee Kuan Yew again spoke of his colleague — “His deep confidence has made him a friend who can be trusted. His sensitivity to religious issues, which arose from his own beliefs in Islam, is something valuable to the government” (Berita Harian, 1989, 3).
Retirement in the Grassroots
Ya’acob’s last formal political role was as MP for Kampung Ubi, before retiring in 1980. He was a Minister of State and then a Senior Minister of State. At various points, he also served as ambassador to the Philippines (1969–1971), India (1977–1984) and Egypt, Turkey and Yugoslavia (1984–1986). His diplomatic career showed that he was no mere Malay mobiliser or minority representative but had achieved a statesman’s stature representing Singapore to important partners in the developing world.
In 1986, he retired fully from public service due to poor health. His flesh was weak, but his spirit remained strong. He said in an interview, “Politics is in my blood. I made a pledge: If the country needs me, I will come back again.” He would not contest any more elections, “because I was born for my generation and there are very few of them left.” But he was worried about Singapore, because “when the first generation is the developer and the second generation merely protects what has been achieved, the third generation is destroyed.” Ya’acob was deeply entrenched in the grassroots and was concerned that the second generation of PAP leaders were “transplanted” technocratic types who would “forget the grass on earth” (Straits Times, 1986a).
Ya’acob was still very involved in the Malay community and advocating its interests. As Chairman of MASSUTRA, the Council of Creative Arts and Traditional Sports, he went head-to-head with the government over the kampung showcase of Malay heritage planned for Geylang Serai. Ya’acob said that when he saw the model of the showcase, he “was embarrassed because it was like a fishermen’s village.” This did not represent the progress the community had achieved and stereotyped the Malays as backward and rural. Ya’acob wrote to the minister and said he would prefer the Housing Development Board gave the Malay community the land to decide for themselves what they wanted. He recommended a hostel to be built, in which everything “should be Malay, from the décor to the way of preparing and serving the meals” (Straits Times, 1986a). It would be a modern rendition of Malay hospitality, instead of an outdated and irrelevant representation of the community.
Ya’acob was especially vocal as a political critic in these last three years of his life. There were many foundational changes, as the second generation of PAP leaders took the reins and consolidated the party’s political rule. Ya’acob was not keen on the “Team MPs” concept which later became the Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) system established in 1988 to ensure that minority racial communities in Singapore will always be represented in Parliament. Ya’acob disagreed with the establishment of this system and said that “if the present generation, who are products of the People’s Action Party education policies are becoming more communal in their thinking, then it reflects the failure of the Government to inject multi-racialism in the country” (Straits Times, 1988). He even went as far as to say, “If Malay MPs are not seen to be performing an effective role, we might as well not have any of them.”
Along with his Malay colleagues, Ya’acob Muhammad considered education to be the most important aspect of Malay lives. In the 1960s, he raised educational requirements for jobs which were popular amongst Malays. One of the main issues taken up by Ya’acob was the Malay tertiary fee proposal that arose towards the end of his life in 1989 when the Singapore government proposed to change the system of subsiding Malays in tertiary institutions. Up till then, all Malays enjoyed free tertiary education. The new policy would mean that Malays who were financially better off would pay their own way while those in financial need would be subsidized by grants provided by Mendaki, a self-help group established in 1982 to assist the Malay community.
The change was controversial because historically, free tertiary education was deemed by many Malays to be a right due to their indigenous status in Singapore and the region, as acknowledged in Article 152 of the Singapore Constitution. The proposed change led some opposition groups to argue that this was an attempt to “rob the Malays of their special position as the indigenous people of Singapore” (Straits Times, 1989a). Ya’acob was also against this policy, breaking away from his colleagues including Yatiman Yusuf who urged Malays to get away from a “crutch mentality” (Straits TImes, 1989c). It appears that he saw free tertiary education not as affirmative action for an economically underprivileged group, but a constitutional right for a people in a special position.
This was a deep cut for Ya’acob because in 1957, he himself had carefully worded the request to affirm Malay indigenous status and special position for Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, for the second Merdeka talks in London. Ya’acob wrote that the Singapore constitution must state that “(a)ny government of Singapore in good conscience, must guarantee to promote position of Malay people in the fields of politics, economics, language, religion and other matters.” He was disappointed that in London, Malays’ position was reduced to one of many groups (“golongan”) on par with other racial groups in Singapore (Sulaiman and Abdul Ghani, 1990, 65). More than thirty years later, deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1989 said in Parliament that if the fee proposal was accepted, it would show that the Malays wanted “temporary assistance not permanent privileges.” (Business Times, 1989).
The Spirit of 59
Willy-nilly Ya’acob was also drawn into a spat between Senior Minister S. Rajaratnam and the Malay Journalists’ Association in late 1986 over the controversial visit of Israeli President Chiam Herzog to Singapore. The visit provoked protests and condemnations in Malaysia and Indonesia and affected diplomatic relations. The Malay community in Singapore bristled. Rajaratnam came out strongly to defend the visit, but the Association objected to four words used by Rajaratnam in his statement, “We are not Muslims,” for giving the impression that there were no Muslims in Singapore. In response, Rajaratnam accused the Association of misinterpreting the words to rouse communal feelings and show solidarity with Malaysian protestors.
Rajaratnam called on Ya’acob to give his views, likely on account that Ya’acob was the recently retired envoy in the Middle East and a very influential figure among Malays and Muslims. As Minister of State, Ya’acob gave a speech to open a training course at the Association in 1976. He said that because Singapore is a multiracial society, local journalists “must strive to meet in understanding and awareness on home ground just as surely as they strive for a meeting of minds in regional matters” (Singapore Government Press Release, 1976).
In the same spirit, Ya’acob obliged Rajaratnam’s public request for his views, agreeing with the Association that Rajaratnam’s words were ill-chosen and unnecessary to convey that Singapore was a secular country. Characteristically of his community-grounded humanistic approach, Ya’acob said that anti-Zionism was not about religion, but based on broader objection against occupation and the use of force. He said that for Singapore the best way was “meetings and heart-to-heart discussions” on such sensitive issues, not the washing of dirty linen in public. He then criticised Rajaratnam for “tactics of McCarthyism which should never be used, in any form, in a democratic country like Singapore” (Straits Times, 1986b). This was a pioneer reminding a fellow pioneer about the Spirit of 59 that they both fought for as PAP stalwarts.
Incidentally, the next day, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said he gave in-principle approval to the visit a couple of years ago when Rajaratnam asked him, but he did not find out about the actual visit until it was announced in the newspapers. PM Lee said that it was unfortunate the “beguiled” diplomatic service officers did not put it to him for another decision, or else he would have put off the visit given the strong views against Zionism recently articulated by Malaysian PM Mahathir (Straits Times, 1986c).
The Forgotten Organic Intellectual
Ya’acob was an organic intellectual. According to Antonio Gramsci in Prison Notebooks (1971), an organic intellectual is committed to fighting the cause of his community he is embedded in without being part of the traditional intelligentsia, steadfast in his belief that he could generate political action from the grassroots to transform society. Throughout his career, Ya’acob often let others take the center-stage preferring to stay on the sidelines. Partly, this was because he noted that oratory polemics in Singapore politics became less appreciated over time as was anti-colonial discourse — he was known for both. Mostly, this was because he chose to remain close to the grassroots rather than be in the political limelight.
For all his contributions, why is Ya’acob not well-known? It could be because he did not have a political legacy for various reasons. Malay secondary schools, which he helped establish to formalize Malay-language education are now closed. The tertiary fee proposal which he opposed was put in place. The GRC system forms the foundation of Singapore’s political system today. Being firmly embedded in the Malay community, he was also the least close to the party leadership among the “Malay mobilisers.” The Straits Times’ (1989b) obituary honouring Ya’acob Mohamed called him “a bit of a folk hero” in the Malay community “because of his strong views on the community and its interests as well as his community work.” It was said that he would be “remembered by the community and many Singaporeans.”
Today, he is a forgotten organic intellectual. Remembering Ya’acob Mohamed and his work will remind us of Singapore’s anti-colonial Malayan origins, our roots in the Malay world and the Spirit of 59. The Spirit of 59 is about the people and their aspirations, the organic grassroots and its cultural lifeworlds, before these are assimilated into the mighty representation machine of the government. It is still greatly relevant today.
Nurfadzilah Yahaya is Assistant Professor at the Department of History and Daniel Goh is Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore.
Berita Harian, 1989, “Jasa Haji Ya’acob banyak…,” 13 November.
Business Times, 1989, “Help is for Malays as a community, not individuals: Goh,” 30 October.
Chia, Joshua and Joanna Tan, 2016, “Haji Ya’acob bin Mohamed,” National Library Board Infopedia, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1197_2010-10-25.html
Gramsci, Antonio, 1971, Selections from Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Ibrahim, Zuraidah, 1999, “The Malay Mobilisers: Ahmad Ibrahim, Othman Wok, Yaacob Mohamed and Rahim Ishak,” in Lee’s Lieutenants: Singapore’s Old Guard, edited y Lam Peng Er and Kevin Y.L. Tan, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 116–131.
New Nation, 1977, “Hj Ya’acob to sort out ‘problems’ first…,” 13 September.
Rahim, Lily Zubaidah, 2008, “Winning and Losing Malay Support: PAP-Malay Community Relations, 1950s and 1960s,” in Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Post-War Singapore, edited by Micahel D. Barr and Carl A. Trocki, Singapore: NUS Press, 95–115.
Singapore Government Press Release, “Speech by Tuan Haji Ya’acob bin Mohamed at the Opening Ceremony of a Three-month Course Organised by the Malay Journalists’ Association,” 2 May 1976.
Straits Times, 1986a, “PAP veteran’s backseat role,” 11 May.
Straits Times, 1986b, “Haji Ya’acob agrees Raja’s words were ill-chosen,” 14 December.
Straits Times, 1986c, “‘I knew of Herzog visit from papers’: PM says he would have put it off in view of sharp statements on Zionism,” 15 December.
Straits Times, 1988, “Dissenter Ya’acob wants referendum or delay till election,” 3 January.
Straits Times, 1989a, “PKMS panel gives thumbs down to change in system,” 22 July.
Straits Times, 1989b, “Haji Ya’acob — the ‘real politician’ who never retired,” 13 October.
Straits Times, 1989c, “Getting rid of the ‘crutch mentality’,” 4 November.
Straits Times, 1990, “Pioneer leader,” 26 September.
Sulaiman Jeem and Abdul Ghani Hamid, 1990, Ya’acob Mohamed: Dalam API, PKMM, UMNO, PAP, Singapore: Penerbitan Wisma.