Born from the Womb of UMNO: How PAS Started as Persatuan Islam Se-Malaya 14 March 2019 – Posted in: Book Excerpts

With the Hizbul Muslimin banned and its leaders behind bars, the Islamists of Malaya were without a party to call their own. From 1948 onwards the British authorities were less interested in the niceties of democracy and liberal governance, and more concerned about eliminating the potential threat of Communism from Malaya for good before they left their colony to its fate.

The eradication of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was hardly a subtle affair. To counter the spread of the MCP, Lieutenant-General Harold Briggs, commander of the British forces and director of operations in Malaya, drew up the infamous ‘Briggs Plan’ which was designed to take the war to the Communists in the jungle. The Malaysian countryside was effectively divided into districts and quadrants which were policed and monitored by state security forces sent on notorious ‘search and destroy’ missions. Apart from the forceful detention, relocation and deportation of those thought to be communist sympathisers,36 the colonial forces were also responsible for a number of atrocities committed in the heat of the fighting. (One of the most infamous incidents was the massacre of Chinese villagers in Batang Kali in December 1948.)

In March 1951, the British set up the Emergency Information Services (EIS)37 headed by Hugh Carleton Greene (brother of the novelist Graham Greene) and the Malayan propagandist C.C. Too38 as part of the effort to break the morale of the MCP.

By then both the Malay conservatives and the British colonial establishment were worried about the spread of Communism across the archipelago. and the latest developments in Vietnam and Indonesia did little to allay their fears. The unintended beneficiaries of the crisis was the conservative leaders of the Chinese community who played on the insecurities of their community.

In 1933, the British colonial authorities imposed tighter immigration controls on Chinese labour from abroad in an effort to ensure that the Malays would not be reduced to a minority in their own land. The lot of the Chinese community became worse in the wake of the war when large numbers of Chinese joined the MCP and left for the jungle to carry out a guerrilla war against the British armed forces. As a result, the Chinese found themselves doubly stigmatised, firstly as unwelcomed immigrants, and secondly as an internal security threat.

The Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) was formed on 27 February 1949 under the leadership of Tan Cheng Lock.39 The MCA agreed to work with both the British and Malay conservative élite to help resolve the problems facing the country. Later, leaders of the conservative Malay and Chinese parties (UMNO and MCA) came together to form an instrumental coalition of their own, the UMNO-MCA Alliance. UMNO was then led by the aristocratic Western-educated leader Dato’ Onn Jaafar and the movement was a broad, loose coalition of centre-right Malay-Muslim organisations.

Aware of how the party was seen by some of its detractors, UMNO was keen to promote itself as a defender of Islam and Muslim concerns as well as Malay rights. To that end, it sponsored the first meeting of ulama (Perjumpaan Alim Ulama Tanah Melayu) on 20-22 February 1950 at Bandar Maharani Muar, Johor. The purpose of the congress was to bring together Malay ulama from all over the country to discuss matters related to Muslim affairs, for the attention of the UMNO leadership.

For a brief period, Dato’ Onn had managed to secure the support of some ulama. UMNO’s bureau of religious affairs, headed by Tuan Haji Ahmad Fuad, had managed to present the party as the only organisation able to translate the concerns and demands of the Malay-Muslims into concrete reality. The creation of this ‘Islamist camp’ within UMNO came at the time of the ‘Nadrah Affair’ (1950-51) which gave Islamists all over the country the opportunity to assume centre stage once again and to mobilise support from all sections of the Malay-Muslim community.40

The Nadrah affair could not have come at a worse time for the leaders of UMNO, who were then engaged in negotiations with the British over terms of Malaya’s independence. The case revolved around the status of Nadrah, a Dutch girl left in the care of Malay foster-parents by her parents in the early stages of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The girl, then named Maria Hertogh, was subsequently given the name Nadrah and brought up as a Malay and a Muslim in Kemaman, Terengganu, by her foster-mother Aminah. After the war, Nadrah’s foster-mother feared she would be taken back to Holland by the authorities. She therefore decided to marry Nadrah to Mansoor Adabi, a Malay schoolteacher from Kelantan. By then a search was being conducted for her on behalf of her parents in the Netherlands.

When she was finally found, the British colonial authorities felt inclined to intervene and to return her to her family. But Nadrah was, by then, a Muslim woman who was married under Islamic law.

With a guerilla war being fought in the jungles of Malaya against the MCP, neither the British nor Malayan leaders were wont to deal with a situation as complicated as this. In the end, the British authorities decided to repatriate Nadrah to the Netherlands and to declare her marriage null and void. But this had serious implications for the status of Malay and Islamic laws and customs, for it put into question (1) the legal status of the shahadah (the formal declaration of faith for all Muslims) as a sign of conversion to Islam, (2) the legal status of Muslim marriages in the eyes of secular British constitutional law, and (3) the legal status of Malay-Muslim law and customs vis-à-vis British law.

Malayan Muslims were outraged by the decision of the British and Dutch authorities. Protest movements were launched, led by Islamists such as Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy and Taha Kalu. Also involved were Malay newspapers like Melayu Raya and movements such as the Malayan Muslim League.

On 11-13 December 1951, the crisis led to violence as Malays rioted in the streets of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The human cost of the Nadrah crisis was high by Malayan standards then: eighteen people had been killed and 173 were wounded. Scores of buildings were burnt and destroyed. Hundreds of Malay and Peranakan Muslim activists had been arrested in the wake of the fighting. Seven people were found guilty of taking part in the demonstrations and were sentenced to death by the British authorities.

Although the whole Nadrah affair culminated with the defeat of the Islamists, it did offer them and the ulama an opportunity to assume leader’ ship once more as the defenders of Muslim concerns. UMNO’s plight was worsened by the failure of its leaders (in particular its president, Dato’ Onn) to provide exemplary leadership during the confrontation with the British and Dutch authorities as the Nadrah crisis reached its peak. UMNO’s religious affairs bureau members also protested against their leaders’ decision to allow the issuance of gambling and alcohol licences.41

In response to these difficulties and disagreements, the ulama and conservative Islamists within UMNO continued to discuss matters related to their religious concerns among themselves. In time, this group grew more and more cohesive and organised.

On 23 August 1951, the second UMNO-led Ulama Congress was held at the Sultan Sulaiman Club in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. Still under the tutelage and sponsorship of UMNO, the congress was chaired by Haji Ahmad Fuad, who was then head of UMNO’s religious affairs bureau, with Haji Ahmad Maliki as its secretary. The congress members began considering creating an organisation of their own. Members of the second Ulama Congress issued two resolutions: (1) to renew their efforts towards creating a National Supreme Council for Religious Affairs (Badan Tertinggi Agama Islam Peringkat Kebangsaan), and (2) to form an independent association of ulama not linked to any other political or welfare organisation.

On 23 August 1951, the Ulama Congress decided to form Persatuan Alim Ulama Se-Malaya (All-Malayan Ulama Organisation). A five-man steering committee was set up, consisting of: Haji Ahmad Fuad (chairman), Tuan Haji Ayub, S. Mohamad Hafiz, Saadon Zubir and Haji Mohamad Amin (Saadon Zubir and Haji Mohamad Amin were personally selected by Haji Ahmad Fuad). The committee was given the task of executing the decisions of the Congress and drafting the constitution for the new ulama association.42

UMNO had been rocked by an internal leadership struggle in mid-1950 when the liberal-minded Dato’ Onn proposed that non-Malays be given membership of the movement. Onn was trying to create a broad-based conservative party open to all the races in the Malaysian Federation. He was rejected by his own party and was forced to resign. Onn later formed the Independence for Malaya Party (IMP), a multiracial party with a strong centrist-liberal character.

The sudden exit of Dato’ Onn left UMNO in a state of limbo.

During the UMNO meeting of 25-26 August 1950, the conservative Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, a prince from one of the Malay royal families, was elected the second president of UMNO, and Tun Abdul Razak (another scion from a royal house) was elected as his deputy. So abrupt was the split among the UMNO leadership and so quick the succession that the ordinary party members were unsure about where the party was heading and which leader to support.

The ulama, in particular, were not happy with Tunku’s penchant for sport cars, racehorses, dancing and alcohol (distractions which he never hid from his followers and critics).43 Around this time, Dato’ Onn was also trying to persuade the more conservative UMNO elements to abandon Tunku and support him instead. Onn persuaded Haji Ahmad Fuad to form a faction of ulama and more religiously inclined UMNO members to ensure that Muslim concerns would not be marginalised within the party.

The third UMNO-led Ulama Congress was held at the Kelab Melayu Bagan (Bagan Malay Club) in Butterworth, Penang, on 23-24 November 1951. More than two hundred ulama attended, with twenty female representatives from all over the country, including Singapore. Among the ulama present were Ustaz Ahmad Badawi, Ustaz Mohamad Ghazali Abdullah, Ustaz Zabidi Ali, Ustaz Othman Hamzah and Ustaz Baharuddin Abdul Latif.

Ustaz Ahmad Badawi presented his manifesto, entitled ‘Manifesto al-Badawi: Ulama Kejalan Allah‘ (‘The Manifesto of al-Badawi: Ulama on the Path of Allah’).

Ustaz Baharuddin Abdul Latif, in turn, argued that the Ulama Congress should lay down the organisational structure for a number of religious bodies and committees, including a majlis fatwa (fatwa council), badan tabligh dan penyiaran (council for joint relations), badan perhubungan (communications and information council) and a badan pendidikan (educational body).44

At this congress it was decided to change the movement’s name to Persatuan Islam Se-Malaya (Pan-Malayan Islamic Organisation). This small body, made up of a number of ulama, imams and conservative nationalists from both within and without UMNO, was the nucleus of the Pan-Malayan Islamic party which later came to be known as PAS.

And thus PAS came to be born on 24 November 1951, and emerged from the womb of UMNO.


36. The deportation of suspected members and sympathisers of the MCP began in earnest in 1950. The colonial authorities worked within the scope of the Emergency Regulations (clause 17C), and in 1950 alone 3,773 people were deported—3,324 to China and 73 to India. The rest were sent to various other places.
37. Ramakrishna, “The Making of a Malayan Propagandist’. pp. 76-77.
38. Lin Cheng Leng, The Story of a Psy-Warrior, p. 74.
39. It first secretary was Yong Shook Lin, while Khoo Teck Ee served as treasurer. Other committee members included H.S. Lee as youth and women’s committee chairman, Thu Siew Sin as publicity committee chairman and Leong Chong Leng as a social welfare committee chairman. From 1950, the MCA operated a lottery to earn money to finance itself a well as its welfare policies directed towards the Chinese peasants who had been forcibly resettled. The party also submitted a memorandum to the British colonial authorities to express the desire of the Chinese to be made citizen of Malaya and not left out of the negotiations for independence.
40. For a fuller account of the Nadrah Affair, see Haja Maideen, The Nadra Tragedy: The Maria Hertogh Controversy, Kuala Lumpur: Pelanduk Press, 1989.
41. Ibnu Hasyim, PAS Kuasai Malaysia? 1950-2000 Sejarah Kebangkitan dan Masa Depan. Kuala Lumpur: G. Edar Press, 1993. p. 22.
42. Baharuddin Abdul Latif, Islam Memanggil, 1994. p. xvii.
43. Harry Miller, Prince and Premier: A Biography of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, London: Harrap, 1959.
44. Baharuddin Abdul Latif, Sedikit untuk Persidangan Alim Ulama. Reported in Utusan Melayu, 21 November 1951. Quoted in Baharuddin, Islam Memanggil, p. 9.

Excerpt Source

“1951-1969: The Orphan of the Cold War.” The Malaysian Islamic Party PAS 1951-2013: Islamism in a Mottled Nation. By Farish A. Noor. 1st ed. Petaling Jaya: SIRD, 2016. 36-40. Print.

About The Author

FARISH A. NOOR is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, and the head of its Contemporary Religion in Southeast Asia Program .

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