Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fish from the ocean, tamarind from the land, in the pot they blend

Aden, Yemen
Sailors on a Steamer

Malay Opera

Editorial Board, Utusan
Pa was born in Makkah in 1917
After the Arabs were ‘liberated’ by T. E. Lawrence
From the crumbling Ottoman Caliphate
Also known as the ‘Sick Old Man of Europe’

His father was a Bugis from Klang
In 1911, he arrived in the Holy Land
To advance his studies in Arabic and Quran
There he met and married Sitti, a Perakian
Who bore their eldest daughter and son
Named Azizah and Badarudin

A year later, to the Jawi Land they returned
To set up a madrasah in Sitti’s hometown
Before setting sail for Makkah again in ‘37

This time they settled in Ajaid
A village on the hillside
Overlooking the Grand Mosque
By now, the family had expanded to eight
With Mohamed, Hanifah, Ishak and Hasnah
Thankful for the Almighty’s reward
They turned their home into a waqf
And opened their doors to travellers to the holy place

That November, Pa turned twenty
He began to feel edgy
The walled compound felt stuffy
His feet itched to go on a journey
To places where he could sight see
And know the people and their philosophy  

He hitched a ride on a fruit truck to the port of Jeddah
Where he signed up as a sailor on a merchant steamer
For the next five years
He discovered Aden, Muscat, Doha and Bahrain
He trekked the coast of Iran to the majestic mountains of Afghanistan
On to Karachi, where he boarded another sailing vessel
Which dropped its anchor at Mumbai and Chennai
Before it crossed the Bay of Bengal
To the Pearl of the Orient
And, finally, Port Swettenham

In the late ‘30s and early ‘40s
Singapore was the trading centre
Of the FMS
Also the magnet for reformists and anti-colonialists

Since the early 19th century
Traders and scholars from Haudramaut
With names like AlJuneid, AlSagoff and alKaff
Had inspired the young men to be change agents
They called themselves Kaum Muda 
They challenged the old-fashioned ideas
Of the Kaum Tua, or Group of Elders
Through writings in the newspapers

Editors, journalists and type-setters of these mouthpieces
Were Malay intellectuals and skilled labourers
Like Pa's buddy Sako and Ma's father Mat Semawi

Ma was a second generation Singaporean
Bugis and Javanese blood coursed in her veins
According to her family folklore
Tok Mat’s father was a Bugis warrior
Who walked around barefooted in his black outfit
Black pants, tunic, sash, headband and kris
That was the way they dressed
Back in the old country as in La Galigo epic

Ma’s maternal side was Jawa Tok-tok
Her mother, Karsinah, was nicknamed Cemplok
Raised by eccentric matriarchs, Nek Tuek
And her adopted sister, Nek Kuchit
Given away by her Chinese family as an infant
Hence, Ma’s Sino appearance and expression
The fair skin, moon face, snub nose, doe eyes
A mild demeanour which masked a furnace

Tok Mat Semawi worked day and night
To feed his large brood
A day job as a type-setter
And night duty as a Bangsawan director

Very dull jobs compared to his forefathers’
Said to be pirates of the straits and seas
Hired by warring factions as mercenaries
Rebels in their homeland and beyond boundaries
Unlike the meek Javanese
Peasants who escaped the Dutch oppression
Poor pilgrims stranded on the island
Short changed by greedy Hajj agents

All the same, the Bugis and Javanese blood
Showed in their speech and acts
The ‘garang’ dimension of the Bugis
Often ruled the ‘halus’ side of the Javanese

And so it was the fiery Bugis in Tok Mat
Which made him jumped ship
Along with editors, journalists and 19 type-setters
And the refined Javanese in him
Which made him sacrifice time
And money
Along with other investors and employees
For Yusoff Ishak’s the Malay Herald

The Malays, Bugis and Javanese
May be employees of the wealthy Hadramis
But to them, the Muslim Arabs and the Indians
Were Jawi Peranakans, or foreign-born

Since most Arabs arrived when they were young
They were looked upon as aliens
Their privileged life
Made the Malays felt deprived
They had their own madrasahs to study Arabic
And they could afford the fees at Raffles Institution to learn English
Heirs to their families’ businesses
They inherited fleets of pilgrimage ships
And rows of textile shops on Arab Street
Printing presses on Cecil Street
Editors-in-Chief of dailies, weeklies 
And humour magazines

Local editors and journalists –
Kajai, Sako, ZABHA and Za’ba 
They loved their pen names and acronyms
They used the newspapers and magazines
To fight for Independence from the Brits

Not happy with Arabs’ control of Malay media
These angry young men planned their own lidah and suara 
In ‘37, Yusoff Ishak left Warta Malaya 
In ‘38, he talked to leaders and activists
At Enchik Daud’s house in Siglap
Business tycoons and generous donors were invited
Tuan Yunan, Embok Sooloh and Enchik Sudin were present 
For three long hours they brainstormed
The final verdict was a Malay broadsheet

The founders chipped in $2,000 for start-up
All over Singapore and Malaya Yusoff went
He coaxed petty traders, teachers, farmers and fishermen
Who parted with their daily wages
And raised almost $2,000 more worth of shares
With three days left to the deadline
And $8,500 short
Enchik Daud and Embok Sooloh dug deep
Into their pockets and forked out the cash
Thus the first edition of the new Utusan
    Which hit the news stands on May '39

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