Debunking the Myth of Dato Onn Ja'afar
One of the most common mythical heroes of both sides of the political spectrum in Malaysia is Dato Onn Ja'afar. Dato Onn founded three political parties, and one of them, the United Malays National Organisation, leads the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition today.
Naturally, Dato Onn is revered by UMNO and its lackeys for founding the party that presently rules the country. The establishment has prepared a history syllabus that ranks him as one of the country's foremost early leaders, while downplaying the contributions of others. (Tun Dr Ismail, for instance, hardly gets a mention, despite serving as acting Prime Minister on more than one occasion.)
If we go by the history books, Dato Onn is to be respected for founding the party that serves the purpose of "Malay unity". His involvement in activities aimed at building up the Malay race are to be respected.
The main downside, of course, is that he left the UMNO fold to form a new party when UMNO refused to open membership to non-Malays. Though never explicitly stated, it seems to be implied that Dato Onn does not merit further discussion when it comes to his post-UMNO history.
Mention is given, nevertheless, to both the political parties he founded — the Independence of Malaya Party, and the Parti Negara. The textbooks give Dato Onn credit for making these parties multiracial — and then fall silent.
This is where the disestablishmentarians come in. These people see Dato Onn as praiseworthy for trying to set up a multiracial party in an unfavourable political climate, and praise him for being ahead of his time.
There is certainly nothing wrong with the concept of a multiracial party; indeed, a lot of things are right with it. The problem, though, is that Dato Onn did not seem very sincere in his struggle for multiracialism.
The general idea at the time seems to have been that Dato Onn formed the IMP more out of political calculations than anything else. He believed that a multiracial party would be more appealing; the impetus for his actions was short-term, not long-term.
This would not be too bad if he had stuck to his guns. But after the IMP was rejected decisively by the electorate, Dato Onn retreated into his old shell, and went back to the racial politics as exemplified by the "Hidup Melayu" slogan he founded UMNO under.
Many political scientists have actually attributed UMNO's racialism and communalism to Dato Onn. Because his Parti Negara, though ostensibly multiracial, placed strong restrictions on non-Malay membership, and became a vehicle for extremist Malay racialist partisans, UMNO was forced to move in a communalist direction to maintain its Malay support.
Some try to further paint Dato Onn as the classical hero by suggesting he was very much a political underdog. This may have been so in his Parti Negara days, but this was definitely not the case in the early days of the IMP.
At the time he founded the IMP, it sucked substantial support from UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association, UMNO's partner in the Alliance coalition. Tan Cheng Lock himself, the MCA's founder, supported the IMP.
Because many politicians followed Dato Onn into the IMP, many local governments ended up under the IMP's control. The British themselves anticipated that the IMP would wind up leading the country. It was seen as the establishment.
We all know what happened next, of course. In 1955, the multiracial dream was decisively defeated, as the UMNO-MCA Alliance (together with the Malayan Indian Congress) swept up 54 out of the 55 elected Federal Council seats, with the sole remainder going to the Islamic party, PAS.
Dato Onn was certainly an important figure in our country's early history. But let's not be unreasonably eager to proclaim him as a monumental visionary. His motivations for multiracialism were rather shortsighted, and his decision to retreat into communalism make him a nuanced role model, at best.