GEORGE TOWN: The period between the 1950s and 1960s was an eventful time in Malaysian history, and Persatuan Melayu Pulau Pinang (Pemenang) president, Tan Sri Mohd Yussof Latiff, was there to witness it all, including an episode in our history of an attempt to turn Penang Island into an independent state. It was an event he would never forget.
For someone born and bred on this little gem of an island, it was unacceptable.
Yussof, who is likely the longest serving president of the country’s oldest Malay organisation, recalled that during negotiations for independence with the British, “certain elements” were plotting to Penang Island an independent state.
At the time, Penang was one of the territories listed as the Straits Settlements, together with Singapore and Malacca, and administered by a British governor. This earned Penang special attention from the British colonial masters.
Yussof said while the negotiations were in progress, two organisations – now defunct – plotted to take Penang away from Malaya and make it an independent state.
“It sparked anger among the Malays,” he told theSun.
Umno Youth, where Yussof was secretary at the time, wrote to Malaya’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman and asked him to return Penang to Kedah.
“Tunku’s response angered the Malays. He said if Penang wanted to be independent ‘so be it’,” Yussof said. He said even some Chinese tycoons in Penang, such as rubber magnate Heah Joo Seang, were not keen to support the bid because they felt that the island’s economy was too small to sustain itself.
In reaction, the Malays took to the streets, holding a massive protest on a field in Jalan Datuk Keramat, forcing Tunku to meet their demands and to speed up the negotiations for independence.
“So you can say that our objections could have hastened our road to independence,” he added, but not without some sense of irony.
One could say that Yussof is a Malay rights campaigner in every sense of the word. He frequently speaks up on issues affecting the Malays, and at 89 years old, still serves as president of Pemenang.
Pemenang, which was the first Malay organisation in the country, was established 92 years ago.
At age 16, he began serving coffee at political meetings, sparking an interest in community activism that has lasted a lifetime.
He later joined Umno and was active in the youth wing briefly, but eventually left the party.
While he is no longer politically active, Yussof still airs his views with the same conviction he had when he was young.
Citing an example, he was convinced that a “distortion” or “re-interpretation” of history by those with hidden agendas is the cause of today’s racial polarisation.
“We must learn to understand our history in order to address this issue,” he said.
Yussof added that Malays feel resentful because they are being accused of many things.
“Some quarters have belittled the Malays so they respond with name calling, using words such as ‘pendatang’,” he said, implying that this was more like a defence mechanism.
However, he acknowledged that some Malay leaders were equally at fault.