The Many Names of Tan Malaka

Tan Malaka was a man of many talents. In the course of a fairly brief lifetime, lasting only a little over fifty years (1897–1949), he was variously a schoolteacher, an anti-colonial propagandist, the chair of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), a Comintern agent, and a revolutionary leader. He was also a man of many names. His birth name was Ibrahim, chosen, perhaps, to signal his family’s fidelity to Islam. As he wrote in 1943, ‘my mother and father were both pious people who feared Allah and followed the word of the Prophet.’ In his youth he was given a new name, Datuk Tan Malaka, a title which signified his family’s importance within his village, Suliki, located in the Minangkabau lands of West Sumatra. When he was exiled by the government of the Dutch East Indies for seditious activities in 1922, he began to invent new names for himself to elude colonial police forces. After he was arrested in Manila in 1927, the Philippines Free Press revealed that his various identities included ‘Hassan, Cheung Kun Tat, Howard Law, Elias Fuentes, Eliseo Rivera, and Ibrahim Datu Tuan Malacca’.

In his autobiography, titled From Jail to Jail (1948), Tan Malaka revealed further pseudonyms: Hasan Gozali, Ramli Hussein, Iljas Hussein and Oong Song Lee. Helen Jarvis, in her magisterial edition of From Jail to Jail, unearthed yet more codenames: one anti-colonial activist discovered by Dutch police had the name ‘Ossorio’ written by Tan Malaka’s address; in 1934, Tan Malaka signed his name as Tan Ho Seng in a note written for a student.[1] Nor was Tan Malaka the only person to create new names for himself. In the 1930s and 1940s, a series of spy thrillers were written about a thinly-veiled version of him under the title ‘Patjar Merah’ (or ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’), a new persona which added to his aura of mystery and adventure.[2] The Japanese exploited the sense of uncertainty around his identity, using false Tan Malakas to spread pro-Japanese propaganda during their occupation of Indonesia.

Why did Tan Malaka adopt so many names? The obvious reason was to avoid detection by Dutch, British, American and Japanese intelligence officers. Yet it is striking just how diverse his pseudonyms were. His names ran the gamut from Malay to Cantonese to Filipino. Adopting a new name not only allowed him to avoid police, but also to experience life from a new perspective. He was something of a chameleon, being able to pass for Indonesian, Filipino and Chinese (despite having only a passing knowledge of Mandarin). In 1925, while on the boat from Hong Kong to Manila, where the passengers were mainly from the Philippines, he observed that his own appearance was ‘100 percent Filipino and in fact more authentic than 20 to 30 percent of the Filipino racial mixtures.’ In his autobiography, reflecting on the fact that British interrogators in Hong Kong had assumed he was Chinese, he wrote ‘to be accepted by a race with the glorious culture and history of the Chinese would be an extraordinary honour for me.’ Living under multiple identities sharpened his sense of the commonalities shared by different Asian peoples. It also strengthened his belief in the need for a united Asian front against Western imperialism. Over the course of the 1920s, as he spent more time living under Chinese and Filipino identities, Pan-Asianism supplanted Pan-Islamism in his thinking as the major motive force for a potential uprising against colonialism.

Tan Malaka’s pseudonyms were not only means of avoiding detection. They also offered him a way to express his sense of humour, at the expense of imperial police agencies. Two of his names, Elias Fuentes and Iljas Hussein, are puns on the word ‘alias’. Another, Howard Law, seems an obvious joke about his own status as a fugitive. Hasan Gozali, the name he used to travel to Singapore in 1926, is an allusion to the medieval Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazali. In his 1943 work Madilog (a portmanteau of materialism, dialectics and logic), he expressed sympathy for Al-Ghazali, a man who, like him, was forced to work without access to a library: ‘Robbers also stole all [Al-Ghazali’s] books. After that Al Gazali [sic] kept the contents of his books in his head through memorization.’

The many names of Tan Malaka reveal the fluidity of Asian anti-colonial politics in the interwar years.[3] Not only were varied ideologies circulating and combining in these years, from Pan-Islamism and Pan-Asianism to nationalism and anarchism, identities themselves were being made and remade in the port cities of Asia. Tim Harper has called these cities the ‘interstices of Empire’, where various Asian radicals and exiles assembled in the 1920s and 1930s.[4] In interwar Singapore and Shanghai, a Minangkabau Communist could become a Chinese schoolteacher or a Filipino traveller and earn a reputation as a modern Scarlet Pimpernel.

[1] The extended introduction to From Jail to Jail summarizes Helen Jarvis’s research on Tan Malaka. See Tan Malaka, From Jail to Jail [1948], ed. and trans. Helen Jarvis (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991), Vol. 1.

[2] For an account of the ‘Patjar Merah’ stories, see Noriaki Oshikawa, ‘“Patjar Merah Indonesia” and Tan Malaka, A Popular Novel and a Revolutionary Legend’, in Takashi Shiraishi (ed.), Reading Southeast Asia: Translation of Contemporary Japanese Scholarship on Southeast Asia, Vol. 1 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), pp. 9–39.

[3] For a parallel life of a serial self-reinventor in interwar Britain, North America and Africa, see Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[4] Tim Harper, ‘Singapore, 1915, and the Birth of the Asian Underground’, Modern Asian Studies 47, 6 (2013), pp. 1782–1811.