Shamsiah Fakeh: The Feminist Who Stood Up For Her Country
Activism and opposition were rife in pre-independence Malaya. Colonial rule had been in place since 1819, but it wasn’t until 1957 that the country began to make genuine development. During WWII, the country was governed by a British military administration. The Japanese occupation stifled growth and brought only death and destruction. Following the war, the British sought to re-establish their supremacy, but were forced to leave sovereignty to the locals. The Malays were determined to gain independence and would no longer submit to British control. The United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO, was the leading party at the time. Mass protests and strike activities led by Dato’ Onn Ja’afar succeeded in persuading the British to grant independence in 1957. As a result, the Federation of Malaya was formed, serving as a “beta-test” for what would later become the bigger Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
The postwar era was marked by significant change. Women from all walks of life were active in social activity and in the heart of the fight for independence. The thought of achieving independence had sparked something within the people’s hearts and minds, and it wasn’t just the men who craved freedom. Riots erupted in numerous sections of the country, killing a large number of people. Because the police were frequently outnumbered, the British military was brought in to restore order.
It’s tough to put into words the sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving independence. It fostered in the people a sense of pride and success. Everyone was eager to assist one another and was united in their desire to move forward into a brighter future.
Shamsiah Fakeh was a significant social activist during this time period. She was a member of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and campaigned for Malaya’s independence from the British. She was also known to assist non-communist opposition groups by providing cash and assisting their members in the pursuit of an independent and free Malaya.
She was a prominent social activist whose effect was felt far and wide. Many people who knew her or heard about her admired her and her work. Her reputation was that of a bright, strong, and caring woman who campaigned for Malayan people’s rights without regard for her gender. She was a fervent feminist who fought for women’s independence and the abolition of gender inequality. As a lady who had firsthand experience with prejudice, it was only natural for her to desire to aid people less fortunate than herself.
Her association with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) had harmed her reputation with the government, but many saw her as a martyr for a just cause. This is why so many people were sympathetic to her situation and the difficulties she had faced. She was approached by both PKMM and UMNO (the two largest Malay nationalist groups at the time) to join them, but she ultimately chose PKMM since she considered UMNO was a British puppet party.
The CPM scouted many left-leaning nationalists like her to join the communist campaign against the colonial administration. She was one of the CPM’s few Malay women members. Her worldview was strongly associated with communism, and she was adamant that it was the only way forward for not only her people, but humanity as a whole. She was a devoted party member who did everything she could to promote and advance the cause.
But, since China’s Cultural Revolution, she had grown increasingly disillusioned with Chin Peng’s leadership. Chin’s treatment of non-Chinese cadres within the party, as well as his pro-China stances, did not endear him to her. She and her husband had grown estranged from the party leadership in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. Her exile in China, as well as the pro-Beijing leadership’s continuous harassment of dissidents, only contributed to widen the chasm between her and the CPM.
As she puts it: “Actually, I am not a female Malayan Communist Party leader or a significant female figure. I am simply a woman fighter who battled against the British for the independence of my motherland and women’s emancipation (freedom).”
She still believed that the CPM had the potential to be a revolutionary party, but she questioned if it was worth it under Chin Peng’s leadership. In any case, her life’s work had been completed, and she was eager to settle into a calm retirement, free from the danger of arrest or confinement, as well as the continual movement.
She stated about the cops in her letter “Actually, the police and army don’t have to retaliate against me because the pistol and grenade I used in the jungle never exploded, and no bullet killed any of the police or government soldiers. Instead, I was the one who was struck by their gunfire.”
She felt pessimistic about her homeland’s future, seeing the Malaysian government uphold the same restrictive policies as the British. Her fears were soon confirmed when, in the late 1980s, a new sort of New Economic Policy was launched that maintained, if not exacerbated, Malaysia’s racial and political imbalances. Although she never regained political power, she did serve as an inspiration to a new generation of Malaysians who resisted their government’s incompetence and corruption.
Malaysia is still a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country that is struggling to create its own, distinct national identity. However, it is apparent that the spirit of the country’s forefathers, the freedom fighters who fought for independence, must not be forgotten if the country is to reach its full potential as an independent nation.
It is possible that I am sympathetic to the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), of which Shamsiah was a member. The party is violent and repressive, but the time period for which they fought was marked by extremely oppressive governments. The reader must decide if Shamsiah’s actions were genuine acts of terrorism or justifiable resistance.
Despite my unequivocal condemnation of the CPM’s choice to continue the armed struggle after 1960, I feel Shamsiah was a dynamic leader who motivated a whole generation of Malayans to fight for her people’s freedom.
Her lasting legacy is as an icon of Malaysia’s rising justice movement. Her entire life was devoted to the battle of workers, peasants, and her own people.
Shamsiah taught me that one person can make a difference, and it is for this reason that I am writing about her today.