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Muhammad Yamin (1903-1962)


Indonesian historian, poet, playwright, and politician, sympathizer of the leftist Murba Party (Partai Murba), founded by the national hero and Communist leader Tan Malaka (1897-1949). Yamin started his career as a writer in the 1920s, when Indonesian poetry was marked by an intense and largely reflective romanticism. After the early 1930s, he devoted himself entirely to politics, history, and promoting Indonesian cultural unity and national identity. Yamin introduced the sonnet form into Indonesian poetry.

Di atas batasan Bukit Barisan
Memandang beta ke bawah memandang
Tampaklah hutan rimba dan ngarai
lagi pun sawah, telaga nan permai :
Serta gerangan lihatlah pula
Langit yang hijau bertukar warna
Oleh pucuk daun kelapa :
Itulah tanah airku
Sumatera namanya tumpah darahku.

(from 'Tanah Air')

Minangkabau Muhammad Yamin was born in Talawi, Sawahlunto, on the island of Sumatra. His father, Oesman Gelar Baginda Khatib, was the much-respected  penghulu andiko (headman) of Indrapura. Yamin was educated at Hollands-Inlands School (Dutch-Native School), in Palembang, and Algemene Middlebare School (AMS). After the death of his father, Yamin studied law in Jakarta, graduating in 1932. He worked in Jakarta until 1942, specializing in international law. He also served as the legal adviser of Himpunan Antero Lid Tubangan Untuk Fonds (HALTOF), a mutual fund founded by railway workers. In 1937, he married Siti Sundari, a teacher and feminist activist; they had one son.

While still a student, Yamin started his political career in nationalist movements and organizations. His first political home was the relatively moderate Parinda (Partai Indonesia Raja, Greater Indonesian Party). When it was dissolved, he joined in 1937 a new party, the Gerindo (Gerakan Rakjat Indonesia, Indonesian People's Movement), which combined the struggle against the threat of Fascism – resulting in Japan's aggressive policy in the 1930s – with the struggle for national independence.

Selagi ketjil berusia muda,
Tidur sianak dipangkuan bunda.
Ibu berhjanji, lagu dan dendang
Memudji sianak banjaknja sedang ;
Berbuai sajang malam dan siang
Buaian tergantung ditanah mojang.

(from 'Bahasa, Bangsa')

With a few exceptions, Yamin's early poems did not have a political agenda, but reflected personal feelings. He began to contribute poems in the Dutch-language journal Jong Sumatra in 1920, but his works were still tied to the clichés used in Classical Malay. Captured by national enthusiasm, Yamin published in February 1921 the poem 'Bahasa, Bangsa' (Language, Nation), which glorified Malay language. Its motto was derived from Goethe's Faust: "Was du ererbt von deinen Vatern hast. / Erwieb es um es zu besitzen" (That which you inherit from your fathers / You must earn in order to possess). Tanah Air (1922, The Fatherland) was the first collection of modern Malay verse to be published. Noteworthy, the first important modern novel in Malay, Sitti Nurbayaby Minangkabau Marah Rusli, appeared in the same year. Rusli's work enjoyed ten years of great popularity. The 'fatherland' to which Yamin referred, was not Indonesia but Sumatra. In the title poem, Yamin stands on the hills of his native Minangkabau country, praising its natural beauty. 'Bandi Matatam' (Hail, Motherland!), a long poem about Indonesia's great past, which appeared in 1923 in Song Sumatra, was not included in Sanjak-Sanjak Muda Mr. Muhammad Yamin (1954, The Youth Poems of Mr. M. Yamin), edited by Armijn Pane.

In 1928, the Second Congress of Indonesian Youth proclaimed Malay, since known as Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), the language of the Indonesian nationalist movement. Yamin made an initiative through the organization  Indonesia Muda, that Bahasa Indonesia is made as the foundation of a national language. Today it is the republic's official language and the principal vehicle for innovative literary expression. Also attempts at writing modern literature have been made in most of Indonesian major regional languages.

Through the years 1920-23, Yamin published poems in Jong Sumatra. His second collection, Indonesia Tumpah Darahku (1928, Indonesia, Land of My Birth), which came out on 28 October, 1928, stressed the political idea of Indonesian independence. The date of the publication was historically important – then Muhammad Yamin and his fellow nationalists resolved to revere a single – Indonesian – homeland, race and language. In the first Indonesia Muda Congress in 1930, Yamin spoke of "the power of the national idea, which rests on the existing unity of fatherland, people and language". (The Idea of Indonesia: A History by R. E. Elson, 2008, p. 78)  His play, Ken Arok dan Ken Dedes (1934, Ken Arok and Ken Dedes), was the first drama to use Malay after Rustam Effendi allegorical drama Bebasari (1926). Written in prose, it took its subject from Java's history, from the founding of the illustrious kingdom of Majapahit. Originally the play was prepared for the Jakarta Youth Congress of 1928, and staged again many times in the subsequent years. 

From the late 1920s until 1933, Roestam Effendi, Sanusi Pané with his poems (Madah Kelana, 1931) and plays (Kertadjaja, 1932; Sandhyakala ning Majapahit, 1933), and Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, were the principal shapers of the Malay language and its literature. Yamin made much use of the sonnet form, borrowed from Dutch literature. At that time, in the 1920s, among the major writers were national activist Abdoel Moeis (1898-1959), whose central theme was the interaction of Indonesian and European value system. Pandji Tisna's (1908-1978) Sukreni, gadis Bali, possibly the most original work of pre-independence fiction, came out in 1936. It dealt with the destructive effect of contemporary commercial ethics on Balinese society. Distinctly innovative poetry began to appear in the 1910s. The European sonnet form was especially popular, but the influence of traditional verse forms remained strong.

Although Yamin experimented with the language in his poetry, he uphold the classical norms of Malay more than the younger generation of writers. Yamin also published essays, historical works, and translated  Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a play about loyalty and betrayal, and a works by the India's Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (Menantikan Surat dari Raja; Di Dalam dan di Luar Lingkungan Rumah Tangga). Invited by Javanese intellectuals, Tagore visited Indonesia in 1927; he had a great influence of Yamin, whose translations of the author came out after the visit. Yamin's Julius Caesar, which was  intended as a literary and historical study, was  published in 1951; it puts little emphasis on its nature as a theatrical work, although there are "stage directions" not found in the source text.

During the Japanese occupation (1942-1945) Yamin worked for the Japanese-sponsored confederation of nationalist organizations, the Center of People's Power (Putera). In 1945 Yamin suggested to BPUPK (Badan Penyelidik Usaha-Usaha Persiapan Kemerdekaan), a committee preparing Indonesian's independence process, that the new nation should include Sarawak, Sabah, Malaya, and Portuguese Timor, as well as all the territories of the Netherlands Indies. Achmad Sukarno (1901-1970), who was a member of BPUPK, supported Yamin. In addition, Yamin was a central member of a subcommittee, which drafted the ideas for the Indonesian Constitution.

In 1945, Sukarno became the first President of Indonesian Republic. Following the July 3, 1946 affair, a theatrical coup attempt, Yamin was put in prison for two years, and then pardoned. Under Sukarno's long period of power – he was stripped of office in 1967 – Indonesia became a leader of the Third World, and developed close ties with China and the U.S.S.R. During and after the struggle for independence, Yamin held important posts in the governmental administration. He also became President Sukarno's principal national historian, his "myth-maker". In 1957, Yamin was challenged by Soedjatmoko, a publicist and diplomat, who was dissatisfied with the nationalistic historiography and who spoke for "passionate but controlled dedication to the search for historical truth while knowing its ultimate elusiveness" (see An Introduction to Indonesian Historiography, 1965, pp. 414-415).

Yamin died in Jakarta on October 17, 1962. He was buried in the family plot in Talawi, next to his father. Referring to Yamin's colorful, strong personality, it was said that he "was like a horse: if you were in front of him, you were likely to get nipped; if behind him, to get kicked; and if under him, to be trampled on. But if you were on top of him, with the reins in your hand, he would carry you fast and far." (Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944-1946 by Benedict R.O.'G. Anderson, 1972, p. 288)

Indonesian literature from the 1920s to the 1960s: The earliest Indonesian novels were published in the 1920s. Pudjangga Baru (The New Writer) literary school, which was established in 1933, influenced greatly the development of literature. Its founder and first editors were Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, and Arminjn Pané, brother of Sanusi Pané. Pudnjagga Baru advocated the idea that traditional literary forms had to be replaced by moderrn means of expression. Another movement, 45 Group, reflected the ideas of the independence struggle. Among its members was the poet Chairil Anwar, who died at the age of 27, but released the poetry from the bonds of traditional forms and literary language. Other important writers: Sanuse Pané, Idrus, Surwarsih Djojopuspito, Achdiat Karta Mihardja, Toha Mohtar, Mochtar Lubis (imprisoned by the Sukarno regime for four years), Pramoedye Ananta Toer. The first Indonesian dramatist to gain wide recognition was Utuy Tatang Sontani (1820-1979). Poetry in Javanese since independence has been dominated by St. Iesmaniasita and by Muryalelana (b. 1932), preindependence fiction in Sundanese was almost synonymous with the name of Mohamad Ambri (1892-1936). The finest Chinese-Indonesian novelist was Liem King-hoo. The most substantial work of fiction in Dutch by an Indonesian author was the novel Buiten het gareel (1940) by Suwarsih Djojopuspito.

For further reading: The Development of Modern Indonesian Poetry by Burton Raffel (1967); Modern Indonesian Literature by A. Teeuw (1967); Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944-1946 by Benedict R.O.'G. Anderson (1972); 'Modern Indonesian Literature in Brief,' by M. Balfas, in Handbuch der Orientalistik. Dritte abteilung. Indonesien, Malaysia und Die Philippinen (1976); 'Perceptions of Modernity and the Sense of the Past: Indonesian Poetry in the 1920s' by Keith Foulcher, in Indonesia, No. 23 (Apr., 1977); Modern Indonesian Literature by A. Teeuw (1979); The Emergence of the Novel in Modern Indonesian and Malaysian Literature by Ali A. Wahab (1991); 'Southeast Asian Novel: Indonesia,' in Encyclopedia of the Novel, Vol. 2., ed. by Paul Schellinger (1998); The Idea of Indonesia: A History by R. E. Elson (2008)

Selected works:

  • 'Bahasa, Bangsa', 1921 (poem, in Jong Sumatra)
  • Tanah Air, 1922 (poems) [Fatherland]
  • 'Bandi Mataram!', 1923 (poem, in Jong Sumatra)
  • Indonesia Tumpah Darahku, 1928 (poems)
  • Ken Arok dan Ken Dedes, 1928 (play)
  • Kalau Dewa Tara Sudah Berkata, 1932 (play) [When the Goddess Tara Has Spoken]
  • Tan Malaka, 1945
  • Naskah Persiapan Undang-undang Dasar, 1945-1960 (3 vols.) [Preparatory Documents to the Constitution of 1945]
  • Sedjarah peperangan Dipanegara, 1945
  • Gadjah Mada, 1948
  • Sapta Dharma, 1950
  • Revolusi Amerika, 1951
  • Proklamasi dan Konstitusi Republik Indonesia, 1951
  • 600 Tahun Sang Merah-Putih, 1954
  • Sanjak-Sanjak Muda Mr. Muhammad Yamin, 1954 (edited by Armijn Pane)
  • Kebudayaan Asia Afrika, 1955
  • Konstitusi Indonesia dalam Gelanggang Demokrasi, 1956
  • Bimbingan-nasional, bidang pembinaan bangsa Indonesia; jaitu uraian didepan Akademi Penerangan tentang bimbingan nasional, 1960
  • Introduction to the Draft Statutory Fundamentals of the First National Over-all Plan, 1960
  • Speech on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Draft Fundamental Law of the First National Overall Development Plan to His Excellency the President of the Republic of Indonesia, 1960  
  • Menudju Republik Indonesia (karja 1924), 1962
  • Tatanegara Majapahit, n.d. (7 volumes)

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