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Indonesian Patriot Tan Malaka and His experience as ‘Filipino’

By F. Phillip F. Victoria
March 25, 2015


The recent furor over claims that some leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) were not Filipino citizens reminded me of another historical parallel, that of the Indonesian philosopher, teacher, revolutionary and hero Tan Malaka (1897?-1949) whose controversial politics, militancy and legacy in Indonesian history is being reassessed today.

In his years of sojourn in Southeast Asia and China, he managed to move back and forth to the Philippines from 1925 to 1927 assuming a number of Filipino identities at a time when border controls were less stringent. None-theless, Malaka’s Philippine experience would not only influence the emergence of communism in the Philippines but would also encourage him to continue fighting for a truly independent Indonesian nation. His historical analysis of Philippine nationalism provides us with a unique insight of a Southeast Asian appreciating the views of Rizal ,Bonifacio, and Aguinaldo among others.

He returned to Indonesia in 1942 and after independence was proclaimed in 1945 opposed attempts for a diplomatic settlement with the Dutch government. Paralleling Bonifacio’s fate, Malaka would be executed by members of the Indonesian Republican Army just as the Dutch launched their counter-offensive.

He was designated as the Southeast Asian Agent of the Comintern in 1923 and was based in Canton ostensibly to engage in publications there. The Dutch authorities were looking out for him.

His failing health, printing difficulties and a crisis brewing within the PKI prompted him the move. He moved to Hongkong and found the opportunity whilst living in a Filipino hostel there.

He recounts, “Miss Carmen, the former daughter of a former rebel in the Philippines, who ran the hostel with her mother, was prepared to give me invaluable tips regarding traffic to the Philippines and the way of life there. She also helped by giving me lessons in Tagalog. If I could learn German and English in a few months, then I had no cause to balk at learning Tagalog…” His acquaintance with the sympathetic Filipino academic and future University of Manila president Mariano de los Santos  los Santos at the hostel greatly prepared him as well. By June 1925, he was confident and ready.

“My experiences of the European way of life, my knowledge of two or three European languages, particularly English, my smattering of Tagalog, and last but not least my appearance, which was 100 percent Filipino and in fact more authentic than 20 to 30 percent of the Filipino racial mixtures, armed me fully for conversation, telling a joke a la America, joining in the dancing, and so on. No one would doubt that I was indeed what I seemed, a Filipino ‘returning home’.

I had no documents at all. I was able to get through the smallpox certificate, passport and customs inspections, which are generally carried out thoroughly by the Filipino officials, by playing out the humbug role of a Filipino student returning from the United States and by acting smoothly or bluffing in Tagalog like a Filipino boxer, as the situation demanded. The key to my success was not to be afraid of anything and not to overact.

Finally…I arrived at Miss Carmen’s parents’ home In Santa Mesa, on the outskirts of Manila. There a Filipino who had just returned to his ‘long-lost’ homeland from ‘abroad’ came to rest. His name was Elias Fuentes and he was none other than this writer himself! So much for the American Emigration Law.”

    Add a Comment

    Daniel Rudi
    Sat 6th May 2017

     Thanks for sharing this story. I am very appreciate.

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