To’ Janggut = Malaysia’s hero?

Personally I feel that the To’ Janggut Rebellion is a very localized sporadic conflict and as such does not really deserve being elevated to that being of an “incipient independent movement”. At the end of the day, the main grievances contested by the Kelantanese were concerning the taxation system and fiscal reasons. A question that pops in my mind while reading See Ching’s and Justin’s entries is why, who, when and how To’ Janggut evolved to emerge as one of Malaysia’s anti-colonial hero? Why is this local Kampong hero being embraced by present day Malaysia as their Jose Rizal and Ho Chi Minh (ok maybe not exactly like JR and HCM)?

See Ching did provide a list of romanticized accounts of To’ Janggut in a number of different novels highlighting his hero-like portrayal by post WW2 Malay novelists. I got curious myself and googled up To’ Janggut on the internet and realized that actually To’ Janggut is seen by many Malaysians as a warrior who was martyred at the hands of the evil British in his struggle for Tanah Melayu. There’s an interesting online discussion forum ( on To’ Janggut in which some of Malaysia’s netizens openly expressed their admiration to To’ Janggut and commended To’ Jangut for “fighting for his motherland against the colonial oppressors”, “freeing Malaya from the grips of the colonialist” and “being an inspiration to the younger generation”, amongst many other postings.

Apart from novels, this portrayal is also highlighted through various other means. I stumbled upon this snippet of To’ Janggut off the Malaysian National Archive which again sees him as a national hero defending the oppressed Malays against the British. This article appeared as if it was being taken off some school textbook and I am not surprised myself if the students in Malaysia are taught as such.


In the realm of the Arts too, the legend of To’ Janggut is still alive and kicking. There was a theatre production on To’ Janggut which was staged last year which typically exemplify him being the Malay hero whom all Malaysians should be proud of.  There was also an artist who painted a vivid painting of To’ Janggut and is selling it for RM 25, 000.

tok janggut

To' Janggut

To' Janggut

At this point of time there were very vague notions of Malaya and pan-Malaya unity, especially in the rural countryside such as Kelantan. I am speculating that To’ Janggut himself would not care so much about the Johoreans or the Negri Sembilan-ians. So when does this perpetration of him being portrayed as a national hero starts? As Zahra and Russell had pointed out, we can trace it back to the writing of the state narrative during the post WW2 period. Why then did the writers and gatekeepers of history choose a rather skewered portrayal of history? Embarrassingly the answer is probably because the Malays are unable to find a genuine anti-colonial figure to legitimize their history book! In the lecture Dr Emmanuel mentioned that during colonialism, the enemies of the Malays were actually the Chinese and the British were seen as their “penaung” or protector. Decades of being all chummy with the British made it hard for them to try and locate an anti-British Malay hero. That was why the leader of the localized revolt in the form of To’ Janggut is elevated to that of a national warrior.

9 thoughts on “To’ Janggut = Malaysia’s hero?

  1. Hi Fairus,

    Thanks for the comments!

    Indeed, there are many many different accounts of To’Janggut and the reasons why be rebelled. Depending on which side you’re on, you could even see it as a uprising rather a rebellion, because an uprising provides more legitimacy and suggests fighting against a genuine grievance and injustice. In the presentation, our group highlighted that official sources condemned the To’Janggut but many folklore accounts glorify his expliots.

    This brings us to one of the central components of the presentation. The importance of the To’Janggut rebellion at Pasir Puteh llies not in what happened, but the construction of how it happened. This is the reason why there are so many accounts of it, many of them highly interesting and fascinating. In Cheah Boon Kheng’s book on To’Janggut and the 1915 Rebellion, he listed four ways in which scholars have treated the reasons for the rebellion. They are namely:

    1) A direct protest against British administration after the state came under British protection in 1909
    2) An indirect protest against the Sultan for accepting British protection ad an attempt to oust him
    3) A product of strong provincial sentiment in favour of Ungku Besar, a local chieftian, against the District Officer Ahmad Latiff, a Singaporean appointed by the British, and who is seen as having usurped Besar’s powers
    4) A peasant rebellion against the imposition of taxes
    5) A jihad against Britain after WWI.

    And these are merely scholarly ways. How about the folklore and romanticised accounts of his uprising? This is where fact and fiction interact, overlap and intertwine. There were even accounts that the Sultan was playing a double game with the British and rebels, and that To’Janggut was a distant relative of the Sultan! This was mentioned in a British official Carveth Wells’ Six Years in the Jungle, which states that “the Sultan had shut himself up in his palace and was slightly nervous because he had heard that the leader of the rebellion was a distant relative name To’Janggut”. This could mean two things. Either the Sultan was embarrassed, afraid, or he was using the To’Janggut as a form of resistance against the British land tax. Langham Carter, the British Advisor in Kelantan, disclosed in a memorandum to London that it was open knowledge that the To’Janggut-Sultan cousin relationship was a common knowledge in Kelantan at that time. Yet, it is interesting to note how this information was revealed in the British sources but omitted in folk accounts. Cheah argues that it could be that by portraying him as both anti-British and anti-Sultan, folk accounts aim to simply transform To’Janggut into a nationalistic hero of sorts.

    All these accounts really makes the study of the To’Janggut rebellion a highly fascinating one. Moreover, these folklore accounts have become so entrenched and have taken on so many facts that could be corroborated with official ones that they themselves have acquired a form of legitimacy, so much so that scholarly works on this topic cannot discount their views. And depending on what purpose is this account narrated for, certain facts could be deliberately hidden or highlighted to suit the propagandist’s intention.

  2. Hey Fairus!

    Building on your point that the Malays were unable to find a genuine anti-colonial figure to legitimize their history books. I think other than To’ Janggut, Ibrahim Yaacob could possibly make the list, but alas, victors and politicians write the history books.

    Ibrahim Yaacob of the KMM for one, was strongly anti-British. While the image of him was often painted as the collaborators of the Japanese, it was these collaborations that saved Malay women and Malays from the wrath of the Japanese soldiers. Together with the KMM’s Vice President Mustapha, they were often documented pushing the Japanese to proclaim independence for the Malays, and to liberate them from British rule. Ibrahim Yaacob also constantly argued that Malays should “show the world that within their breasts flow the blood of Hang Tuah” and “defend their motherland”, in an article he wrote in Fajar Asia during the war. Had the Japanese not surrendered in 1945, Ibrahim Yaacob could have attained (temporary) independence for the Malays.

    But it must be said that after the British came back, Ibrahim Yaacob escaped to Indonesia and didn’t dare to return to Malaya for fear of British prosecution for collaborations with the Japanese. But for his role in inciting the structure and the fight for an independent Malaya, he must have been worth a shot at being immortalized in textbooks. But I guess, for not daring to come back, and for not being part of the prevailing elite after the war, his place in history has to be forfeited. Also, he might have been a little too modern to be written into the modern books right?

    Were there really no Malay anti-colonial heroes to speak of?

  3. Hey Fairus,

    Those are some cool illustrations! Sure helped to make the study of the Kelantan Rising more interesting.. thanks :D But, may I trouble you to translate/ summarize the one you got from the Malaysian Archives? Saya tak boleh faham (cheem) bahasa Melayu hahahaha :P

    I can’t answer Whye Kiat’s question as to whether there were really no anti-colonial hero to speak of– perhaps we will see a couple in the subequent lectures to come? Nonetheless, it is perhaps useful to point out here that the selection of To’Janggut as a nationalistic hero is not only borne of a need to locate a Malay anti-colonial hero for a national narrative. I do think that choosing a character from 1915 (as opposed to more ‘contemporary’ figures) arguably also significance in that it serves to conjure the idea that the concept of bangsa had much earlier origins and thus, help to extend Malaysia’s national history further back in time. Also, choosing a character from Kelantan, which had been under Siamese influence for a long time, does to a certain degree help to legitimize the modern boundaries of Malaysia. Not to forget, the Siamese kingdom had voluntarily transferred suzerainty of the state to the British only in 1909. As such, the elevation of To’Janggut to the status a MALAY NATIONAL hero who had valiantly stood up against the British as early as 1915 effectively consolidates the idea that Kelantan is rightfully Malaysia’s. I’m not saying that Kelantan belongs to Thailand, of course; the point I am driving at is that boundaries, like nations, are similarly constructed!

  4. I would like to point out; while Ibrahim Yaacob of KMM attacked colonialism, the KMM aim was for unity with indonesia rather than an independent Malaya.

    From start of KMM formation in 1938, they were different in aims from the English-educated elite whose aim was to preserve Malay society against the encroachments of the non-Malay world and favoured cooperation with the British government.

  5. Yoz! I must have missed something out, but my point was Ibrahim Yaacob being anti-colonial and being anti-British. The artificial border between Indonesia and Malaya was being drawn by colonial disputes (the Anglo-Dutch Treaty and all that) and so unity with indonesia or an independent Malaya would serve the same purpose, ie a Malay world. So he’d still qualify to be a defender of Malay rights and anti colonial fighter albeit using an alternate theory and method. Anyway it’s just a sidetrack, just thinking about it :p

  6. This might turn into a debate to come. But I regard the nationalistic aims for an independent Malaya and unity with Indonesia differently. The former, with the benefit of hindsight, refers to independence for a country consisting of a heterogeneous population. We see that self-government of Malaya was granted in 1955 by the British on the condition that UMNO was able to carve a bargain with MCA and MIC in the Alliance government, thus taking in account of other races interest, albeit the safeguarding of Malay rights were of paramount as enshrined in the Constitution.

    As for vying for unity with Indonesia, it was largely a Malay (world) affairs.

  7. Hi See Ching, here’s the translation for you!

    In Kelantan, the resistance against Imperial British happened when the British Residence System was introduced in 1910. The British forced the natives to accept the taxation system that was introduced. Tok Janggut resisted the implementation of this system and did not pay his taxes. However his reasoning was not accepted by the Pasir Puteh District Officer. Worse still the Police were ordered to arrest Tok Janggut but they failed. In 1915, Engku Besar Jeram, Tuan Ahmad, Penghulu Adam, Haji Said, Che Ishak and the local villagers agreed to attack Pasir Puteh and they succeeded in capturing it. A kingdom was established with Engku Besar Jeram as the Raja, Tok Janggut as the Prime Minister and Che Ishak as the District Officer.

    Hope that helps!

  8. Hi Fairus! In doing research for this topic on nationalism, I found it very interesting that the Malaysian state has portrayed their route to independence as one that was filled with struggles against the British by the Malays. If you remember, this story was presented in the Proclamation of Independence Museum in Malacca. As you mentioned, in reality the Malays were pretty compliant with the British during colonial rule and unlike in Burma and Vietnam, they never attempted a revolution or resistance movement to overthrow the colonial authorities. Why then would they paint their “fight” for independence as one that was marked with permanent struggle?

    It got me thinking about how Malaysian history would be if the state had done otherwise. Basically, what I imagined was that the Malays would be depicted as peripheral actors with little agency in deciding the trajectory in which Malaysia took. We might have a collection of local histories but no overarching theme that could tie up the story and showing how it culminated in Malaysia gaining independence. It would hardly be considered Malay-centric history or even Malaya-centric history. Thus, in rewriting Malaysian history, the state has chosen to portray colonial rule as being fraught with struggle between the Malays and the colonial oppressors. As such, local skirmishes like the Kelantan Rising was construed to be an early form of nationalism.

  9. I totally agree with you Venessa. For Malaysia’s historians, they would definitely be committing a cardinal sin in narrating on how their country actually received independence from the British on a silver platter!

    If they were to write their history otherwise (and in a more objective manner), instead of violent struggles against the British (such as To’ Janggut’s) their history would probably be highlighting the role of Tunku and his lieutenants flying to London and spending hours negotiating with the British Govt in mapping out the course for an independent Malaya. It would culminate in Tunku returning back to a hero’s welcome back home in Malaya proclaiming Malaya’s independence.

    Now wouldn’t that be a tad too boring for Malaysia’s history book?

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