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Monday June 18, 2007

Aristocrat who spoke his mind

BORN in Bukit Gambir, Johor Baru, in 1895, Datuk Onn Jaafar was of mixed Malay-Turkish parentage. His father, Datuk Jaafar Haji Muhammad, was the first Mentri Besar of Johor (1882-1919) and a cousin of Sultan Ibrahim. His mother, Hanim Rogayah, was of Turkish origin. 

As a result of his family's close relations with the Johor palace, he was adopted by the sultan. 

At nine, Onn was sent to the Alderburgh Lodge School in Suffolk, England, to receive his early education (1903-1909).  

He was an able student who excelled in sports. In his later years, he captained the school’s cricket and football teams – an achievement for an Asian. 

On his return, he was enrolled at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar where he spent two years (1910-1911). According to biographer Ramlah Adam, one of the main reasons for enrolling Onn at MCKK was the need to improve his Malay that had weakened considerably following his stay in England. 

After completing his education at MCKK, he worked as a trainee clerk at the office of the Secretary to the Johor Government and was made a permanent clerk a year later. He served in this capacity in several departments before joining the Johor Military Forces in 1917 with the rank of lieutenant. 

He rejoined the civil service two years later. Soon after, he found himself in trouble with the palace and his services were terminated in June 1920. Onn had expressed his unhappiness over the sale of the family’s ancestral home and the palace did not take too kindly to his outburst. 

After a short hiatus, he rejoined the service in 1921 as an Assistant Collector of Land Revenue. In 1927 he found himself in trouble again with the palace following his criticism of the Sultan which was carried in the Sunday Mirror published in Singapore. He apparently criticised the Ruler over the poor treatment of Johor Military Forces personnel and orang asli, and was forced into exile. 

His exile in Singapore proved an important turning point as he earned his stripes in the emerging field of journalism. He became the editor of a Malay paper, Warta Malaya, in 1930. Over the next six years, he edited four newspapers including Lembaga Malaya, Warta Ahad and Lembaga

His writings in these newspapers sought to create a sense of national consciousness among the Malays. He criticised British colonial policy through his column Pak Pandir on issues such as the treatment of the Malay Rulers, a lack of positions in the civil service given to Malays and the Malay community in general. 

Following the Japanese Occupation of Malaya in 1941, Onn was drafted into the administrative system and served as food controller in Johor.  

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