Some authors have a long list of things they would like their readers to take away from their books. Not this author. Independent scholar Abdur-Razzaq Lubis is quick with his answer when asked what he wants to get across in his book: that Sutan Puasa is the founder of Kuala Lumpur. Period.
“With this project, I wanted to set the record straight that Sutan Puasa was the real founder of KL.
“I am a direct descendant of Raja Bilah, a contemporary of Sutan Puasa, and it is a strong tradition among us Mandailings that he is the founder.
“All I had to do is prove the oral tradition with a written work that is backed by verified facts and is academically defensible,” he says.
Sutan Puasa: Founder Of Kuala Lumpur (Areca Books) is an expansion of his academic article published in the Journal Of Southeast Asian Studies in 2013, and includes never-before published documents and photographs pertaining to KL.
When Lubis first embarked on this project, he was informed that whatever is known regarding KL has been written. But he did not let that faze him.
“Many people, including academicians and scholars, told me that there was nothing else to write about, especially about who founded the city.
“I was told there were hardly any documents on KL, so the discovery or uncovering of these documents and images was, of course, thrilling and delightful, as they assisted me in telling the story of Sutan Puasa and the development of the city,” he relates.
Work on the book started some five years ago, but it only took off in earnest two years later, when the required funding was obtained.
Lubis concurs that the founding of KL is a much-debated topic – with Yap Ah Loy credited as the founder in textbooks, and Raja Abdullah being that central figure in stories passed down in oral traditions – but is adamant that the story of Sutan Puasa be told.
To suggest that relatively little has been said about Sutan Puasa, and Lubis will tell you just how mistaken you are.
“It is not completely true that little has been said. If you read the colonial bureaucrat-scholar S.M. Middlebrook’s biography of Yap Ah Loy, you will find Sutan Puasa mentioned in relation to the Chinese Kapitans and the general history of KL and Selangor. Eurasian planter Pasqual also wrote about him in the 1930s. He appears in J.M. Gullick’s history of KL, of which there were several versions,” he shares.
Sources in Malay and Chinese feature this man as well, according to Lubis. “In other words, you must know where to look for him to find him,” he adds.
Still, Lubis notes that the materials and written documents on Sutan Puasa are disparate, so what he has done is collate them into a whole in the retelling of his story in this book.
He talks about him with a certain familiarity, noting that Sutan Puasa came across as “a kind and generous man, more of an entrepreneur and trader rather than a governor and administrator”.
This was a man who was embroiled in the Klang War (1866-1873, fought between RajaAbdullah and Raja Mahdi) as a general, who saved the citizens of KL three times during the course of the longest civil war in Selangor in the 19th century.
“In his role as the founder of KL, he acted like a settlement officer, as he encouraged families to settle, provided them with seed funding, and nurtured the growth of the local population.
“He developed KL and the surrounding areas by commissioning the construction of infrastructure and encouraged people to farm on his land on a usufruct (tenant) basis, in return for a tenth of the yield, collected on flexible and lenient terms,” Lubis says.
In summary, Sutan Puasa was a mining entrepreneur, tin trader and agricultural pioneer, the most successful non-Chinese entrepreneur in KL before the Klang War, and still the wealthiest Mandailing after British intervention, he adds.
According to Lubis, it is thus erroneous to suggest that only with the coming of Yap Ah Loy and the British colonialists that KL was developed.
“This is tantamount to saying that development only came with the British colonialists and the Chinese. Sutan Puasa saw to the prosperity and development of KL by putting into place firm foundations for its progress and guaranteeing its continued success.
“The Brits intervened at the instigation of the agency houses and the Straits Settlements colony capitalist lobby as they wanted the lucrative tin mines all to themselves and for their own profits,” he says.
Lubis muses that his interest in Sutan Puasa stemmed from his family history and affinal relationship with him, and the Mandailing tradition provided the rest.
“This project to validate this knowledge is close to my heart. It is meaningful not just to me but to the other Mandailings and other pribumis/bumiputras. The other scions of the soils such as the Minangkabau are also aware and conscious of the role of Sutan Puasa in the founding of KL. In this regard, it was important that his story be told,” he stresses.
Describing the book as a labour of love, albeit one with a long gestation period, Lubis is already planning a revised edition that will include additional maps and documents to lend further weight to the story.
“In telling the story of Sutan Puasa, I am recounting the story of the original people of Kuala Lumpur who were vanquished but who refused to be forgotten with the imposition of the generally enforced narrative.
“It is a comeback to tell our side of the story that has been suppressed by the British and nationalist historians,” he says.
As for other books, Lubis is happy to let the topic of the founding of Kuala Lumpur rest for now, and is setting his sights on a series on founders of other places, for instance, Kulop Riow, founder of Cameron Highlands; Imam Prang Jabarumun, founder of Kampar, Perak; and Raja Barayun, founder of Kajang, Selangor. Abdullah Hukum, a pioneer of KL, is also on his list.