The first-ever Malay Congress, organised by the Selangor Malays Association was attended by representatives from 41 Malay organisations throughout Malaya, and Datuk Sir Onn Jaafar, from Johor Malays Association, was congress chair.
After the four-day meeting, the congress decided on three things, to donate for the national Malay education, to oppose the establishment of the Malayan Union and set up the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).
A committee, consisting of Onn, Datuk Panglima Bukit Gantang, Datuk Nik Ahmad Kamil, Datuk Hamzah Abdullah and Zainal Abidin Ahmad, was chosen to prepare the Umno constitution to be presented in the next Malay Congress.
At the third Malay Congress on May 11, 1946, held at Istana Besar in Johor Baru, attendees from 29 Malay-based organisations accepted and passed the Umno constitution, with the consent from the then Johor Crown Prince Tunku Ismail and Umno was born.
This was where it all began, 69 years ago. Onn became a revered Malay leader, honoured for his vigour to champion the Malays and from then, Umno became an organisation that played an active and significant role to object the Malayan Union set up by the British in April the same year.
In 1947, Onn was appointed as the Johor menteri besar, a move by the then Sultan Ibrahim I, which gave recognition to the Malays and Umno leaders.
As the years progressed, Onn felt the need to include non-Malays in Umno, to increase the numbers in the party to fight against colonialism.
In May 1949 at an Umno delegates assembly in Arau, 14 to eight delegates voted for Onn’s proposal to give associate memberships to non-Malays.
At the assembly, Onn urged for a wider political outlook and said: “It is absolutely important for Malays to obtain closer relations with other people in this country.
It is time for us to take the view wider than the ‘kampung’ view. Let it not be said that Malays are narrow-minded and suspicious.” Selangor Umno, meanwhile, rejected the motion with 25 to 11 votes.
Party members threatened that if Umno was to open its doors to non-Malays, the “Malays in kampungs would throw away their Umno badges”. Onn’s ideals were eventually accepted, and the party allowed non-Malays to join as associate members.
Only one associate member, a Ceylonese, attended the party’s general assembly held in Butterworth, Penang, in 1949. Umno veteran Datuk Malik Munip said Onn’s bold attempt to open the party’s door to non-Malays was reasonable but faced rejection as there was a lack of clarity in how a “Malay” was defined. Malays at that time, he said, were at odds on how the government under Onn’s leadership would define the characteristics of a Malay. “Malay was not defined as a single ethnic group.
In fact, it was a common denominator of various races. “It (Malay) also referred to a national group living in a geo-cultural region called the Malay archipelago consisting of various ethnic groups.” Malik said the Malays did not know how to respond to Onn’s ideals of a multicultural Umno due to lack of clarity. “
The number of non-Malays who were considered citizen at that time was small. Umno needed more supporters to fend themselves against colonialism.” It was at the 1949 general assembly that things took a turn.
During the closing session, Onn announced that he would be taking “indefinite leave” as Johor menteri besar to tour the country and learn more about his people. Onn continued to face further difficulty when a citizen proposal for a communities liaison committee (CLC) — containing equal rights for all ethnic groups — was accepted.
This was met with strong dissent, with members condemning and accusing Onn of being a “traitor to Malays and the country”.
Following this, Onn resigned as Umno president, together with the entire exco line-up on June 12, 1950. A meeting was held a few days later to plead for him to stay, with members saying that Umno could not afford to lose his guidance.
In July, Onn later consented to be nominated as president following a mass demonstration in front of his residence in Johor Baru, where more than 4,000 people participated.
After being re-elected, Onn continued to push for an open policy for Umno, saying the party had reached the stage that it should be expanded and put on a full national footing by offering equal membership rights and privileges to all races. He proposed the party to be renamed as United Malayan Organisation but this idea was not well received.
In April 1951, at the Umno General Assembly, Onn announced he would give up his presidency in August and the party persuaded Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra to take the helm.
After his leave from Umno, Onn formed Independence of Malaya Party, and later formed Parti Negara in 1953.