Maurice Baker advocated independence for S’pore & Malaya as a student activist in London

How a diplomat started out as a student activist.

By Joshua Lee | July 12, 2017

News broke on July 11 that Singapore’s first High Commissioner to India, Maurice Baker passed away. Aside from being a distinguished diplomat, the late Baker was lauded for being one of the founding members of the Malayan Forum, from which the seeds of an independent Malaya and Singapore were sowed.

Image via.

The year was 1948. Baker was pursuing his further education in London, which would have been completed earlier if not for the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945).

In London, Baker was the President of the Malayan Students Union. His close friend, Tun Razak (then known as Abdul Razak Hussein), was the President of the Malay Students Union, a subgroup of the former. Both men were also friends with Goh Keng Swee. 

According to the book, Men in White, Baker, Tun Razak, and Goh met up regularly in London to discuss issues related to independence for Malaya and Singapore.

Having witnessed the horrors of the Second World War, as well as the inability of the British government, Baker, Goh, and Tun Razak decided to start the Malayan Forum.

Oral interview given to National Archives. Ascension number 000095.

The goal of the Forum was simple: to counter political apathy, and “instil political consciousness and to convince [the] students that [Malaya was] indeed ready and fit for independence”.

In Men in White, the aim and vision of the Malayan Forum were:

“The aim: to attain independence for Malaya by constitutional means.
The vision: an independent, socialist, non-communist Malaya”

The other members who joined the Forum included Malayan students in London, such as Mohamed Sophiee, Philip Hoalim Junior, and Fred Arulanandom. Their belief was that the road to independence should start immediately in London.

Aside from discussions and hearing from guest left-wing speakers, the Forum also published a newsletter called Suara Merdeka (Voice of Independence). The magazine was designed, and financed by the students themselves (since no one else wanted to pump money into it).

Image via National Archives.

 

Emerging amidst an Emergency

Baker recounted that the students’ naiveté coloured their view of the British when the latter began arresting alleged communists in 1948 at the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency. 

Some of these folks who were arrested were close friends of Baker’s, as Baker used to tutor them in English before he went to London.

According to Baker, “[they] thought that this was really a British attempt to suppress a growing movement for independence”.

“We were cynical, or at least skeptical, about the Emergency, until events proved to us that in fact, it was a very serious situation”

Image via.

Backlash

Baker’s activism against the British administration wasn’t without backlash. Clashes with the British were also inevitable.

He recounted a time when the students of the Malayan Forum threatened to march and protest at London’s Trafalgar Square when the Warden at Malaya Hall (a meeting place for Malayan students in London) refused to let a guest speaker speak at one of their meetings. 

In addition to that, Baker also had close brushes with the United Kingdom’s domestic security agency.

Oral interview given to National Archives. Ascension number 000095.

 

The backlash wasn’t restricted to searched rooms – when Baker graduated, he was blacklisted from jobs in Malaya.

“When I came back, there were, of course, a lot of vacancies for education. I had all the qualifications. I used to go to the Director of Education and sit outside. There was a chap called Ince who was in charge. He said, ‘No, no, there are no vacancies. No jobs for you.'”

Academia and beyond

Baker seen here with President Yusof Ishak in 1967. Image via National Archives.

By a stroke of luck, Baker was offered a temporary job in Kuo Chuan Girls School. He later went on to teach at several other institutes of education before transiting into his diplomatic career in 1967 when he was appointed as High Commissioner to India.

 

Top image adapted via Free Malaysia Today.

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