by Maganjeet Kaur
Muzium Negara has on display a few personal items that belonged to Haji Abdul Rahman bin Abdul Hamid, a religious scholar and freedom fighter from Kuala Terengganu. Born in 1868, Abdul Rahman was a successful entrepreneur with business dealings as far as Menara (today Narathiwat) in southern Thailand. His frequent visits to Limbong in Kemaman to trade as well as to preach earned him the moniker ‘Limbong’, which was tacked to the end of his given name. Some simply called him ‘Tok Limbong’. In spite of his wealth, he was down to earth, generous and ready to help; this made him well known especially along the middle part of the Terengganu River. He was very versatile; apart from trade, he had agricultural concerns, practised silat and was a religious teacher.
History remembers him for the role he played in protesting against the land and forest management laws introduced by the British. Forest produce, such as timber, attap, rattan and eaglewood, was an important source of revenue for the state. Taxation on these products had been in place even before British intervention – Malay district chiefs, through royal grants, exercised monopoly over their purchase. However, the rates were flexible and, importantly, transactions were mainly through barter. The British introduced a much higher tax rate for jungle products and included many additional items into the taxable list. Their tax collection process was also more efficient as they completely replaced the barter system with cash. In addition, permits were required before trees could be felled preparatory to dry-rice cultivation. All these measures put a huge burden on the peasantry.
In 1921, in an effort to end shifting cultivation, the government introduced a license to cultivate land on a temporary basis, with a hefty fine for non-compliance. The following year, a group of farmers disregarded the law and worked the land in Beladau without permit, supported by Haji Abdul Rahman. When 43 of these farmers were served with warrants for their rebellion, Haji Abdul Rahman applied for a special attorney’s license to defend them during their trial. However, too many supporters turned up in court, some bearing weapons, and Haji Abdul Rahman’s refusal to cooperate with the authorities saw him lose his special license. His license as a religious teacher and permit to hold circumcisions were also revoked. He was viewed with concern as his ability to garner support and rile up a crowd pegged him as a powerful and dangerous leader.
Discontent over the land duties and royalty over jungle produce continued to mount. The Malay chiefs were also unhappy losing their customary claims over land. On 20 May 1928, with a conviction that the land belonged to God and that the State had no right over it, around 2,000 people marched to Kuala Berang. The District Officer and the police, made up of a sergeant and four men, made a prudent retreat and summoned help. A team of 25 policemen later caught up with the dissidents in Kuala Telemong. Here, after failing to disperse the crowd in spite of repeated warnings, the police fired one volley, killing eleven men including one of the key leaders of the rebellion, i.e. Lebai Deraman, better known as To’ Janggut (not be to confused with the Kelantanese rebel leader). Further reinforcements arrived the next day from the Federated Malay States and the dissidents finally dispersed.
Twelve other ringleaders were arrested and given long prison sentences coupled with hard labour. Haji Abdul Rahman, though he did not take part in the actual disturbance, was identified as the leader behind the incident and he was exiled to Mecca.
Berhanundin bin Abdullah, Kamaruzaman bin Yusoff & Mansoureh Ebrahimi (2015). Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong (1868-1928): Fighter against the Colonialist. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(6), 281-289.
Kathirithamby-Wells, Jeyamalar (2005). Nature and Nation: Forests and Development in Peninsular Malaysia. NIAS Press and NUS Press.
Last Year’s Riots in Trengganu. (1929, 31 December). The Straits Times. https://tinyurl.com/pzc7xpyv
Tuan Azam Tuan Johan. (2007, 21 May). Descendant sheds more light on Tok Limbong. The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/community/2007/05/21/descendant-sheds-more-light-on-tok-limbong