Z is for Za’aba

by Sam Pei Ying

Pendeta Tan Sri Zainal Abidin Ahmad, also known as Za’aba, was born on 16 September 1895 in Kampung Bukit Kerdas, Negeri Sembilan. He was a writer, philosopher, linguist and politician. He is known for his pursuit for Malay independence through his writings and his works are still vividly remembered by most.

At a young age, Za’aba learned to read and write by practising on banana leaves, using twigs as his pencils. Seeing this, his father gifted him a writing slate and Za’aba learned to sharpen his writing skills further with his father’s encouragement.

At the age of 12 years, he started school at Sekolah Melayu Batu Kikir. Shortly after, his father transferred him to Sekolah Melayu Linggi so he could expand his knowledge in both the Arabic language and Islam, in hopes that his son would further his studies in Egypt or Mecca, eventually returning as an ulama.

However, in 1910, he continued his education at St. Paul’s Institution, and he was the first Malay who passed the Senior Cambridge test in 1915.  Subsequently, Za’aba began his career as a teacher instead. He became a teacher’s assistant at Johor Government English College before transferring to Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) in 1918. When he was serving as a teacher in MCKK, he started collecting Malay words written in Jawi and consolidating the Malay spelling system, which at that time had various spelling systems. He also incorporated English grammar and Arabic words into the Malay language. He published Pan Malayan Malay Literary in an effort to standardise Jawi spelling.

His work, ‘Pelita Bahasa Melayu’, became a major reference book for the community who wished to learn the Malay language at the time. He also contributed to Journal of Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society (JMBRAS) in his efforts to introduce the Malay language to foreigners. Suffice to say, Za’aba was a person who devoted himself in expanding the Malay language and literature beyond Malaya and Sumatera.

Image source: Universiti Malaya Library

As a writer, he started questioning the backwardness of the Malay community under the British colonial government. As such, Za’aba’s writings went beyond to other fields such as economics, religion, and the attitude of the Malays themselves, which was largely influenced by colonial powers. He wrote about poverty and touched on how to overcome the economy of the Malay community. Za’aba’s first article was published twice by Utusan Melayu, titled ‘Temasya Mandi Safar di Tanjung Kling’.

Following Za’aba’s expertise in language, he served as a translator to assist British officers in preparing school textbooks for Malay schools. During the Japanese Occupation, he was transferred to the Department of Information as translator for the Japanese to write books, which were used in Malaya and Sumatera. After the Japanese surrender, Za’aba returned to Kuala Lumpur and continued his work as a translator and interpreter for the Malay language dictionary.

A portrait of Za’aba at the National Museum, Malaysia.

The Malayan Union was established when the British returned to Malaya, but it was resisted by the Malay community. The resistance was led by Dato’ Onn Jaafar and subsequently, he established the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in an effort to unite the Malay community. At that time, Za’aba was elected as the first Secretary-General of UMNO, but he did not hold the position for long as his passion was in writing.

Undoubtedly, his interest in writing continued after leaving UMNO. He began to translate books from English to the Malay language such as stories written by William Shakespeare and these books were published in Singapore.

He later became a lecturer for Malay language at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1947; while teaching, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Malay and Arabic studies in 1953.

After returning to Malaya, he held the position as Senior Lecturer and became the first Head of the Department of Malay Studies at University of Malaya, Singapore in 1953. Together with Ungku Aziz, they established ‘Pertubuhan Bahasa Pelajar’ and ‘Persekutuan Bahasa Melayu’ Universiti Malaya, an association to uphold Malay language and literature.

Za’aba’s contribution to Malay language and literature shall not be forgotten easily. He was a teacher, a translator, and one of the individuals responsible for planning school curriculum. He was the source of inspiration that illuminated darkness of poverty in the world of Malay education.

 Za’aba died at the age of 78 on 23 October 1973.

References

  1. ‘Ketokohan Za’ba Bermula dari Penulisan di atas Pelepah Pisang’, Malaysiakini, 25 July 2020. Available at https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/536028 (Accessed 26 December 2021).
  2. ‘Zainal Abidin Bin Ahmad (Za’aba)’, Yayasan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia, 8 October 2019. Available at https://www.yadim.com.my/v2/zainal-abidin-bin-ahmad-zaba/ (Accessed 26 December 2021).
  3. Hussain (2000) Pendeta Za’ba dalam Kenangan, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

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