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10 things you should know about Fajar Sarawak, Sarawak’s first Malay newspaper

Did you know that the first Malay-language newspaper in the state was called Fajar Sarawak?

Here are 10 things you should know about this long forgotten local publication:

1.It was founded by Muhammad Rakawi Yusuf
Muhamad Rakawi Yusuf

Fajar Sarawak was the brainchild of Muhammad Rakawi Yusuf, a former customs officer, a silat practitioner and Sarawak’s first Malay novelist. His known works are Hikayat Sarawak and Melati Sarawak.

Using his retirement money from the civil service, he published the first newspaper in 1930. Initially, Rakawi was helped by his two friends Abdul Rahman Kassim and Johari Anang. Then Mohammad Daud Abdul Ghani and Mohammad Awi Anang also pitched in to start Syarikat Putra Sarawak, the company behind Fajar Sarawak.

Rakawi was a member of the Sarawak branch of Persaudaraan Sahabat Pena Malaya, a writers’ guild which was one of the first starters of nationalism in Malaya then.

2.It ran for only four months

The publication was written in Jawi and appeared twice a month from February to June in 1930. The printing company responsible for the publication was Diocesan Press located on Wayang Street, Kuching.

3.Fajar Sarawak was focused on news, education, general knowledge and entertainment

Sadly, Fajar Sarawak did not publish a lot of news. Partly because the company did not have enough resources to cover the whole kingdom, and another reason was there was not enough newsworthy happenings back then.

However thanks to the founders’ connections, they had their own correspondents in Tehran and Medan.

They did not carry any news from Sarawak’s neighbours such as Malaya, Singapore, Brunei and North Borneo.

4.There were also world history, poems and news reports.

Nonetheless, Fajar Sarawak did carry stories from the Middle East such as Afghanistan and Turkey.

It also published articles on world history and poems of religious nature.

5.The closest thing they came to criticise the Brooke government was regarding the Malay land policy.

Just as in today’s world, governments introduced laws and ordinances to keep the media in check.

Back then the Brookes introduced the 1927 Printing Presses Ordinance to control licensing of the media. Some speculated it was to prevent the rousing of Chinese political action through Chinese newspapers.

As for Fajar Sarawak, it started its first publication with praise for the government by publishing a photo of the third Rajah, Vyner Brooke and these words:

The Rajah loves his people
Their cause be never forsook
All generations yet to come
Shall bless the name of Brooke

Nonetheless, the founders used the newspaper to voice out their concerns over Kuching’s changing racial composition since the beginning of 20th century.

During this period, many Malays were forced to sell their lands due to financial depression.

So the newspaper called the government to grant every Malay three acres of vacant land which could not then be legally sold or mortgaged.

They even pointed out that the Kesatuan Melayu in Singapore and Penang had managed to do so from their government.

6.Fajar Sarawak was also interested in developing Malay education

Since education was one of its focuses, historian Bob Reese wrote that Fajar Sarawak might have been partly responsible for the opening of a number of new Malay schools from 1930.

Reese stated, “The Merpati Jepang School was opened in that year and 1931 saw the opening of the Enche Buyong School and the merging of two existing schools to form the government-sponsored Madrasah Melayu. This was intended to train the Malays for the Native Officer and Junior Administrative Services. The first Malay girls’ school, Sekolah Permaisuri, opened in 1930 and the government initiated a policy of sending Sarawak students to the Sultan Idris College at Tanjung Malim in Malaya to train as Malay-medium teachers. And it was significant that the leadership of this movement was provided by commoners like Rakawi.”

7.Advertisers ranged from tailors to a bicycle shop

Although the newspaper was vocal in encouraging the Malay community to patronise Malay shops to increase prosperity, Fajar Sarawak did publish advertisements from Chinese businesses.

Among them were advertisements for bicycle parts, a bookshop by H.K. Abdul Rahman Brothers and even condensed milk from Milkmaid brand priced at 7 cents(!) a can or 80 cents for a dozen cans.

8.A few factors led to its short life

Fajar Sarawak had a short yet significant life. The passion of its writing could not make up for its lack of business skills. The newspaper could not compete with imported magazines such as Singapore’s Dunia Melayu. It had few stories beyond Kuching and local advertisers only advertised once. Eventually, Rakawi ran out of money to keep the publication going.

9.There was no Malay newspaper in Sarawak until the appearance of Utusan Sarawak in 1948

After the end of Fajar Sarawak, only Chinese newspapers and the English language Sarawak Gazette were left. Then in 1948, Utusan Sarawak emerged as the new Malay newspaper.

10.Four issues of Fajar Sarawak are known to have survived

So far, there are only four issues of Fajar Sarawak left in existence. They can be found in Rhodes House Library, Oxford and the Singapore National Library (No. 1 issue of Feb 1,1930) as well as Issue no 4, 9, 10 in Sarawak Museum (Mar 1, June 1, and June 16).

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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