In this seminar, Dr Anthony D. Medrano explores the work of Malayan nationalism through the career of Ishak bin Ahmad (1887-1969), the father of Singapore’s first president Yusof bin Ishak.
Malaysia Studies Programme
Monday, 3 February 2020 – Dr Anthony D. Medrano, currently the National University of Singapore Presidential Young Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College, provided a succinct historical analysis of Ishak bin Ahmad, more commonly known as the father of Singapore’s first President, Yusof bin Ishak. In particular, Dr Medrano focussed on how Ishak Ahmad’s work with fish and fisheries contributed towards Malayan nationalism. The seminar ultimately directed public attention to the historical significance of dense interactions between colonial science, local environments, and socio-political change in the Malay World.
Ishak Ahmad began his career in the Malayan colonial government’s Fisheries Department in 1914, and was eventually tasked with furthering colonial knowledge regarding Malayan’s marine life. In the 1920s, the Department commissioned a steamer to investigate and document Malaya’s marine environment, with Ishak Ahmad onboard. Working alongside British colonial officials, Ishak helped popularise new species of fish using vernacular terms, often rendered with more nuance than existing Linnean taxonomies. His inputs helped disseminate knowledge among fishermen and colonial scientists regarding varieties of edible fish in Malayan waters, contributing to knowledge regarding available food supplies for Malaya’s growing population.
Ishak Ahmad also witnessed the arrival of Japanese fishermen – particularly Okinawans – to Malaya during the inter-war period. Japanese fishermen utilized superior fishing equipment and soon dominated offshore catches in Malaya, while Chinese traders tended to control fish distribution and retail. Dr Medrano related how Ishak Ahmad perceived the displacement and marginalisation of local Malay fishermen as an outcome of growing competition with non-Malay agents.
Dr Medrano also noted that Ishak Ahmad had contributed significantly to the development of a Malay political base by co-founding the first political Malay association in Singapore, Kesatuan Melayu Singapura (KMS). KMS was one of the earliest organisations to articulate the concerns and interests of a self-proclaimed Malay community. Through KMS and other outlets, Ishak was able to publicly communicate concerns regarding a social and economic crisis among Malays before the Japanese Occupation of 1942.
During the question and answer session, topics raised included historical sources deployed by Dr Medrano to reconstruct Ishak Ahmad’s life; food security and nationalism in historical perspective; cosmologies of fishing; non-Asian involvement in the Malayan fishing industry; as well as Utusan Melayu’s role in articulating the challenges present within the Malay fishing community. The seminar drew 30 participants from diverse backgrounds including academia, business, civil service, and the public.