Born in British Singapore to Javanese parents, ABDUL SAMAD ISMAIL completed his Senior Cambridge Certificate in the final year of peace before World War II. Spurning the more conventional careers for English-educated Malays, he became a cub reporter at the newly launched Malay daily, Utusan Melayu. Newspaper work suited the restless, brilliant youth and it became his life-long addiction.
Rising during the war years to assistant editor of Utusan Melayu, SAMAD at twenty-one became editor of the Japanese-sponsored Berita Malai. The returning British jailed him briefly after the war, but SAMAD soon assumed effective editorial leadership of the revived Utusan Melayu. In his hands the newspaper covered sympathetically the agitations of radical labor and student movements and became an instrument in the independence struggle.
SAMAD steeped himself in anti-colonial politics. He joined left-wing Malay nationalists in pressing for a decolonization plan in which the interests of Malays would be paramount and met regularly with anti-colonial activists of all races, urging them to stand with the most oppressed social classes, especially poor Malays. Secretly he arranged material support for Indonesian revolutionaries at war with the Dutch. SAMAD’s ties to leftist leaders and organizations led the British to arrest him a second time in 1951. Never tried, he was released in 1953 to popular acclaim; he rejoined the Utusan Melayu and, with Lee Kuan Yew, founded Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP).
From his earliest days as editor SAMAD religiously printed the works of Malay poets and short story writers. He now used his influence to support the “fifties generation” of Malay writers by publishing their literary works in Utusan Melayu. Passionately he cautioned Malays not to abandon their own language for English, assuring them that Malay “will gain in richness, utility, and beauty together with the emancipation and growth of Malayan society.”
In 1959, having broken with both Utusan Melayu and Lee Kuan Yew, SAMAD moved to Kuala Lumpur. As editor of Berita Harian and, eventually, as managing editor of the New Straits Times Group, he moved print journalism into the mainstream of Malaysian political life. He developed a nationwide team of correspondents based in rural areas and, as editor and mentor, shaped the thinking and values of Malaysia’s rising writers and journalists. His own incisive articles in Malay and English dissected the country’s complex electoral processes and drew attention to embarrassing inequities in the national society. He promoted standardization of the national language and the creation of a national university. SAMAD also explored the social complexities of Malaysia’s fast-evolving multi-ethnic society in a series of novels, beginning in 1967.
Jailed again in 1976 under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, SAMAD was released in 1981 and rejoined the New Straits Times Group as editorial adviser. Retired in 1988, he was knighted by Malaysia’s king in 1992. Today he teaches young writers and continues to write actively himself. He warns up-and-coming reporters about the blandishments of power and money and reminds them of their “moral obligation to the nation as citizens.”
A notorious workaholic and jokester, seventy-year-old SAMAD is also famous for his astute political insights and powerful mind. He is “a thinker for his people,” as one admirer puts it. Personally, his friends say, he is something of an enigma. SAMAD admits, “Only my Creator knows me well.”
In electing ABDUL SAMAD ISMAIL to receive the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and the Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his applying his intellect and journalistic skills to champion national independence, cultural revival, and democratic nation-building in Malaysia.