Said Zahari was born and raised in Kampong Kebun Bunga, Singapore, in 1928. His father was a Javanese man who came to Singapore in his teenage years. Growing up, he received education in both English and Malay and often helped his mother supplement the household income by selling kuih. After completing his Senior Cambridge examinations, Said Zahari was to receive training to become a teacher at Sultan Idris Training College (SITC) but this was not to be, as the Second World War struck. He attended a Japanese teachers’ training institute instead. After the war, Said eventually found himself a position as a reporter for the secular nationalist Malay daily Utusan Melayu in 1951. Here he worked alongside many illustrious names in the Malay literati, some of whom became deeply involved in politics. His colleagues at Utusan included the likes of prominent Malay poet Usman Awang, the novelist Keris Mas and Othman Wok. At the time, the paper’s editor was Samad Ismail, one of the co-founders of the People’s Action Party (PAP). When Said joined, his interviewer was Yusof Ishak—who would in time become Singapore’s first president.
Utusan Melayu’s progressive outlook changed when its editorial independence was threatened by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), who were unhappy with its critique of the Federal government. Eventually, the bulk of Utusan shares came into the hands of Tunku Abdul Rahman, UMNO’s chief. Yusof Ishak was forced to resign and Utusan’s days as an independent newspaper were over. In 1961, Said Zahari returned to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur to support Utusan workers who went on strike against the takeover. After being banned by the Tunku from returning to the Malayan Federation, Said became more directly involved in Singapore politics.
The following year, Said joined Partai Rakyat Singapura (Singapore People’s Party)—a predominantly Malay anti-colonial party. On the night of 1 February 1963, Said was made its president. He envisioned the Party to be a revolutionary, progressive and liberal one. Unfortunately, the following night, Operation Coldstore began. Said was arrested and detained without trial, accused of being a communist sympathiser and a subversive. He would not be freed for another seventeen years.
Throughout his time in detention, Said Zahari penned powerful verses that reflected the tumultuous thoughts of a man held prisoner for his own conscience and political opposition. They offer a personal dimension into a life that stood at the crossroads of his country’s history, peopled by key players in his generation’s political scene.
In 1973, Said Zahari was exiled to Pulau Ubin, where he remained until his final release in 1979. He worked for a time at the Asia Research Bulletin, until the ban against his entry into Malaysia was lifted under then-Prime Minister Mahathir. He went on to become a writer-in-residence at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) where he penned his memoirs. Despite moving to Malaysia, he never gave up his Singapore citizenship. Said Zahari passed away peacefully in Kuala Lumpur on 12 April 2016, aged 88.
Author Photo © The Malaysian Insider. Author Biography © Faris Joraimi. All rights reserved.