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Muhammad Yamin (1903-1962)


Indonesian historian, poet, playwright, and politician, member of the leftist Murba Party. Yamin became President Sukarno's principal 'myth-maker,' a national 'historian'. He started his career as a writer in the 1920s, when Indonesian poetry was marked by an intense and largely reflective romanticism. Yamin was challenged in 1957 in a national history conference by Soedjatmoko, who was dissatisfied with the nationalistic historiography and who spoke for "passionate but controlled dedication to the search for historical truth while knowing its ultimate elusiveness" (see An Introduction to Indonesian Historiography, 1965, pp. 414-415).

Di atas batasan Bukit Barisan
Memandang beta ke bawah memandang
Tampaklah hutan rimba dan ngarai
lagi pun sawah, telaga nan permai :
Serta gerangan lihatlah pula
Langit yang hijau bertukar warna
Oleh pucuk daun kelapa :
Itulah tanah airku
Sumatera namanya tumpah darahku.

(from 'Tanah Air')

Minangkabau Muhammad Yamin was born in Talawi, Sawahlunto, on the island of Sumatra. His father, Oesman Gelar Baginda Khatib, was the much-respected penghulu andiko (headman) of Indrapura. Yamin studied law in Jakarta, graduating in 1932. He worked in Jakarta until 1942 specializing in international law. In 1937, he married Siti Sundari; they had one son. Yamin's political career started early and he was a active in nationalist movements. In 1928 the Second Congress of Indonesian Youth proclaimed Malay, since known as Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), the language of the Indonesian nationalist movement. Yamin made an initiative through the organization Indonesia Muda, that Bahasa Indonesia is made as the foundation of a national language. Today it is the republic's official language and the principal vehicle for innovative literary expression. Also attempts at writing modern literature have been made in most of Indonesian major regional languages.

Yamin was one of the pioneers of modern poetry in Indonesia. He started to write in Malaya in the Dutch-language journal Jong Sumatra in 1920, but his early works were still tied to the clichés used in Classical Malay. Yamin debuted as a poet with Tanah Air (The Fatherland) in 1922. It was the first collection of modern Malay verse to be published. However, the first important modern novel in Malay, Sitti Nurbaya by Minangkabau Marah Rusli, had appeared in 1922. Rusli's work enjoyed ten years of great popularity. The 'fatherland' to which the title of Yamin's book referred, was not Indonesia but Sumatra. In the title poem, Yamin stands on the hills of his native Minangkabau country, praising its natural beauty.

Through the years 1920-23, Yamin contributed separate poems to Jong Sumatra. His second collection, Tumpah Darahku, was published on 28 October, 1928. The date was historically important  then Muhammad Yamin and his fellow nationalists resolved to revere a single  Indonesian  homeland, race and language. The play, Ken Arok dan Ken Dedes (1934, Ken Arok and Ken Dedes), took its subject from Java's history, from the founding of the illustrious kingdom of Majapahit. Originally it was prepared for the Jakarta Youth Congress of 1928. Airlangga, performed at the first congress of Greater Indonesia is Solo in January 1932, again presented Yamin's vision of the heroic Javanese past. This drama is considered the last of his creative literary works.

From the late 1920s until 1933 Roestam Effendi, Sanusi Pané with his poems (Madah Kelana, 1931) and plays (Kertadjaja, 1932; Sandhyakala ning Majapahit, 1933), and Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana were the principal shapers of the Malay language and its literature. Yamin made much use of the sonnet form, borrowed from Dutch literature. At that time, in the 1920s, among the major writers were national activist Abdoel Moeis (1898-1959), whose central theme was the interaction of Indonesian and European value system. Pandji Tisna's (1908-1978) Sukreni, gadis Bali, possibly the most original work of pre-independence fiction, came out in 1936. It dealt with the destructive effect of contemporary commercial ethics on Balinese society. Distinctly innovative poetry began to appear in the 1910s. The European sonnet form was especially popular, but the influence of traditional verse forms remained strong. Although Yamin experimented with the language in his poetry, he uphold the classical norms of Malay more than the younger generation of writers. Yamin also published plays, essays, historical novels and poems, and translated works from such authors as Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) and Tagore.

During the Japanese occupation (1942-1945) Yamin worked for the Japanese-sponsored confederation of nationalist organizations, the Center of People's Power (Putera). In 1945 Yamin suggested to BPUPK (Badan Penyelidik Usaha-Usaha Persiapan Kemerdekaan), a committee preparing Indonesian's independence process, that the new nation should include Sarawak, Sabah, Malaya, and Portuguese Timor, as well as all the territories of the Netherlands Indies. Achmad Sukarno (1901-1970), who was a member of BPUPK, supported Yamin. Sukarno became in 1945 the first President of Indonesian republic. Under Sukarno's long period of power he was stripped of office in 1967 Indonesia became a leader of the Third World, and developed close ties with China and the U.S.S.R. During and after the struggle for independence Yamin held important posts in the governmental administration. Yamin died in Jakarta on October 17, 1962. He was buried in the family plot in Talawi, next to his father.

Indonesian literature from the 1920s to the 1960s: The earliest Indonesian novels were published in the 1920s. Pudjangga Baru (The New Writer) literary school, which was established in 1933, influenced greatly the development of literature. Its founder and first editors were Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, and Arminjn Pané, brother of Sanusi Pané. Pudnjagga Baru advocated the idea that traditional literary forms had to be replaced by moderrn means of expression. Another movement, 45 Group, reflected the ideas of the independence struggle. Among its members was the poet Chairil Anwar, who died at the age of 27, but released the poetry from the bonds of traditional forms and literary language. Other important writers: Sanuse Pané, Idrus, Surwarsih Djojopuspito, Achdiat Karta Mihardja, Toha Mohtar, Mochtar Lubis (imprisoned by the Sukarno regime for four years), Pramoedye Ananta Toer. The first Indonesian dramatist to gain wide recognition was Utuy Tatang Sontani (1820-1979). Poetry in Javanese since independence has been dominated by St. Iesmaniasita and by Muryalelana (b. 1932), preindependence fiction in Sundanese was almost synonymous with the name of Mohamad Ambri (1892-1936). The finest Chinese-Indonesian novelist was Liem King-hoo. The most substantial work of fiction in Dutch by an Indonesian author was the novel Buiten het gareel (1940) by Suwarsih Djojopuspito.

For further reading: 'Modern Indonesian Literature in Brief,' by M. Balfas, in Handbuch der Orientalistik. Dritte abteilung. Indonesien, Malaysia und Die Philippinen (1976); Modern Indonesian Literature by A. Teeuw (1979); The Emergence of the Novel in Modern Indonesian and Malaysian Literature by Ali A. Wahab (1991); 'Southeast Asian Novel: Indonesia,' in Encyclopedia of the Novel, Vol. 2., ed. by Paul Schellinger (1998)

Selected works:

  • Tanah Air, 1922 (poems)
  • Bandi Mataram!, 1923 (poem, in Jong Sumatra)
  • Indonesia Tumpah Darahku, 1928 (poems)
  • Ken Arok dan Ken Dedes, 1928 (play)
  • Airlangga, 1932 (play)
  • Sedjarah peperangan Dipanegara, 1945
  • Gadjah Mada, 1948
  • Revolusi Amerika, 1951
  • Proklamasi dan Konstitusi Republik Indonesia, 1951
  • Sanjak-Sanjak Masa Muda Mr. M. Yamin, 1954 (edited by Armijn Pane)
  • Kebudayaan Asia Afrika, 1955
  • Naskah-naskah Persiapan Undang-undang Dasar, 1959
  • Bimbingan-nasional, bidang pembinaan bangsa Indonesia; jaitu uraian didepan Akademi Penerangan tentang bimbingan nasional, 1960
  • Introduction to the Draft Statutory Fundamentals of the First National Over-all Plan, 1960
  • Speech on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Draft Fundamental Law of the First National Overall Development Plan to His Excellency the President of the Republic of Indonesia, 1960  
  • Menudju Republik Indonesia (karja 1924), 1962
  • Tatanegara Majapahit, n.d. (7 volumes)

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