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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Fly the flag high – and remember the shy patriot behind it

PETALING JAYA: Every august, when a forest of national flags adorns buildings, homes and vehicles across the land, few give a thought to the young Johorean credited with its creation.

Johor-born Mohamed Hamzah, then only 29, was feted for a while, then faded into obscurity.

However, as an architect with the Public Works Department, he was to leave his mark in the design of distinctive buildings in his home state.

Hamzah’s lack of wider recognition was largely of his own making, according to his younger brother Abu Bakar who said Mohamad had demanded that his role in the creation of the national flag be kept secret.

Historian Kamdi Kamil.

Abu Bakar said he broke his promise after seeing too many other people trying to claim credit for the flag’s design.

The creation of the flag stemmed from the political decision to create the Federation of Malaya in 1948, bringing together all the states and British colonies in the Malay peninsula.

A flag was needed for the new political creation that was coming into existence, and a contest was held in 1947 to design a national flag, with the public invited to vote for their favourite design from a short list selected by the Federal Legislative Council.

Three designs made the short list, with Mohamad’s entry declared the winner. His design was a far cry from the flag that would be raised for Merdeka, as it featured a field of blue and white stripes, with a red canton containing a yellow crescent and a five-pointed star.

The design was to be modified: the stripes were changed to red and white, reminiscent of the East India Company flag, the canton to blue, similar to the Johor state flag, while 6 points were added to the 5-pointed star to symbolise the 11 states in the new federation.

The new Federation flag was flown for the first time at the Sultan of Selangor’s palace on 16 May 1950. It would be further amended in 1963 with the creation of Malaysia, and in 1997 received a name, Jalur Gemilang or “stripes of glory” at the instigation of then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Kamdi Kamil, a historian, says “what Mohamad did was a huge accomplishment. He created a symbol of Malaysia”. He said he tried to ensure that Hamzah would receive the recognition he deserved by writing a book Mohamed Hamzah: Creator of the Jalur Gemilang.

“In my opinion, he should have been given the title ‘Tun’ to honour his work,” said Kamdi. “The Johor History Association has also said this before but so far nothing has happened.”

Mohamed became known as “Mohamed Arkitek” for his building designs, including the Diamond Jubilee Hall, Mahkota tower, Mersing Jamek mosque, Johor Bahru post office and Johor Bahru city council building, as well as many other government buildings and mosques across Johor.

He was recognised for his designs with awards including the Sultan Ibrahim Diamond Jubilee Medal, Johor Long Service Medal and Sultan Ibrahim Coronation Medal.

But he never really enjoyed public acclaim, seemingly content working as a furniture designer at a company in Johor Bahru and designing logos for other companies including Habhal soy sauce.

He died of asthma in Kuala Lumpur in February 1993, at the age of 74. His death went largely unremarked.

His brother, Abu Bakar, sought to secure Mohamad’s place in history, with the help of the Public Works Department in Johor Bahru and the Johor Heritage Foundation and they unearthed the original design signed by Mohamed himself.

Though the designer himself is long gone, his work remains, fluttering from flag poles or rooftops, at parades and ceremonies. - FMT

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