Wednesday, September 07, 2005


The Millennium Markers focus on people and policies thatinfluenced Malaysia's development comes to a close with NEILKHOR JIN KEONG's examination of the one man who, arguably,had the most influence on Malaysia's founding: Tunku AbdulRahman Putra Al-Haj.

IT SEEMS fitting that Malaysia's "Father of Independence'', Tunku AbdulRahman Putra Al-Haj, was born in Kedah, an old Malay state with areputation for being highly independent and fiercely autonomous.

Son of the 24th ruler of Kedah, Sultan Abdul Hamid, Tunku Abdul Rahmanwas born on Feb 8, 1903, in Alor Star. That was just six years before greatchange came to the state: in 1909, the Bangkok Treaty placed Kedah underBritish control.

The Tunku, as he came to be fondly known, had once said that despite thesepolitical developments, "they were comparatively happy days. There was nocrime to speak of, no air plane hijacks, no road accidents, no bank robbery,no violence and no kidnapping.''

In 1920, he left those idyllic days behind when he went to England to readlaw at St Catherine College in Cambridge. It was there that he began todevelop anti-colonial feelings after being refused a place in the halls ofresidence twice, he said in his column for The Star which ran from 1974 to1989.

"When I remonstrated with (one of his tutors) Rev Chaytor, he told me pointblank, 'The college was built for Englishmen. If I gave you a room to theexclusion of Englishmen they would not like it.' ''

It was also at Cambridge that the Tunku got his first taste of politics when hebecame a student leader.

After he graduated, he returned to Kedah and was appointed a districtofficer. The Tunku recounted that while he was working in Kulim, he met anIndian astrologer who told him he would be Malaya's first Prime Minister."Everybody laughed,'' reported the Tunku in his column, "including myself.''

But he had already taken the first steps towards that fate when he objectedto being treated like a second-class citizen at Cambridge simply because hewas Asian.

The following are some of the highlights in the career of a man who hasarguably had the most influence on this country.

Leading Umno

The Tunku was, of course, one of the main figures in Umno, the first politicalparty to be registered in Malaya in 1946. The party was first led by DatukOnn Jaafar but he resigned as president in 1951 when his proposal to openUmno to non-Malays was rejected. The party then turned to the Tunku forleadership.

It was a difficult time for the Tunku; he was worried about not beingaccepted by Umno members in Onn's home state, Johor, and by membersstill loyal to the former president. And Onn had set up the multi-racial PartiNegara (National Party) that looked like it would compete with Umno forMalay support. Then there was the other splinter party from Umno, thePan-Islamic Party of Malaya or PAS; it, too, was vying for Malay support.

All this on top of trying to deal with the communist threat--the Tunku testified to sleepless nights during much of his first term as Umno president.

Another problem that kept him up nights: how to finance campaigns to gethis message about independence across to the Malays in the Federation.The Tunku sold his houses in Penang to raise some funds. Chinese politicalallies, like Tun Sir H.S. Lee and Tun Omar Yoke Lin Ong, also helped withfund-raising projects and outreach programmes. Such assistance helped theTunku realise that Umno needed to work together with the other races in thecountry if independence was to become a reality.

Reaching other races

In his speech introducing Malaya's new Constitution to the FederalLegislative Council in 1956, the Tunku explained that British colonial policyhad created a multi-racial polity that was divided. Now, for the first time inthe history of Malaya, the races were united in their determination to achieveMerdeka, he said.

That unity was underlined by the forging of an alliance between Umno andMCA just before the first democratic election in Malaya, the Kuala LumpurMunicipal Election in 1952. The Umno-MCA Alliance won nine out of 12seats.

In the first national election that followed in 1955, the Umno-MCA Alliance,now called the Alliance Party and led by the Tunku, won 51 out of 52 seatson the Federal Legislative Council; the Tunku was appointed Chief Minister.

He appointed a 10-member Cabinet that began the difficult process ofnegotiating for Malayan independence, countering the communistinsurrection, setting up a transition administration and drawing up a FederalConstitution relevant to the disparate needs of the people of Malaya.

The Baling talks

After winning the national election, the Tunku met with Malayan CommunistParty leader Chin Peng in Baling, Kedah, to end the party's armedinsurrection. Chin Peng wanted the Malayan government to recognise hisparty's legitimacy as a political entity.

The talks ended in stalemate, however, and the need for independenceunder the Alliance formula of racial cooperation became even more urgent.The Tunku reiterated how important it was for Malaya to be independentthrough peaceful means and that he was determined to achieve this.

Negotiating for independence

After winning the first national election decisively in 1955, the Tunku led ateam of negotiators to London to discuss Malaya's independence with theBritish Colonial Office.

The British had confidence in the Tunku because they felt he was amoderate. That the Tunku was a prince and that he enjoyed the respect ofthe Malay and non-Malay communities was also reassuring to the British.

The visit was followed by the creation of the Reid Commission that was setup to help prepare the Malayan Constitution.

Once the Tunku returned home, he made a series of speeches in villages, atclubs, political rallies, over the radio and before the legislative assembly toprepare Malayans for independence.

He once told his audience at the Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur that hewould speak for an hour five or six times a day to get his message across.

In these speeches the Tunku talked about national unity, Malay rights,standardising the Malay language, citizenship for all Malayans and thecontinued battle against the communists.

After much effort, in 1957 the Tunku achieved the single most important goalfor Malaya: independence.

The formation of Malaysia

Once Malaya was stable and the Emergency--declared by the British in June1948 to deal with the communist insurgency--ended in 1960, the Tunkubegan planning the expansion of the Malayan federation to include otherBritish colonies in South-East Asia. The Cobbold Commission, set up tosurvey the situation in those colonies, recommended the formation of Malaysia with the inclusion of Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah. Thesecolonies joined the federation in September 1963.

And the Tunku was hailed as Bapa, or Father of, Malaysia.

Indonesian Confrontation

Indonesian opposition to the formation of Malaysia, eventually known as the Confrontation, was first sparked off by the failed Brunei rebellion.Indonesia's flamboyant president Sukarno claimed that Malaysia was aneo-colonial state devised to stifle newly-independent South-East Asia.

There was also mounting opposition to Malaysia from Partai KomunisIndonesia.

The Philippines also opposed the inclusion of Sabah, formerly British NorthBorneo, in the Federation of Malaysia.

But the Tunku managed to successfully ward off these protests.

Expulsion of Singapore

In 1965, Singapore's outspoken leader Lee Kuan Yew, on his insistence ofa Malaysian Malaysia, sparked a controversy between Kuala Lumpur andthe island state. The outcome was the expulsion of Singapore from thefederation.

Singapore's departure was a terrible blow to the Tunku's efforts at buildingMalaysia. But at that time, Singapore's continued presence in the federationmight have destroyed the two-year-old polity.

Though the decision to expel Singapore was unpopular, the Tunku, as Leerecounted, was a gentleman who kept his word about not threateningSingapore.

Black day in May

Many first-generation Malaysian leaders saw their political careers end in theracial riots of May 13, 1969. The Tunku's Alliance party, while successful ingalvanising the nation in the first 10 years after its formation, could not copewith the mounting racial dissatisfaction in the nation. The euphoria ofindependence had exhausted its appeal.

There were economic and educational disparities particularly between theraces. Coupled with the Alliance's loss of its two-third majority inparliament, racial dissatisfaction led to riots.

Parliament was suspended and a state of Emergency declared. Tun Abdul
Razak Hussein took over as Prime Minister and the Tunku retired gracefully from the government and Umno in 1971.

Although much criticised by the Malays for having lost touch with thegrassroots, Malaysians of all races today acknowledge the Tunku's immensecontribution to the nation.

Chairman of the Malaysian Muslim Welfare Organisation (Perkim)

Though never overtly religious, the Tunku was a devout Muslim. His greatest contribution to Islam, apart from making it the religion of the federation, wasthe founding of Perkim, an organisation to help converts adjust to new livesas Muslims. The spirit of Perkim best reflects the Tunku's vision of a countrywhere race and religion are not impediments to citizens developing a sense
of unity.

The People's Father

The Tunku was never fearful of standing up for the rights of his fellowMalaysians. After the President of the Judiciary, Tun Salleh Abbas, wasfired in 1988, the Tunku wrote the foreword to Salleh's book and dealtfrankly with what he thought was the abuse of executive powers over thejudiciary.

And when Umno was de-registered in 1987, the Tunku supported TengkuRazaleigh Hamzah's Semangat 46 party, even campaigning for it.

Few would know how the Tunku felt about Malaysia in his last years. TheMalaysia of today might have grown beyond the vision of Bapa Malaysia butits heart is, hopefully, still defined by his beliefs and concerns.

Anyone who has ever met the Tunku will testify that he cared for the peopleof this country, whatever their status, race or religion. My brother met himand he will tell of the Tunku's concern for even an ordinary Malaysian. TheTunku, who was visiting the hospital my brother was in, stopped by his bedand scolded him gently for being reckless on a motorcycle.

The Tunku believed in being the "happiest Prime Minister in the world.'' Fewpoliticians exhibit such idealism and even fewer are as loved and respectedas the Tunku was because of it.

The Tunku died on Dec 6, 1990, at the age of 87.

The Star 9.4.2001

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