Tunku was in the right place and at the right time

07 February 1999

There is no debate about Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra being the principal architect of our independence. Had he lived he would have been 96 years old tomorrow. He was 87 when the light extinguished nine years ago on December 6 1990. If he seems older than that in the later-life photographs, it is because he lived a very long life by Malay standards, any standard in fact when measured by the accumulation of late-in-life illness in addition to notable events, actions and the active life he led and most enjoyed.

The "Father of Malaysia" was an early hero. It was he amongst other Afro-Asian leaders - Sukarno, Gamal Nasser and Nehru ---who inflamed my nationalism at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). He lost my admiration when he chose to follow the West rather than the popular opinion of the developing world; regained my adoration when he stood up against Sukarno's bullying but only to lose it again over the selective implementation and non-implementation of his domestic policies. We became good friends in the early eighties as a result of my two books on him, one published (his foreign policy) and the other "Conversation with Tunku" which remains unpublished for political reasons. It would be published before too long I promise you.

Since his demise the Tunku is slowly emerging enlarged mainly because, I think, he got one big thing right in his political life, his insistence that racial harmony was of paramount importance in a fragile melting pot such as ours, first Malaya and then Malaysia. It remains all-important and is exemplary Tunku reminds Malaysian history of this irony: his enormous virtue of fostering racial peace was also his enormous flaw in the eyes of Malay nationalists and Islamists during his entire premiership of 14 years. Such views, I am pleased, are rare and isolated nowadays.

As we strive to forge a united Bangsa Malaysia out of diversity we also allow each race to maintain its own language, religion and traditions though Bahasa Melayu is the sole official and national language and Islam is preeminent. Our Founding Father, undistracted to his great credit, espoused the policy with great courage and enthusiasm which enraged the Malays, Pas in particular. Pas and many Malays wanted and still want a wholly Malay-Islamic nation streaming Malaysians between "us" and "them" even dividing believers between, "good" and "bad".

Tunku's policy was perceived as something like status-quo ante, the state in which we were under the British rule. The situation was unpalatable and an affront to Malay, nationalists and Islamists. The Prime Minister persisted. It would have been mitigated had he dealt in concert a policy problem which was in the Malay eyes very acute and urgent: Malay legitimate fear of being overwhelmed by the economically, culturally and numerically strong Chinese Community and the Indians who dominated the profession; civil service (except the Administrative Service, the old, prestigious Malayan Civil Service, now renamed and democratised as Administrative and Diplomatic Service), the labour force and trade unionism.

The depressing economic condition of the Malays - both in urban and-rural areas was a perfect case study of benign neglect in post-merdeka Malaya which almost caused a racial turmoil during the short membership of Singapore in Malaysia. The island's sudden departure on 9 August, 1965 which was welcomed by the majority of Malays eased the situation a bit and postponed by three years or more the savage unleasing of the century-old pent-up Malay frustration, degradation, alienation and deprivation. I have never known a race which felt so diminished as did the Malays in the early years of merdeka.

By the time Tunku became aware of the Malay hostility against his leadership sometime during the run-up of the 1969 General Election it was far too late. Vicious riots broke on 13 May 1969. Where was I on the fateful day?

I was having tea with the Deputy Prime Minister, Tun, Razak and the secretary of Kelantan Umno liaison committee, Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah at Seri Taman. Razaleigh and I had flown back to Kuala Lumpur from Kota Baru to report to Razak, Kelantan Umno's failed attempt to regain power from Pas despite an all effort offensive and using every legitimate political trick we knew. Razak was chairman of the committee and I attended all meetings of the committee as I did all meetings of the powerful political committee of the Umno Supreme Council in my capacity as Razak's political secretary. Razak was also chairman of the Political Committee. Kelantan Umno is unique. It is the only State Umno which has had three Prime Ministers as its chairman - Tunku Razak and since 1990 -Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. It is the only state Umno which despite being led by three powerful Prime Ministers has consistently lost to Pas. Umno has lost all the general elections in Kelantan except for the 1978, 1982 and 1986, a dismal record to say the least. The Kelantan Umno prospects in the next election , our tenth, are-not rosy unless one--wears a pair of tinted bright rose glasses. All Prime Ministers took personal and keen interest in Kelantan because besides Kedah Kelantan remains the biggest Malay heartland. And if Umno cannot regain Kelantan it must continue---to contain Pas in its natural habitat.

Though Tunku's obsession with racial coexistence was genuine, a great political imperative and common sense, Umno badly lost the political argument with Pas in the north eastern state. Tunku Razali, Mahathir and -propagandists - like Syed Albar, Wan Abdul Kadir Ismail, Senu Abdul Rahman and Khir Johari amongst others espoused a doctrine which could not and would not be accepted by the nationalists in Malaysia's Islamic enclave. Umno lost Trengganu in the 1959 General election but recaptured it through engineered Pas defections in 1961. Umno has never lost in other states. It is interesting to see what happens in Sabah.