Learning to be an open society
by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad
I was raised in a wholly Malay environment and educated exclusively at Malay School
and the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) except for a year at the Sultan Ismail
College Kota Baru, a multi-racial institution but with a huge Malay majority.
I spent another year at Rida College in Jalan Othman, Petaling Jaya, the fore runner
of Institute Technology Mara in Shah Alam.
I left Rida College before completing my secretarial and commercial course to become
a journalist with the Straits Times (now NST) in May 1957, aged 19 plus.
I joined the Straits Times at an opportune and momentous time.
On Aug 31, Malaya became an independent and sovereign nation.
At the Straits Times, most of the positions in any branch, were held by non-Malays
in the European-owned-and-run media giant.
I left the Straits Times after three years for the United States on a Congressional
Fellowship in October 1960. During my three-year stint I learned hoe to operate within
the ranks of the non-Malays and the expatriates and built a strong relationship with
the political establishment.
I also had good friends in the opposition - Party Negara, Party Rakyat, PAS, Labour
and the Peoples's Progressive Party (PPP).
I became a good Malayan and a cosmopolitan. I also made a friends and became close with three expatriate journalists. We pledged to look out for
and warn each other if anyone tried to back stab us.
Over the years, many people have asked me why I chose the Straits Times, and not
Utusan Melayu (then the premier Malay daily and politically powerful) or the Singapore
Standard (now defunct), a more liberal newspaper also run-and-edited from Singapore.
I chose prestige for not only was the Straits Times the largest newspaper and oldest,
it was read by all influential and professional people in Malaya and Singapore.
At MCKK, most of my teachers read it. The Hargreaves Library only provided the Straits
Times, Majlis (defunct) and the Straits Echo (defunct).
Only the sixth form reading room had Utusan Melayu, besides the other three dailies.
The three expatriate journalist friends knew how I felt about the editorial policy
of the paper We argued about it and they understood my concern even if they disagreed.
We did disagree without being disagreeable.
One of them offered to help improve my English if I would teach him Malay.
I told him it was a bad bargain: his Malay was non-existent other than these few
words makan, setengah, satu lagi, terima kasih, sudah mabuklah! inspite of
his many years in the country whereas my English was a lot better.
It was while on the Straits Times I first dated Chinese and Eurasian girls and the
ultimate was an English girl. She was around my age and lived in Kenny Hill (now
She introduced me to her parents at breakfast after we returned from an all-night
party. I was very scared, I hardly ate the food, just drank tea, if a bit nervously
I met her again in Rome in 1962 where she had gone to live and work after her father's
job was Malayanised. In Malaya of the late fifties, it was an uncommon thing to date
a white girl.
Indeed, then mixed race datings, even with Eurasians and Chinese, were rare and more
unusual with whites.
Inter-marriages were even more uncommon except for two dozens or more Malayan military
officers, diplomats and other government officers. I am talking about those I knew
personally or heard about.
Two of my classmates, Ariffin Muda and Syed Zainal Wafa, married Europeans whilst
two of my juniors, Abdul Malek Salleh and Adnan Shuib, married Irish girls.
Several seniors - Hisham Albakri married Valerie, an English woman as did Ariff Othman.
Mustapha-Mahmud married Sabine, a German.
There are myriad explanations for the relatively still small number of interracial
couplings even as we are about to enter the new century and millennium. But that
is another story.
My childhood, schooldays and work experience at the Straits Times had taught me that
it was possible to live in two separate worlds: one Malay and one non-Malay.
What I found at the Straits Times, regardless of my views (social, political or religious),
I never felt myself compelled to choose between Malays and non-Malays.
So I was lucky in that sense. I had an integrated experience, remarkable exposure
Unlike the Menteri Besar of Kelantan, Tok Guru Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat, I never avert
my eyes when a beautiful woman of any race walks by.
I always employ pretty women if I can get them because I am happiest amongst beautiful
and clever people. I am being dishonest if I say I do not appreciate beautiful or
Of course, I am occasionally tempted but my iman (faith) is strong enough so I never
have a great problem coping with pretty faces.
Why do PAS people -seem so determined to portray themselves as if they have uncontrollable
sexual appetites when they are supposedly to be more God-fearing and men of good
If we are not sexual predators, why then would we want to segregate or discriminate
Notwithstanding thoughtful discussions, debates even jokes about women in Malay society,
it does seem to me that Malay religious scholars are in disarray, not in conformity
with the established practice and norm that socialising within time-honoured bounds
Until PAS came to power in Kelantan, we set our own lifestyle.
PAS, its followers and friends sometimes think they know more about women than the
Arab society is opening up but PAS seems bent on closing the Malay society first
and eventually Malaysian society when it gets a chance.
They always appear to be more Arab than the Arabs themselves and yet they profess
allegiance to Malay traditions, values and customs.
I have rolled on, escalated and overcome "Ghulam's" goal which stole five
years of my life at its peak (I was 39), not to mention the torment and emotion and
missed career opportunities.
It took me two decades as I pursued "redemption" through public service
- first as MP for Kok Lanas, chairman or board member at one time of at least four
companies listed on the first board of KLSE, and now as ambassador or special envoy
And what remains at 62? Plenty if good health holds Insya Allah (God willing)
and if God gives me the length of years I need.
"Ghulam" sought to destroy me but thank God did not succeed.
Chan Ken Sin (editor of Sin Chew Jit Poh) nev recovered from his detention
and died early, Abdullah Majid is an invalid caused by a stroke, Kassim Ahmad, Samad
Ismail and Samani Amin are alive - cooled a mellowed perhaps by the trauma they suffered
Active political passion still burns in the breast Syed Husin Ali as he struggles
for the umpteenth time to get into Parliament and become the minister of home affairs,
his cherished dream.
Not unsurprisingly, Malaysia is rapidly changing, new generation of political radicals
was born which appears to be copying much from the communist games manship and maneuvering.
This Malaysian generation seems to have grand illusions, which they will eventually
abandon with the gradual revelations of the masked Islamic fundamentalist programmes
and the routinisation of leadership tyranny in the parties that made up the Opposition.
Let us work harder to create a Malaysia beyond what is now, a nation in which genuine
Malaysian people flourish, live in peace, with dignity and prosperity