Immortalising the Tunku

1st March 1998

Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Alhaj (1903-1990) was a rare Malay, a distinctively admirable royal, a generous and hospitable man, and an incomparable leader during his life and times.

Rare among the Malay politicians of his day in being thoroughly Malayan (Malaysian) while simultaneouslv being a pukka Malay. He did much to bring the various races together until the vicious racial riots of May 13, 1969 which even he could not stop and which no one in his right mind wants a repeat of.

One singular lesson learned from that incident was that racial harmony and unity must never be taken for granted; it has to be nurtured, fostered and strengthened all the time.

Tun Razak Hussein (1922-1976) did much to heal the breach among the races and reconstruct the Sino-Malay divide and smoothen the way for the return of parliamentary democracy a year after the riots.

Many books have been written about Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister, whose island state Tunku admitted into Malaysia on Sept 16,1963 but which was expelled within two years to become an independent nation on Aug 9, 1965. But only two books have been written on the Tunku.

The 'Father of Independence" deserves at least three or four good biographies: memoirs written by a close friend, an academic, or a definitive biography: thirdly, recollections or reminiscences by either his son or daughters and: fourthly, a more general interest account, but drawing both on primary sources and original research.

My boss in the Straits Times, Harry Miller, wrote the Prince and Premier published in 1957 and it has been reprinted once or twice since then. Mubin Sheppard wrote Tunku: His Life and Times, an authorised biography which was published in 1995.

The next biographer must write a full-scale biography aiming to give as close an impression and knowledge as is possible of what Tunku was like and the impact of his politics and policies on the nation, and about his chlidhood, glittering social life, his first failed marriage (to an English woman) and subsequent marriages, one of which predeceased him while the other two are still living at the time of writing, his friends, enemies, his aspirations and frustrations.

A younger Tunku with his wife, Tun Sharifah Rodziah, and their adopted daughter, Mariam.Serious research lasting many years will reveal a wealth of new materials about this illustrious son of Kedah and Malaysia.

It seems a good time to review again Tunku's life and idea of power-sharing (and economic power sharing added by Razak following the inauguration of the New Economic Policy in 1971) among Malaysians.

Tunku's concept of powersharing was given expression in the Alliance Party (Party Perikatan) made up of Umno, MCA and MIC (1955-74) which was replaced by the Barisan Nasional (BN) or the National Front at Razak's behest. This sentiment became the national manifesto carried by his heirs in Umno and government.

Three weeks ago (Feb 3), had he been alive, Tunku would have been 95-years old. The seventh anniversary of his death on Dec 6, 1997 passed unnoticed as far as I could recall. He was 87 years old when he left us.

I cherish my close collaboration with him (1982-84) and intermittenly between 1984 until his demise.

I first met Tunku as a young reporter in July 1957 when I interviewed him on the progress of the Merdeka Stadium which was being built for the proclamation of Merdeka. I got my master's degree from Cambridge for writing on his foreign policy: my advanced research at Harvard was also about him. My master's thesis was published in 1965.

Two publishers have asked me for permission to publish Conversation with Tunku. However I have been advised by a close friend to withhold the publication until a more propitious time.

In more than two decades, before and after Razak became prime minister Tunku continued to believe that I had done him a serious political injury; indeed, he spoke about it to many people. and to me more than once. He emphasised he had forgiven me because it happened a long time ago.

He acknowledged my political talents, and flattered me hugely by saying: "How I wish you had worked for me." This was the measure of the man: forgiving and never hesitant to praise accomplishments.

He admired, he said, my "undivided loyalty" to Razak and I kindly acknowledged that I also accepted and supported many of his policies but rejected others.

As a result of my many interviews with him our friendship firmed up after I finished writing the Conversation. I have enough invaluable materials on tape for a third or fourth book on this kind man, a specially nice man. By the time I finish the third and fourth book, there should be a balanced analysis of the statesman which might make people more appreciative of Tunku than his memory now commands, may be, even among honest Tunku haters.

We once talked almost non-stop except for his usual naps on a London-Kuala Lumpur flight in the early eighties. When a former junior Special Branch officer, a note-taker during my interrogations, then, studying law in Britain, saw me and the Tunku in animated conversation at Dubai Airport (Malaysian Airlines stopped in Dubai for change of crew) he stared in disbelief.

As I passed the former inspector I said, "Hi!" and the great man asked if I knew the fellow. I told him he was a former Special Branch officer; the Tunku gave me a discerning smile. It was beyond the cop-turned-law student to comprehend because he never knew Tunku nor did he know me other than reading the flawed reports of his superiors. The great man was capable of great generosity and compassion and I was no longer an "Angry Young Man".

I was glad that much of the rest of his retirement following his return from Jeddah was devoted to writing and by his own public acknowledgement, I was directly responsible for it. Many old readers must have read the Tunku's story of how a deputy minister (I was never directly named but everybody knew it was me) allegedly tried to force Dato Loh Boon Siew, the Penang multi-millionaire, to relinquish control of The Star.