Immortalising the Tunku

1st March 1998

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What happened was not quite the same as chronicled. How Tunku came by this story I do not know, however, I will let it pass until I write my version.

It is a pity Tunku did not write his autobiography - our great loss and as a result, we are deprived of a primary source. Young readers can judge and get acquainted with Tunku by reading his books.

I served Tunku as a junior member of his administration (1963-70). He was a good man, highly cultured; a Muslim humanist, a versatile man who used his talents and politics to translate his beliefs and ideals into action, some of which were unfortunately misunderstood by his own people.

Like Datuk Onn bin Jaafar whom he succeeded as Umno president, Tunku was also a man ahead of his times. Both were also slow to adapt when the crunch came. Onn and Tunku struggled with ideas and principles and were loyal to them. They did not and would not use any means to attain an end. Perhaps, they were not practical. May be, they held high moral grounds and practiced ethical politics!

I have indelible images of Tunku: a royal, a man of power and privilege, a sportsman, hospitable, kindly and fun-loving. He was unrelentingly loyal to his friends to a fault. Not all of them were worthy of his trust and affection.

During my many hours of conversations with him in Kuala Lumpur, on the long London-Kuala Lumpur flight, at Dubai Airport and at his house in Penang I felt I got so much knowing him I have revised my views about some people and their relationships with him and their roles in government.

What he said by all accounts was not self-serving or self-justification. Absolutely not about one or two controversial personalities. Tunku's view towards these few was disdainful, to put it mildly.

It will shock a great many people if I write everything what the "old man" told me on many tapes. He spoke clearly, judiciously and with alacrity. His memory was good Malaysian scholars or the next biographer should devote time to writing about this great Malaysian statesman. He or she will find Tunku a fascinating, perceptive, entertaining and rewarding subject for he was a superb man and a big slice of modern Malaysian history.

Of the four prime ministers, he was the best known internationally after Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and at home he is remembered if not eulogized. We should not allow him to be a near-forgot ten figure of history. For Malaysians of my generation memories of Tunku linger on but for the young his name does not seem to conjure anything more than that he was the nation's first prime minister.

Tunku's impact on our history is immense, particularly in the fifties and sixties. Arguably, but for him, the Razak period might not have occurred, and the creation of "Melayu Baru" and a new Malaysia might have been prolonged.

Tunku did achieve many remarkable things for us. However, he was also blamed, especially after the first decade of merdeka, for his style of running and managing the government which was perceived by his critics as being benign to some and indifferent to many.

Adored by many and castigated in equal measure. I must admit that Tunku did make many allusions to my friends and I that we felt he was "benign" at that time. The dramatic effect was that it enhanced Razak, diminished Tunku and advanced the career of the radical "Young Turks".

Whether or not he was as perceived - too benign - by his critics is no longer a moot question. That is settled. I must admit that that was how my radical friends (several are still in government) and I felt about Tunku at that time. In any event, Razak and Mahathir realised that the maintenance of good and durable race relations would depend on their careful advocacy of what the bumiputras felt (and feel) of their inherent rights while, simultaneously, and equally carefully not weakening the promotion of the legitimate interests of the other Malaysians.

The government, then as now, has to tread delicately on many sensitive matters. But for the radicals and 'Young Turks", Razak's premiership might not have happened; there is no disagreement that it certainly would have taken a longer time to achieve and perhaps following a protracted bitter struggle as there were two probable candidates who could have posed a credible opposition, one of whom was fortunately not blessed with good advisers and the other - who could have posed a real problem, though interested, - lacked national organization to advance his cause.

Tunku was a good example of a good mix, a man great fun to be with but who was also relatively hardworking. He never really retired. He was always working until he could no longer carry on because of ill health; his sight was bad and he became hard of hearing.

He enjoyed meeting people. It also pained him a great deal, he told me, not to be able to read and write. The Tunku read a lot. He said others reading for him was no substitute. I offered to read the final draft of Conversation. He declined adding he trusted me to tell all what he said on my tapes. "Dollah, promise me to write it as it came from me!" I nodded. I asked whether someone he trusted should read it. "No, no, it's all on the tape. I trust you and the tape!"

That was Tunku- trusting, always generous and understanding. All that combined with the charisma unusual for a kerabat (senior royal), plus the advantage of being an immaculate member of the Kedah Royal House with a long tradition of leadership made him a formidable leader. I am glad his imperfections have been increasingly obscured by the passage of time.

Tunku, despite his lax lifestyle, was a good Muslim, a thoroughly good family man, and an accomplished statesman. There are a few, persons left who are still less charitable to Tunku. It is a matter of judgement really. It is high time they stopped politicizing the founding father of our nation.

A book on Tunku should not be dull for he was anything but boring, it should be stirring interesting, sharp and spirited as he always was.

The Malaysian nation reveals itself not only by the men and women it produces but also, I believe, by the men and women it honours and remembers.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )