The year of dialogue on race - Abdullah Ahmad




22 June 1997


I arrived in the United States for the first time during the 1960 American presidential election campaigns between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. John Kennedy made it to the White House with a slim majority of 118,550 votes.

I had earlier on been awarded a Congressional Fellowship by the American Political Science Association on the recommendation of Tun Razak, the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Minister of Rural Development. As the name of the fellowship implied, I was to observe and study the American political system and everything that was connected with it. Unless a society is homogeneous like Japan, Ireland, China, Korea and the Scandinavian countries, race is and will always be an issue in politics and government.

The fellowship was for a year but I stayed on for another three months to take up the State Department's Specialist Grant to work as a reporter on the Nouston Chronicle in Houston, Texas. As a fellow, I had spent three months as an intern in Vice President Johnson's office, and he recommended me to the State Department.

I left the United States in March 1962 for London, Germany and Italy before returning home by ship from Naples with stopovers in Port Said, Karachi, Bombay, Colombo and finally disembarking in Singapore. I arrived in Kuala Lumpur by train in early July after three months of traveling - quite broke actually, but it was worthwhile. I enjoyed every minute of my 18-month sojourn in America, England, West Germany, Italy and at the various stopovers, and on the ship during the 21-day voyage.

Between 1962 and 1986 I returned to the US three times, each time accompanying Tun Razak, twice to attend the United Nations General Assembly and once to Washington to see President Johnson. He subsequently visited Malaysia, becoming the first ever American president to set foot in our country.

In 1985, I was made a Harvard Fellow on the recommenda-
tions of the late Tan Sri Zain Azraai, then our ambassador at the United Nations, Ananda Krishnan, a Harvard alumnus and a good friend, and Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee, the then editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times. Since then I had gone back to my alma mater twice - in 1988 and on June 3 this year to attend a colloquium on Retrospect and Renewal: United States-European Cooperation Fifty Years After the Marshall Plan organized by the Harvard Centre for European Studies and the 1997 Harvard Commencement on June 5. The commencement speaker was Madeleine K. Albright, Secretary of State.

In July last year, I took residence in New York. Over the years I have visited less than half of the 50 states in the Union. However, I have been to all the major states with big electoral votes.

I was a 23-year-old reporter - when I first arrived in the US which was a scrupulously segregated nation. In December 1960, I travelled to the South, the heartland of the Ku Klux Klan secret societies, and thence to Florida. Then the South was starkly a two-tiered society, with the blacks at the bottom. My Pakistani and Iranian travelling companions - also Congressional fellows - met no unpleasantness because we were "guests". The US was finally integrated in 1964 following years of vicious and harsh racial repression, and as a result of a relentless crusade by the Black leadership, Dr Martin Luther King in particular, against a long history of violent racism.

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