On Writing a biography

5 October 1997

A biography is not just a narration of a person's life written by another. It is a branch of literature and a scholarly interpretation of his life and times, his distinguished or indifferent record of achievement or failure, whether he was or is "a Malaysian" Churchill, Macmillan, Thatcher or Major; Carter, Bush or Clinton.

A biography is not a testimonial, nor an obituary or a book of adulation. It is about the serious examination and reexamination of heroes, statesmen, men and women who have performed and devoted themselves to great services and were once very well-known to generations of followers.

In the cases of Dato' Onn bin Jaafar, Dato' Tan Cheng Lock, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, Tun Razak, Tun Hussein Onn, and several others, including Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the effort should have been to bring them out of the shadow cast over them. They have been, and remain, largely obscure to young Malaysians, and Malaysians in general have unbelievably short memories. In the matter of Prime Minister Dato' Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for example, it would be a provocative and diverting read to examine him at different points of his incredible career.

Though the lives of Tunku and Razak and the others are a wealth of actions and associations which reveal the history of our country since World War II, between the fifties and the seventies, in particular, I do not believe their stories are taught in our schools, colleges and universities nor exposed in popular culture. I stand corrected, of course.

If Malaysian history is taught, then there is a serious flaw in the teaching of history in our schools.

Yet Onn, Tunku and Razak were "great agents" of change in the Malaysian context, and, as a result, each was in different degrees of intensity both revered and derided.

Razak was a remarkable man. Entering his 76th year and 21 years after his death, it is high time the judgment of history was made. While Razak remains an enduring political icon yet no definitive biography has been written about him.

A future I had imagined for Malaysia did not materialise with Razak's abrupt passing. I was destroyed politically which made his exit especially bitter and poignant for me and his other apostles. Had Razak lived only for a few more months, our history (and that of Umno, in particular) would have been dramatically altered. Twenty years on, Razak's life (and legacy) does receive intermittently at least, a little memory.

I am happy it has not stopped others - Mahathir in particular - from pushing Razak's dream along with his own (Mahathir's) naturally larger dream and aspiration.

Young Malaysians seem to know more about the history of other countries than their own. I was embarrassed (and offended) when I discovered that many young Malaysians seem to know more about recent American historical figures than their own.

There is little curiosity to learn about Tunku and Razak, and even less about lesser personalities. The ideal thing is they should know their history as well as that of the world.

How to create this curiosity? Certainly not by writing a book of worshipful adulation nor an authorised biography. It has to be a book free of any sort of editorial control over it.

I know Razak very well. I can say this sincerely that Malaysians will find much more to like in the man, to admire in the Malaysian statesman, and to be grateful for. Warts and all, Razak deserves to be painted on a grand canvas. There is no other Malaysian, except Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, who has had such a remarkable political and personal life in the "it is the best of time and the worst of time" in Malaysian history.