Razak, the soul of the Kampung Malay

9 March 1998

Rozak...Former Prime Minister of Malaysia
Tun Razak bin Datuk Hussein's 76th birthday would have been an important event on Wednesday, March 11 had he lived. There would have been parties and prayers in his honour.

Even 22 years after his death in 1976, like the founding father of the nation Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, there has been no definitive biography written about the statesman agreed as being widely admired and loved.

Several writers and one or two professors have tried, but God knows what happened to their efforts. I am still waiting to see what they wrote in print. As they say one can lead a man, even a genius, to the library, but you can't make him read and write.

And, unless the biographers are inspired and believed explicitly that Razak was a central figure who formed a huge slice of modern Malaysian history, they would find it hard going, even to begin, no matter how good the enticement. It took Selina Hastings, a literary editor and an experienced biographer, eight years of research to write a biography of Evelyn Waugh, the creator of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh was one of the greatest prose stylists of the twentieth century.

Razak's life and work seemed to have meshed together and are inseparable. Razak stood for an idea and for a political action which was regarded absolutely necessary to put the country back on track following the traumatic race riots.

His contributions to the Malaysian nation is so massive, be it in education, rural development defence and security, diplomacy or politics, that the research might take longer than eight years.

How I wish, sometimes, even in a country not noted for its appreciation of history such as ours, there is recognition and agreement, even late in the day, that it is high time that a definitive book, each on Tunku and Razak is published. These would be books that will be indispensable as history books for any Malaysian who cares about our history and national destiny.

Razak, aged 29 in 1951, was offered to lead Umno and I think he (wisely) declined it, insisting that Tunku should have the honour. In his short life, Razak forfeited two opportunities: to lead the fight for freedom and the chance to become the founding prime minister of the nation and to be the first Malay chief secretary to the government if he abandoned UMNO.

Tun Suffian Hashim, in a speech in 1980, said "Razak was the most brilliant administrator in Southeast Asia, was able to retire early from government on a pension, and to contest the very first election to the Federal Legislature (July, 1955)". But for Tunku, Razak, Tun Ismail Abdul Rahman and several others, independent Malaya might have fallen into the hands of those whom Suffian described "starry-eyed visionaries, strong on theory and oratory, but weak in administrative ability and common sense, as indeed happened in Ghana and several other countries".

Razak was a shrewd operator, informed and judged carefully. He knew it would have been suicidal for him at that time to lead Umno. The reasons are tortuous to explain. However, one was that the Malays wanted an older man to lead them, preferably someone from a family with a long tradition of ruling. Tunku was the apt choice, and it was Razak who persuaded the reluctant Tunku. Umno and the country's leadership was thrust on Tunku. To his great credit, Tunku never consciously sought it.

Razak being Razak, and as his classmates and contemporaries at the Malay College, Raffles College and Lincoln's Inn would confirm, was quite happy to remain in the background abiding for his turn while studiously, quietly, and surreptitiously, his enemies would say, made himself indispensable to Tunku. For Razak this was not a task at all because Tunku being Tunku was happy to merely preside and oversee things while Razak attended to the day-to-day governing of the country.

It was in this context that Razak, as Minister of Home Affairs, responsible for internal security, did not bother to inform Tunku (not as a sign of disrespect rather it was considered normal) that he had given instructions for a pro-Communist funeral procession to take place in Kuala Lumpur a day before the polling day of the 1969 General Election which as Saturday, May 10. I was beside Razak at IStana Telipot, Kota Bahru when the telephone rang. I took the call and passed it to Razak.

The Inspector-General of Police, tan Sri Mohamad Salleh Ismail (later Tun) was on line. Razak spoke briefly and put down the receiver. After deliberating following a discussion with his advisers, he asked me to get Salleh. He told salleh clearly, slowly and without passion to allow the procession but gave strict instructions that the police must avoid avoid any action of unnecessary restrictions which might precipitate or cause rioting. Razak well knew that the procommunist wanted to start trouble so that the election the next day would be canceled

Many people said this procession precipitated the race riots three days later.

To understand Razak one must understand the emerging Malay-Islamic resurgence which was subtly happening long before the race riots. It was not an anti-anybody movement because the resurgence was led and controlled by Western- educated leaders and opinion makers whose social mores and aspirations were closer to their non-Malay intellectual counterparts and "haves" than the great mass of the rakyat. All they were fighting for was for an opportunity to attain what others had already achieved and were enjoying. The Malays wanted, like others, to enjoy the fruits of freedom.

But whatever was attained, in the process of being achieved or achieving towards it, it has been ruthlessly undone by the Asian economic meltdown which badly hit the ringgit and caused the collapse in stock market prices. Now the crucial thing is to save and revive the economy even if it means shifting drastically from ethnic in-come equalization (born out of the National Economic Policy (NEP)) and other off shoots towards economic growth and confidence building.

Razak would have approved it under these circumstances. Of course, it will cause much unease, even a dangerous political liability and tension. however, is there another alternative? The battered economy and weak ringgit must be rescued one way or another to arrest political social tension.

Razak might have been a hereditary chieftain but he lived in a kampung until he was despatched to the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) aged 11-years old in 1933. It was the life in Pulau Keladi, Jambu Langgar and Pekan which left the greatest imprint on Razak, MCKK provided his early leadership training.

The deprivation of postwar Labour-run England caused him to briefly flirt with socialism. He rejected socialism when he returned home from England in 1950 and embraced Umno, and, once in power, set out to change the Malayan (Malaysian) rural landscape through the "Buku Merah" he made famous.

Razak was a man of many parts; reticent, shy, impassive, sometimes imperturbable, and yet quietly a jolly fellow, a disciplined bon vivant and a fine example, like Tunku, of what I like about a Malay. I dare say Razak was the soul of the Kampung Malay for whom he did so much and, in a quiet undramatic way, reorientated. If he did not wholly succeed, he remained faithful to them and they to him.