January 26, 2010
King Ghaz as a Politician: Malaysia’s Svengali
By Terence Netto
In the era before the inception of web new portals in the late 1990s and its sibling, socio-political blogs, a few years later, political judgments in Malaysia hinged on knowledge of the facts behind the published news.
Unless you were an insider – and that too, depended on which particular circles you hobnobbed with — you had to engage in intelligent conjecture about what was really going on; a subscription to the Far Eastern Economic Review being a necessary aid towards putting the mosaic together.
Otherwise, you were dependant on what the powers-that-be felt it was safe for you to know, in the publications whose annual license renewals depended on compliance with the Home Ministry’s concept of news management.
Well before advances in communications technology blew that concept to smithereens, Ghazali Shafie, who died yesterday at the age of 88, held a Svengali-like influence over this domain of the managed news while assaying the roles, between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s, of Special Functions Minister, Minister Without Portfolio, Minister of Information, Home Affairs Minister and, finally, Foreign Minister.
He showed an early feel for the art of manipulating the news to reporters covering his sympathy visit to victims of a fire at the low cost Pekeliling Flats in Kuala Lumpur in 1971. Aware of the presence of news photographers, Ghazali, who can mime warmth perfectly for the cameras, hugged the nearest victim as bulbs flashed. Just as soon as the attention of the shutterbugs was averted, he dropped the victim and proceeded to the next photo opportunity.
A man of vaulting ambition, Pahang-born and Kuala Lipis parliamentarian Ghazali had his eyes on the top posts in UMNO but his arrogance put paid to his hopes of anything beyond an ordinary seat in the party’s supreme council.
How a man of his obvious intelligence could not see that his arrogance would make him unpopular with UMNO’s delegates, then mainly from the teaching profession, remains one of the mysteries of his career.
Had he been less arrogant, he would surely have, by January 1976, occupied one of the party’s three vice presidential slots. That would have been the springboard to the deputy premiership because he was the preference of just-elevated Prime Minister Hussein Onn for the post left vacant when Hussein moved up following Abdul Razak Hussein’s sudden death in London on January 15, 1976.
As Hussein, fast tracked by a terminally-ill Razak into the deputy presidency of UMNO and deputy premiership of the county after Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman’s death in August 1973, dithered over the choice of who should be his deputy, incumbent vice presidents Razaleigh Hamzah, Ghafar Baba and Dr Mahathir Mohamed combined to tell the premier that the choice, by tradition, should come from their ranks.
Hussein took three months to settle on Dr Mahathir, a choice he came to regret. During that period in which he mulled his choice, Ghazali, whose capacity to strut is as natural as a rooster’s, was confident he would be the choice. Back at the Lake Club in Kuala Lumpur, his friends prepared a celebration in his honor the same evening in late April 1976 that the choice of Dr Mahathir as Deputy Prime Minister was announced.
A host of Malaysian intellectuals, including academician Dr Syed Husin Ali and journalist Samad Ismail, would pay the price in ISA detention for the thwarting of Ghazali’s prime ministerial ambitions. Worry over the dearth of available options for top leadership posts in UMNO was intimated by both Dr Ismail and Razak to a select few who were privy to their thoughts before both died.
Both leaders were men of staunch discretion in matters like this, with Razak being extraordinary because he contrived, successfully, to keep the secret of his leukemia, known to him as early as 1969, within an intimate circle that barely numbered half a dozen.
Razak completed an immense amount of work in the short time he knew he had left to live, proving the truth of Dr Johnson’s aphorism that certainty about death’s imminence helps concentrate the mind wonderfully.
Razak did not like Ghazali, conniving in the sniping against him that his underling Abdullah Ahmad – renowned by the mid-1980s as ‘Dollah Kok Lanas’ (he was MP for Kok Lanas in Kelantan in the 1980s) — carried out in the op-ed pages of the UMNO-owned newspaper Utusan Melayu.
Home Minister Ghazali returned the compliment by having Abdullah detained under the ISA in June 1976 on the spurious grounds that he was a Russian spy. An amorous dalliance with a female Russian embassy staff was all it took to incriminate Abdullah.
Dollah Kok Lanas is not only privy to the actual reasons for his detention – over which he is not likely to be candid – but also to Tunku Abdul Rahman’s pained afterthoughts on the prelude and after of May 13, 1969.
Before he died in December 1990, the Tunku afforded Dollah Kok Lanas his reconstruction of that period, filtered by the length of time and reflection a long post-retirement life allowed him (Tunku retired in 1970 and died 20 years later). The Tunku’s recollections are not likely to be complimentary to Razak.
Like Hussein vis-à-vis Dr Mahathir, the Tunku came to regret his favoring of Razak over Dr Ismail as his deputy, a decision made as early as the mid-1950s. Before he died, the Tunku, when reminiscing to visitors at his retirement retreat in Penang, would refer to Ismail as that “noble one”, an opinion freighted with melancholy at having made a choice he came to rue.
Presumably, Dollah Kok Lanas is waiting for some of Razak’s close relatives to pass on before he gives vent to the Tunku’s afterthoughts. But even then, it may not see the light of day.
Expedient and self-serving, rather than candid, disclosure is the weakness of the Malay political elite. They view the ordinary Malay as wards, to be let in on political realities only to the extent assorted members of the elite deem sufficient at any one time for wards to know. Echoes of this attitude can be seen in the ‘Allah’ controversy today.
Only Anwar Ibrahim, because of the breadth and fortitude of his intellect, is capable of freeing the Malay mind from this tutelary and debilitating control. But even in his case, there is a question – real or imagined, foisted or self-induced (we may soon know when his sodomy case begins on February 2) – over his sexuality.
If you acquainted with the reasons bruited about for the late Samad Ismail’s detention under the ISA in June 1976 — how Ghazali was fingered by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, to effect the arrest of old foe Samad — you’ll find the same thread of sexual turpitude running in a depressing line through it all. Samad, a proven journalist and a formidable intellectual, was cut down by a spell in ISA detention in his prime.
In the 1970s, the pretext for these manifestations of repressive power was the need to thwart communist designs. These days the search for bogeys is covered by the need to check not ideological but sexual deviancy. In Ghazali’s time and now, the exercise of repressive power is conducted under the guise of the ruling pieties, carried out by persons who are anything but respectful of the same.