September 25, 2011
by Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Muhriz
February 8, 2009–“Every Malaysian should be reminded of what he had to go through to get the independence which they now enjoy.”
“Democracy must not exist in the mind only, but in substance, reality and in fact.”
“Malaysia must continue as a secular State with Islam as the official religion.”
These are not the words of a snarky activist. These are not the words of an irresponsible user of Twitter. These are not the words of a troublemaking blogger. These are the words of a prince born in Istana Pelamin in Alor Setar on this day in 1903. These are the words of a leader who defended democracy in our country like no other leader before or since. These are the words of a Muslim who served as the first Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference. These are the words of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.
A man whose legacy we celebrate here today as we launch the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. We have chosen this day and this venue because ever since our inception as the Malaysia Think Tank London in 2006, we have time and time again turned to him for inspiration when events in our homeland seemed to have taken a turn in the wrong direction: a direction away from the nation he proclaimed as one founded upon the principles of liberty and justice.
And yet, if I were alive in the Fifties, I might not have supported the Tunku. I would likely have voted for Dato’ Onn Jaafar’s multiracial Independence of Malaya Party (IMP) or its successor, Parti Negara. But Tunku was a pragmatic man who understood that historical events had in time divided communities in Malaya by geography, ethnicity and language and that these divisions mattered.
Yet, in his speech upon taking office as President of UMNO, Tunku said: “We will not forget the other people for the part they have played for the prosperity of Malaya. The others will know that we are not so selfish or greedy as to disregard them or their interests. We have lived for 200 years with others, and we have lived at peace with them all. There has never been any clash between the races in Malaya.”
It is clear that Tunku was a proponent of Malay unity, but it was unity in conjunction with Malayan and Malaysian unity. Today, so many who champion “Malay unity” do so in opposition to perceived threats, for the purpose of intimidating others or for Machiavellian politics. I fear that this important distinction has been lost as the term has bandied about by those with divisive agenda.
Some in the older generation often reminisce that those were freer times when people judged each other less, and when unity had a more authentic meaning. A few months ago I had the opportunity to view archive video footage and photographs for a book I was producing in conjunction with another historical event.
What struck me was how ordinary Malayans of all races seemed perfectly at ease socialising, celebrating and mourning with one another. Of course, there are those who disagree that those were halcyon days, arguing that images of that time captured only the habits of the elite, and that May 13, 1969 proved that the appearance of multiracial cooperation was an illusion; a false veneer on a troubled country.
Today those troubles are attributed to underlying racial friction, but Tunku had a more nuanced view, taking into account underhanded political tactics and the desperation of the communists. But now it’s almost as if that narrative have been cast aside for the sake of justifying certain policies.
Well, I wasn’t around in the Fifties, but I was around in the aspiring times of the ’80s and ’90s, and I remember the plethora of slogans employed to cajole the population into productivity and optimism:
Cekap, Bersih, Amanah
Kepimpinan Melalui Teladan
Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang
Mesra, Cepat, Betul
Work With Me, Not For Me
And now of course we have:
1 Malaysia: People First, Performance Now
To my mind these are all mere reaffirmations of what was an articulate vision for the country from the moment Tunku read out the Proclamation of Independence. Despite these slogans, the standing of our institutions has withered. Tunku could never have imagined there to be such cynicism and distrust.
And this is the reason why we are today launching Ideas: to analyse and debate the ways to rejuvenate and reinvigorate the corridors of power – corridors which for the most part have been occupied by the successors of the party that Tunku once led: the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
I was in Istana Besar in Johor Bahru a couple of weeks ago, and I had a look at the steps where the famous picture of the delegates of the Third Malay Congress in 1946 was taken. It was also where, sixty years later, Almarhum Sultan Iskandar famously reunited Pak Lah and Dr M at the sixtieth anniversary of UMNO.
Today the party continues to evolve in response to the changing landscapes, but competition amongst Malay politicians is nothing new. UMNO itself had to contend with Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM) before it and Parti Negara, PAS, Semangat 46 and PKR after it.
The big question now is whether the results of the March 8 2008 general elections are indicative of a new era where party preference is determined not by its ethnic tag, but its actual policy ideas. Those manifestoes might actually be being read. But it is worth reiterating that although we are passionately interested in public policy issues, Ideas is not a political party. There is so much cynicism about people entering politics these days: it’s about making money and dishing out contracts, and you will get judged and never be safe from smear campaigns.
I’d say that for the most part, seeking political office in Malaysia today is for the suicidal or the deranged – although I can assure you that the MPs and Senators present here today form the sane minority. No, what Ideas seeks to continue doing in its new guise is to strengthen those in all the political parties or none who believe in the fundamental precepts of Tunku’s vision.
Sadly, events have shown that there are a few who don’t. At the crux of our programme is a belief that the challenges of Malaysia can be overcome through the fresh application of the Tunku’s principles, and ideally from a leader as charismatic as the Tunku himself.
And his charisma was perhaps most evident in how he dealt with extremists within his own party. When ultras within UMNO wanted to burn down the Lake Club for being too “white”, Tunku decided to become the Club’s President instead. Today there are those who want to burn down places of worship, and here Tunku’s words are visionary.
On the Fiftieth Anniversary of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, he sent a note of congratulations saying: “All men of goodwill and peace must fight against poverty… I know that St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is doing all it can to spread the message among Malaysians in all corners of this country and I have no doubt it will succeed. May I wish the church in the coming years all success and the blessing of God.”
And when he officially opened a seminar of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, he said: “One day I hope that a Muslim religious body might join in, as the object of this organisation is very good and farsighted… it is the duty of each and everyone of us, living in this country, to ensure peace for all time.”
These messages are genuine and authentic. Tunku did not wait for churches to be attacked before approaching them to offer his support. And Tunku did not celebrate religious festivals for the mere sake of courting votes. Indeed, later on in the tour of the memorial you will see pictures of Tunku celebrating personal and official events, large and small, with diverse cross-sections of society from before he entered politics right up to his final days.
One of those pictures is him celebrating his 86th Birthday with Tengku Razaleigh and Lim Kit Siang. We have here today representatives from six political parties. It is testament to his enduring ability to unite. While many other so-called national heroes achieved independence through deliberately violent means, Tunku did his best to attain it through negotiation and constitutional means.
He was largely successful, but of course he had to contend with communist terrorists intent on destroying the new nation. On this, Tunku mused: “How many people in this country subscribe to the communist doctrine and ideology? We have seen that many countries are suffering from communist tyranny… The three main races that had built up Malaya… felt confident that they were able to run this country themselves, and they have chosen a way of life which is most acceptable and congenial to them, a way of life that they like best. It’s called democracy.”
And it was precisely this adherence to parliamentary democracy within a federal context that encouraged Sabah and Sarawak to help form the new Federation of Malaysia. Again, there were objections, and again, Tunku was prepared to fight for the democratic federation. On Malaysia Day Tunku proudly declared “people of many races in all the States of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah now join hands in freedom and unity. We do so because we know that we have come together through our own free will and desire in the true spirit of brotherhood and love of freedom.”
That word – freedom – is one so rarely used by politicians today, but Tunku used it again and again. Even his personal crest which you can see downstairs features the word “dibebaskan”. It is, I suggest, because the word has disappeared from our political vocabulary that we have taken it for granted, and enabled numerous intrusions into our lives which would not have been tolerated in the atmosphere of Merdeka.
In Tunku’s time there 13 Cabinet Ministers; today there are 30. This increase in the size of government has been accompanied by a casual authoritarianism, and it is in such times that we find ourselves asking again and again what the Tunku would have said.
What would the founder of the Muslim Welfare Organisation – Perkim – have said about the use of the word “Allah”?What would the founder of a traditional Malay dance troupe – the Penari Diraja – have said about the deliberate eradication of Malay culture by self-proclaimed puritans?
What would the architect of the Federation of Malaysia spanning the South China Sea have said about the condition of Federal-State relations? What would the first protem Chairman of the National Human Rights Society – Hakam – have said about the continual use of the Internal Security Act?
As Sharyn suggested, he would be blogging about these issues with a courage and consistency unseen today, and he would certainly be talking about freedom.
We are extremely privileged to have the support of three generations of Tunku’s descendants. Sharyn, your presentation highlighted the personal charisma and honesty of Tunku – qualities which are lacking in so many leaders today; qualities which enabled Tunku to win over so many sceptics and opponents.
52 years ago your great-grandfather raised his hand to the heavens to proclaim our Merdeka, with the support, approval and concurrence of my great-grandfather and his brother Rulers.Your Tok Tam recalled that 30 years after he and my Nyang served on the committee of the Malay Association of Great Britain, they shared a podium as first Prime Minister and first Yang di-Pertuan Agong of independent Malaya. Both were great believers in parliamentary democracy, and Tunku once summarised the role of the monarchy thus: “For us Malaysians, the throne has been looked upon as a guarantee of our freedom. Freedom to worship, freedom to socialise and freedom to practice our political rights.”
And your Tok Tam also mentioned my Nyang Wan, Tunku Puan Besar Kurshiah, as one of the ladies who “showered him with money and jewellery” for the London mission to negotiate Merdeka. Those were miserly times, brought to painful reality by the writings of Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard (left) and lately, the drawings of E. Yu.
But thankfully, he was able to retain some luxurious tastes from his time in England, and I’m pleased to say that after the tour, we will be tucking into some roast beef and Yorkshire pudding – one of his favourite dishes which he himself cooked.
Firstly, my two colleagues Wan Saiful and Wan Firdaus – we have gone a long way since our meeting in that dank room in 2006. Secondly, the advisors, fellows, staff, associates and interns who have helped us to get where we are today.
Thirdly, the generous donors without whom none of the above could have carried out their work.
Fourthly, the director of the National Archives Dato’ Haji Sidek , and all the staff of Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman, for allowing us to use this fine venue.
Fifthly, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah – the man whom Tunku entrusted to continue the legacy of the Spirit of 1946 – for agreeing to speak today. Tunku once observed: “Tengku Razaleigh is another member of the royal family who had been derided as an unwanted Tunku. But if one remembers his work in Kelantan, one cannot help but admire him for what he did for Umno… Whether a person is a Tunku, a Syed or a Wan, he is the son of this country. His rank or title should not be used to belittle his efforts in the service of the country.”
And finally, I would like to thank the family of Almarhum Tunku for gracing this event today. He described himself as “the happiest Prime Minister in the world leading the happiest people in the world,” and I hope that today is a happy occasion of remembrance and celebration. He was a prince I am proud to call: Ayahanda Merdeka.
* Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Muhriz is the founder of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas)