May 29, 2011
The Onn Family Legacy: Three Generations
by Karim Raslan
History matters. We need to understand the forces that shaped our past in order to craft our future. Self-knowledge is critical. Ignorance will mean we end up repeating the mistakes of the past.
Zainah Anwar’s well-written and intimate personal history of three generations of the illustrious Johor-based aristocratic Onn family — Legacy of Honour — is an important book for all Malays and all Malaysians.
As a Johorean herself whose father Cikgu Anwar served with Datuk Onn Jaafar, Zainah has woven together Malaysian contemporary history, economics, culture and politics. Moreover, the book’s appearance is timely. We are living in an era when honour, principle and public service are often ignored and/or ridiculed.
Indeed, the men — all from the same family — were to shape public policy and governance for well over a century, from the 1850s right through to the early 1980s. They were open-minded men: curious and equipped with bold ideas.
At the same time they had the courage of their convictions. In the case of UMNO’s titanic founder, Onn Jaafar, this sense of principle was to lead to his premature departure from the party and his isolation in later years. Nonetheless, they were also intensely driven men.
Once again, Onn Jaafar stands out. For example, he would always talk about wanting to “betulkan orang Melayu” (correct the Malays) by modernising and improving Malay living standards and conditions.
Jaafar Mohamed was born in 1838. Coming from a long line of palace advisers, he started his career as a clerk at his uncle’s office, who was a Minister to Temenggong Ibrahim and later went onto become Dato Bentara (State Secretary) at the age of 25.
In 1885, he was appointed the first Mentri Besar of modern Johor, a post he held until his death in 1919. Jaafar was responsible for the creation of modern Johor. Working alongside Sultan Abu Bakar, he was to build Johor from the ground up until it became the strongest and most prestigious of the Malay states.
He was an exacting but fair man who recognised the importance of the rule of law. As such he set out the “kangcu” system of land usage and taxation for Chinese settlers. Both he and Sultan Abu Bakar achieved their ends without losing their highly cherished independence to the British. Educated in both English and Malay from an early age, Jaafar was unafraid of new ideas as long as they delivered results — prosperity, stability and sovereignty for his beloved state.
However, he also prized his Malay cultural roots very highly and in his spectacular residence, Bukit Senyum in Johor Baru, he created a distinguished environment where the cherished collection of Malay literature such as syairs, hikayats and novels were to be found.
And the children were all expected to learn how to perform ghazals — the Middle-Eastern inspired poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain. At the same time, his many children and especially his daughters — flouting conservative sentiment — went to English language schools.
With Jaafar’s death, the family were to lose their beloved Bukit Senyum residence. The family’s difficult relations with Sultan Ibrahim meant that Onn Jaafar moved to Singapore where he emerged as a fervent critic of royal injustice and misadministration.
Onn Jaafar was to become an indefatigable journalist and editor. His trenchant criticisms of Malay backwardness and failure were read across the peninsula, earning him enormous respect among the ordinary people.
This in turn laid the groundwork for his greatest task — the unification of a divided Malay community in the face of the British initiative, the Malayan Union, and the formation of UMNO. Onn Jaafar had an immense capacity for work. His energy was unequalled.
This level of diligence was apparent in the late Tun Hussein Onn, who was known for his unflinching dedication to detail — underlining the salient points in every report he read.
The Malay community owes all three men a great debt of honour. Suffice to say they were leaders far, far ahead of the times. Indeed, Malaysia is in dire need of more leaders in a similar mould, men who have the confidence and polish to reach across race, class and religious boundaries.