January 8, 2019
Malaya’s first year at the United Nations
Ours is what is known as a plural society, in which three major races with different outlooks on life live side by side, and which nationalism has brought close together in brotherhood and unity towards a common goal.”
Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman’s inaugural speech at the UN General Assembly, 1957
BOOK REVIEW | Mohamed Tawfik Ismail and Ooi Kee Beng’s book about Malaya’s first year in the United Nations – specifically Malaya’s first permanent representative to the UN and first ambassador to the United States, Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman – is a more than just a compilation of notes from a bygone era.
Malaya’s First Year at the United Nations: As Reflected in Dr Ismail’s Reports Home to Tunku Abdul Rahman is, without doubt, a useful rejoinder of what actual nation-building is, at a time when political operatives were playing for stakes higher than just political survival – the creation of a nation. Attempting to forge a country from the embers of a once great empire is one thing; drafting a coherent foreign policy for a newborn nation quite another.
The authors do more than just compile notes from Ismail – Tawfik’s father – to then-prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. What they manage to do is construct a convincing narrative of the nascent foreign policy of this country.
Ismail considered his notes as something made “on a personal basis,” and would stop if they were not found to be useful. The book is a basic guide to the international political scene of the time and Malaya’s tentative steps in this arena, informed by the work of Ismail and others.
Meticulously researched, the side notes, appendices and bibliography of Malaya’s First Year at the United Nations fills in the blanks to Ismail’s sometimes mundane notes on the grind of networking and establishing a presence among international powers and the slowly fading colonialists of the era.
From the start, the authors make it clear that Ismail’s basis of foreign policy – supported by numerous sources – was that of an independent line. Malaya’s “stand on international problems should not be influenced by the policies of other countries big or small” – a policy which made sense, but would be difficult to maintain in the treacherous world of Cold War politics.
Which is why when Ismail condemned China’s occupation of Tibet, for instance, he also had to defend this country against accusations that it was a stooge of the US. Just two years before in his maiden speech to the UN general assembly, Ismail made reference to the Malay proverb, “Gajah berjuang, rumput yang berasa” (when elephants clash, it is the grass that is destroyed) when discussing the effects of colonial knavery on occupied regions.
What this demonstrated from the beginning is that Ismail believed that Malaya’s foreign policy should not be aligned with that of colonial powers or other independent countries. He understood that smaller independent countries had to tread carefully when dealing with bigger, more powerful political hegemons.
You have to remember that back when Ismail was formulating his ideas, Southeast Asia was a hotbed of colonial activity. The Vietnam conflict was percolating with the malfeasance of the French, who had drawn in the British and the ‘quiet Americans’ – slowly turning into ‘ugly Americans’ – with cold warriors slowly drawing up their misguided plans in Washington’s corridors of power.
Imagine what it was like for a new democracy like Malaya finding its footing on this stage. Ismail, though inexperienced in foreign service, more than made up for it with a work ethic and a desire for knowledge which seems to be lost on the current crop of political operatives.
Ismail was not afraid to discover new ideas and made it a point that all major newspapers should be available to him every morning, so he gets multiple perspectives on issues facing the US and the world. He was an exacting superior who demanded the best from his staff only because he knew how high the stakes were.
Making contacts with plutocrats, politicians, ambassadors and various special interests groups was part of the job. The nuts and bolts of establishing a presence, but more importantly, establishing a country as more than just a former colony – an independent state with a nation-building agenda competing with other agendas in the region – was the basis of his work.
A new democracy
I have no idea if these personal notes were useful to Tunku Abdul Rahman, but if you ever wondered what real foreign service work entailed, then this is it. It more than then just socialising.
It is about gaining insight into a foreign country, while providing context for your own. Ismail’s ‘diary’ of Malaya’s first year at the UN is evidence that he, inexperience notwithstanding, had a natural instinct for foreign service.
Ismail’s anecdotes are more than just entertainment. It gives you a sense of how foreigners viewed us as an emerging democracy, but more importantly, how he was paying attention to the US and what it could offer to Malaya. They were the “new capitalists,” as opposed to the “old capitalists” of the paling British empire.
One example is his tour of the southern states in the US with then-first secretary Lim Taik Choon, during which they visited a Shell refinery. “Although it bears the name of Shell, and a large share of its business is owned by the Royal Dutch Oil Company, which is a majority shareholder of Shell International, it has its own independent management.”
Ismail and Lim also took a tour of the Kaiser Aluminium factory, where they met one Mr Weekly, who they invited for a drink in their hotel. They talked about race relations in the south – Weekly being a northern gentleman with a southern wife – which neatly dovetails into his experience at a horseracing track, where Ismail discovers segregated toilets. Fortunately for him, he is not stopped from entering a Whites-only latrine.
And this is what is fascinating about this book. Ismail goes from explaining the complicated processes driving an aluminium reduction plant, dives into the racial politics of the south, and how, near the end of his New Orleans stay, he is troubled by a discussion with a taxi driver who claims that there is no need to justify his reasons for hating Blacks.
This is what makes this book extremely readable. If your preference is geopolitics, and how Malaya sought to define itself in that era based on the perspective of Ismail, you will find Malaya’s First Year at the United Nations a guide which will lead you to further research.
If you are interested in the travelogue aspect of this book, Ismail’s “notes” are a clear-eyed tour of the politics and people of the US. Both aspects are equally important because they give you a sense of the times he was operating in.
Malaya’s First Year at the United Nations ends with an epilogue, which goes back to the nuts and bolts of domestic politics. The most interesting part of this chapter is a letter by then-deputy prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein.
Razak had just secured a low-interest loan from the Sultan of Brunei “in order to implement some of the short-term projects for the rural areas before the elections.” The letter, among others, discusses the nearing election, which was “getting warmer.”
And with that, we are back on familiar terrain.
S THAYAPARAN is commander (rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy. A retired barrister of law, he is one of the founding members of Persatuan Patriot Kebangsaan.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.