Tragic Passing of Former Malaysian Ambassador to the United States in Helicopter Crash

April 4, 2015

Tragic Passing of Former Malaysian Ambassador to the United States in Helicopter Crash

obama and JJ

Former Minister, Malaysian Ambassador to the United States and Rompin Parliamentarian Dr. Jamaluddin Jarjis was killed in a helicopter crash near Semenyih this evening. He was 63 years old.

Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told Bernama that Jamaluddin was among six passengers on board the ill-fated helicopter.

Also killed was Azlin Alias, Private Secretary to Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. The other four were businessman Dato’ Robert Tan, Pilot Captain Cliff Fournier, co-Pilot Ajdiana Baiziera, and Jamaluddin’s bodyguard identified as Raskan. The helicopter was believed to be on its way back from Najib’s daughter’s wedding reception in Pekan, Pahang.

The helicopter, believed to be owned by a private company, crashed and caught fire at about 4.55pm. According to Fire and Rescue Department, all six bodies were found by 8.15pm.

Bernama reported that the helicopter was seen to have exploded in mid-air before hitting the ground.

A witness, Roslan Harun, 54, a security guard on duty near the scene, said the mishap occurred during heavy rain. “It exploded in mid-air, not so high from the ground. Then, the debris, tail and blades were thrown all over the place,” he told Bernama at the scene.

Roslan said he had wanted to enter the crash site to offer help and assistance, but changed his mind and called the Fire and Rescue Department instead. He said the crash site was about 5km away from Kampung Sungai Pening, or 13km from the Semenyih town.

Jamaluddin had served as a Minister as well as Malaysian Ambassador to the United States.

At the 2013 general election, Jamaluddin won Rompin – a parliamentary seat located in the southern tip of Pahang – by a whopping majority of 15,114 votes against PAS candidate Nuridah Mohd Salleh. He bagged 30,040 votes, more than half of Nuridah’s 14,926. The seat comprises 87 percent Malays, 2 percent Chinese and 8 percent of others, mostly Orang Asli.

Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis

March 29, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis

by Terence

Asia’s generation of independence-gaining leaders knew little or nothing of how to get the economies of their countries going.

Lee-Kuan-Yew India’s Jawarharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh succeeded in freeing their countries from the colonial powers, but their triumphs were Pyrrhic. The euphoria of independence turned out to as evanescent as morning dew, their countries falling away after gaining freedom, stymied either by the ethnic and religious hatreds that had long bedeviled them, or hobbled by the choice of growth-stifling economic systems, or worse, caught up as proxies in the Cold War rivalry between the West and the communist bloc.

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore – the names are interchangeable as no founding leader has stamped his mark on his country like Lee did – avoided the fate of these countries and their larger-than-life progenitors.

From scratch in 1959 when Singapore became self-governing, Lee built up the city-state to become an an economic and technological cynosure. He did this through the practice of a capitalism that emphasised no corruption, hard work, meritocracy, low taxes and high savings. And he held the line on the utility of the English language for upward mobility.

The upshot was phenomenal: Singapore rose from an economy whose gross domestic product (GDP) was US$427 per capita in 1960 to US$55,000 in 2013. This increase is stupendous by any measure, more so considering Singapore is without natural resources save a good harbour.

Lee achieved this transformation via methods that scorned the Western view that democracy was the last word in human political development. He was harsh on opponents, jailing them without trial if not bankrupting them with libel suits, and his view of the press was that they should not presume to tell him how Singapore should be governed.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the historian Francis Fukuyama espoused the theory of the “end of history” owing to the triumph of “liberal democracy”. Fukuyama said that the natural wish of humans to be free from repression would eventuate in their choice of a liberal democratic system of governance.

Fukuyama saw that communism’s fall cleared the way for the flowering of a system that believed in limited government, respected individual rights, allowed for free and fair elections, and encouraged governance by informed consent of the governed.

That this theory does not enjoy traction in Confucian societies was suggested, first, by Park Chung-hee in South Korea and, then, by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, and, later still, by Deng Xiaoping in China.

A Preference for order over disorder

The reason why an authoritarianism that was not draconian fostered growth and order in these Confucian societies was because of the ethos inculcated by the ancient Chinese sage which instilled a preference for order over the disorder of uninhibited political competition, placed family and social obligations to the kin group above individual rights, and encouraged respect for authority if it was reasonably exercised.

In Confucian societies, a quasi-authoritarianism is no reason for resistance, provided there are opportunities for people to become rich, educated and industrious. Rights are secondary to obligations and order is valued more than individual fulfillment.

Lee Kuan Yew understood this ethos which was why he always maintained, in the face of criticism of his heavy-handedness, that he knew his society better than the critics of his methods. Implicit in Lee’s approach was his confidence that Singaporeans would  applaud his quasi-authoritarianism when they see its economic outcome: the transformation of a resource-bereft and vulnerable geographic crossroads into a world hub of transport and trade. Singapore’s GDP was US$1 billion in 1960; in 2013 it was US$298 billion.

SingaporeSingapore’s spectacular economic growth has made Lee’s advice on how to govern much sought after, especially among leaders of countries keen to transform their backward economies.

India has declared a day of national mourning and its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a devotee of the economic-growth-as-panacea school, will attend Lee’s funeral in the island-state today, surely a mark of his determination to emulate the Singaporean model of development.

Singapore’s phenomenal economic progress gave Lee the platform to advice even the big powers on matters of geopolitical and strategic interest, with the former US President Richard Nixon an admirer who wryly observed that the “engine was too big for the boat”, by which he meant Lee’s intelligence and ability ought to have had an impact on a widely beneficial scale than just the tiny island he led from obscurity to economic powerhouse.

This brings us to the inevitable question of the what-might-have-been had Lee and Singapore not been, in his words, “turfed out” of Malaysia in 1965. The whole question of Singapore’s merger and separation from its 1963 federation with Malaya and Borneo is so vexed a matter that even after a half-century the subject is suffused with emotion that hinders objective assessment.

It will require a historian of Olympian detachment to unpack the tangled strands and allow the judgmental chips to fall where they may. If history is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another, that definition implies a changing standard which may not be as impressed with Lee’s achievements as they presently rate on history’s scales.

Late 20th century and early 21st century truisms about economic-growth-as-panacea may not hold for long as the idea of progress takes in a more comprehensive view of human beings finding fulfillment in civil society, unhindered by any idea that the state knows best.

If standards come to that, Lee Kuan Yew’s ratings will waver from its present lofty levels, but then he may contend that history’s scales are fairly bogus in any case and that what matters are the here and now.


Lee Kuan Yew’s Political Legacy–Matter of Trust

March 27, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew’s Political Legacy–Matter of Trust

by Bridget Welsh

Lee Kuan Yew 2

As Singaporeans mourn their charismatic leader Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), whose political acumen, drive and ideas defined the young nation and played a major role in its successful development, attention turns to assessment. Moments of transition always bring reflection, and this is especially the case with the passing of the man who both personified and defined Singapore. The fact that LKY has passed on in the pivotal year of the nation celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary only serves to reinforce the need for review.

There is good reason to acknowledge the accolades of a man who has been labeled as one of Asia’s most influential leaders. Most of the media, especially in the government-linked media of Singapore, lay out these reasons well. LKY was a force to be reckoned with, a complex man who made no excuses in his views and was direct in stating his opinions. He trusted few, but chose to collaborate with those who shared his hard work ethic with talent and ideas to develop the busy port of Singapore into a safe dynamic cosmopolitan city-state. He will rightly be remembered for not only putting Singapore on the world map, but as a model that is admired and respected by many the world over.

LKY was a man who was respected, but importantly not loved by all. He used fear to stay in power. From the inception of Singapore’s independence – when it was expelled from Malaysia – the ideas of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘survival’ were used to justify decisions. He promoted the idea that Singapore had to have a strong armed forces, requiring national service in 1967, to protect itself as a nation surrounded by the perceived threat of its Malay neighbors.

The enemies outside were matched by those inside, who had to be displaced and in some cases detained.  Among the most controversial were the arrests of men labeled as communists in Operation Coldstore of 1963 and Operation Spectrum of 1987 (a.k.a. the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’) that targeted social activists who promoted greater social equality and were seen as challenging LKY’s People’s Action Party’s (PAP) authority. Two other round-ups occurred with Operation Pecah (Split) in 1966, which coincided with the year of the arrest of Dr. Chia Thye Poh who was held under detention and restriction until 1997, and the arrests of the ‘Eurocommunists’ in 1976-77. Many others from opposition politics, business to academia faced the wrath for challenging and questioning LKY, his PAP and the politicized decisions of its institutions, castigated in the government controlled media, removed from position, forced to live in exile and, in some cases, sued and bankrupted. In the relatively small city state, it did not take much to instill a political culture of fear by making a few examples.

A main point of contention goes that LKY sparred with Western critics over democracy and human rights, with LKY dismissing these ideas as not part of ‘Asia’s values.’ The debate was never about differences in values, but the justification of holding power in the hands of a few for nearly five decades. Singapore’s political model is at its foundation about the elites, with Lee, his family and loyalists at the core. In recent years, reports in Singapore have highlighted a growing trust deficit in the PAP government that LKY founded. The real deficit that defined LKY and became embedded within the party he molded is that he never fundamentally trusted his people.

The group that received the special focus of LKY’s distrust was the Malay population, who now comprise over 10% of the country’s population. Even as LKY matured as a politician, he continued to reinforce negative stereotypes of this community that rioted over their grievances in 1950, 1964 and 1969 when LKY was in his early years in power, and with whom he expressed hard judgments about their religion, Islam. This distrust was shaped in part by a worldview that was not only shaped by his early experiences in political life but had sharp racial cleavages, drew from eugenics and believed in a clear social order. Part of LKY’s outlook prioritized women as homemakers and disparaged single women who opted not to marry or follow a career – another group similar to Malays that faced discrimination within LKY’s Singapore.

In the heyday of Singapore’s economic miracle, the 1970s through the 1990s, the LKY PAP government worked to win over the trust of its people. It did so by providing for the basic welfare of its citizens, with an impressive housing program, affordable food prices, a living wage, job security, safety, education and opportunity. This involved hard work of LKY’s founding team of PAP cadre, as well as the sacrifice of ordinary Singaporeans. It also reflected the wise realization of LKY that fear was not enough to stay in power. There needed to be a healthy balance of deliverables. The LKY decades of economic growth translated into real rewards – at least through the 1980s.

Singapore’s trajectory of sharing the benefits of development has followed a pattern of diminishing returns, as the country now boasts the highest per capita of millionaires and is the world’s most expensive city, with a large number its citizens unable to save and afford the lifestyle promised in the nation’s early narrative. As much as LKY deserves credit for Singapore’s success, he also should be seen to be part of today’s shortcomings.

Elitism has bred arrogance, and a distance between those in power and those governed. Most of the new leaders of the PAP have come from subsequent wealthy generations that do not fully understand the sacrifices of the country’s working poor – shocking in number – and the obstacles elderly and young people face in an era of high costs. Years of following the LKY’s example and being told that the PAP is made up of the ‘best and brightest’ has imbued a mindset of superiority, a lack of empathy, and frequent dismissal of difference in engagement with the public.

While LKY’s son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has worked to win over support, he has suffered consecutive drops of support in the two elections he has led since he assumed office, failing to match the 75% popular vote height of the predecessor Goh Chok Tong in 2001. Unlike in the information controlled era of his father, Lee Hsien Loong is not able to effectively censor and limit public discussions in today’s wired and connected Singapore.  His recent expansion of social services and incentive packages that provide small sums for pensioners, modest support for health and childcare and tax reductions for the middle class are a drop in the bucket for the growing grievances and costs faced by ordinary citizens.

This has to do in part with the challenge Lee Hsien Loong faces in dealing with his father’s legacy. In 2007 LKY claimed that he governed without ideology. This was not quite true. The ideological foundation of LKY’s pragmatic tenure was materialism. This obsession with money, saving it and forcing the public to save it in rigid regulated ways, assuring that government funds were only given to those ‘worthy’ and loyal and defining the value of the performance of his government ministers by pegging their salaries to growth numbers comprised the lifeblood of LKY’s state. With annual ‘bonuses’ to perform, there is a focus on short-term gains rather than long-term investments.

The irony is that it is not even clear how much money the government of Singapore and its linked companies actually have. Singapore is one of the few countries in the world that does not follow the International Monetary Fund guidelines on its budget reporting. It also does not transparently report losses in many of the financial accounts of the government linked companies (GLCs). Lee Hsien Loong has had to tackle head-on the ingrained pattern of limited government spending on social welfare and services, as he attempts to move away from his father’s restrictive parsimony and secretive mindset that originated from a lack of trust in people

Lee Hsien Loong also has to address the problems of a government dominated economy. Singapore Inc. emerged out of the political economy LKY put in place, with the government and its linked companies controlling over half the country’s economy and undercutting almost all domestic business. LKY did not trust local capital, and did not want to strengthen an alternative power center to his own. As such, Singapore’s economy is not a genuinely competitive one. It favors big business, especially property developers, and those allied with government rather than independent entrepreneurs. Those in the system have apparently disproportionately benefited from it, although the exact amounts and assets remain unknown. The accumulated assets of individuals remain hidden as the estate tax was removed in 2008. What is known is that workers have limited rights in the LKY-shaped political economy. A recent example is the sexual harassment bill passed in parliament that excludes employer liability. The harsh response to the bus driver strike in 2012 is another. Much is made about the limited corruption of Singapore, but few appreciate that the country ranks high on the Economist crony-capitalism index, an important outgrowth of the government dominance of the economy. The ties between companies and government are close, at times with government and family members on their boards and a revolving door that never really closes.

Singapore’s economy also favors foreigners. LKY was to start this trend, with the appeal to outsiders for capital rather than a focus on domestic business. Foreigners may have been easier to engage, as they could always be kicked out. Foreign investment has been extremely important in Singapore’s growth numbers initially in manufacturing and later in services. To maintain global competitiveness, keep wages low and maintain high growth numbers, Singapore also turned to foreign labor – cheap workers to staff their construction sectors and to work as domestic help and foreign talent to bring in ideas and the occasional sports medal. This prioritization of outsiders has fostered resentment. When LKY assumed office he worked to force a nation, but with his passing many in Singapore feel the government he left behind is working for others and undermining the fabric of the nation. The crowded trains, strain on services and displacement of Singaporeans in the job market and advancement have angered many, who now see LKY’s legacy as one that in fact left many Singaporeans vulnerable and worried about survival.

No one can take away LKY’s contributions. He lived a long meaningful life, and shaped the lives of all Singaporeans. This does not mean that there is agreement on what he left behind. Singapore now faces the challenge of moving beyond LKY’s ideas and shaping a more promising future for all of its citizens. An integral part of this dynamic will be moving away from fear, promoting more effective policies for inclusion in the economy and society and building trust. It starts with placing more trust in Singaporeans.

It is arguably the latter that is the hardest. LKY lived in an era where societies trusted their leaders. He was given the benefit of the doubt. The PAP remains a relatively closed institution, with the distrust of those not inside deeply embedded. Today in the age of social media and instant messaging there is not as much leeway to work behind closed doors. There is an urgent need to forge genuine dialogue, connectivity and understanding that moves beyond materialism, and reignites the sense of belonging that LKY forged in his early years.

Singapore today has become a more politically divided nation, with those who strongly defend LKY’s incumbent government, die-hard opponents and the majority in the middle. As the country marks its 50th year it moves toward a different narrative, the task at hand is to forge a new Singapore story, one in which LKY is a valued part of its past, but not a constraint on the dreams and aspirations of Singaporeans’ future.

Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University where she conducts research on democracy and politics in Southeast Asia.

READThe Interview with Dr. Michael D. Barr

To be both fair and informative in writing an assessment of Lee Kuan Yew requires a level of detachment that seems to be uncommon. Certainly his devotees, whether in Singapore or overseas, don’t usually come close to achieving it as they echo versions of Lee’s own story of how he took the country ‘from Third World to First’, often taking umbrage at those who are more critical. For those of us who are, indeed, more critical, the temptation is to focus on the Lee Kuan Yew who engaged in ‘brass knuckle politics’, and ignore the achievements.

Many of us have friends who have suffered brutality at his hands – or who have been intimidated or suffered discrimination by the system he put in place. It is not easy to put such personal connections aside and give credit where credit is due. Yet despite these burdens, I am pleased to say that this is a temptation in which critics have not generally indulged for a couple of decades now.

At the time of writing it is now a few days since Lee died and while the devotees have been as adoring and banal as one might fear, his critics have been consistent in recognising his formidable achievements. Their (our) record of even-handedness in this regard is only partly inspired by respect for the dead and for his family. Rather it is a recognition of the complexity of this man. As much as some of us might prefer not to articulate it, he was, in all the conventional senses of the use of the term, ‘a great man’ with a long list of achievements to his name.

His critics might (and do) quibble that he did not do this on his own; that he was the leader of a team of talented men (women generally did not need to apply). And this is indisputable.

We complain that the self-serving narrative of his success would have us believe that he built it from ‘a fetid swamp’ (to quote Greg Sheridan in The Australian a few days ago) and we know full well that this is just plain wrong. He and his colleagues had a lot of valuable material to work with: much of it a legacy of British rule (e.g. the administrative system, the Naval Base and English as the lingua franca); some a gift of nature (such as the port); or the luck of geography (being on the Straits of Malacca, near a rising East Asia).

We complain about a long list of seemingly unintended consequences for those who have been left behind by Singapore’s success or crushed by the dominant elite, and we rightly fear that many of these consequences are not as unintended as they appear at first glance – that they are, in fact, implicitly intended and explicitly accepted as part of the deal.

Yet I cannot think of a single critic who denies his record as a successful builder and who doesn’t feel obliged to put on record some recognition of his achievements. I just wish that those of his devotees who know better could find the honesty to recognise his failings so that more casual followers of public affairs would have a chance of reaching a more balanced perspective.

With this preamble behind me, I would now like to reproduce an interview I did with Zarina Hussain of the BBC last week, a few days before Lee died. Zarina used half-a-dozen sentences of the interview in a piece titled ‘How Lee Kuan Yew engineered Singapore’s economic miracle’, which was published on the BBC website, but most of it has not been reported. I have just tidied up some of the grammar.– Associate Professor Michael D. Barr from the School of International Studies, Flinders University is the author of ‘The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence’ and ‘Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs behind the Man.’

Tun Dr. Mahathir: Lee Kuan Yew and I

March 27, 2015

Tun Dr. Mahathir: Lee Kuan Yew and I

by Tun Dr. Mahathir Bin

COMMENT No matter how friendly or unfriendly we are, the passing away of a man you know well saddens you. I cannot say I was a close friend of Kuan Yew. But still I feel sad at his demise.

Kuan Yew became well-known at a young age. I was a student in Singapore when I read about his defence of the labour unions.

I first met Kuan Yew when I was a member of Parliament in 1964 after Singapore joined Malaysia in 1963. We crossed swords many times during the debates. But there was no enmity, only differences in our views of what was good for the newborn nation. He included me among the ultra= Malays who was responsible for the racial riots in Singapore. Actually I never went to Singapore to stir up trouble. Somebody else whom I would not name did.

The Tunku attended the inaugural meeting of the PAP and was quite friendly with Kuan Yew. He believed Kuan Yew was a bastion against Communism. But when the PAP contested in the Malaysian elections in 1964 with Malaysian Malaysia as its slogan, Tunku felt that the PAP’s presence in Malaysia was going to be disruptive for the country.

When I became PM in 1981, I paid a courtesy call on Kuan Yew. It was a friendly call and he immediately agreed to my proposal that Malaysia and Singapore times which had always been the same should be advanced by half an hour. I explained that it would be easier adjusting our time when travelling as we would fall within the time zones fixed for the whole world at one hour intervals.

I am afraid on most other issues we could not agree. When I had a heart attack in 1989 and required open heart surgery, he cared enough to ring up my wife to ask her to delay the operation as he had arranged for the best heart surgeon, a Singaporean living in Australia, to do the operation. But by then, I had been given pre-med and was asleep prior to the operation the next day.

My wife thanked him but apologised. She promised to ring him up after the operation. She did the next evening.
When he was ill, I requested to see him. He agreed but the night before the visit, the Singapore High Commissioner received a message that he was very sick and could not see me.

Still when he attended the Nihon Keizai Shimbun annual conference on the Future of Asia in Tokyo, which I never failed to attend, I went up to him at dinner to ask how he was. We sat down together to chat and the Japanese photographers took our pictures promising not to put it in the press. I wouldn’t mind even if they did. But I suppose people will make all kinds of stories about it.

Now Kuan Yew is no more. His passage marks the end of the period when those who fought for independence led their countries and knew the value of independence. ASEAN lost a strong leadership after President Suharto and Lee Kuan Yew.

DR MAHATHIR MOHAMAD is a former prime minister of Malaysia.

Kamil Jaafar’s Tribute to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

March 26, 2015


It is an impressive record of achievements.–Din Merican

Kamil Jaafar’s Tribute to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

by Tan Sri Kamil Jaafar*

Singapore’s first Prime Minister transformed Singapore from a Third World to a First World country. And he took all steps to protect the country from outside threats.

AMONG the leaders of our region for whom, for different reasons, I have great respect and even admiration, are the late President Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, President Sukarno of Indonesia, and King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia.

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew  also falls into this category of leaders of our time, and his passing away is certainly a loss for the region.

This was a man who transformed Singapore from a Third World to a First World country. In his dealings with the world at large, he was truly a remarkable statesman.

The British, in their military wisdom, created fortress Singapore, but soon found out that their guns were pointing the wrong way. Lee, in his time, also created fortress Singapore. Only this time, the guns are pointing the right way. Johor.

It is understandable that he took this position as, in his mind, the geopolitical realities indicated that the threat could come from Malaysia and, by extension, from Indonesia. Being surrounded by a Malay world could, in time, lead to instances of instability that would threaten the young nation of Singapore.

This is the siege mentality that the former Foreign Ministry secretary-general, Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad, mentions in his book, Malaysia-Singapore Fifty Years of Contentions.

This siege mentality led Lee to state to the Malaysian Chief of Armed Forces in 1990 that “… he would not hesitate to move his troops if in any future Malaysian Government, such as one controlled by the Islamic Opposition Party, should ever threaten to cut off the island’s water supply …”

The mutual suspicion and mutual mistrust led to this uneasy and testy relationship between Malaysia and Singapore. From Malaysia’s standpoint, we never entertained any aggressive intentions towards Singapore. There were never any reasons for Malaysia to do that.

We have already removed several irritants in our bilateral relations. There is still unfinished business to tackle but I believe we can now sort things out in ways that would work for the benefit of both countries.

We already made a good start in putting ASEAN as a basis of a constructive and meaningful relationship. I do not think we will want to destroy what we have built through hard work and sweat.

Lee and Deng

Finally, we cannot forget that it was Lee, looking at the geopolitical realities of the time, who advised China’s Deng Xiaoping in 1980 that having the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) radio station broadcasting from Chinese soil “… was not a good indicator of China’s warming relationship with ASEAN”.

Deng subsequently told the CPM leader, Chin Peng, to transfer the  station out of China. It was moved to Thailand. For that we can be thankful to Lee Kuan Yew.

Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar is a former Wisma Putra secretary-general (1989-1996) and former counsellor at the Malaysian High Commission in Singapore (1968). The views expressed are his own.

A Tribute to Tun Abdul Razak Hussein

March 11, 2015

A Tribute to Tun Abdul Razak Hussein

by Abdullah

COMMENT: I am happy to have been asked by Malaysiakini to write this article to commemorate the 93rd year of birth of our second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, with his birthday falling today.

Had Razak not died early, the history of Malaysia, and that of some of its personalities, would have been vastly different. We would be, for sure, less divisive, less orthodox and definitely less uncertain about the future.

This is a dispassionate narrative, which I hope is a good introduction to a leader who rescued and revitalised a nation that was at a nadir in 1969.

Abdullah Ahmad and Tun Razak
It was in 1954 that I was introduced to Razak, who was then the state secretary of Pahang and deputy president of UMNO. Then, civil servants could become members of any political party they chose and also hold public office. I got to know him closely when I became a journalist in 1957. The friendship flourished after I came back from the United States in 1962, following a two-year stint on a Congressional Fellowship.

At age 25, I became Razak’s special officer. Then, in succession, I became his Political Secretary and Deputy Minister, Chief Assistant whip and a member of the UMNO Supreme Council until Razak’s premature death of leukemia in London on Jan 14, 1976. He was 53.

I was subsequently detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for five years for what is now admitted to be a settling of old scores to halt my political career. What would become clear to me was the innuendo to discredit Razak’s leadership.

Razak had been Deputy Prime Minister since independence and became the director of the National Operations Council (NOC) that was established after the vicious race riots of May 1969, when a state of emergency was declared.

Reinstated parliamentary democracy

Although Razak held absolute power between May 1969 and September 1970 as Head of the NOC, he did not seek to entrench his position, nor did he rob the Treasury, plunder the pension fund and rape the nation for natural resources.

Instead, as soon as he thought the country had returned to normalcy, he disbanded the NOC and reinstated parliamentary democracy in September 1970, becoming the country’s second Prime Minister. He resisted and rebuffed the advances of many predators and con men with their suspicious deals.

During Razak’s six-year administration (1970-1976) – apart from the emergency interregnum – UMNO and Barisan Nasional (BN), which he formed in 1974, emphasised constitutional rule for Malaysia. The Razak administration, I dare say, was easily more democratic, united, stable and enlightened than its successors, and the people, happier.

Nearly 40 years ago, our second Prime Minister and one of the founding fathers of modern Malaysia, was buried, on Jan 16, 1976. It was the nation’s second state funeral; Razak’s deputy, Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, who had died just three years earlier, was the first to be given such an honour.

Both leaders’ tombs are at the Makam Pahlawan (Heroes’ Mausoleum) on the grounds of Masjid Negara in Kuala Lumpur. Razak had great respect for Ismail. When he realised that it would be a Herculean task to restore public confidence and security after 1969, he grabbed enthusiastically at Ismail’s offer to rejoin the government. Together, they courted the fearful and angry people; first, to stabilise Kuala Lumpur, and then to prevent the troubles from spreading beyond the federal capital.

In the early years of independence, intellectual life wasn’t prized – integrity and prudence were. Razak was not an intellectual per se but he lived in pursuit of the mind and pragmatism. He upheld and promoted human values and freedoms as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution that he had a role in framing.

Under the Malaysian system, he often said to me, the people were entirely free to reject or accept the views of others and their stereotyping, and no government should deny the rakyat that freedom.

I learnt much from Razak because he was, as it were, gifting me and the other “Young Turks” who were my colleagues with the mental empowerment to shape policies and events. He encouraged us to broaden our minds so we could build a better society for all Malaysians.

Razak understood that poverty does not have a race or a religion, and that no ethnic group should have the monopoly of any profession, trade or service. He left behind a sizeable legacy that remains to be seriously assessed and written about.

Though hardly remembered these days, the man remains an interesting study. Indeed, of late, he has even become topical again.

Modesty was his habit, economy his custom

Razak was a shy man who never enjoyed public speaking, but he was a very able and skilful Prime Minister and an outstanding UMNO President and BN Chairperson. When I was at Malay College Kuala Kangsar, I had heard of an all-round student who was equally at home in the classroom as on the sports field.

Razak was Head Boy 10 years before I arrived at the college in 1948. In the time I knew him, modesty was his habit, and economy his custom. Ever polite, he treated people with respect and consideration.

He was known as a workaholic – he loved politics, his family, his country and the idea of ‘khidmat’, or being in the service of people. He loved his home town of Pekan, which was his constituency, and he loved golf. Razak led a regulated life and loved “living and loving” like all of us.

It does seem to me that at the centre of his early life was his mother and, in later life, his wife Rahah Noah, now 82. (She was made a Tun in 1976). These two women were, like him, modesty personified.

Simplicity was their habit and they were thrifty by disposition. Rahah is more diffident and reserved than her husband. She shuns publicity. Then, and now, she goes about life with little fanfare.

When compelled, she makes a brief appearance, after which she happily slips away with great relief. Razak had longed for a daughter they never had. Of their five sons, Prime Minister Najib (above) is the eldest and banker Nazir, the youngest.

Razak’s abhorrence of corruption and abuse of power is well noted. He was popular because he was sincere and easily accessible, having the uncanny ability to make even the most irrelevant person feel wanted and important.

In my 14 years of working closely with him, he lost his cool with me only once, at the JFK Airport in New York. I had kept him waiting a good 30 minutes and he and the entourage could not board the plane because their passports were with me. Deservedly, he sacked me on the spot only to reinstate me halfway across the Atlantic to London! He may have been soft-spoken, but he was also a dry wit.

In the 40 years since Razak’s death, we might have reached the Promised Land, but we have not. We could have relearned old lessons and not strayed from the path, as many insist we have. I have, in my small way, tried to prevent even worse lapses.

Let us reiterate – loud and clear – that all citizens are alike before the law and their fundamental liberties are guaranteed. However, no community must conduct its affairs to deliberately insult the others – this is the bedrock of mutual respect upon which the country has been built.

More importantly, no citizen should question the ‘taat setia’ (loyalty) of another simply because he belongs to a particular race or religion.

Historic decision to visit China

Razak was the best Prime Minister we could have wished for. He was an enlightened and a far-sighted leader, a patrician who believed in meritocracy. He assembled around himself talented Malaysians and appointed the best candidates.

During his short but momentous years on Jalan Dato Onn (the country’s seat of power before Putrajaya), Razak made the boldly historic and, if I may say, creative decision to go to Beijing to commence diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic  of China, signalling the end of the long communist rebellion in Malaysia.

He managed bilateral relations with our closest neighbour in the same way. Despite the perception that he and Lee Kuan Yew did not get along too well, I must stress they had a very “pragmatic relationship”, even if each was suspicious of the other.

Razak introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP), which laid the foundations for social engineering to help narrow the economic gap between and within each ethnic community, believing that economic prosperity would trump racism and extremism and enhance national solidarity.

He was no megalomaniac who would allow fervid nationalism to make Malaysia a failed state. I can vouch his honesty in this. If I may add, Razak was definitely committed to racial harmony, economic prosperity and social justice and did his utmost as Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister to enhance all that.

He was a great Prime Minister of great integrity; decent, dignified and good. Above all, he was universally acclaimed as a straight and honest man. Of that, there is no doubt. He was the towering figure of the third quarter of 20th century Malaysian politics.

No other Malaysian Prime Minister sought, and succeeded in some measure, to change Malaysians – especially the Malays and their place in the country – as radically as he did through the NEP, social engineering and constitutional rule. What Razak did stands as a powerful statement of his legacy.

(Tan Sri) ABDULLAH AHMAD is a former New Straits Times Editor-in-Chief and was once Political Secretary to  Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.