Side Views

What would Tunku do today? — Ooi Kok Hin

NOV 6 — When students look at portraits of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj (1903-1990), the first Prime Minister of Malaysia is perceived as a distant figure from an era gone-by. He’s the Father of Independence, the legend, and the unknown. We are told how great he was; yet we know so little of him. He is a myth. This shouldn’t be happening, because Tunku was a prolific writer. After his retirement, Tunku actively wrote two columns for The Star newspaper: Looking Back and As I See It. Several articles from the first column were compiled into a book with the identical title. From that book, I draw several of Tunku’s views which are applicable in our country today.

1. Abolish AUKU

Tunku had a long and dreadful conflict with Communists. But when the government conjured a Communist conspiracy theory behind the student unrests of the early 1970s, Tunku was quick to reject that theory. “Student [ego] movement is widespread in the world. They like to be known, they like to be seen and they like to be heard like grown-ups,” Tunku wrote in 1974. He refused to blame the students and understood that suppression of the young minds will not help Malaysia to be vibrant and dynamic country. In order to be ahead of our regional peers, we need to develop intellect and critical thinking. Tunku expressed desire to include students in our country’s politics and decision-making process. He suggested, “Perhaps one or two seats be given to Universities so that their members can participate in Parliament and play their parts in the country’s politics”.

“My own view is that personal attention must be given to students when they enter the University though they are men and not boys anymore,” Tunku wrote. “Men means they are on terms of equality with the professors and others who run the Universities and Colleges. The only difference is that they are undergraduates, having joined the University to find for themselves useful careers in life.” Such is Tunku’s faith in our potential and capability. It is clear that not only Tunku would abolish AUKU, but also he would work to encourage student participation in politics.

2. Revamp or resign from The Star

The Star was a small English-language daily in Penang in 1974 when Tunku was approached by its owner, Datuk Loh Boon Siew, to become its chairman. Tunku accepted the offer. With the help of his popular column every Monday, The Star quickly became a national newspaper. Today, The Star is the largest in terms of circulation in Malaysia. However, Tunku would be very disappointed if he sees what had happened to his paper. While The Star still provides news and services, it became a political mouthpiece of the government since Ops Lalang.

The current chief editor, Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, wrote at the preface of Tunku’s republished book, “[Tunku’s] refreshing take on the country’s political scene, a stark contrast to the propaganda in other papers then reeled readers in and his columns helped The Star at the forefront of the print media scene.” Sadly, the paper became the opposite of what it once was. Like other independence fighters who condemned the old newspapers being the mouthpieces of the colonial masters, Tunku would surely not tolerate his paper being mouthpiece of their master. He would demand The Star to show more autonomy, or resign from the news outlet.

3. Less bitter politics

How would Tunku deal with the opposition? And, to a certain extent, activist groups like BERSIH? “I adopted as policy whatever I thought was good for the people and the country,” Tunku wrote. “It was my duty to care for the people as best as I could, and to do everything within my capacity or powers to ensure that people had peace, contentment and happiness, in other words enough food, enough money and a place to live in.” Such words may be simply dismissed as sugarcoating and mere rhetoric in today’s politics. But Tunku’s deeds matched his words. He was willing to risk his political career by engaging with the enemy; an act which was perceived as soft and compromising by his critics. He preferred to negotiate than to relentlessly attack the other side. Thus he met and negotiated with British officials, Chin Peng, Lee Kuan Yew, and opposition leaders.

What would that tells us in today’s context? If Tunku was willing to meet and talk around the table with Chin Peng, wouldn’t he be willing to do the same with Ambiga and A. Samad Said? If he were able to discuss properly and write formally to inform Harry Lee that Singapore must leave due to his antics, would he resort to personal attacks which are so prevalent in today’s politics? Tunku was convinced that direct approach to meet face to face and put it all out on the table would allow all sides to see where they stand. Tunku even won admiration from opposition leaders. “For me, it is still Tunku Abdul Rahman who was above it all,” said Karpal Singh. “He was the one man who was determined to be leader for all Malaysians, regardless of race.”

4. More focus on ‘being Malaysian’ to tackle brain drain

What about our unmentionable racial issues? In an article published in 1975, Tunku expressed support for policies assigned to push the bumiputras ahead. However, he claimed that “many bumiputras put all their money into businesses in which they have no experience, and lose all their money…or they sold their rights to others for paltry sums.” He said there is too much exhortation going on and told a story when he was the PM. “I remember that once when Encik Aziz Ishak was Minister of Agriculture he confiscated all the licenses of Chinese rice dealers in Northern Perak and Province Wellesley with which to win over the Malays. But this way of doing things are wrong; it was the adage, “robbing Petter to pay Paul.” Tunku offered a remedy. “Immediately I ordered these licenses to be returned, but any licenses that were required for bumiputras should be given without limits. Nobody complained, as no one suffered.”

He also explained that when his government opened up large tracks of land, built roads, supplied water and electricity and lent out money to small traders and fishermen to improve their lot, never a word was said about bumiputras. “This phrase was introduced to play up the differences between people, those who were indigenous and those who are immigrant…it tends to split our people, and to turn back the status of Malaysians to the position we were in before under our imperialist masters. [divide-and-rule separation]’ Tunku still supported the policy providing aids to poor bumiputras, but he feared that “the policy of winning the hearts and minds of the people will suffer a severe setback unless care is employed in the use of the word “Bumiputras”. Tunku has always wanted to make people feel belonged in this country, and that there is no other home except here. “I tried to make everyone feel that Malaya [Malaysia] was his home, and that I expected every man to do his duty to this country, irrespective of racial origin.”

Tunku was a far-sighted man. He envisioned a happy nation where Malaysians are among the happiest people in the world. Though he is no longer our “happiest prime minister in the world”, (as he used to call himself) he still has valuable wisdom and advice to be shared with us. All accessible through his words. “We have the past to guide us through any present or future peril — but we must be resolute, and never let up, if we want our Malaysia to remain the peaceful, good country we love.”

* Ooi Kok Hin studies at The Ohio State University.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.

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