By Vijay Eswaran
On May 2, the latest leg of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Lecture series took place in Kuala Lumpur and saw one of Asia’s leading public intellectuals, Kishore Mahbubani, calling Tunku one of the greatest statesmen he had never met.
The lecture series itself is deeply embedded in the country’s history. It was inaugurated by the Malaysian Institute of Management (MIM) in 1970, the very same year the man it is named in honour of was forced to step down as the first prime minister of Malaysia.
We all know Tunku as one of the nation’s founding fathers. We are taught in school that he is Bapa Malaysia (Father of Malaysia) or Bapa Kemerdekaan (Father of Independence). But in many other ways, his achievements and his legacy have been relegated to the back pages of history, almost as if he was a passive spectator to Malaya winning its independence from the British, getting over its teething pains, facing down external and internal threats to its security, and becoming what we now call Malaysia—instead of being its prime mover.
In many ways, Tunku’s legacy mirrors that of Mahatma Gandhi. Because of India’s current political scenario, Gandhiji has been rendered into a symbol hollowed out of all meaning—a name to be trotted out expediently for the sheen of moderation, especially on the campaign trail—but one which reveals little about the magnitude of the man. As in the case of Tunku, this hollowing out is not due to the memory of the man withering with the passage of time but seemingly by design.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj was born into Kedah royalty in the most fitting circumstances, perfectly encapsulating Malaysia’s passage from the old into the modern world.
It has been recounted that his mother, Che Manjalara, lied to her husband, the sultan, in a show of compassion to the wife of a court official, who had been sentenced by the sultan to have her right thumb and those of her children severed. Manjalara said that she was pregnant—although she was not—and expressed her fear that her child would be born without a limb due to the cruelty of the sentence. The sentence was revoked, and miraculously, she became pregnant soon after. Accordingly, she named her child Rahman, which means “compassion” in Malay.
Tunku read law in Cambridge, but, much to his father’s displeasure, came home to join the Kedah civil service. He eventually became an assistant district officer in Kulim to better understand the issues faced by the people. He eventually left for London to take the Bar exam, but this was cut short by the onset of the Second World War and the Japanese occupation of Malaya.
Soon after, he became the president of Umno after the ouster of Onn Jaafar.
Onn, who, like Tunku, was a man ahead of his time, wanted to open the party up to non-Malays. Although Tunku kept Umno exclusively Malay, he took great pains to overcome the deep communal divides put in place by colonialists by fostering ties with the Chinese and Indian communities—so much so that this was later used as ammunition against him by malcontents within his own party.
The Alliance Party, comprising Umno, MCA and MIC, did a near-clean sweep of Malaya’s first general election in 1955 and brokered independence from the British just two years after.
It is hard to overstate the conditions Tunku was working under. History makes it seem like Malayan independence was easily given, not hard-won and earned. Malaya had just come out of a brutal occupation and centuries-long colonisation and, at the moment of existential crisis, found itself facing opposition from within. The country was still embroiled in the fight against the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), former allies during the war. And yet, Tunku, the perennial statesman, managed to bring them to the negotiating table.
As he said in 1959, “We can fight the Communists, we can shoot them without any remorse, but to shoot one schoolboy would be a tragedy and crime for which we cannot forgive ourselves, because these boys do not know what they are doing.” Indeed, some of the more senior CPM members, especially those involved in the pre-war Malay nationalist movements, regarded Tunku with great respect, even if his vision for Malaya differed from theirs. They recognised a man who was just as willing to fight, albeit with different weapons, to make Malaya free.
Tunku’s dogged insistence on viewing citizens as people and not political fodder was evident even in the formation of Malaysia. After initially rejecting a proposal from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew for a merger with Malaya, Tunku changed his mind and included Singapore, as well as the Borneo, states in his vision for the federation, which drew the ire of then-Indonesia president Sukarno.
Sukarno escalated the severing of economic and political ties into a full-blown “Ganyang Malaysia” campaign in late September 1963. When several pro-Indonesian insurgents were sentenced to death for treason, Tunku heeded his words in 1959 and secured a royal pardon to avoid racial tensions.
Unfortunately, this act of compassion would be used against him in the aftermath of the bloody May 13, 1969, riots, in which at least 196 Malaysians lost their lives. He was sneeringly called a “happy prime minister” by the more radical fringes of his own party—the implication that placating minorities in the newly-constructed nation was a sign of weakness, which directly led to the racial tensions he was trying to avoid.
Once again, Tunku faced a threat from within, but this time, there was no room for negotiation. The unelected National Operations Council, or Mageran, was formed, effectively seizing power from Malaysia’s founding father and placing it squarely in the hands of his deputy, Abdul Razak Hussein.
Tunku was unceremoniously dumped. He had no choice but to resign. Razak and his allies would chart the future course of the country, in which the vision of Tunku—one of multiculturalism, integrity, the rule of law and mutual respect would gradually crumble under the weight of unchecked greed and exceptionalism.
The May 13 tragedy stands out among all the other great shifts in the country’s history. It is a cleavage that the country has not fully recovered from. Its spectre is raised again and again, even over half a century since Tunku’s ouster. As in the case of Gandhi, the same political capital used to bring down the founding father is still in use and proves just as profitable today. Tunku’s visage is displayed during national celebrations, but his later warnings of where the country was heading went unheeded.
When we are left wondering, as we often are, if there is any cure for the plague of institutionalised bigotry, ruthless authoritarianism, and wanton corruption, we can take comfort that it wasn’t always like this. And that was largely due to one man: Tunku Abdul Rahman, one of Malaysia’s greatest-ever sons.
Vijay Eswaran is the Founder and Executive Chairman of QI Group and a fierce advocate for the growth and development of ASEAN as a block