Author: Abdullah Ahmad, Esquire Malaysia
In a kinder, gentler era before antisocial media and reality TV, the definite article was reserved for persons of stature.
Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Tunku, founder of Malaysia, was one such person. He once told King Faisal of Saudi Arabia that he “loved dancing, drinking and gambling,” to which the latter replied, “Yes, but I am not looking for an imam” and then proceeded to make the Tunku secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
In this issue’s exclusive excerpt of Conversations with Tunku Abdul Rahman by the late Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, the Tunku shares with the author the story behind Malaysia’s formation, his views on Lee Kuan Yew, and Singapore’s sudden split from its hinterland.
It’s worth noting that Abdullah was, by his own admission, part of the putsch against the Tunku, which some also associate with Kuala Lumpur’s race riots of May 13, 1969, a turning point in Malaysian history. Abdullah was political secretary to Tun Razak Hussain (father of current Malaysian prime minister Najib) who replaced the Tunku after May 13, and to whom he was a close confidante and alter ego. And yet, the Tunku granted Abdullah the privilege of his personal insights, which were recorded on tape but remained unreleased until the book was published last year.
Abdullah, who passed away not long after, was also regularly invited by the Singapore government to share his views on Malaysian affairs, briefings attended by Lee Kuan Yew. The two men knew and respected each other. (It was also in Singapore that Abdullah presented on Malay dominance in national politics, translated as ketuanan Melayu, a tale for another time.)
Despite it all — or because of it all — Abdullah described the Tunku as “Still the Greatest Malaysian”. I had the privilege of working with him on Conversations, and have heard part of the recordings of the many hours of their conversations, now kept at the National Archives. The Tunku, graciously and with no rancour, describes his responsibility to being true like this: “People can say anything about me but none will accuse me of ever being a hypocrite.” — from the editor’s note, Esquire Malaysia, August 2017 print edition.
The land was swept through by the north-easterly and south-westerly winds and the myriad peoples who had set sail by them. By the time resource-rich Malaya won independence from the British in 1957, the country was a federation of nine Malay kingdoms with a 51 percent non-Malay multiracial population, many of whom were foreign workers turned citizens, imported to keep the colonial economy humming.
Taken on their own, these are not unusual facts of history. What is, is that the British were talked into giving up a Crown colony by a man of Siamese-Malay lineage. Some foreign correspondents, incredulous at the lack of violence, predicted Malaya would go down in flames. Tunku Abdul Rahman—the Tunku, the man who led negotiations for Malayan Merdeka—declared himself, “the happiest Prime Minister in the world, leading the happiest people in the world”. Gracious, popular and charming, the former playboy aristocrat had pulled it off: the postcolonial experiment, Malaya, was a success story for the world.
The Tunku would lead his country to defeat a communist insurgency, face down big neighbours Indonesia and the Philippines, and enlarge Malaya to include Singapore and the vast former colonial states of British Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak. Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak formed the Federation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963.
But Singapore split from Malaysia on August 9, 1965, after mounting racial tensions between the Alliance party led by the Tunku and the People’s Action Party of Lee Kuan Yew following a contentious general election in April the previous year, and two riots in Singapore in July and September. The repercussions did not end there; the withdrawal of Singapore had left Malaysia with a demographic majority of Malays on the peninsula, and Singapore with a strong Chinese one. Each became the other’s bogeyman.
The bloody race riots of May 13, 1969—a palace coup gone awry?—erupted in Kuala Lumpur and forced the Tunku from power. Among its dramatis personae was Abdullah Ahmad, long-time aide and political secretary to the Tunku’s successor, Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussain. (Two others, the “ultra” Malays Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Musa Hitam, became Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia in 1981.) And yet the Tunku granted Abdullah Ahmad privileged access to him between 1982 and 1984, the honeymoon years of the vaunted Mahathir-Musa administration.
That period was to prove the prelude to Malaysia’s political climate change. In a series of free-flowing, frank and surprisingly revealing conversations, taped but never before published, the Tunku takes on the challenge of being interrogated by Abdullah Ahmad on the episodes in Malaysia, Singapore and the region that continue to form the tropes of much of our daily lives and political beliefs. The tapes on which Conversations with Tunku Abdul Rahman is based can be heard at the Malaysian National Archives.
Presented as when it was first written in 1986, this edited excerpt provides insight into how the Tunku dealt with Lee Kuan Yew, the formation of Malaysia and the eviction of Singapore from the Federation.—Jason Tan
The original article “The Tunku Spills the Bean on Singapore’s Split from Malaysia” by Abdullah Ahmad, was taken from Esquire Malaysia. To read the full article, click here.