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Tun Hussein Onn: One of the Greats

by Mohammad Faridzuan Abd Rahman, Communications Executive, PLF.

Ever since I was a high school student, I’ve always admired Tun Hussein Onn, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia. Perhaps subconsciously it’s because he hailed from Johor Bahru, where I am from, or perhaps it is because of his given title as Malaysia’s “Father of Unity” as national unity is a topic I have strong opinions on, now more than ever. This post is dedicated to Tun Hussein Onn who passed away 31 years ago today.

Tun Hussein Onn, Father of Unity

Tun Hussein Onn was born in Johor Bahru, Johor on February 12, 1922 to Dato Onn Jaafar (the very same Dato Onn who founded UMNO in 1946) and Datin Halimah Hussein. He received his early education in Singapore and at the English College in Johor Bahru. After leaving school, he joined the Johor Military Force as a cadet in 1940 and was sent a year later to the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun, India. It was in India that he learned the many lessons and skills which would shape his political leadership later in life.

After an initial foray in politics, serving alongside his father in UMNO as the party’s first youth leader then in the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP), Tun Hussein left politics to study law at Lincoln’s Inn, qualifying as a Barrister-at-Law. He came back as a certified lawyer and practised in Kuala Lumpur. 

Tun Hussein Onn (left), and his father Dato Onn Jaafar, during the 1st UMNO Assembly in Johor Bahru.

After a few years, he was called once again into politics by Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister. After winning a seat in the 1969 General Elections, Tun Hussein was appointed Malaysia’s Minister of Education. Believing language to be a strong unifying tool, Tun Hussein elevated the status of Bahasa Malaysia by making it the medium of instruction in the national education system, and making a pass in the subject a requisite for passing the Malaysian Certificate in Education (MCE) examination.

Tun Hussein became Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister in 1973 after the death of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman. The pair was arguably one of the best dynamic duos in our nation’s history, comparable to the pairing of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak. Coincidentally, Tun Razak and Tun Hussein also married the daughters of Tan Sri Mohamed Noah Omar, the first Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat; Tun Hussein Onn married Tun Suhailah, while Tun Razak married her sister, Tun Rahah.

In 1976, upon the death of Tun Razak, Tun Hussein Onn became Malaysia’s third Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, he focused on strengthening national unity through policies aimed at rectifying economic imbalances between ethnic communities.

“In a multicultural country like ours, we need leaders, at all levels of society who are more than just leaders of their respective community. Indeed, to be effective these leaders must be acceptable by all communities. They must always place national interests ahead of sectional and communal interests.”

This timeless quote by Tun Hussein is a good reminder for leaders to not just be the leader of one party or community, but to be the leader of all citizens. One hopes that Malaysian leaders, present and future, will carry this lesson.

20th April 1981. Tun Hussein launched Amanah Saham Nasional Berhad

One of Tun Hussein’s biggest achievements, in my opinion, was the introduction of a national unit trust scheme, Amanah Saham Nasional Berhad (ASNB), to enable more Malaysians to benefit from the country’s economic growth through ownership of shares. To this day, ASNB is still operating and has benefited millions of Malaysians from all walks of life.

Tun Hussein Onn’s time as Prime Minister was a brief one, lasting only five years from 1976 to 1981. While his time was short, he left an imprint of service, integrity, and harmony. Though he had to be persuaded to rejoin politics, no one had to persuade him to give his all in his service to the nation. I firmly believe this is why he can be considered as one of the greats.

Sadly, in 1990, Tun Hussein Onn passed away after suffering a fatal heart attack. He was at Seaton Medical Centre, San Francisco, USA, when he passed away. He was given a hero’s funeral, buried next to his brother-in-law, Tun Abdul Razak, at Makam Pahlawan, Kuala Lumpur. He is survived by his children, Rogayah Hanim, Dr Suraya Hani, Rodziah Hanis, Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin, Dr Rozita Halina, and Harris Onn.

final resting place. image: author’s own