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Tunku: His Throne is in the Hearts of Malaysians

by Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid*

The anecdote below was excerpted from the book ‘Prince Among Men: Recollections & Reflections on Tunku Abdul Rahman’. This anecdote was chosen in remembrance of the death anniversary of Tunku Abdul Rahman, who passed away at the age of 87 on 6th December 1990. 

Al-Fatihah, and may he be placed among the righteous.

“I started admiring Tunku in 1953 when I took history as a subject in Form 3. Some of the events which happened at the time strengthened this admiration. One was the Baling talk with Chin Peng, the Malayan Communist Party Leader in 1955. Tunku had stood his ground when he wrote: “The ideology of violence is in conflict with our ideology of peace. We cannot accept the Communist Party as lawful and legitimate after the damage they have done to the people and country.” I, of course, supported Tunku as many of my own relatives had been killed by the communists. I lived in Tapah, the capital of Batang Padang district, which had many “black areas” during the Emergency.

I had glimpses of Tunku in person on many occasions. During my whole career in the Malayan Civil Service (now known as PTD) I never once had the chance to formally meet Tunku. I was, however, lucky on two occasions, both on board MAS flights. The first opportunity came on board the MAS flight from Kuala Lumpur to Penang in 1986. I was led to a seat next to Tunku who was returning home to Penang. I introduced myself to him as the Secretary General of the Ministry of Trade & Industry, and expressed my admiration for him as the Father of Independence, and Father of Malaysia. Tunku’s charm and good grace touched my heart. He was so gentle, humble, and simple. The 45-minute flight to Penang felt so swift. Tunku invited me to his home, but I declined politely as I had an official appointment that evening. On reflection, I regretted declining Tunku’s sincere invitation to his house. To be honest, I was most unmindful when I declined the great man’s invitation.

The second opportunity came again on yet another MAS flight in the late 1980s. This time, the flight was from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur. Tunku had been in Hong Kong for eye treatment. I exchanged pleasentries with Tunku, kissed his hand, and introduced myself. Before take-off, Tunku agreed to pose with me for a photograph. There was no chance for further conversation with Tunku as we were not seated next to each other.

Author Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid with Tunku on board MAS flight from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur.

My last personal encounter with Tunku took place in his residence in George Town, Penang on 22nd May 1990. I was in Penang attending a briefing on the implementation of the Fifth Malaysia Plan, and I was told by the State Secretary, Datuk Kamaruzzaman Shariff that Tunku was at home, and so I requested to see him. It was, however, not an easy decision to make because Tunku at the time was the adviser to the opposition political party, Semangat 46. Since Tunku was in failing health, I did not want to let this opportunity slip by. My admiration for him overcame all fears. By the time I met Tunku, he had been long gone from the corridors of political power. But I knew that he was in the hearts of all Malaysians. He sacrificed his normal nap after lunch. I arrived at his residence at 1.30pm.

He greeted me at the door and in a fatherly manner gestured to me to have a seat in his lounge. We spoke for about thirty minutes. He mentioned that he had sold 14 shops in Penang, his own, to finance UMNO in the early years. He was such a gentleman he even put sugar into my cup of tea. I was greatly touched by his kindness, and humility.

Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji in conversation with Tunku at Tunku’s residence on 22nd May 1990. From left to right; Datuk Kamaruzzaman Shariff (now Tan Sri), the author, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the author’s wife, Puan Sri Sagiyah binti Salikin.

After a cordial conversation, he led me to the door. Tunku’s gesture in sending me off was totally unexpected given his stature, his age, and failing health. His last words to me just before I boarded my car were: “I hope you do not get into any trouble by coming to see me.

I was to see Tunku once again, but in less happy circumstances. Tunku had been admitted to the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital on Friday, 30th November 1990, suffering from dehydration, anaemia, fever, and intestinal bleeding. His condition turned worse on Wednesday, 5th December, when he was transferred to the ICU. I visited him five times and reported to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. On Thursday night, 6th December, Tunku became critically ill. The Prime Minister arrived around 9.00 pm, and we stood by Tunku’s bedside even as the great man’s life slowly ebbed away. He passed away peacefully.

My duty, as instructed by the Prime Minister, was to announce to the nation, and the world the passing away of Tunku.

The New Straits Times report of Tunku’s death on the front page on 7th December 1990, read as follows: Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, the nation’s first Prime Minister, passed away at the General Hospital here at 10.25 pm. He was 87.”

Front page news of the New Straits Times, 7th December 1990.

Upon his request, Tunku Abdul Rahman was laid to rest in the Kedah Royal Mausoleum rather than the previously allocated Heroes’ Mausoleum at the National Mosque, Kuala Lumpur.

The author, Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid, was put in charge of the State Funeral, and formally handed over Tunku’s coffin on behalf of the Federal Government to the Kedah state’s representative, Dato’ Paduka Haji Radzi bin Bassir for the burial.

Facsimile of Tunku’s letter on his wish to be buried at Langgar Royal Mausoleum, as received by the author 2 weeks before Tunku’s death.

*Born in 1938, Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji received his degree from the University of Malaya (BA Hons), Harvard University (Master in Public Administration), and the Institute of Social Studies, the Hague (Diploma in Public Administration). Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji rose through the ranks to become the Chief Secretary to the Government from 1990 to 1996. Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji passed away on 28th August 2021.

More info on the book ‘Prince Among Men: Recollections and Reflections on Tunku Abdul Rahman’ here: