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Sunday April 1, 2007

Taking root, branching out


For many Malaysians, our beginnings can be traced to an ancestor who put down roots in this land so that the family tree could grow. Through the years, these “trees” put forth branches, with some branches reaching higher and growing longer, producing offspring who left their mark on the country. In many ways, how families prospered through marriage, education and economic opportunities reflect the way the nation prospered and grew too. 

As part of The Star's run-up to Merdeka, StarMag introduces Malaysian Families, a five-part series on the first Sunday of every month, that will look at individual family trees, starting with that ancestor who begat it all, and trace the interesting “branches” that had an impact on Malaysian society and history. We kick off the series today with the family that gave us Umno founder Datuk Onn Jaafar as well as Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Dr Ungku Zeti Akhtar.

 

ROQUAIYA Hanim (1864-1904) was nothing short of remarkable. Little is known about the woman and her sister, Khatijah, except that they were brought from their native Turkey to Johor some time between 1884 and 1885 as brides for the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Abu Bakar, and his brother, Ungku Abdul Majid ibni Temenggong Ibrahim. Khatijah married the sultan and became the Sultanah of Johor in 1892 and Roquaiya married Ungku Abdul Majid. 

When her husband died, Roquaiya married Syed Abdullah Syed Mohsin al-Attas. They divorced later and she married Datuk Ja'afar Haji Mohamed. 

From the three husbands, she had 10 children and many of them and their descendents played important roles in the country's political system and in the birth of an independent Malaysia, and now serve in the fields of politics, academia and economics.  

Roquaiya's grandson Lt Jen (Rtd) Datuk Ja'afar Onn, (pic) who is in the midst of compiling information and writing a book on the family, a labour of love that was started long ago by other members of his family, says her descendants include some of the most well-known names in Malaysia. 

They include the first, fourth, sixth and seventh Mentris Besar of Johor, the first and third president of Umno, Malaysia's third prime minister, two vice-chancellors of Universiti Malaya, the current education minister and the current governor of Bank Negara. 

Ja'afar, 73, the grandson of Roquaiya, says his grandfather Datuk Onn Ja'afar was the first Mentri Besar of Johor.  

“Sultan Abu Bakar appointed my grandfather and he held the post till he died. It was during his tenure that the state government was developed. In Johor, all the MBs were chosen by the Sultan, it wasn't a hereditary position. 

“While your family did count, it was your own efforts that mattered more. In my family we had several of Mentris Besar of Johor, including my grandfather and father, Datuk Onn.” 

Onn is, of course, best remembered in history as the founder and first president of Umno, a role he took up after resigning as MB. 

Click image to view chart
Ja'afar's brother Tun Hussein, a lawyer by training, went on to become Malaysia's third Prime Minister and whose son, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin, is the current Education Minister. 

When it came to the extended branches of the family, Ja'afar said that Onn also took care of the children from Roquaiya's previous marriages.  

Roquaiya's children by Ungku Abdul Majid were Ungku Abdul Aziz, who became the sixth MB of Johor, and Ungku Abdul Hamid. The latter's son is Prof DiRaja Ungku Abdul Aziz, the former vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya whose daughter is Bank Negara governor, Tan Sri Dr Ungku Zeti Akhtar. 

“Dr Zeti is actually descended from Roquaiya from both sides. Her mother, Azah Aziz, is Roquaiya's daughter, Azizah, my aunt,” says Ja'afar. 

The branch of the family tree that his grandmother begat with her second husband, Syed Abdullah Syed Mohsin al-Attas, gave the nation the late Prof Datuk Dr Syed Hussein Alatas and Prof Dr Syed Ali Tawfik al-Attas, the current director-general of the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim).

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