In service to the nation

  • Lifestyle
  • Sunday, 22 May 2011

Tracing the story of three generations of the Onn family, Legacy of Honour provides an unprecedented insight into the lives of men who influenced this country’s history.

THERE is no nobler thing than to serve your country. What higher ambition can a man have?”

Thus spoke the late Tun Hussein Onn, third Prime Minister of Malaysia.

It is a noble sentiment and perhaps something one would expect to hear from this well-respected man. But would you expect blunt opinions from him? Recall your memories of Hussein as portrayed in the media or the history books – do you remember a well-liked but mild mannered man? Would you be surprised to hear he was far from that image?

Zainah Anwar was. While she was busy developing the NGO of which she was the founding executive director, Sisters in Islam, for more than a decade, Zainah was also researching a book that she had been asked to write on a prominent Johor family and its three generations of politically influential leaders.

That was when she came across a former prime minister she didn’t recognise.

Of the book, Legacy of Honour, that was launched on Wednesday, Zainah says, “It’s really about honouring Hussein,” adding, “it’s there in the newspaper cuttings, but no one highlights it.

“He was really blunt and had strong opinions. The image we have of him is that he was mild-mannered, weak and indecisive, so when I read through the papers, I thought this wasn’t him. He came across as a strong man, and the press never captured that.

“(Fourth Prime Minister, Tun Dr) Mahathir spoke in headlines. Hussein didn’t speak in headlines. But he spoke of corruption as early as 1974, he saw it and highlighted it. He didn’t care about the political consequences of his actions. If someone violated the office, was corrupt, he wanted to uphold the rule of law.”

After going through this book, I feel that if there is one modern historical figure that our written history has been less than kind to, whose character far exceeds in measure the public’s opinion of him, it would be Tun Hussein Onn.

Legacy of Honour sets out not only to paint a true picture of Hussein but also of his illustrious grandfather and father: respectively, Datuk Ja’afar Mohamed, the first Mentri Besar of Johor, and Datuk Onn Ja’afar, the founder and first president of Umno.

The lavishly illustrated book covers the political and private lives of these men who helped shape the history of this nation. The book was funded by the Noah Foundation because it wanted to preserve for posterity the contributions of this prominent family – and also because, says foundation chairman Datin Paduka Dr Faridah Datuk Abdullah, it was felt that there should be a better record of Hussein’s tenure in office.

“We felt that his term as prime minister had been glossed over, his contribution to the country forgotten, and we wanted a more accurate portrayal of him,” said Dr Faridah in a phone interview on Wednesday.

“He was very much against corruption, we wanted to show what he stood for, his values, ideals. And Zainah, whose father was a family friend, we felt, would be right to tell his story.”

The book was actually commissioned in 1995 but was only completed last year. Of course, says Dr Faridah, no one expected it to take so long, but there was so much research to do, and so many personal family matters going on that interrupted the process.

Now that the book has been launched – on Wednesday by Hussein’s son, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein – proceeds from its sales will be going to charity. Just as importantly, though, Dr Faridah hopes the book will keep doing good far into the future by inspiring the next generation of leaders.

“We hope that the young people of this country will get to know what the three men stood for, what they hoped to achieve. They were very strong in their convictions. It’s a beautiful record of what they stood for, and what life was like in those days. Zainah managed to put into it what others weren’t able to do and I am sure it will take its place as one of the most important books in the country.”

Turmoil and trouble

That Legacy of Honour is an important book is not in doubt – as our reviewer points out on SM17 – because, by tracing this family, it also traces the development of modern Johor and, arguably, Malaysia, too. But this is far from being a dry, historical/political tome, thanks to the fascinating glimpses it offers into personal lives.

The hefty, coffeetable-sized book is divided into three parts that cover various aspects of the lives of the three men.

The first part on Ja’afar covers the emergence of modern Johor, his 33-year term as the state’s first Mentri Besar (from 1886-1919) and his family life in the official residence, Bukit Senyum (Hill of Smiles).

I found his personal life particularly fascinating; by all accounts it was a life filled with culture, education and luxury. He married five times and had Onn with his fourth wife, Rogayah Hanim, a Turkish woman of great beauty.

Bukit Senyum was the grandest private residence in Johor at the turn of the last century and at one point up to 70 people lived there. The accounts of the beautiful furniture from Europe and chefs from Turkey and India provide an interesting look at how Johorean aristocrats lived then.

However, for Ja’afar’s family, this easy and luxurious life was not to last after his death in 1919: The then Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim, wanted to acquire Bukit Senyum, apparently to recover the debt incurred in building and furnishing it. The family had little money and had to watch everything in their home get auctioned off. Despite all that Ja’afar had done in public service, once he had passed away, it was all forgotten and his family had to move into an attap-roofed house (albeit a big one).

Thus began a new chapter, and the second part of the book covering Onn, from the early years, the formation of Umno and the end of his road. This part takes a look at the struggle among the Malays on how to achieve Merdeka, and the transformation of Onn himself, his exile to Singapore after he reportedly offended the Sultan, the return home, his appointment as Mentri Besar in 1947 and eventual resignation in 1949.

It then moves on to Umno, which Onn founded, of course. However, he proposed opening the party to non-Malays, which was an unpopular suggestion at the time and he eventually left to form the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP). What one gathers from this part is that he was a forward thinking man, far ahead of his time, indeed.

The final part, on Hussein, is the longest, as it covers everything from the early years, to politics and all the turmoil that entailed as well as what the man truly stood for.

Interruptions and progress

Putting this book together, says Zainah, was a rewarding and inspiring journey. Her father, Tan Sri Haji Anwar Malek, was a close friend of Onn’s and one of the founders of Umno, the third person being Tan Sri Haji Noah Omar, the first speaker of the Dewan Rakyat and, of course, in whose name the Noah Foundation was established.

Zainah began researching in 1995, and had a first full draft ready in 1998.

“It was a lot of work in the research archives in Johor, I spent considerable time looking at materials, doing a lot reading, and, of course, interviews,” says Zainah, as she begins explaining the long, hard birth of this labour of love.

“I was very impressed with the Johor Baru archives, everything was well-filed. Ja’afar’s notes were written in Jawi and I was amazed to find a group of people called Friends of Johor Archives. This group of dedicated people translated the notes from Jawi into Rumi (Roman letters), so that made my work a lot easier.”

It was a treasure trove of materials that ranged from salary records to handwritten notes and letters to the Sultan.

“It’s a pictorial biography so it highlights the lives of the three men. But for Hussein, no one has ever written comprehensively and accurately about him, so there are more chapters on him.” (Three chapters on Ja’afar, four on Onn and six on Hussein.)

Because it’s a commissioned work, it needed the family’s approval, and that meant the section on Ja’afar had to be vetted by Onn, while Hussein’s section was vetted by his daughter, Hanis; she also coordinated feedback from her siblings.

“There were interruptions, weddings, funerals, graduations, so it ran over the years. It was challenging; when I took the job, I was freelancing, then in 1998, I took on a full time job, so I didn’t have as much time to devote to it.”

Future guide?

Zainah says she hopes younger generations will read the book, and that it will be translated into Bahasa Melayu so that more people will know what politics was like in those days.

“There was honour and integrity in being a political leader,” says Zainah, adding, “What I hope the book will do is let us get in touch with our heritage, when integrity and principals mattered to man.”

She seems to feel strongly, too, about educating people about what Hussein was really like.

“People grew up with a different idea of Hussein, I really hope this book will redress the injustice done to the man. It’s a completely different Hussein that emerges from the newspaper cuttings.”

What she found similar in the three men was honour, integrity and a strong sense of duty.

“Once they made up their minds, they’ve considered it thoroughly. If Hussein was said to be slow, it was because he was thorough. He wanted to make the right and fair decision.

“Datuk Onn, his father, was more flamboyant, he liked the company of people, the cut and thrust of discussion. Hussein was different, he was quiet. He didn’t want anyone to be seen being close to him or favoured by him.

“When he entered the Prime Minister’s office, he stopped meeting his close friends, and they weren’t offended. They knew his character, he didn’t want to be seen as having cronies. And everyone knew better than to ask him for any favours.”

Zainah says she chose the title because she wanted to stress there was honour among politicians.

“The book strengthens the resolve for what is right, what is fair, what is just. It was an emotional process as well, for we have lost what we once had. We’re not starting from zero, we had a history, we had a heritage. How do we bring that back to the forefront of public life?”

She says that she hopes people will realise that public service was about honour, integrity and duty, and not personal gain.

“It’s about service and duty to the nation,” she says, adding, “And I really do hope the younger generation and Umno will read the book and reflect.”

Even if you aren’t into politics, though, this would make a fascinating read. From the selection of photos to the text, this is a book that opens a window into a time gone by even as it honours three men who provided such stellar service to the country.

Related story: The generation of change

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