The golden years

  • Nation
  • Saturday, 08 Feb 2003

By SOO EWE JIN & Tan Lee Kuen

Remembering the Tunku in pictures  

Exactly one hundred years ago today,a prince was born, whose destiny was to preside over the birth of a new nation. The prince who would become,in his own words,the happiest Prime Minister in the world, nurtured this fledgling multi-ethnic nation through the most difficult early years. 

Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj,born Feb 8,1903, laid the foundations of nationhood that brought the people together as one big family.He was more than just our leader.He was our Bapa. 

And so we all grieved deeply when he died on Dec 6, 1990,at the age of 87,even though he had long taken his exit from the national centrestage.It has often been said that the hallmark of Malaysia's success is that it has been blessed with the right leaders at the right time.And among our founding fathers,the humble Tunku stood tall in a class of his own. 

And so today,on the occasion of what might have been his 100th birthday, we pay tribute to our forever-loved Bapa Malaysia 

He was born a prince but lived as a commoner. He did not actively seek office, but had responsibility thrust upon him. When he died on Dec 6, 1990, it was no surprise that king and commoner came to pay their respects, and walked the final journey with him through the streets of Kuala Lumpur. 

Those who were present the following day at the lying-in-state at Parliament House or took part in the funeral procession thereafter would to this day still cherish those last moments with a man who will forever live on in the hearts of all Malaysians. 

This man, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, if he were alive today, would have been 100. 

Tunku introducing Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to his daughter Tunku Khadijah.

And today is a good day to remember him once again. Although memories will differ from one person to another, it is a testimony to the Tunku’s greatness that few will ever speak ill of him. 

From generation to generation, the Tunku will be remembered for different things. 

To the pre-Merdeka generation, he will be remembered as the key figure in the country’s fight for independence and overseer of its fledgling start. He was our Bapa Kemerdekaan, the Father of Independence. 

To those who lived through his years as Prime Minister, he will be remembered as an able steward of a fledgling nation who was able to pull the different races together with his unique message of unity and peace for all. He was, and still is, our Bapa Malaysia, even if his exit from politics, ironically came about in the aftermath of a serious blot in the nation’s racial harmony. 

And to those who lived through his retirement years when he made his mark in the Islamic world, and then briefly returned to partisan politics in the upheavals of the late 80s, he will be remembered as a man willing and able to stand up and speak up in moments of crisis and controversy. 

His weekly column in The Star, As I See It, was a must-read for its historical lessons and its “fatherly advice”. Even if people disagreed with him at that time, few would question his sincerity, his wisdom and his love for the country. Lesser men would have faded away but not the Tunku. 

At the funeral that day, one could clearly see that amidst all that grief, people were coming together to mourn a man who had made such a difference in the ordinary lives of Malaysians. 

Otto Von Bismarck had written, “A really great man is known by three signs; generosity in the design, humanity in the execution, and moderation in success.” The Tunku was a great man on all three counts. 

The 20th surviving child born to Sultan Abdul Hamid of Kedah, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj was a gregarious boy growing up in a palace as his mother’s favourite son. He was trilingual, speaking Malay, English and Thai fluently. As a young man, he was a happy-go-lucky undergraduate at Cambridge, an untraditional civil servant in Kedah and a law student in London. A common virtue ascribed by classmates and friends was his modesty, generosity and rare leadership. 

Tunku at Stadium Merdeka declaring Malaya's independence on Aung 31, 1957.

Despite that, it was unforeseen that Tunku would rise to such prominence as he did. When he was a district officer in Kulim, Kedah, an Indian astrologer had told him he would be the first prime minister of Malaya. All his friends laughed, including himself.  

A man of genial nature, even temperament and good humour, he didn’t intend for a life of politics. Following his vote into the Presidency of Umno, his friends were piling on advice to study the art of public speaking, to keep up-to-date with local and international affairs, and to alter some personal habits. Tunku had said, “People must accept me as I am: my bad habits and my virtues. At the age of 48, I cannot change them.” 

It was his character that contributed to his biggest achievement – independence for the country without bloodshed. His amicable nature, excellent command of the English language and familiarity with Western manners and customs stood him in good stead at the negotiating table. 

In one instance, when the secretary of state of the colonies Oliver Lyttelton, did not accept all the recommendations of the Election Committee report, Tunku had politely informed him that the Alliance leaders will be forced to resign, paving the way for extremists. As the Tunku presented the Resolution of the leaders to General Sir Gerald Templer, then the High Commissioner of Malaya, the general read the document without comment. He then looked across the desk at the Tunku, and good humouredly said, “So, Tunku, the pistol is out!”  

His tenure as Prime Minister was particularly difficult for the nation was severely divided along racial lines. Fear, doubts and suspicions were rife, and it took a warm, assuring hand to calm down Malays and non-Malays enough to compromise and accommodate each other. It worked because Tunku sincerely wanted peace and unity among the people. 

The first six years were considered the golden ones. Enduring national institutions such as the Parliament, museum, and war memorial were built. Traditional Malay culture was actively promoted, and the country became known due to the Tunku’s outspoken protests of the South African apartheid.  

He was also one of the founding fathers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  

The Tunku often tried to ensure compassion and humanity in resolving conflicts such as Singapore’s separation, Indonesia’s Confrontation and May 13.  

After his resignation as Prime Minister in 1970, he stayed busy, albeit behind the scenes. He was appointed the inaugural Secretary-General to the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) in Jeddah and actively continued his work at the Malaysia Muslim Welfare Organisation (Perkim), which he founded in 1960. 

Tunku determining the qiblat of the National Mosque.

Had the Tunku been anything less than a compassionate and kind human being, he would not have been so well loved. Although many did not have the privilege of knowing him personally, his legacy as a father to the country prevails. He was humane because he believed in people; tolerant because he wanted peace; and a prince because he gave so much to the country he loved. 

He is buried beside his family in the Royal Mausoleum in Langgar, Kedah.  

Related Story:A people’s man 

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