Two words that cropped up often in speeches made by Malaysia’s second prime minister are apt descriptions of the man called the ‘Father of Development’.
THERE is a Malay saying, “Gajah mati meninggalkan tulang, harimau mati meninggalkan belang, manusia mati meninggalkan nama”, which illustrates how a person’s deeds live on. In English, the saying goes that while the elephant dies leaving its tusks and the tiger its stripes, men die leaving behind their name and reputation.
It’s an apt description of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who died on Jan 14, 1976, exactly 40 years ago today.
The country’s second most celebrated figure after the Father of Independence Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, Tun Razak left behind many lasting policies and institutions, which he introduced and set up before his death from leukaemia at the age of 54.
His eldest son, current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, said his father’s motivation in dedicating his life to the country stemmed from the hardship and poverty he witnessed and experienced when growing up.
Tun Razak was born on March 11, 1922, in Pekan, Pahang. His father, Datuk Hussein Mohd Taib, carried the title of Orang Kaya Indera Shah Bandar Pahang.
“Although he was the son of an aristocrat, Tun Razak did not grow up in luxury – quite the opposite actually as times were tough back then,” said Najib in a recent interview with RTM in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of his father’s passing.
Tun Razak went to school barefoot, and his school did not even have a blackboard so the pupils had to work out their sums on sand.
“Because he came from a poor family, he had an acute awareness that if ever he would come to hold a high position in government, he would help bring about change in the country,” said Najib.
The changes Tun Razak brought to Malaysia in the short span of five years he served as Prime Minister are astounding. He led efforts to rebuild the country after the riots of May 13, 1969. He then laid down much of the foundations of modern day Malaysia, maintaining a hectic work schedule until his failing health finally consumed him.
“He knew he was running out of time. He found out he had leukaemia in 1969, so maybe he felt that during the time that he still had, he needed to do all he could and move as fast as possible to place the foundations not just in terms of policy but to build institutions,” Najib said.
Tun Razak’s untimely death in 1976 pushed the entry of a then 23-year-old Najib into politics.
Najib was elected unopposed to his father’s Parliamentary seat of Pekan five weeks later on Feb 21, which means that next month will mark the prime minister’s 40th year of involvement in politics.
“Actually, my father did not want me to enter politics, because he saw it as a very challenging occupation, and perhaps because he also thought I was too quiet, which I was back then. He wanted me to be an accountant,” said Najib, laughing.
Najib said his own interest in a political career developed from observing his father, and from evening discussions about politics with his university mates during his student days.
“My plan was to get a job, then do a post graduate degree, and after some time I would then try to join active politics – but as mere mortals we can only plan,” said Najib.
Commitment, honesty, and sincerity in serving the people and country were among three of his father’s traits Najib mentioned as his inspiration during the interview, in which he shared a number of personal anecdotes about growing up with Tun Razak.
“His commitment was extraordinary, be it to the biggest policies right down to matters many would regard as trivial, such as when people from the villages would turn up outside the gates of our residence.
“My father would greet them as soon as he saw them, even from afar, and he would try to meet them, even if for a short while.”
In learning from his father, Najib said he was struck how Tun Razak would often use the same two words in many of his speeches: jujur (honest) and ikhlas (sincere).
“He would say, for example, that our struggle must be carried out with honesty and sincerity. Meaning that if we are honest and sincere, God willing, we will achieve success.”
Tun Razak had another personal quirk. He was known as having the “3Bs”: bush jacket, bertongkat (he used to carry a walking stick) and “berdehem” (the sound he made when clearing his throat, enough to send chills down the spine of subordinates).
“Many people were afraid (gerun) of him, and I have heard stories of district officers shaking in fear when they had to give him a briefing. But actually he was a very kind-hearted and compassionate man,” said Najib, before jokingly adding:
“I have to use a different style than my father. I always say that if I were to use a walking stick people would say I’ve had a stroke!”
Tun Razak was ultimately a product of his time, and the fact is that many things are different now.
Some of the changes have been due to the success of past national policies. For example, the politics of development is no longer adequate as nearly all areas in the country – except for those in the deep interior – now have basic amenities.
Malaysians today are also better educated, and the world is now a global community due to the Internet and ICT revolution.
“The challenges for politics today are therefore different, because information, and even slander for example, can now spread in real time,” said Najib.
However, while the times may have changed, the core values of a successful leader needs to remain the same.
During the interview, Najib was told of a 1976 New Year’s speech Tun Razak delivered just two weeks before he died. In it, he expressed his confidence that, “God willing, if the 12 million people of Malaysia really unite and have a desire to live in peace and freedom, there is no power anywhere which can oppose our desire and aim”.
Reflecting on the excerpt, Najib said it highlights how nation-building is an ongoing journey.
“That excerpt of his speech, if I were to use even today, would still be relevant because the principles of our struggle remain the same.
“What’s important is for successive generations of Malaysians to continue the struggle started by Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Razak and others.
“That is the best way for us to honour our past leaders who have contributed so much to us: by building on what they have put in place and taking Malaysia to a higher level of success.”
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