TO younger Malaysians, the country’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, may just be a name or an iconic figure of the distant past. But to those who lived through the birthing pains of Independence and the formation of Malaysia, he is much more, because none of it would have been possible without Tunku.
Still a much loved figure nearly three decades after his death, Tunku made an impression on the young Uma Sambanthan. She remembers Tunku as a leader who took his responsibilities seriously, and a charismatic figure blessed with humour and generosity as well as a lesser known spiritual streak.
“I remember on the 10th anniversary of Merdeka in 1967, Tunku repeated all that happened on Aug 30 and at midnight on 1957. It was all very colourful at Dataran at midnight, memorable, emotional scenes.
“Later that morning we went to wish him happy Merdeka, and my husband said ‘You must be very tired because it was a long night, you should get some rest.’ He said, ‘No lah Sambanthan, I saw all those people and I came back and prayed for them’.
“Tunku was spiritual. Not for display, not for political purposes, but genuinely spiritual. He followed his own spirituality but didn’t make a big show of it,” recalls Uma.
She remembers him as a man who gave without questioning.
“Nowadays you have politicians travelling first class using party or government funds. Back then every time Umno didn’t have money, Tunku would sell a property from his inheritance to donate funds to the party to keep it running.”
Aside from being generous Tunku also believed in keeping things light with humour.
“Tunku had a very naughty smile. He was very humorous. Sometimes a group of people would be waiting for him outside and you are inside, but once you hear laughter you knew that he was present,” Uma recalls.
While a strong adherent to his own faith, Tunku never believed in mixing religion with the running of the country.
“Another important thing is that he used to say, ‘Don’t make Malaysia an Islamic state’. This is Tunku’s quote, and this was on May 1, 1958, in Parliament when he said that Islam is the official religion but that the country must not be an Islamic state. Nowadays, for the sake of politics, it is confused.”
Despite his role in leading the nation for the crucial first 12 years, a time that included the Emergency, the formation of Malaysia, Confrontation with Indonesia, separation of Singapore, and May 13 race riots, Tunku was not given full respect by some of his own party colleagues, says Uma.
“Poor Tunku, when he resigned they all forgot about him. But he was not cowed.
“I recall the famous lawyer P.G. Lim and a case with five or six boys who were influenced by the communists and sentenced to death,” says Uma in reference to a 1968 case in which Lim defended 11 young people who had been sentenced to death for collaborating with Indonesian forces during the Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation.
“She came to me and said ‘Now we are going to Tunku’s house to appeal’. I said we have to wait, the appointment must be done properly. But she insisted, so we went and met with Tunku, saying it is urgent. We made it clear that the boys were underaged and cannot be given the death penalty. And he helped, even though he was insulted by a royal and it made him less popular with Umno members.”
Tunku’s intervention helped secure pardons for all 11 defendants from the Sultans of Johor and Perak.
“You see, Tunku believed in justice and duty and didn’t care about losing popularity to do the right thing.”
The level of fairness under Tunku was remarkable. Tun Hussein Onn also tried to be fair, but no one else can compare to Tunku in terms of looking out for all Malaysians, says Uma.
Finally, Uma recounts a story Tunku used to tell about being born dark: “His mother was from Shan state (in what is now Myanmar), and there was a servant who was caught stealing. Back then the punishment was chopping off hands. So she lied to the Sultan, saying she was pregnant and appealed to save the servant’s limbs. But then when the baby, Tunku, was born he was dark-skinned, which she thought was a punishment for the lie!”