IN 1968, the commandant of the Royal Military College wrote to a former Cabinet member and serving MP to say that there was only so much the armed forces could do for his son which did not extend to keeping him in the college that ill-suited the youngster’s rebellious, non-conformist temperament.
That boy was me and the ex-minister was my father Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman.
In acknowledging the setback to his first-born, my father kept his integrity by acknowledging the truth of the situation and did not use his considerable influence to keep me in an institution against that institution’s guardians’ better judgement.
Instead, he made life a little more interesting for me by reducing my status from privileged big-headed elite scion to minority Asian student in a land of socialist equality, Australia.
These events of more than 50 years ago got me thinking about the issue of integrity, which is arguably one of most important core values around which other desirable ends are built, such as the integration of our society into a cohesive, inclusive community.
In the current political scenario, it isn’t the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal that challenges our belief or disbelief, it is the conditions under which it occurred that bring to focus earlier 1MDB-type events that had shocked us before.
How many of us remember the Bumiputra Malaysia Finance (BMF) scandal that led to the murder of assistant general manager Jalil Ibrahim, who incidentally was an RMC alumnus?
Who among us recall the number of times Bank Bumiputera, the pride of the Malays, was bailed out and at what cost?
Amidst all the noise by PAS about RU355 in the previous Parliament, who should Muslims believe? Would they sacrifice their personal freedoms under the Federal Constitution for harsher punishment in the Syariah courts? More important, are those casting the first stone without sin?
Have they asked permission from the sultans of the Malay States before seeking amendments to their royal powers under the Constitution? Where is the integrity in all these actions?
Every person with an Internet connection is a broadcaster, news commentator and opinion maker. This individualism challenges efforts at intellectual, religious and political integrity.
Look at how our youth communicate with each other, each in their own virtual reality. In contrast, look at the villages or small towns where people still see and talk to each other. Look at the different attitudes towards religion in Peninsular Malaysia and in Sabah and Sarawak.
So what are the ways towards national integration with integrity? To paraphrase a Malay saying, when you are lost, go back to the beginning and start afresh.
First is accepting the Constitution as envisioned by the nation’s founding fathers, minus all the amendments from the 1980s. How to do this, I leave it to our finest legal minds to work out and inform us. The result would be a strengthening of the institutions like the judiciary and Parliament that would make another 1MDB and BMF unlikely.
Second, leave religion out of our discourse. The Constitution is as Islamic as it can be because the founding fathers were devout Muslims and would not wish anything bad for the nation they had built.
Religion is used by our politicians to divide and upset us. Give back to the rulers the power of religion. The Federal Government has no business other than making business smooth and transparent, establishing commerce and strong trade externally to assist our farmers and working class, and providing effective defence against external threats.
Redeploy the people in Jakim (the Malaysian Islamic Development Department) to a Department of Social Reengineering to tackle the rempit problem.
Third, improve and expand our infrastructure so that we can meet each other more often, do business efficiently and cheaply, and bring the countryside to the cities and vice versa. And don’t forget the infrastructure in high-rise low-cost buildings, where our youth live, otherwise they’d be reluctant to go home and rempit instead.
Four, decide once and for all, an education policy that serves the needs of our people. In the case of the Malays, encourage them to study practical subjects that would enhance their lives, by making specialist jobs highly paid ones by providing the right conditions. We don’t need so many religious scholars.
Five, reduce the size of the government. Why do we need so many ministers and deputy ministers? What do they do, really?
Six, have faith in our youth and give them all the support they need to lead. Guess how old our founding fathers were when they were given leadership roles in 1955? Tunku Abdul Rahman was 52 and Tun H.S. Lee was 55 but Tun Abdul Razak was 33, my father was 40, Tun Sardon Jubir was 38, Tan Sri Khir Johari was 32 and Tun V.T. Sambanthan was 36. We expect our young to defend and die for us but we baulk at giving them power to lead.
Seven, preserve and contribute to our history and shared cultural practices and beliefs that define us as a nation, such as our fashion, our food, our art, our poetry, our creations inspired by our times. Every Malaysian has a memory worth sharing and social media is there for our use.
As a history buff, I do like it when the past is remembered as a pointer to where we should be, and explains why we are, where we are.
As far as integration at the personal level is concerned, I can share with you the reality I was brought up in.
Before the RMC, my sister and I were educated in the English language by an Indian lady called Mrs Diaz in a kindergarten in Ampang Hilir, Kuala Lumpur, where the children I grew up with were mainly expatriates. I lived in Federal Hill, then Jalan Bukit Menteri Selatan in Petaling Jaya, before travelling to the United States with my parents in 1956.
My childhood exposure was therefore international and my household was multicultural. I can move easily between the different races and different nationalities.
When we returned from the US, I was schooled in St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, where the Malays were not in the top classes, because on merit, we were far behind the Chinese and the Indian students.
Religion was taught in the worst way possible. I knew how to bathe and prepare a body for burial before I was even taught the principles and theology of Islam.
But how to blame the ustaz who came straight from the rural areas to teach at a Catholic School under government instruction?
I joined the 8th KL Scout Troop at St John’s because I wanted to mix around with the other boys and learn useful stuff. With its good racial mix, scouting is a great leveller.
Even in the 1970s, KL was more culturally diverse and the unity was strong among the races because of one strong element that seems lacking today: trust among the womenfolk from different races, when it came to food, drink, and entertainment. I think this strong moral streak provided by the women was what bound the nation together.
Tunku, our beloved first prime minister, made it a practice that once a week a minister would host lunch for the others that included the wives, so there was solid bonding among Cabinet ministers.
He would also hold parties at the Residency with diplomats and the Cabinet to expose the foreign and local people to each other.
One year, he took the Cabinet, their families and some diplomats and business people for a four-night cruise from Klang to Langkawi and back. Every day he would spend time with the children on board and tell them stories from Malay mythology and legends, especially those of Langkawi, where the central character was a woman named Mahsuri.
In Malaysian politics, the party that commands the support of the women is the party that will form the government. Which is why religion mixed with misogyny is a threat to integration. By instilling fear over halal and haram, it has planted the seed of doubt among women as to whether they can trust one another.
I mentioned history as a guide to the future and as a force for integration. The history revisionists, however, are making it difficult for this, as they pick and choose events for textbooks that suit whatever the daily political agenda is.
Felda is seen today as someone’s legacy but look at the history and the legislation behind its establishment, and the so-called facts in the textbooks are in fact myths.
When I collaborated with Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in 2010 on my father’s biography, The Reluctant Politician, I was gratified by the response. It seemed to slake the thirst that was felt by many Malaysians of my generation for a paradigm of leadership forgotten for more than 30 years.
But I was also blasted for publishing it outside and giving the primary documents to the neighbouring country. How could I not, when the National Archives could not even find, let alone display the taped conversations my father had with fellow leaders and foreign governments, nor the numerous films on 8mm and photographs he personally shot for posterity to cherish?
The preservation of history and culture and other remembrances of the past calls for the highest integrity by its custodians, and in my father’s case, they have failed our family and by extension Malaysia.
I’ve given the above perspective from the point of view of a Malay that’s seen and experienced more than most other Malaysians, and from a privileged place as the son of a founding father and grandson of one of the signatories of independence.
I have experienced success and I have overcome failure, because through life there are two skills I carried with me from my brief stay in RMC and my scouting days: resilience and adaptability to the people and the environment around me.
Beyond that, I must add two more values – integrity and empathy – learned from my father, who always believed that Malaysia is its greatest as a sum of all its parts.
Editor’s note: Tun Dr Ismail, who retired from active politics in 1967 due to ill health, was persuaded to return to Cabinet as Home Affairs Minister after the May 13, 1969, race riots and was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 1970. He died in 1973 from a heart attack. He has been credited as the “man who saved Malaysia” and described as the “best PM Malaysia never had”.