Tunku Abdul Rahman, the principled statesman


  • Thinking Liberally
  • Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018

NEXT week, on Feb 8, will be the 115th birthday of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.

Tunku was the seventh son of Kedah’s Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah. Tunku’s mother is Che Menjalara, the daughter of Luang Naraborirak from Thailand.

He was educated in Alor Setar, Bangkok and Penang, before graduating from Cambridge University in 1925. He then completed his legal training in 1949.

He successfully led the series of negotiations that resulted in our independence from Britain. For that, he will forever be known as our Bapa Kemerdekaan (Father of Independence).

On Aug 31, 1957, Tunku read out the Proclamation of Independence. The proclamation was the basis and the principles behind the founding of our nation.

In the proclamation, Tunku said our nation shall “be for ever a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people and the maintenance of a just peace among all nations”.

Liberty and justice – these are the principles that must guide our actions and policies.

In 1963, Tunku brought four entities – Sabah, Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya – into one, to form Malaysia. Rightfully, that made him our Bapa Malaysia too.

On the day that Malaysia was formed, rather than reading out a different statement, he opted for the same proclamation, turning what was once called the Proclamation of Independence into the Proclamation of Malaysia.

Of course, as Prime Minister, he made his fair share of mistakes. There were actions of his that many of us today would consider as far short of the ideal. But on balance, many Malaysians today are longing for the environment fostered by Tunku’s administration.

He turned the principles of liberty and justice into actual policies, all aimed at ensuring the welfare and happiness of the people. He was determined to ensure every single citizen of the country enjoys liberty and justice equally, regardless of race and religion.

One thing for sure, his vision of how to unite the country was the correct one. He did not put one group above the other because he knew very well that a happy country can only exist if its citizens were equals.

Sadly, this vision of equal treatment disappeared soon after Tunku’s departure from office. Until today, we are still affected by the consequences from divisive ethnic-based social engineering.

When Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin Tuanku Muhriz, Wan Mohd Firdaus Wan Mohd Fuaad, and I decided to start the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), we made a conscious decision to dedicate our work to injecting Tunku’s ideals into all facets of public policy.

We launched Ideas on Feb 8, 2010, at an event that was also designed to celebrate Tunku’s birthday. Therefore, next week will also be Ideas’ eighth anniversary.

The last eight years has been challenging but fulfilling. The nature of an independent think tank is not widely understood in Malaysia, where labels of either being pro-government or pro-opposition are thrown around too easily.

When we say that we believe in principles rather than partisanship, many people become confused because we do not fall within their traditional labels.

The culture of “only bad news can become news” does not help either. Our criticisms get picked up by the media more frequently than our praises.

I have now become used to politicians and policymakers from both sides saying that we only criticise them and that we never give them credit. This wrong perception can only be expected because when we give credit when it is due, it is hardly covered.

As far as challenges go, last year was by far the most challenging one. We were very close to shutting down in August because of a major cashflow crisis after two large funders suddenly pulled out.

I had to go cap in hand to various people begging for money to keep us alive. Thanks to two donors, one from Britain and another from Johor Baru, we got through the crisis.

Moving forward, our quest to translate Tunku’s vision into policy proposals will continue. In an increasingly divided Malaysia, we will stay true to his unifying vision.

There are far too many people who, in private, complain like mad but refuse to speak up publicly even though they know they can change the country’s course towards the better. I promised my team at Ideas that we will never become like that. Hopefully history will show that I keep my word.

Meanwhile, let us spend the few days ahead remembering Tunku for the great Malaysian that he was and for his vision of liberty and justice. May his ideals of liberty and justice live forever. Alfatihah.

  • Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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