Tun Ismail – a model for politicians

Exactly 31 years ago, the nation saw the passing of a nationalist with true integrity. Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, who was the deputy prime minister then, serves as a fine example of how politics should be, writes JOCELINE TAN. 

MOHD TAWFIK DR ISMAIL bears a striking resemblance to his famous father – the endearing toothy grin, a certain pensiveness around the eyes and the same crinkly head of hair. 

Mohd Tawfik’s father was none other than Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the deputy of the second Prime Minister, Tun Razak Hussein. 

Until the day he died of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 58, Dr Ismail was a figure of exceptional integrity and intellect in Umno and the government of that time. 

He and Razak were so close that the latter broke down in tears at the news of his death. 

As the firstborn of Dr Ismail and Toh Puan Norashikin Mohd Seth, Mohd Tawfik has vivid memories of his father.  

His nostalgia has never been greater than in the past year given the way Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has evoked traits of Razak’s administration. 

The Prime Minister’s stand on corruption and government is somewhat reminiscent of the years when men like Dr Ismail thrived on their principles. 

Dr Ismail’s reputation as an upright and incorruptible man is all the more poignant at a time when the conduct of Malay politics has grown so questionable. 

Tun Dr Ismail

“My father used to say that he drifted into politics. He didn’t set out to be a politician but got caught up in the nationalist movement and eventually drifted away from his original profession,” said Mohd Tawfik, a former MP who is now in the education business. 

Dr Ismail was born into an elite Johor family with a long history in the state civil service. 

He studied at the King Edward VIII medical college in Singapore before furthering his medical studies in Australia. 

The Second World War prolonged his stay there and by the time his ship docked in Singapore in 1946, the independence movement had begun, with many Johor Malays in leading roles. 

When Tunku Abdul Rahman was asked to lead Umno, he asked Dr Ismail and his brother Datuk Sulaiman to work together with him. 

The rest was history.  

Dr Ismail played a key part in formulating the Constitution as well as in the genesis of the New Economic Policy in the aftermath of the May 13, 1969 riots. 

His public service began in 1948 when he was made a member of the Johor State Assembly, rising up to the post of minister in the pre- and post-Merdeka years. 

The older generation recalled how Dr Ismail took charge after May 13, appearing on television to appeal for calm and order and to announce that he had assumed the position of Home Affairs Minister. 

Prior to that, Dr Ismail had been out of the Tunku Cabinet for about two years.  

The official reason was that he was in poor health.  

He had not been in the best of health but many said he quit the Government because he could not agree with the Tunku on a number of policies. 

The Tunku turned down his request to resign several times.  

Once, Dr Ismail even “chased” the Tunku around the garden to get the country’s first Prime Minister to accept his resignation letter. 

Dr Ismail was an intellectual who believed in logic and rationale in making decisions. 

But the Tunku, Dr Ismail used to say, “ruled by intuition,” and that went against Dr Ismail’s grain as someone who believed in discipline and objectivity when it came to work. 

By the time the May 13 riots erupted, Dr Ismail’s reputation as a no-nonsense type reached near-legendary proportions. 

And that, said one veteran journalist, was why his reappearance in the post-May 13 Government had tremendous effect on the public. 

“He had credibility, so his words carried weight,” said the journalist. 

A lesser-known fact about his part in those tumultuous days was how he put his foot down against martial law.  

The Tunku thought of handing over power to the army but Dr Ismail, with his great presence of mind, said “once you do that you won’t get it back.” 

Some non-Malays saw him as an ultra-Malay given his role in the National Economic Policy but Razak loyalist Tan Sri Michael Chen described him as a Malay patriot. 

“He was very genuine in wanting to upgrade the social position of the Malays but he never incited them against other races,” said Chen. 

Razak and Dr Ismail, said former Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Musa Hitam, formed a real working partnership.  

“They spent a lot of time talking about matters of government, in and out of the office. They were men with a mission to make the country succeed and to take the Malays on the road to progress,” said Musa. 

Dr Ismail was also known for keeping an open mind when it came to ideas.  

Musa recalled how, during an Umno supreme council meeting, he as the then deputy Umno Youth leader, defended the wing’s confrontational stand on the issue of Bahasa Malaysia.  

When he finished, Dr Ismail cast him a steely look and asked: “Do you mean to say that Umno Youth is a pressure group?” 

Musa stood his ground and said: “We represent the young members in the party and our views are different.” 

Those around the table thought that Musa’s goose was cooked but Dr Ismail nodded and said: “You’ve got a point there.” 

Needless to say, Dr Ismail’s reputation often preceded him.  

“If you had an appointment with him at 9am, you'd better come at 8.30am. One minute late and he would refuse to see you,” said Chen. 

But that did not mean he was all work and no play.  

He had a lighter side to him for he enjoyed a good joke, believed in living the good life and had a rather flamboyant taste in dressing. 

Dr Ismail's sudden death on Aug 2, 1973 stunned everyone. 

Dr Ismail, said Musa, was a beacon in his time.  

Unfortunately, he seems to occupy a faint spot in the national memory.  

When his daughter who worked in Bank Negara visited The Star several years ago, a reporter told her that he was honoured to meet the daughter of such a great man.  

She was taken aback and told him not many remembered her father like that. 

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