Former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Ghafar Baba is looking forward to more serene days after a tumultuous couple of years of family grief and strife. He spoke to JOCELINE TAN days after celebrating his 80th birthday with his family and close friends.
TUN Ghafar Baba’s house lies in a cul-de-sac up in the quieter side of Bangsar. It is a simple house, the architecture little changed from the days he moved in back in the early 1970s.
The only activity that hot and hazy afternoon came from the workmen who were digging a large hole adjacent to the front door.
“They are building a fish pond,” Ghafar indicated from the sofa where he was reclining with his slightly swollen feet propped up on a cushion.
He merely smiled in his enigmatic way when asked whether it was some feng shui scheme.
He had just returned home and his shoes, dark socks neatly tucked into each neck, lay beside the sofa.
The former Deputy Prime Minister had turned 80 several days earlier.
“I don’t normally celebrate my birthday, it's not Malay culture. My children will hold parties for me but this time, friends kept asking and I don't want them to think I am stingy,” he said.
It was a gathering of mostly family and loyal friends who have known him since his early political days.
He was particularly pleased to see his best friend from his Malacca days, Datuk Tan Cheng Swee.
Despite his years in Umno and the government, there were surprisingly few Umno figures at the party. Among the more notable were old friend Federal Territory Minister Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad and political maverick Datuk Ibrahim Ali of Kelantan.
“Najib phoned me that evening to wish me,” Ghafar said, adding that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s late Prime Minister father had been “like a brother to me”.
Earlier in the afternoon, MCA president Datuk Seri Ong Ka Ting had visited with a small entourage in keeping with what by now seems a party tradition, a sort of gratitude gesture to Ghafar for his sincerity in helping to resolve the party’s 1984 crisis.
The practice was started by former president Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik who had also dropped by in the morning to personally wish the birthday boy.
“The MCA leaders come without fail every birthday and Hari Raya and it really touches his heart,” said Ghafar’s son, Tamrin.
And each birthday, the MCA leaders like to joke about Ghafar having once been their “temporary president”.
He often grows emotional, openly weeping into his handkerchief, on these occasions.
Tun Ghafar was a wakil rakyat for an astonishing 49 years.
During this time, he held a variety of positions ranging from Chief Minister of Malacca to Minister and finally Deputy Prime Minister.
“I never lost an election until 1993,” he said.
He was referring to the Umno election of 1993 when Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim mounted a scathing challenge for the No. 2 post, resulting in Ghafar withdrawing from the contest.
Time heals and any bitterness that Ghafar might have harboured of that experience seems to have evaporated.
Why didn’t he fight on?
“I had no means to fight, no money. Also, I did not want to attack Anwar then. How could I? We were in the same party. It would have only benefited the Opposition. My mistake was I did not see that politics had changed. In the past, they supported you based on your track record. Now it’s something else –this money politics,” he said.
Not long after that, Ghafar decided to quit all his government and party posts. He was in the airport VIP lounge, shortly before leaving for an official visit to North Korea, when he wrote his resignation letter.
It was a one-paragraph resignation addressed to “My Dear Prime Minister” and written on Malaysia Airline stationery with a borrowed pen.
Walking away from power has apparently never been an issue for Ghafar. He has turned down top government posts a total of five times over his long career.
The first was in 1959 when he declined to become Chief Minister of Malacca. Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had to threaten to leave the state without a Chief Minister before Ghafar bowed to the offer.
About 10 years later, Ghafar got wind that Tunku was planning to make him a Cabinet member. He phoned Tun Razak Hussein to ask him to dissuade the Prime Minister.
While Ghafar was abroad, however, Tunku quickly announced Ghafar’s Cabinet appointment.
Tunku later told him that he delayed the announcement till Ghafar was away for fear that he would reject it.
The third occasion was when he quit the Tun Hussein Onn Cabinet in 1974.
Then, in 1981, when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad became Prime Minister, he sent Tun Daim Zainuddin and Anwar to ask Ghafar to become his Education Minister.
Ghafar's response was an unequivocal “No, thank you!”
Finally, in 1986, he asked for a few days to think it over when Dr Mahathir asked him to be Deputy Prime Minister. He accepted only because Dr Mahathir reminded him of an old promise – Ghafar had pledged to always support Dr Mahathir.
He also rejected any sort of honorary title, preferring to remain plain Encik Ghafar for most of his life.
Dr Mahathir had to make two personal house calls over two years to ask Ghafar to accept the Tunship.
When he was finally persuaded, Dr Mahathir quickly sent then Chief Secretary Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji to Ghafar’s house to make all the arrangements before the title-shy politician could change his mind.
So, what sort of man is this who has spurned offers of power, status and titles that others would have fought tooth and nail over?
His own down-to-earth explanation: “I like an ordinary life, to drive my own car and to be able to stop by the roadside and eat rojak under the tree.”
Yet, every Prime Minister was drawn to his grassroots strength, loyalty and humility. Thus, although he had limited education, they wanted him in the Cabinet.
And the fact that he did not crave power or position also meant he would be of no political threat to them. Ghafar’s pet subject till this day remains multi-racialism.
The last couple of years have been tumultuous for this retired politician.
He buried his first wife Puan Sri Asmah Alang and went through a messy and highly-publicised divorce with his second wife Heryati Abdul Rahim.
Ghafar’s second marriage was controversial for a number of reasons.
First, he was known for his disapproval of polygamy and had been steadfastly monogamous although the late Asmah had been sickly and virtually bed-ridden for close to 30 years.
Second, it occurred during a contentious Umno election and, third, he was then 68 and Heryati only 30.
So what inspired him to breach his personal code of conduct and during the most formidable political challenge of his life?
“Heryati asked me for help. I was head of Sabah Umno and her husband, a Sabahan, was marrying another woman. She had no citizenship, no money and two children to care for. I felt sorry for her and after a while I told her to marry me.
“She was following me here and there and I didn’t want people to gossip. I don’t care about sexy or attractive. It was all very proper and I wanted to help solve her problem,” he said.
Of his failed second marriage, he said: “For the sake of my daughter I have swallowed everything to keep the communication open.”
But all that has not stopped his friends from constantly teasing him about being the “most eligible Tun” in town.
“They’re always asking whether I have a girlfriend,” he said, breaking into a rare smile.
“I haven’t met any nice lady with a guitar-shaped body who walks like Marilyn Monroe,” he said mischievously.
But Datuk Rahman Yunos, his personal assistant said: “People tease him about remarrying but he told me he prefers to be alone – less problems that way. He can eat anything and go wherever he likes without getting nagged.”
Ghafar has outlived one wife and three of his 11 children.
His sole regret is not having spent more time with his children when they were growing up but he has few regrets about his political life.
“I just feel lucky to have lived this long.”
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