Tunku’s part in the birth of Asean

  • Letters
  • Wednesday, 22 Aug 2007

Asean pioneers: Datuk Abdullah Ali (left) sitting beside TunkuAbdul Rahman during a gathering in London in an undated photo.

Tunku mooted the idea of forming the Association of Southeast Asia, the forerunner of Asean, and worked hard to make it a reality. 

MENTION Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) and chances are there would be a bunch of heads nodding enthusiastically in recognition of, or at least pretending to recognise, this internationally renowned acronym. 

Casually enquire as to how Asean came about, who mooted the idea, and the foundations upon which it was built, and chances are a few of these nodding heads would look away, a little perplexed, slightly baffled, and perhaps even just that little bit embarrassed.  

Who indeed? His name was Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, popularly referred to as Bapa Malaysia

I first had the privilege of serving Tunku in the early 1960s. I was then a low-ranking officer whose designation was assistant secretary (economic) in charge of all economic matters in the then External Affairs Ministry (now known as the Foreign Affairs Ministry). 

When Tunku first proposed the idea of closer cooperation among countries of South-East Asia, especially in the economic, social, cultural and other fields, I was brought into the Committee (known at that time simply as the Working Committee headed by the late Tun Raja Mohar) that was formed to investigate its viability. 

At this point I would like to deviate a bit and talk about ASA (Association of Southeast Asia), the forerunner of Asean, because the entire concept was founded, then developed to maturity, almost solely as a result of an idea that originated in the mind of Tunku. 

The premise upon which the future Asean would be based began to take shape when Tunku visited the Philippines in January 1959. When he proposed the idea to President Garcia, the country’s then President, the outcome was an official endorsement in the shape of a joint statement called the Rahman/Garcia Communiqué, which was officially issued at the end of Tunku’s visit. 

From these rather unassuming roots began a series of consultations. On his part, beginning at the end of October 1959, Tunku wrote to the (government) leaders of Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam primarily to outline the main raison d’etres of his proposal, thus inviting their reactions and feedback. 

While responses from all countries concerned were received as of November 1959 through to January 1960, only Thailand and the Philippines were prepared at that stage to officially form an association, which they later collectively agreed to name ASA – a befitting acronym indeed as asameans “hope” in the languages of all three countries. While the initial reception was less than encouraging, the Government of Malaya remained enthusiastic and positive. 

None more so, of course, than Tunku himself. 

Thus, on July 31, 1961, in Bangkok, ASA was officially launched. Once again I would like to remind not only the people of Malaysia but also those of South-East Asia that Asean, as the world knows it today, exists primarily due to the aspirations, commitment, and determination of one man: Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj. 

I worked closely with him on everything associated with ASA. I used to see him at least once a week; and on one such occasion, I was asked to see him at 12.30pm. 

During the meeting, as soon as approval was given for some matters of which I have only a distant memory, Tunku looked at his watch and emphatically stated, “It’s time for lunch!” One can only imagine the surprise and honour I felt when he then said, “Dollah, come and join me.” 

If only he knew that on a few future occasions I had deliberately requested for a meeting at 12.30pm! And, yes, inevitably he never failed to ask me to lunch! 

In the period I worked with him, I found him to be an extraordinary man. Most of all, he was kind and considerate to everyone, and generous to a fault. He also entertained a lot. 

While these events were not really lavish, they were, more importantly, given and organised with sincerity and happiness. Thus, it should come as no surprise to be told that his guests, especially foreign ones, were always more than eager to enjoy his hospitality.  

THE late Datuk Abdullah Ali was one of the pioneers of the Malaysian Foreign Service. He served in more than 12 countries and was, among others, Malaysia’s representative at the United Nations in New York and first Secretary-General of the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), the forerunner of Asean. He also wrote The Story of ASA, a monograph published by the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 1963, and a definitive study on protocols, Malaysian Protocol and Correct Forms of Address (1986). 

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