Tunku Abdul Rahman and Malaysia’s pioneer diplomats

Tunku Abdul Rahman (right), Malaysia's first Prime Minister, with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during her visit to Malaysia in 1968. — National Archives of Malaysia

As Malaysia observes the 57th anniversary of its formation today (Sept 16, 2020), it is appropriate to remember Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country’s first prime minister and his pre-eminent influence on the nation’s international diplomacy in the first few years after our independence from colonial rule in 1957.

The Tunku almost single-handedly set up the Foreign Ministry, then known as the Ministry of External Affairs. When he became Chief Minister of Malaya after the July 1955 General Election, he set about laying the framework of the external affairs section. Apart from (later Tun) Ghazali Shafie, Tunku seemed to have relied on his British civil servants and some of his contacts from Johor, Kedah and Selangor to set it up. By National Day, Aug 31, 1957, the Ministry of External Affairs seemed the most Malayanised government agency although there were still British officers handling issues of security, finance and the most important internal audit responsibility.

The External Affairs Ministry was also one of the first to have a Malayan permanent secretary (or secretary-general in today’s parlance) – most of the other federal ministries, other than the Prime Minister’s Department, generally had British permanent secretaries. The ministry’s permanent secretary was Datuk Othman Mohammed, a senior civil servant who had earlier served as Malaya’s second commissioner in London. He had succeeded Raja Tun Uda Raja Muhammad who was possibly our first diplomat abroad.

Most early diplomatic and foreign contacts in the region seem to have been derived from the Tunku’s period of residence in Johor Baru after he became Umno president in August 1951. He lived there for the next three years carrying out party duties, and worked with news people, diplomats, sports officials and some business people.

Consular and trade officials stationed in Singapore kept in close touch with the Tunku to monitor the Emergency (the communist conflict that lasted from 1948 to 1960) and political developments in Malaya. The Tunku would also travel occasionally to Singapore for a day, sometimes to attend horse racing events of which he was famously fond.

One of the diplomats stationed in Singapore was Dr Mohammed Razif who was later to serve as Indonesia’s first ambassador to the Federation of Malaya. It would seem that quite a few of the diplomats who were stationed in Singapore were subsequently posted to Kuala Lumpur upon Malaya’s independence.

Interestingly, the Tunku was extremely close to the diplomats and sports officials from the Republic of China who later settled in Hong Kong. Apart from being an affable, warm and hospitable personality, the Tunku also had a keen interest in sports. He was involved in football associations from the early 1940s and on account of this interest he got to know sports officials from many Asian countries. Golf was another medium of his links with the expatriate community in both Johor and Singapore.

From this exposure to diplomats and consular and trade officials in Singapore and Penang – where there many consulates, including from Thailand – the Tunku seems to have had a fairly good idea of what he expected of his young nation’s first diplomats.

The Tunku, although quite Westernised, retained much Malay charm and sophistication. He wanted his diplomats to be well spoken in English, personable and sociable. He felt they had to dress appropriately and be able to hold a drink and carry on a polite conversation. He required their wives to also speak some English, have good table manners and observe decorum in dress and deportment. If they were well educated and experienced in particular areas of profession and management, he saw that as a bonus.

It was on this basis that he chose the country's first set of heads of missions. For the United States, seen then as a champion of democracy, he selected Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman. He first sent Ismail to Washington DC and New York City to recce the the place. On Aug 21,1957, The Straits Times newspaper reported that Ismail had been “selling” Malaya in the United States, and also that he had purchased three separate buildings – the chancery, the ambassador’s residence and the minister’s residence – for a total cost of $1mil Malayan dollars. We still own the 1.5ha property, which is the Malaysian ambassador’s residence in Rock Creek Park, Washington DC.

The Tunku’s older brother, Tunku Yaacob, a Cambridge University Agriculture graduate, was the second high commissioner in London. The first high commissioner in London was a lawyer, civil servant and a politician, (later Tan Sri) Nik Ahmad Kamil Nik Mahmood who had his first diplomatic exposure as Malayan commissioner in Canberra in 1956/57. He continued his diplomatic career with a term as the second permanent secretary at the Foreign Ministry followed by a stint as ambassador to the United States.

For Canberra, the Tunku chose another Cambridge product, (later Tan Sri) Gunn Lay Teik as the first high commissioner. To Indonesia, he sent (later Tan Sri) Senu Abdul Rahman, his political collaborator from Kedah. Senu, after graduating with an American degree, had worked as a senior liaison staff member of the Indonesian mission to the United Nations in New York City. Thus, when he was posted to Jakarta in 1957, he was already acquainted with most senior Indonesian Foreign Ministry officials.

The Tunku also screened virtually every one of the first recruits to the early Malayan diplomatic service, including the first 1957 batch consisting of: Tunku Tan Sri Mohamad Tunku Burhanuddin, Tuanku Jaafar Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Tan Sri Zaiton Ibrahim, Tengku Tan Sri Ngah Mohamed Tengku Sri Akar, Datuk Kamaruddin Mohd Ariff, Tan Sri Zakaria Mohd Ali, Toh Chor Keat, Jack de Silva, Datuk Ahmad Zainal Abidin Mohd Yusof, Datuk Abdullah Ali, Datuk Jamaluddin Haji Abu Bakar, Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Jalal, Datuk Hashim Sultan, Datuk Mohd Hashim Sam Abdul Latiff, Tan Sri Dr Lee Tiang Keng, Datuk Seri Hussein Mohd Osman, Raja Tan Sri Aznam Raja Ahmad, Yusof Ariff, HFG Leembruggen, Tan Sri Lim Taik Choon, Tan Sri Zainal Abidin Sulong, Datuk Mohd Sopiee Ibrahim, Tun Syed Sheh Abdullah Shahabuddin and Tan Sri SC MacIntyre.

Also tapped to head foreign missions were the two Latiff brothers, Tan Sri Jamal and Tan Sri Yaacob; the latter was the master of ceremonies at the Merdeka (Independence) ceremony in KL on Aug 31, 1957. Jamal was appointed the senior protocol officer, a very important post at that time as he was given the responsibility of coordinating the Merdeka Day events, state visits and extending handwritten invitation cards – some staff at the junior levels were hired on the basis of their handwriting by Jamal.

Another pair of brothers were also tapped by Tunku for diplomatic service; the two distinguished Abdul Rahman brothers, lawyer Datuk Sulaiman and medical doctor Tun Dr Ismail.

Most of the these personalities, like the two sets of brothers, were drawn from the top drawer of Malayan society.


Kajang, Selangor

Note: The writer is a former ambassador with 45 years of public service experience.

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diplomacy , history , independence , colonial rule


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