Tunku Abdul Rahman as a political mentor and guide

The Tunku (Father of Independence)  from Tengku Tan Sri Ahmad Rithaudeen’s personal perspective and experience.

My political mentor and guide

When he gave talks on his Merdeka Mission, Tunku spoke from his heart, with sincerity, candour, honesty and a sense of humour.

I FIRST heard about Tunku in the early years of the Japanese Occupation, when he was a District Officer attached to the Kedah Civil Service. But it was much later, when I was in my teens, that I actually met him in person at an Umno gathering in Arau.

As a Malay, I felt proud to know there were Malay leaders who were agitating for a worthy cause for the country and its people.

I was fortunate to have been able to read law in the United Kingdom way back in the mid-1950s, when the opportunities for further education in Malaya were limited to the one university in Singapore. Student life in London was interesting and enjoyable. The spirit of camaraderie among fellow Malayans, in particular the Malays, was strong.

The Malay Society of Great Britain – established many years back by none other than Tunku himself as a young student – had helped to create a network among Malay students in the UK and often invited Tunku to give talks whenever he came to London on his Merdeka Mission.

A time together: Rithauddeen paying a visit to Tunku at his home in Penang. Picture is taken from Rithauddeen’s private collection.

I used to enjoy listening to him, as he spoke from his heart, with sincerity, candour, honesty and a sense of humour. He reminded us that Malaya would soon gain its independence, and that there was a need for qualified people to serve the nation. He did not want us to overstay in London, and advised us against following his example of taking 23 years to complete his Bar-at-Law.

Tunku had a salutory way of dealing with the insinuations made against him, mostly from Parti Negara, the main opposition Malay political party led by Datuk Onn Jaafar. Tunku at that time had just assumed the leadership of Umno.

To counter the allegations, Tunku visited Kuala Terengganu and there at the Padang Istana Maziah, he admitted that the remarks were all true.

But he added, “When we are young, our minds are untrained, but as we grow older we realise the folly of our past actions and try to reform accordingly. However, there are still some amongst us who refuse to learn and discard old habits even though they are now adults”.

One had to be a visionary leader and a political strategist to lead a country like Malaya. Tunku treaded the political path cautiously in striking a balance.

Tunku introduced measures to reduce inequality of income and made his deputy, Tun Abdul Razak, responsible for rural development. Tunku himself concentrated on fostering a sense of national consciousness among the people.

In 1960, Malaya, which recognised Taiwan at the time, faced the dilemma of which China to recognise in the long run. However, when Tunku was overseas he stated that Malaya would have to recognise the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) sooner or later.

At that time, the Foreign Minister was Tun Dr Ismail, a very hot-tempered but highly principled leader. He was furious at not having been consulted. Malaya was then fighting the Malayan Communist Party on its home turf.

When Dr Ismail sought an explanation from Tunku, the latter regretfully said, “Oh God! I completely forgot”.

Back in Malaysia, Tunku must have got wind of Dr Ismail’s intended visit to see him at The Residency to submit his letter of resignation.

Tunku told Che Cai, his housekeeper, “If Dr Ismail comes, I know he will come tomorrow, tell him I’m not at home”.

Dr Ismail did come very early the following morning, at about 8am, and I think for three days consecutively thereafter, but each time he failed to meet Tunku. After three days, Dr Ismail cooled off, and decided against submitting his resignation.

Dr Ismail was subsequently appointed Home Minister, a post specially created for him, in a minor Cabinet reshuffle.

It was vintage Tunku – non-confrontational and fair despite facing the most trying years in the young nation’s 50-year history. Through it all, he retained his legendary humour and remained very kind even to his detractors. Tunku never harboured any ill will towards anyone. He was the epitome of grace.

Born in Kuala Krai, Kelantan into the royal household of Patani in 1932, Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen joined the judicial and legal services before turning to private practice. He has held various ministerial portfolios from 1970 to 1990 including Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. He is presently chairman of the Umno Disciplinary Board.

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