The Malay College connections that opened many doors


For a quarter of a century, Tun Razak played a secondary role to Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra. He was Tunku’s loyal deputy, an advocate and an understudy but never the lead.

He lacked the charisma and eloquence of Sukarno, Tunku’s humour and wicked charm and Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s outspokenness to dominate the public. But he had one attribute which Sukarno and Tunku lacked: the ability to manage, for Razak was a consummate and remarkable administrator-politician.

He ran his administration with style and accomplishment, was simultaneously adored and feared by the civil servants but immensely loved by the kampung folks.

Razak was a composed and reserved man. He lacked flair with words, but he was a leader of urbane charm and he was kind-hearted. His demeanour and style were akin to that of Zhou Enlai, Thanat Khoman and Suharto, distinctively well-mannered and unimperious.

Razak, though a hereditary Datuk, lived with increasing simplicity as he aged. As a young man he lived a full jolly life as any man of his status and position did. There was no contradiction – aristocratic and yet sympathetic to the disadvantaged of all races.

The second Prime Minister, though not intellectually daring, was innovative, dedicating and devoting his short life first to the independence movement and then to achieving what he thought the people desired and deserved through social re-engineering. In many ways Razak had a deeper instinctive understanding of bumiputra ideals and aspirations than the Tunku.

He carefully rebuilt the nation’s shattered dream following the vicious race riots in May 1969. He was astute and strong enough by 1974 to entrench “the politics of inclusion” through the National Front.

I must record here that it was achieved not without less than moderate opposition from the conservative elements in Umno and Usno in Sabah. However, once Razak murmured something or other, thus confirming the views of his advisers, the opposition melted, each rushing out competing who would be the first to shake Razak’s hand. No credible force in the nation was excluded from the National Front.

Razak, though lacking Tunku’s personal warmth, however, possessed greater personal warmth than Tun Hussein Onn, the third Prime Minister. Razak, like the Tunku, nurtured friendships going back to his school days; he maintained a network of private friends outside the political circles and civil service surroundings.

Tunku and Razak in this respect were not unlike Mahathir who seems to be in touch with his medical school classmates.

All the four prime ministers are different to an extraordinary degree in many ways but each is aware of his strength and weakness something which I like to delve into in the future. Tunku, Razak and Hussein smoked while Mahathir, not only does not smoke, prohibits people from smoking in his office and residence. Of the three smokers, Razak was all the more noticeable by smoking with a cigarette holder.

The British-run Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) was 28 years old when Razak arrived there in 1933 to join his father’s alma mater. I was not yet out into the world. I only came out on the 4th of July four years later, the year Razak passed his junior Cambridge (form four) examination. I became a student 11 years later in 1948, nine years after Razak had left the school.

Razak loved his time at the Malay College and reminisced about it all the time. He cited the MCKK connection as the main reason why he chose me as his political aide. He stressed that the training which we both went through, endured and enjoyed at our alma mater should make me a leader of men! He said: “Awak seperti kawan, budak College (You are like me, a collegian). I know I can absolutely rely on your esprit de corp and loyalty … and in politics both qualities are scarce and absolutely indispensable.”

Razak’s memories (he had a long memory) of his school, Raffles College (in Singapore) and London days were as clear in the sixties as when he left them in the forties and fifties respectively. They were good times where he made many friends like Tengku Jaffar (the Yang diPertuan Agong), the present Sultan of Selangor (who helped smoothen and speed up the negotiations which led to Kuala Lumpur being a federal territory), the late Sultan Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin of Brunei (despite their good personal relationship, he rejected Malaysia at the last moment) and the late Datuk Seri Hussein Nordin a former Umno Secretary General and a long-time chairman of Utusan Melayu and Tabung Haji among others at the MCKK, and Lee Kuan Yew and his wife, Maurice Baker, Goh Keng Swee and Ungku Abdul Aziz and many other notables at Raffles CoUege.

In London, Razak met up again with several of his Raffles College mates, adding Tunku Abdul Rahman and Des Alwi to the lon list. Des Alwi is Sutan Sharir’s adopted son. Sharir was Indonesia’s first prime minister. Des Alwi lived in exile in Malaysia during Sukarno’s years and returned to Indonesia only after Confrontation was over. Des Alwi played a crucial role in the Malaysian-Indonesian reconciliation. The last time I saw Des Alwi was last July when he attended my eldest son’s wedding in Kuala Lumpur.

Fred Arulanandon, a former Victoria Institution school teacher-turned lawyer whom Razak later made a high court judge (against much opposition) and Datuk Paduka Saleha Ali (Mahathir’s sister-in-law) and a one-time member of the Selangor State Council during the colonial days were among Razak’s many other friends in London.

Tan Sri Taib Andak, the first chairman of Felda and a one-time chairman of Malayan Banking, who arranged for Razak to meet his potential wife, Rahah Noah, was one of Razak’s closest friends in Singapore London and in his later life. Taib died in the autumn of last year. Taib was a good civil servant, a jolly man who hugely loved the fun of living. I found him a good friend although age-wise I could have been one of his sons. I am two or three years older than his eldest son Hamidon, a pub owner in Kuala Lumpur.

Razak revisited his alma mater twice officially: in 1955 when the College celebrated its Golden Jubilee and he was making his debut as the nation’s first education minister, and; in 1965 when I accompanied him for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. It was a sentimental journey marred by one unfortunate incident. He had to leave midway of the evening’s festivities because he suddenly felt unwell, the first time I recall that had ever happened to him.

He maintained close relations with the Malay College Old Boys Association (MCOBA). MCOBA, whose president then was Tan Sri Nik Ahmad Kamil, the Speaker of Parliament, honoured the “College’s favourite son” with a reception at the Lake Club in October 1970, three weeks after Razak became prime minister. Razak recalled it with fondness. At the Lake Club that evening he met four generations of “stalwarts” of his alma mater.

Razak and I were so unlike in many ways yet we formed a long successful political and personal partnership. I believe one reason why the relationship lasted so long inspite of machinations to torpedo the alliance was because I was an effective operator behind the scenes and an excellent buffer. The youth in me relished in equal measure the brickbats of detractors and the plaudits of friends and mentor.

Razak neither approved or disapproved my modus operandi. All that mattered to him was results. And he got them – a political style and romanticism in Malaysian public life which has long disappeared.

Like the Malaysian public life, MCKK too, has changed. Gone are the traditions of uprightness, archaic discipline and impeccable manners. Still the number of parents queuing to enrol their sons is rising all the time. The legend of a privileged education is irresistible.

Much as it has changed MCKK remains an exclusive institution which does not do any harm. On the contrary, it does a world of good to the nation: it provides the key which opens many doors and opportunities which simply otherwise do not exist.

On Razak’s recommendation, I was offered the congressional Fellowship of the American Political Science Association in 1960 and when I returned two years later he gave me a job as a special assistant to the Alliance secretary-general, the late T.H. Tan (later Tan Sri Tahir Tan).

Since “T.H.”, as everybody called him, was hard y in the office nor the executive secretary, Lee San Choon, a member of parliament for Kluang in Johor, I was pretty much left on my own. Datuk Lee San Choon later rose to become president of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and minister of transport during Razak’s, Hussein’s and Mahathir’s administrations.

The Alliance Headquarters was on the same floor as the Umno secretary-general’s office at the Umno headquarters at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman (now the Tun Razak Institute of Technology), infect next to each other. The Alliance headquarters had a small staff: an absentee secretary-general, and an unavailable executive secretary Yap, the office assistant Miss Lim, the financial clerk, a messenger, a driver, a Malay translator, Hussein Jusoh, who eventually became a senator and myself.

“T.H.”, whom I met occasionally, usually at parties in honour of or for Tunku Abdul Rahman or Tun Razak, always told me tongue-in-cheek I was a “free bird”, and to report directly to Tun Razak. I would write for Tun Razak’s eyes only about national and international goings-on as perceived by a 25-year-old former reporter who thought (wrongly) he knew all.

San Choon advised me I should spend time at the Umno headquarters since neither he nor I had anything much to do at the Alliance headquarters because all the action was at the headquarters of the component parties (then the Umno, MCA and MIC). It was good advice for which I was and am grateful for. San Choon’s advice caused my desk-career to change track.

What followed, followed.

Dato’ Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia’s Special Envoy to the United Nations


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