Mahathir was Razak’s choice

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Then, as now, no aspiring politician would have lost out by making friends with those working at the Umno headquarters.

There should always be one or two informative and helpful persons ever ready to extend the helping hand.

At the Umno headquarters, I formed close friendships with a number of officials, two of whom were very senior – the late Tan Sri Ghazali Jawi, a former Mentri Besar of Perak and Malayan ambassador to Cairo, who was then secretary-general, and the late Tan Sri Syed Jaafar Albar, a former deputy minister, and the chief information officer. Ghazali’s son, Datuk Tajol Rosli (deputy Minister of Home Affairs) has followed him into politics as had Albar’s son, Datuk Syed Hamid, the Minister of Defence. Both are good friends.

Syed Hamid has done better than his late father in terms of ministerial position but so far he is a thin shadow of his controversial father. Tajol is well behind his father’s many achievements. I can say this much: he is a reliable political ally, and I was glad when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad chose Tajol to succeed his long-time loyal aide Datuk Seri Megat Junid as deputy Minister of Home Affairs.

Ghazali remained close to me because he felt included in Razak’s “political circle” even if not in the “inner circle”. He was a strong helping hand in the Umno Supreme Council election in 1975, which was crucial and determined the line of succession after Razak.

Albar, a vice presidential candidate, and I became estranged politically because he perceived himself to be excluded – nothing further from the truth.

I was fond of Albar but he was persuaded by one or two people with crucial “vested interest” to see “communists under every table”. He became so unlike him, not the man I once knew and respected. Albar became united to an Umno group which was on the periphery of the mainstream, not by a commonality of politics, of background and upbringing but rather by political expediency. The group used him for their own political end and forgot Albar soon after he died.

His successor as Umno Youth leader, Datuk Suhaimi Kamaruddin, two years my junior in Kuala Kangsar was a lightweight flip-flop who was edged out into oblivion by the charismatic heavyweight Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, many years his junior at MCKK, in 1982.

One day in the autumn of 1962, Ghazali asked me to accompany him to Sarawak. On my return, I wrote Razak a report on the prospects of Sarawak joining Malaysia. He must have either found it perspicacious or presumptuous or both. I was astounded at the speed with which he must have read the report for the next day I got a telephone call from his private secretary. Razak had sent for me.

Aziz Hussein (now a Datuk and several years ahead of me at MCKK) said “the Tun” (Razak was always referred to as “the Tun”) wanted to see me in the afternoon. Razak probed me quite intensely. You see he had been deputy chairman of the Lansdowne Commission which had investigated and recommended various safeguards and privileges for the natives of North Borneo (now Sabah) and Sarawak in the proposed Malaysian Federation.

I could not have therefore told him a fairy tale, perhaps, a bit tendentious. In any event, Razak must have been impressed with it. As a result, my fate was sealed as you would soon see.

Two months or less after I met Razak, the Brunei Revolt broke out in early December 1962. Nik Hassan bin Abdul Rahman, (now Datuk), the prime minister’s private secretary, asked me to come to the Residency to see the Tunku. Before seeing the Tunku, Nik Hassan told me I was asked because the editor of Merdeka, the Umno weekly, the late Encik Ibrahim Mahmood, was out of town.

The Tunku wanted an editorial attacking the rebellion in the next issue of the newspaper. “Perhaps, a fresh face like you can give a fresh perspective,” Nik Hassan said to me before we marched into Tunku’s study.

The Tunku asked me to write down what he dictated, “everything” he stressed. The Tunku was very incensed by the rebellion because he saw it as an insidious attempt to sabotage the formation of Malaysia and to dethrone the Sultan of Brunei whom he was very fond of until Tuanku Sir Omar Ali Salfuddin decided against joining Malaysia nine months afterwards. Then, his affection altered. It was a natural thing after what he and Malaya did for Brunei.

Malaya sent a police contingent to help assist British and Gurkha troops from Singapore to suppress the revolt. We also had our civil servants seconded to the sultanate in the fifties and early sixties.

I did not know what the Tunku or Nik Hassan said to Razak but whatever it was it only endeared me to him. Razak’s younger brother, Abdul Latiff, my good friend and a year ahead of me at MCKK, was an inspector with the Brunei Police Force and had played a commendable role in defending the Brunei throne. Latiff, a favourite of Razak was always in contact with me and that also enhanced my growing relationship with Razak.

I went to Sarawak, Singapore and Brunei on Razak’s instructions to make political contacts and celebrated the formation of Malaysia Day in Singapore at the Government House where I met an attractive Malay actress-dramatist. We dated for a year or so. She, like me, is happily married.

In October 1963, Razak asked me to be his political secretary. I rashly declined the offer because I was happy being a “free bird” and with what I was doing. I also honestly felt I was unqualified for the job. I recommended another name who he knew personally. He said irritably: “Terlampau kekampongan – a country bumpkin.” Protesting, I told him that “Mobutu” (not his real name) was a good man, conservative, conformist and safe. Razak remained undeterred.

The irony is that “Mobutu” became one of my worst enemies. He, of course, never knew that I had done him several crucial “latent” favours, one or two even before this particular encounter with Razak.

There were all kinds of reasons why I declined his invitation. I am detailing here some of them which are of general interest. I was and is shambolic in my work methods. You need to be clever to work for a “superstar” like Razak, and not only that, you need to be cleverer, and in the right way, especially in dealing with the largely British-trained Wogs (Western Oriented Gentlemen) who ran the Malaysian Civil Service (MCS).

To succeed, I needed not only to observe, but to do so scrupulously, the huge sense of hierarchy, of organization, which pervades everything in the government and the civil service.

Razak finally said: “Look Dollah, this is an important and influential job. You might not have a consolidated qualification but I know you certainly know how to write. You are a shrewd observer and interpreter of events. I am not buttering you. I find you are intelligent. This is an opportunity knocking which may not happen again.”

He said he needed some one he could trust implicitly to give him the information as it was. He also wanted me to be his devil’s advocate.

I told what happened to Aziz, about my declining Razak’s offer and he, aptly said, I was a fool even to have second thoughts.

I became Razak’s political aide (and later his deputy minister) for better or worse from that October until he died on Jan 14, 1976. Early in the service what I feared happened: a clash over form rather than substance between the Chief Secretary to the Government, Tan Sri Jamil Rais, and the new political secretary. Jamil’s obsession, as it seemed to me and progressive young civil servants like Ishak Tadin now Tan Sri, with hierarchy and methodology, his morbid subordination of content to style, was a nightmare for young officers and young politicians alike.

He resented the manner certain decisions were taken rather than the content of those decisions. He complained to Razak. I immediately asked Razak to relieve me of my responsibility.

I must not try to represent myself as a skilful political secretary but my clash with Jamil became an instant legend and I had made an impact. Ishak Tadin (formerly the auditor-general), then working in the Ministry of Rural Development, was one of the several politically alert young MCS officers who understood and recognized that certain projects and policies must be implemented quickly, scrupulously and efficiently to maximize political gains, and to endear the government, and Razak, to the rural population.

A good political secretary or a spin doctor should always be more concerned with the results than the means. Nobody does this better than a good political aide who is discerning, and engages, determined and with foresight. Razak endorsed what I did. Jamil learned something new about the nature and culture of politics and he became less hidebound.

I, too, learned to whom letters should be copied and to whom they should not! Jamil and I later made up when we realized that we both had a legitimate point to protect each other’s turf.

You would ask why Razak did not send me to Sabah? He did, but only after Malaysia was formed. I was to play a crucial role first in Tun Mustapha becoming the Chief Minister of Sabah in 1967 (he was before that Yang di-Pertua Negeri), then, in the formation of Berjaya and Tun Mustapha’s downfall.

Have you read Bill Campbell’ s book, Harris of Sabah? The Sabah saga and sideshows would be gripping reading. Stay tuned.

Though I did not achieve high office because of Razak’s sudden death and because I lost my seat in Parliament like all Kelantan Umno candidates in 1990, I had my share of power and vices but dullness is not among them.

One thing has to be corrected. Razak’s private life which was intimate and informal was different from his distant public persona. He was a conscientious parent, loved and respected by his wife and adored by his children. He enjoyed talking about his past among close friends and aides. Razak did not believe one or two mistakes a friend made (but no compromise on disloyalty) should cast a shadow over the rest of his political life.

His strength was derived from the knowledge that in many “sensitive cases” only a small number of people knew the facts and the others and the people did not. He generally discounted reports which were politically motivated, perceived as biased or prompting the agenda of a certain preferred individual. Razak would always give the benefit of the doubt in favour of a friend. Razak was a godsend patron to the young Umno cadres in the sixties and seventies.

He exercised great influence over the “Young Turks”. He encouraged their independent thought, scholarship, even brinkmanship, and protected them. He was upset when he failed to protect Mahathir in 1969 but he made quick amends when he became Umno president in 1970.

Razak was both a mentor and guardian to the “Young Turks”, several of whom he absorbed into his cabinet and administration in 1974. The best known was Mahathir.

Mahathir has neither misplaced Razak’s confidence nor proven Razak’s prediction wrong about him.

There are still many Razak “loyalists” (or those who describe themselves as such) alive today. Before I was detained I had long talks with many close friends and associates, one of whom was the then Datuk Hamzah Abu Samah, Minister of Commerce and Industry and a brother-in-law of Razak.

I can never forget what he told me: “They would not dare touch you when Abang Jak was alive. I once asked him what made him trust you so much. He told me: ‘I will trust Dollah with my life. His personal loyalty to me is unsurpassed.”‘

(Datuk Abdullah Ahmad is our Special Envoy to the United Nations.)

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