Bapa M’sia was truly man of the people
Published on: Sunday, September 05, 2021
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Tunku on a visit to Sabah. Seen are former CMs Mustapha (left), Stephens and Lo.
FEW people fully appreciate the immense contributions by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the foremost leader of Malaya from August 1951, and the principal architect, founder and builder of Malaysia.

This is an attempt to memorialise him as we celebrate the 58th anniversary of Malaysia and the 64th year of Merdeka. A colonial civil servant and Sinologist, Victor Purcell in his well written book Malaya: Communist or Free? (Stanford, 1955) characterised Malaya as “a glorified commercial undertaking rather than a ‘State’”. It was largely Tunku who shepherded Malaya out of that situation.

He imbibed a comprehensive, inclusive national spirit and laid the foundation and structure for a united, harmonious, independent and successful nation. Tunku was also the first and finest diplomatist extraordinaire of the country’s modern era.

Early life

Tunku’s father was Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah, who officially reigned from 1881 to 1943. Tunku, who was the third child of one of the Sultan’s consort, Makche Manjalara, was born on Feb 8, 1903 and passed away on Dec 6, 1990.

He first attended school in Alor Star at the Sultan Abdul Hamid College, was then sent to a school in Bangkok, and continued his education at the Penang Free School.

He proceeded to St Catharine’s College at Cambridge University, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in law. However, he took a long time, almost a quarter of a century, to pass his professional law examinations.

Early career

In the meantime, he was a civil service officer in Kedah from 1931 and served in Kuala Nerang, Langkawi and later in Kulim. He returned to complete his law studies in 1946, a year after World War II had ended. After completing his law studies, he joined the Kedah State Legal Service and was later appointed deputy public prosecutor in Kuala Lumpur.

On being invited to contest in the election to become president of Umno, Tunku resigned from government service and took up residence in Johor Baru, the headquarters of Umno, where he lived for almost three years.

Umno president

During his stay in Johor Baru, he was often visited and contacted by consular corps officials, sports functionaries, business leaders and journalists based in Singapore. They were keen to learn of the developments in the country. Australia, China, India, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Pakistan and Thailand were some of the countries that were represented in Singapore.

The consular corps hosted their National Day celebrations at Raffles and Adelphi Hotels, and Tunku would sometimes attend these functions, where he also met government and business leaders.

In 1952, at the height of the Korean War, Tunku attended the Hiroshima Peace Conference, where he met leaders from many countries. It was his first foray into multilateral diplomacy.

When he was based in Johor from October 1952, Tunku was a hospitable host when welcoming his guests, and highly sociable. His involvement in football brought him into contact with both footballers as well as officials of football associations from other Asian countries.

Tunku thus kept in regular contact with foreign diplomats, newsmen, the legal fraternity, sports officials, bureaucrats, business people and the social elite. From this experience, he had a fairly good idea of the kind of diplomats the country needed.

Pioneers in diplomacy

To set up the country’s diplomatic service in 1955/56, he first enlisted the services of Datuk Othman Mohamed, Selangor’s most senior civil servant who had earlier served as the Malayan commissioner in London.

Othman had been the first head boy of Victoria Institution, one of the leading schools in the country. He was the first permanent head of our foreign service establishment.

On the cusp of independence in 1957, Malaysia had missions in the UK, the US, Australia, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Thailand. The first high commissioner to London, a lawyer, Tan Sri Nik Kamil Nik Mahmood was the second permanent secretary for foreign affairs.

On the historic occasion of Merdeka in 1957, Nik Kamil hosted the nation’s coming out party at Dorchester Hotel for 1,000 guests. Guests included the Earl of Home and Lord & Lady Attlee.

Six years later in 1963, when Tunku Yaacob, Tunku’s older brother hosted the Malaysia Founding Day party at Grosvenor House, the chief guest was Sir Harold Wilson, the British prime minister. This was a measure of how well regarded the nation had become.

Our first ambassador to Thailand was Tun Syed Sheh Syed Abdullah Shahabuddin, a senior civil servant from Kedah. Datuk Mohd Seth of Johor was the original choice for Thailand, but a switch had to be made as his name was publicised before an agreement was obtained.

Tan Sri S. C. Macintyre, a lawyer was our first high commissioner to India while Tan Sri Mohd Ghazali Jawi was our first ambassador to Cairo.

In November 1957, Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi was the first foreign head of government to visit the nation after Merdeka. In his remarks at a dinner in honour of Nobusuke, the Tunku said “we hope to send many of our young men and officers to tour Japan and take note of what Japan as a nation is doing by way of reconstruction and economic, and industrial development”. An embassy was opened in Tokyo in 1958, with a prominent medical practitioner and Turf Club personality from Penang, Tan Sri Lee Tiang Keng as ambassador.

In 1966, Japan became the first Asian country to send Peace Corps volunteers to Malaysia. The first high commissioner to Australia was the top-hatted Tan Sri Gunn Lay Teik, Tunku’s contemporary from Cambridge.

In 1957, Malaya had 4,000 students in various countries and Tunku said provisions had to be made to absorb them as we “did not want to wear out the welcome that has been extended to us by these countries”. This was stated at a convocation at University of Malaya, held at Chinwoo Stadium in September 1957.

A Straits Times report dated Sept 9, 1957 quoted Gordon Chu of China News as saying that “while Tunku was basically anti-communist’, there are indications he is not prepared to offend either Moscow or Beijing”.

Interestingly, on the occasion of Merdeka, both Radio Moscow and Radio Peking broadcasted congratulatory messages of their respective heads of state.

A deliberate decision was made by Tunku that Malaysia would stay out of Seato (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation). He kept the foreign ministry portfolio to himself for most of his prime ministerial tenure.

Tunku was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who he said had taken on the world’s most powerful empire. Quite early in his career he pledged to work like Gandhi, not as a master but as a servant of his people. He wanted erudite, exceptional men with some international exposure to be the country’s first ambassadors abroad. Datuk Mohamed Sopiee Ibrahim, who regularly attended Socialist Conferences abroad, became one of the first diplomats of the country.

Tunku also selected two sets of brothers from top drawer families to be in the diplomatic service. The older set comprised Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, first ambassador to Washington and New York, later minister of external affairs, and Datuk Sulaiman Abdul Rahman, a pioneer Cabinet minister and high commissioner to Australia.

The other two brothers were the sons of the country’s first Malay doctor, Dr Abdul Latiff Datuk Abdul Razak – Tan Sri Jamal Latiff and Tan Sri Yaacob Latiff – who served as heads of mission in Singapore, France, Thailand, Egypt and Indonesia.

Malaya’s first ambassador to Indonesia was Tan Sri Senu Abdul Rahman, who, after graduating with a degree from the US, had first worked as a liaison officer with the Indonesian mission to the United Nations. When he was posted to Jakarta, the top notch there knew him well.

In 1959, Tunku Ismail Tunku Yahaya, a former mentri besar of Kedah was appointed our first ambassador to France. He presented credentials to President Charles de Gaulle. 

Tunku was on a constant lookout to secure the best people to represent Malaysia abroad. In the 1960s, Tan Sri Philip Kuok, Tun Muhammad Fuad Stephens, Tengku Tan Sri Indera Petra, Tun Omar Yoke Lin-Ong, Datuk Bahadun Hassan, Dr Radhakrishnan Ramani, a well-known lawyer, and Datuk Mohd Ismail Mohd Yusof, a senior Umno man, were appointed to head diplomatic missions.

Initially, only a few career officers who had attained sufficient seniority were appointed to head of mission posts. One of the first was Tunku Tan Sri Mohamed Tunku Besar Burhanuddin, who served in Pakistan from 1955, and later became chief secretary to the government.

Other career officers who became head of mission in the 1960s were Tan Sri Zaiton Ibrahim, Tengku (later Tuanku) Jaafar Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Tengku Tan Sri Ngah Mohamed Tengku Sri Akar, Tan Sri Zakaria Mohd Ali, Datuk Seri Hussein Osman, Raja Tan Sri Aznam Raja Ahmad, Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Jalal, Tan Sri Lim Taik Choon, Datuk Kamaruddin Mohd Ariff and Datuk Hashim Sultan.

The appointments of non-career officials were queried by Datuk Onn Jaafar, Umno’s founding president. Tunku, in his reply, said that there were not enough officials in the regular establishment to take on these high level posts.

By far, the most important civil servant in the formulation and operation of our diplomatic service was Tun Muhammad Ghazali Shafie, who was permanent secretary of foreign affairs for nearly a decade and a decade later became the minister of foreign affairs.

Ghazali had his own team of dedicated backroom bargainers and negotiators such as Tan Sri Zainal Abidin Sulong, Tan Sri Zain Azraai Zainal Abidin, Ambassador Jack de’ Silva and Datuk Ahmad Nordin Mohd Zain. During Singapore’s participation in Malaysia, Tunku was able to draw on the expertise of Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore leader.


Tunku was consistently concerned about safeguarding the country’s sovereignty, national integrity and image. In the second half of the 1960s, he saw to the appointment of additional information and press attaches in our missions abroad.

It was the magnanimity and nobility of his character, his diplomatic disposition, his inclusive and universal outlook, and his deep sense of humility, humour and honour that enabled Tunku to assemble such a remarkable lot of people to work towards building the foundations of our great nation.

Tunku was also a modest man. When invited by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia to head the Islamic Secretariat, he confessed to being somewhat errant in his ways and the King apparently replied “I know all about you and I am not asking you to be the Imam of Islam”.

- M. Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience. His last diplomatic posting was ambassador to the Republic of Korea.


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