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  The Tunku Tapes  

Candid conversations with the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first prime minister, delve deep into the character and ideas of one of Asia's most colourful politicians
Extract from the introduction by K. Das
Issue cover-dated December 06, 2001

Few figures in modern Asian history are quite as appealing as Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Whether it was his passion for horse racing or fondness for drink, the British-educated Malaysian of royal descent charmed everyone with his wit and avuncular wisdom.
The Tunku, as he was fondly known, presided over Malaysia's independence in 1957, and served as prime minister until 1970. Subsequently he became closely associated with opposition issues, and backed a rival to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad when the ruling United Malays National Organization split in 1988. He spoke out against Mahathir's use of the Internal Security Act and the perceived erosion of judicial independence. The Tunku died in 1990.
Now, a collection of previously unpublished conversations with the Tunku has emerged that sheds new light on the Tunku's character and ideas. On these tapes, the Tunku offers some scathing judgments on leading figures like Mahathir ("an irresponsible man") and on the strategy of Lee Kuan Yew in seeking independence for Singapore. He also offers insights into his life as a member of the Malay aristocracy.
The interviews were conducted by poet, author and former Far Eastern Economic Review Kuala Lumpur bureau chief Veerasingam Kukathas, better known by his pen name K. Das. Das died in 1993, but many people knew that he'd been working on a book on the Tunku, with whom he had long conversations over a six-month period in 1988.
The tapes have been resurrected thanks to Malaysian social activist Kua Kia Soong and Das's own family. In this special exclusive, we present excerpts from Das's posthumous book, K. Das and the Tunku Tapes, which will be published in December.
THE TUNKU'S OFFICE is an orderly clutter. The books and papers fall over each other and the staff falls over the paper and books and photographs and souvenirs. The dust is very fine, and lingers in nooks and corners, visible only to the inquisitive reporter's eye.
The servants dust and clean and polish as best they can, but they are distracted by the old man's demands for this paper and that, a message to be delivered now and a package to be acknowledged straightaway, to find this particular old letter and that document of many years ago. The Tunku himself never sees the dust, and the clutter is like the world, cluttered - where all things have a place, even in the wrong place, as it should be in the real world.
The office is half his world now. He is not as mobile as he would like to be, even if he moves about the country twice as much as many people half his age. The office is perhaps more than half his world. And the office runs, and it hums.
He knows the papers are there, somewhere, and staff have to scramble. [They] look flustered and very mortal, vaguely aware of their privilege of being where they are and overawed at their stations in life, but not quite able to see the true dimensions of it all. They spend their days with him, and their minds much preoccupied with their own lives.
For them the great man cannot be a great man hour after hour, day after day, and they stumble over his little daily irritations and foibles, and lose their tempers - behind his back. His driver Muthu tells me, "Whatever it is, he is a great man." But the "whatever" betrays him, and sure enough there is some grouse deep inside. What is it? He is too loyal to tell, but he frowns. And when the Tunku wants him, the man of sixty-three dashes forth like a young adjutant, bristling to do duty.
And there I sit - the fellow who only listens and nods, and asks the most personal, not to say the most impertinent questions.
[Leaders of the Chinese community had formed a key part of the Tunku's independence movement. But by the late 1960s, resentment among Chinese at the domination of the largely Islamic Malays led to race riots, which helped end the Tunku's time in office. Overleaf, writing from the perspective of 1988, Das discusses the Tunku's rejection of fundamentalists who wanted Malaysia to emulate Iran, led at the time by the revolutionary Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.]
I REMEMBER HIS GRIN. He had been feted by the Malaysian Chinese Association on the day before with a giant birthday cake. The Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir, had apologized to him in public and told the country that the old man had been perfectly right in the 1960s about cooperating with the Chinese community and the MCA. The Tunku had thanked the Prime Minister very graciously.
But the old man's thanks did not include opting out of the political scene as completely as his hosts might have wished. In fact he set in motion a fresh uproar by saying that Malaysia must never become an Islamic state. His hosts probably agreed with him heartily, but they did not need his statement just then.
Dr. Mahathir did not want an Islamic State, nor did the Ummah [Islamic believers] inside Umno, but the country's fundamentalist Muslims had gone berserk, and there were death threats.
As the Tunku put it to me, "All these fellows miss the point. Islam does not mean glory or saying that Muslims are superior. Islam only means submission to the will of Allah and doing good works."
The country was in the middle of a widespread Islamic-state debate as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution in Iran was busy devouring its children. And already there were a few Malaysian Islamic "visionaries" (with questionable credentials, several obvious hypocrites among them), sitting at Khomeini's feet in Qom.
The old man's view of the Ayatollah was tinged with disgust. "'Ayatollah' means spokesman of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful. What kind of Messenger or spokesman of God is he, who seems to condone the murder of his own people . . ? "
ISLAM IS A RELIGION OF PEACE, he said, the "brotherhood of man" is a wonderful idea. "It's a beautiful religion, it is not to be forced down people's throats.
"People have to become Muslims. They have to declare themselves to be of the faith of their own free will. People must never be made into Muslims by any authority in the world. It has been done, of course, and it is wrong. People have to convert of their own free will, never by force. Conversion is wholehearted acceptance of the Holy Prophet as the Witness to Allah . . . A man must choose for himself if he wishes to become Muslim, and submit to the will of Allah, and he must do so willingly with a pure heart. No, Muslims are not asked to force others to embrace Islam. They are only asked to welcome into the family those who embrace the religion of the Holy Prophet.
"The revolution in Iran is one thing, it was their own business, it nothing to do with us, even if they call it a holy revolution or Islamic revolution, and it was certainly not a cue for Muslims elsewhere to run wild and impose their will on others who were non-Muslims. It is only a matter for the people of Iran.
"As for Malaysia, there was no point in pretending she will become an Islamic state now or in the near future. People, not states, must choose on their own to become Muslims, and it is entirely up to the people to choose."


In His Own Words

So many things have happened in my lifetime that I cannot ignore. In the first place, there was that Indian fellow who threw dice, the astrologer. When I was District Officer in Kulim in 1939, he predicted that I would be the first prime minister of this country. Everybody laughed, I laughed . . . how could a poor district officer of Kulim be the first prime minister? But he said, "You can laugh but that is what your stars foretell." That was in 1939. In 1957, I became prime minister of Malaya . . .
I believe in living and being happy, otherwise what the hell do you want to live for? How long do you expect to live for? Only yesterday I was running and jumping about as a kid, then as a young man, then a grown-up man, now I can't even walk. So why the hell do you want to make a nuisance of your life and make other people unhappy? Your duty when you take over leadership of the country is to make the people happy, that is the main thing.
Whatever the sport, I was a very keen sportsman. I have always been an outdoors man, a lover of all the wild things in life. I used to go shooting. I was not a good shot but whenever there was anybody who wanted to go to shoot tigers or wild boars, I would be there. I was in a district where there was plenty of this sort of thing but I used to fall asleep!
I have not shot any myself but I have been to shoot tigers. They would build a platform on top of the tree. I used to drink whisky a lot in those days. I used to wait for the tiger to come and take the carcass but before half an hour was up, I would be fast asleep. Nobody would want to go with me afterwards because they said I snored too loud and drove the tiger away.
He was very fond of drink. He went to Pattani by elephant. All the time he was throwing the whisky away while they were travelling in the jungle. So when he came back from Patani, he had a stroke.
[In 1963, Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore into Malaysia. Two years later, Singapore became an independent country, ruled by Lee's People's Action Party, or PAP.]
We got to work very closely with Singapore when we were forming Malaysia . . . The British terms were that Singapore could not be on its own but was free to join Malaysia. So Kuan Yew accepted all the terms and it was only after he joined Malaysia that he started to interfere.
That is why the British were not keen to give them independence on their own. So they had to join us or carry on being a colony of Britain. That is why Kuan Yew decided to join us. After that he did everything possible to break away.
[An affirmative action policy gives Malays and other bumiputras, or sons of the soil, preferential access to education, land, housing, civil service jobs and equity ownership in state-linked businesses.]
Whatever happens, I feel that in the whole economic progress, you've got to take the whole country with you, you've got to pay more attention to those who have less and those who are a little inexperienced in this type of work. You have got to try and help them. But you cannot, so to speak, benefit one section of the people at the expense of another. That is the thing we must not do. I think on the whole, the Chinese and others are quite happy to help the Malays along and so we must not hurt their feelings or show discrimination in any sense in this matter, but try and bring them all along together and get them to try and help Malaysia.
[In 1981 Mahathir Mohamad became Malaysia's fourth prime minister. Today Mahathir is one of Asia's longest-serving leaders.]
He could set up a republic in this country within two weeks. All he has to do is put it to the parliament with his two-thirds majority, they accept it and if the consent does not come or is not approved or disapproved within two weeks, it becomes law. And so, he can turn this country from a monarchy into a republic in two weeks.
He is an irresponsible man. He cares nothing for class, for law, for order, for the constitution. What suits him, he just does it. You remember once he said that you must be loyal, you must not idolize the leader? But what did he do? He called everybody to parliament to swear allegiance to him. Now he is going round the country on a so-called campaign . . . campaign for what? To support him, not to support the party.
No, he suffers from that disease - inferiority complex. That is one of the diseases we find in the political world. Look at Idi Amin - he got 10 Englishmen to carry him in a chair in order to overcome his inferiority complex. That is dangerous.