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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
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Now, a collection of previously unpublished conversations with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
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
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
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
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."
TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN
In His Own Words
ON BECOMING PRIME MINISTER 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 . . .
ON TUNKU THE MAN 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!
DAS: DID YOU SHOOT ANY TIGERS? 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.
ON HIS FATHER 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.
ON SINGAPORE'S SEPARATION [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
DAS: WASN'T THE PAP ITSELF CONTROLLED BY THE COMMUNISTS FOR A
WHILE? 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.
ON MALAYS IN BUSINESS [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
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.
ON MAHATHIR MOHAMAD [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.
DAS: HE'S DEVELOPING A PERSONALITY CULT? 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.