First published by Tunku Abidin Muhriz on April 8 2016

On Wednesday, Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad’s Conversations with Tunku Abdul Rahman, the most important book about our first prime minister since 2002 (when K. Das & The Tunku Tapes was published), was launched at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial.

Ideas was launched in the same auditorium in 2010 and many members of the audience were familiar, with the family of Tunku Abdul Rahman headed by his eldest daughter Tunku Khadijah joining senior or retired politicians, civil servants and academicians, with a smattering of journalists and civil society actors.

The National Archives of Malaysia director-general opened by stressing the memorial’s role in educating young Malaysians about the formation of the country, and I wondered if other government departments, especially the Education Ministry, are aware of this sentiment.

As Abdullah continues to battle cancer, his doctor allowed him to attend the book launch on the condition that he did not “exert and excite” himself by speaking at the lectern, but his wife Puan Sri Fauzah Mohd Darus, who gave her own prelude before conveying his speech, easily won over the crowd with her wit and bilingual eloquence.

There was then an unexpected depth of emotion communicated ― audibly and visibly ― in the royal address by the Sultan of Perak.  The monarch delivered the familiar praises about the prime minister’s humility and integrity in a way that a son speaks about a fatherly figure.

His Royal Highness highlighted several aspects of the Tunku’s leadership, such as his belief in the rule of law; his modesty, citing the fact that he used the same official Cadillac for fourteen years during his premiership and then the same Mercedes-Benz until he passed away twenty years later; his views on apartheid in South Africa leading to its expulsion from the Commonwealth; and his sense of fairness and justice.  Sultan Nazrin connected this to the Tunku’s enthusiasm for sport, and pointed out how, amid nostalgia triggered by Ola Bola, we forget the leadership which laid the foundation for our sporting prowess.

With the friendship between the author and the royal guest of honour (both wearing MCKK ties) abundantly apparent, Sultan Nazrin reminded the audience of the heavy price Tan Sri Abdullah had to pay for his patriotism ― including a visit to what Kassim Ahmad famously called “Universiti Kedua” (Kamunting, for detention under the Internal Security Act) ― and observed our history books are silent about these tough periods of national development.

When I was asked to contribute to the book, I did not know former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad would be providing the foreword. It is clearly written with current developments in mind, but in my introduction, I referenced the timing of the conversations with the Tunku, at the beginning of Dr Mahathir’s premiership.  I also wrote:

This book shows political contestation need not be dominated by allegations of scandal, the subversion of institutions or the desire for power for its own sake.  Political disagreement can instead be motivated by competing (but equally patriotic and genuine) beliefs of how best a country and its citizens are able to achieve peace, freedom and prosperity.

This book reminds us of the importance of leaders and ideologues in being honest about the values they hold, and of their willingness to articulate what they believe in private as consistently and passionately as they do in public.  Many lessons are also gleaned from the author’s own experience: being incarcerated for one’s political views, the role of powerful detractors and patrons in determining one’s political destiny, and the dangers of security laws that allow detention without trial instead being used on political opponents.  We get a glimpse into machinations in the corridors of power: how individuals are manipulated to achieve political goals, and the many compromises (some might say hypocrisies) that protagonists will claim are necessary to enable them.

The famous picture of Tunku raising his hand to declare Merdeka is deployed every August 31, but of late it seems every year, there is less and less consensus as to what it symbolises. In my dialogues in schools and universities, young Malaysians are unable to tell me how Tunku got there, what he believed, who the people sitting behind him were, and what happened to him afterwards.  But knowing this story is vital in understanding the political narrative of our country and its future prospects in the 21st century.

In sharing and annotating these three-decade-old conversations, Abdullah has provided another piece of the jigsaw.  In particular, the dialectic in this book will make many Malaysians ponder which methods, to quote Abdullah’s concluding words here, “were ineffective”.

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