By Sharyn Lisa Shufiyan
Monday 8 February 2010
Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra
My great grandfather, the People’s Prince
At 5 years old, I didn’t quite understand what was happening. I remember being surrounded in a sea of white and the mood was solemn. I was giving my mother a hard time – I just wouldn’t sit still. She was crying, so I figured it must be serious. We sat on a dais as Tok Tam’s lying in state took place. There were a lot of people that morning who came to pay their respects at the Parliament.
To my family, it was the day we mourned the loss of our father and grandfather. But to the country, they mourned the loss of their Bapa Malaysia.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are here today, on Tok Tam’s birthday to celebrate the launch of the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs, or IDEAS in short. I’m honoured to be part of this event and proud to know that, even after 20 years of his passing, there are those who still remember and are inspired by him. Indeed, Tok had a vision of a different Malaysia – and I believe if he were alive today he would pick up blogging!
Here, you see Tunku cradling me as a baby. My mother was adamant that I crop out his legs because she thought it was inappropriate. His legs were aching so he had ointment rubbed on them but I insisted on showing the whole picture. It showed him as any other great grandfather, who would be alive, that is! Pants rolled up, just chilling, enjoying his moment with his baby great granddaughter. He was not the dashing prime minister he used to be. I feel like this picture embodies everything that he was to me – my great grandfather.
My generation has underestimated how much Tok had sacrificed for his country. I feel that Tok’s legacy has somewhat been forgotten. My mother, his eldest grandchild whom he named Intan, once said that even though Tok was Bapa Kemerdekaan, he was never a bapa to his family. As much as he loved his family, his country always came first and even in the twilight of his life, he kept on writing and advising his people to understand and accept each other.
When he stepped down as prime minister was probably a blessing in disguise. The family now had him all to ourselves. He could be there with us for gatherings and dinners. My mother once wrote that Tunku was proud to have four generations in the room. I was fortunate enough to have spent time with him in his remaining years.
Regardless of ethnicity, religion or background – Tok treated everyone fairly and equally, and his joyful character was infectious to those around him. In preparing for this event, I had sifted through old newspaper clippings of Tok and I saw pictures of his old staff crying. They had loved him so much. I was especially close to one of his caretakers, Pakcik Onn who continued to serve my family for 14 years after Tok’s death and even now, he and his wife still help around whenever my grandmother and aunt host gatherings. Their loyalty illustrates how much Tok looked after the people around him.
As kids, we were always made to sit quietly whenever Tok was around. Of course, we were itching to go out and play so you can see in our family photos, we always looked so moody! My brother, his eldest great grandson, fondly dubbed Tok as “the godfather”. That was probably because we would be ushered by our grandmother to meet him and kiss his hand while he sat down on his comfy couch.
I remember visiting Tok at his Penang house to celebrate Hari Raya. Relatives came from Alor Setar and KL to spend time with him. It was so vibrant and cheerful then. I used to find that house scary – he had two huge elephant tusks to greet us at the doorway. He had a collection of canes and pipes kept in a room where he used to entertain foreign visitors – These belongings are now housed in this memorial. Having lived in KL all my life, Tok’s Penang house is the closest I feel to having a kampong.
As kids we kind of had a special liking to stairs. I think it’s because of the wooden creaking noises it would make when people walk up and down. They don’t have that anymore – now everything is tiled. I remember we used to play on the stairs a lot, especially my brother. One time, my brother and his childhood friend were jumping off the stairs – probably imitating Superman, when my brother landed right in front of Tok as he walked by. Tok stopped, gave my brother one light knock on the head with his walking stick, or like the Kedahans would say, ‘kena katok kepala’, and walked off without saying anything!
We never failed to get up to mischief! Once, there was a Semangat 46 kenduri at Jalan Tunku and there were lots of cars parked all over our compound. We would get on our bicycles and stick ‘summon’ notes on all the cars, pretending to be police officers! So Tengku Razaleigh, you might not remember us kids – but if on that particular night you saw papers stuck on your windshield that would be our doing!
Our house at Jalan Tunku, near where IDEAS has its office, where my family lived for 20 years used to see a lot of visitors. He would host his guests in his dining room and call for my brother and I and introduce us as his great grandchildren. Then he would give us each RM10 and ask us to “play along now.” It was fun for us whenever he came to visit from Penang – the house would be so lively and busy with people and the helpers would be running around preparing food and attending to these guests. Plus, he would always spoil us with some pocket money.
I did not know Tunku Abdul Rahman as a prime minister, but as Tok Tam. As I grew older, I read articles about him and even flicked through his books. But what caught my attention, and what made me proud to be his descendant, is the fact that he was a staunch supporter of open dialogues and balanced views. Tunku once said that the opposition party is needed to play the role of check and balance to the party in power. Even in his old age, he entertained open dialogue. My father recalled once during the times when Tunku was openly criticizing Tun Dr. Mahathir. Tunku had some gruff visitors to the house at Jalan Tunku – the Umno Youth boys headed by none other than our current Prime Minister. They confronted Tunku – these young men surrounding a old man on a wheelchair and had a closed door session with him. A few moments later, the boys walked out smiling and content. We never quite knew what had transpired behind those doors but I guess his charm had won them over.
My great grandfather never hid his vices and I admire him for that. Everyone knows of his love for the horses and his occasional glass of brandy. My father fondly recalled of the times when he accompanied Tok as he watched football and had his nightcap. But Tunku never claimed to be a saint, and still performed his duties as a Muslim. He revived PERKIM, spearheaded the building of the National Mosque and started the annual Malaysian and international Quran reading competitions. He was a Muslim who also acknowledged his Thai Buddhist heritage. He brought over a Thai architect from Bangkok and got Chinese businessmen to donate funds for the building of a Thai temple on Jalan Gasing in PJ.
IDEAS gives me hope that my great grandfather’s legacy will continue on and his values and ideals will continue to influence, inspire and instigate the change we need in this country. When I thought that Tunku will be forgotten, these three musketeers, Tunku Abidin, Wan Saiful and Wan Firdaus are re-igniting Tunku’s torch – lighting the way to true democracy, freedom and upholding the rule of law above all others. This country needs young people like them to stand up for what is right and speak up for our rights as citizens of Malaysia.
None of our immediate family members followed in his footsteps and joined politics – he was disappointed but left them to choose their own careers. He did say that maybe his “cicit” would enter politics but the two eldest ones ended up in arts instead! Since I made public of my relationship to Tunku, I have received numerous touching and inspiring comments encouraging me to write more. One civic Malaysian commented, “Tunku, I am very sure would be very proud to have a great granddaughter like you.” And I hope that I will be able to contribute, in one way or another, to realize his ideals of a better Malaysia and make him proud.