by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz, Founding President of IDEAS. First published in the Malay Mail 26 February 2016

Last Saturday IDEAS celebrated its 6th anniversary and the 113th anniversary of the birth of the Father of Independence and Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.  This year, instead of a morning event at his eponymous memorial, we had a dinner that doubled as the final event of the Asia Liberty Forum, which brought together think tanks all across Asia fighting to champion the causes of liberty and justice.

Two important components remained from previous years though: first was the continued support of the Tunku’s family, with three generations of descendants being represented. Second was a speech by a figure who knew the Tunku personally or professionally, to share their thoughts on the man and the state of his legacy today.  Previous speakers have been Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Tan Sri Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim and Sharifah Menyalara Hussein.

This year we invited Tun Musa Hitam, whose career was a most interesting one through the various epochs of Malaysian politics.  Early in his political life his opposition to the Tunku resulted in political exile, but under Tun Razak he was readmitted into UMNO and rose quickly, eventually becoming Deputy Prime Minister by defeating Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in a contest for the Deputy Presidency of UMNO.  However, in a full circle, in 1986 he resigned due to irreconcilable differences with Dr Mahathir, and aligned with the team led by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah – supported by Tunku Abdul Rahman – after the UMNO split in 1987. Since then Tun Musa has continued to represent the country through many international platforms.

In his speech Tun Musa gave an honest and emotional account of his memories of the Tunku.  Even though Tun Musa admitted to being an advocate of Tun Razak, he spoke fondly of his interactions with the Tunku: his relaxed style and respect for people with opposing views, which taught him a lot about democracy and decency.

Tun Musa spoke fondly of the first three Prime Ministers, but of the architect of Vision 2020 he said “brilliant though he was, he forgot that in order to succeed he needed to train leaders at all levels… he did away with all potential leaders and retained and trained followers.  It is mostly these trained followers that have taken over the leadership of the country.”

Though there is a “very serious state of affairs in our country… the only strong signals emanating from the leadership that show any sign of worry are the threats coming from them of tightening selected security legislation that seem to be aimed at free speech and press, with some even constitutionally questionable.”  In pinpointing where we have gone wrong, Tun Musa emphasised that “it is all wholly and simply caused by the failure of leadership!”. He went on to say that “when a leader imposes himself and demands unquestioning loyalty accompanied by a loss of respect of good governance, human rights and the rule of law as well as not being considerate of the people’s welfare, the ugly head of dictatorship appears.”

Tun Musa ended with calmer denouement.  “It was a blot in our country’s history that the Tunku was very roughly treated after his retirement” (though earlier in my speech I quoted the Tunku’s praising of Tun Musa in 1980 as Education Minister, when he revived the Tunku Abdul Rahman Foundation to send Malaysian scholars to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge) – but “in the end the Tunku regained the respect and admiration of Malaysians.”

As I wrote last week, nostalgia can have tremendous value if it inspires citizens to contribute to change today – and Tun Musa’s reminiscing certainly reminded the audience, especially the younger members – of the importance of having principles.  You will be far more respected and admired if people know what you believe, even if they disagree with you – and trying to be everything to everyone will surely make you a liar.

Unfortunately in today’s age of cynicism – a cynicism brought about by the insincerity and machinations of some politicians – the words of elders are often dismissed.  “What is their agenda?” people ask.  “Why are they only vocal now?” they bemoan.

I agree that there might be some who are doubly contemptuous – having benefitted tremendously from past excess, they adopt a garb of innocence now.  That is why, now more than ever, understanding the beliefs of the people who lead us is ever more important.  As IDEAS celebrated our anniversary and the legacy of a prince whose unwavering beliefs were known to friends and foes, it is hoped that in some small way we can inspire a future leader of conviction to break through the masses of trained followers.

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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is the founding president of IDEAS

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