Malaysia’s Tunku: A Rare One Who Stood For All In His Country

Malaysia’s Tunku: A Rare One Who Stood For All In His Country

“All talk on Islamic States is just an empty dream,” said Tunku Abdul Rahman, the gregarious noble who led in the founding of Malaysia and was for 13 years its Prime Minister after the Southeast Asian nation became independent of Britain in 1957.

“No man in his right sense would accept a nation which bases its political administration on religion, and in a country like Malaysia with its multiracial and multireligious people, there is no room for an Islamic State,” added the former premier, known to millions of his countrymen simply as the “Tunku”.

The seventh son of Prince Abdul Rahman Ibni, a sultan who ruled for 61 years in Kedah, a northern principality in Malaysia, and a Burmese and half Siamese mother Makche Menjelara, the Tunku showed an egalitarian side from young. It remained his unwavering quality till his death, at the age of 87, in December 1990.

Law Student in England

The Tunku’s ancestors ruled a jungle dynasty that continued unbroken through 9 Hindu rajahs and 20 Muslim sultans. But in his student days, there were questions about his ability and predisposition to lead.

He was unspectacular as a law student in England. He did not gain admittance to the bar there until he was 47 years old. When he made it, he broke the solemnity of the Inner Temple London Law School when he said, “I must be the only student to be admitted to the bar on his silver jubilee.”

Until he returned to his homeland to begin a life of public service, he was known for his interest in poker, golf, soccer, tennis and a red sports car, not as the leader who would have the patience and skill to try to lead the ethnic Malays, most of them Muslim, and the Chinese, most of them Confucian-Buddhist, in a Government that would be at best unwieldy and at worst fraught with violence.

Yet, he was able to walk the line between the two religions and won the trust of both. He became a success symbol for Chinese-Malay political cooperation and was known for his self-effacing wit and ability to move audiences with simply spoken common sense. In his tenure he was consistently pro-Western and anti-Communist. 

Out of Retirement

The intensity of his desire to see Malaysia succeed was such that in 1969, after violence had erupted between the Malays and Chinese, leaving hundreds dead, he wept uncontrollably on national radio. He retired from public life the next year and lamented over the years that Malaysia had not turned out to be all that he had hoped for.

But he remained vitally interested in his country. In 1988, in poor health and after having been out of office 18 years, he came out of retirement to criticize the policies of a successor as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. Despite his confinement to a wheelchair, Prince Abdul Rahman insisted that he be taken all around the nation he had once led, speaking against Mr. Mahathir and for his rivals.

Prince Abdul Rahman was unsuccessful. Mr. Mahathir won the election that year. But his National Front Coalition suffered losses in Kelantan and Sabah, and two cabinet ministers lost their seats.

Growing up, the Tunku was given the training that befit his background, with lessons of Malay in the morning and English in the afternoon. He entered St. Catherine’s College at Cambridge University and received his baccalaureate in 1925. He returned home, but his brother Tunku Ibrahim, then the Regent of Kedah, sent him back to England to study law.

The Tunku was unable to complete his law studies before World War II. When the war in the Pacific started, he was a district officer in Kedah. He returned to London after the war and was admitted to the bar in 1949.

He returned to his homeland just as a new federation of the Malay states was starting. He became interested in politics, with an aim to create an alliance between two rivals, the United Malays National Organization and the Malayan Chinese Association. Prince Abdul Rahman was instrumental in negotiating Malaya’s independence, and by August 1957 was clearly the most powerful unifying force in the country.

He was married three times and had a son and three daughters, all adopted.

Remains Unforgettable to Malaysians

Today, the Tunku remains an icon to millions of Malaysian for his noble ways. Here are some of his greatest quotes:

“Great men simplify great principles and make them easily intelligible to ordinary men.

“In the old days people never bothered about what others did, so long as they were free to do what they liked themselves. Today, one cannot sneeze without being corrected, let alone enjoy oneself. That’s what politics have done to our society.”

“We usually forget that apart from making a living on this earth, human beings live in societies and these societies have cultures. It is only through having cultures that mankind on this earth has an ordered and meaningful life. Music and drama are two of the many important manifestations of a culture. They are important because they represent the expressions emanating from the power of human artistic creativity.”  –

  • Adapted from a tribute by the New York Times.


No comments yet. Why don’t you start the discussion?

Add Your Thoughts