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Abdul Rahman Tunku

Abdul Rahman Tunku

Known as "the Tunku" in Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman (1903-1990) was the first prime minister of the Federation of Malaya, and later of Malaysia. He was considered the "father of the nation."

For decades Malaysians have referred to their country's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, simply as "the Tunku." The title, literally meaning "my lord, " is shared by several other Malay aristocrats; but it is a clear indication of his stature as "father of the nation" that only Tunku Abdul Rahman is "the Tunku."

Tunku Abdul Rahman was 54 years old when, on August 31, 1957, he accepted from the Queen's representative documents which formally granted independence and sovereignty to the Federation of Malaya. His life up to that point had prepared him well for a position of national leadership. His father was the Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah, whose reign in Alor Star, capital of the state of Kedah, spanned a period of 61 years.

Kedah is one of nine Malay states which Great Britain had controlled, along with the "Straits of Settlements" of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang, since early in the 19th century. In furtherance of their objective of developing tin mines and rubber plantations, the British encouraged immigration of laborers from China and India while protecting the indigenous Malay culture and institutions. This paternalistic policy made it possible for Tunku Abdul Rahman to study at Cambridge for the better part of 12 years, beginning when he was 16 years old.

While in England the Tunku helped establish and became secretary of the Malay Society of Great Britain. This experience, and his subsequent tenure with the Kedah state civil service, foretold his participation in the slowly developing and moderate Malayan nationalist movement. Upon returning in 1949 from another stay in England, during which he completed his legal studies, Tunku Abdul Rahman became chairman of the Kedah Branch of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the political party which served as the major vehicle of anti-colonial sentiment. When the Tunku accepted the national presidency of the UMNO in 1951 he became the leading exponent of Malayan nationalism.

Communal Tensions a Persistent Problem

Malaya's large Chinese and Indian populations were not assimilated into Malay culture, and the uneasy relations among Malays, Chinese, and Indians have been a fundamental and persistent societal problem. The Tunku is credited with devising the formula whereby political organizations representing the Chinese and Indian communities joined with UMNO to constitute the Alliance Party. The Alliance, or, as it came to be called after other parties were invited to join it in the early 1970s, the National Front, was the government party after independence. Its most one-sided electoral victory occurred in 1955 in the first federal elections, when 51 of 52 elected representatives were Alliance candidates.

In the years leading up to independence the Tunku was involved in government efforts to suppress a Communist insurgency known as "the emergency." The fact that the Malayan Communist Party, which abandoned guerrilla tactics in the early 1960s, had a predominantly Chinese membership aggravated interethnic tensions. In 1969 the simmering communal conflict boiled over when, in the aftermath of parliamentary elections, bands of armed Malays and Chinese attacked one another and generally caused considerable property damage and some loss of life. It was the most severe crisis of the Tunku's tenure as prime minister, and he described the anguish it caused him in his book May 13: Before and After. Although neither he nor any other person could engineer racial harmony and prevent violence, Tunku Abdul Rahman strove for conciliation. As one authoritative account put it, he was "liked and respected by members of all communities and considered honest, fair, and tolerant."

Foreign Affairs a Major Activity

Once Malaya became independent the British sought to disengage from other colonial territories in the region. By 1963 it had been determined that this would be achieved through the concept of Malaysia, which by then was strongly supported by Tunku Abdul Rahman. In September 1963 Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and Sabah were joined together in the new nation-state of Malaysia. In that form it was short-lived, for the UMNO leadership felt that Singapore's well-organized political elite was excessively ambitious. In August 1965 the Tunku informed first Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore, and then the Malaysian Parliament that Singapore was being separated from Malaysia and would become an independent nation-state.

Neither the separation of Singapore nor the bitterly anti-Malaysia position adopted by Indonesia's President Sukarno prevented Tunku Abdul Rahman from pursuing a policy of regional cooperation. Having participated in the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asia in 1961, the Tunku supported the expansion of the association in 1967 to include Singapore and Indonesia. The organization thus formed, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, joined those two countries with Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and, later, Brunei in a vigorous and durable regional grouping. In addition, the Tunku's commitment to constructive participation in the British Commonwealth as well as his active interest in international Islamic affairs established the basic parameters of Malaysian foreign policy.

In 1970 Tunku Abdul Rahman relinquished the leadership of UMNO, and with it the position of prime minister, to his close associate, Tun Abdul Razak. After his retirement the Tunku's ability to enjoy certain of his favorite forms of recreation, such as golf and travel, was impaired by physical problems, but he took conspicuous pleasure in time spent with his family. As the "grand old man" of Malaysian public affairs, he also made occasional public appearances, such as his speech dedicating the new Malaysian Chinese Association headquarters building in early 1983. He also wrote a weekly newspaper column under the title "As I See It" and thus continued to add to his enormous influence on political and social life in Malaysia.

Tunku, who led Malaysia in winning independence from Britain in 1957 and served 13 years as its first prime minister, died Dec. 6, 1990. He was 87.

Further Reading

Two biographical accounts provide information on the Tunku's early life and political career. They are Harry Miller, Prince and Premier (1959), and Willard Hanna, Eight Nation Makers: Southeast Asia's Charismatic Statesmen (1964). Studies which describe the Malaysian political scene more generally include Gordon Means, Malaysian Politics (1970), and R. S. Milne and Diane Mauzy, Malaysia: Tradition, Modernity, and Islam (1985). Pending a compilation of the Tunku's Star newspaper columns, the best glimpse of the Tunku's personal style and predispositions is provided by his book May 13-Before and After (1969). His obituary ran in several newspapers including the Los Angeles Times.

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