This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 2 - 8, 2015.
A hundred years ago on Nov 4, Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, the much respected second deputy prime minister of Malaysia, was born. The public’s liking for him, according to numerous accounts of his life and times, was based on certain traits in his character that made him stand out as a public figure.
These qualities included a non-racial outlook, a tough but fair approach to the rules and a principled stand on issues affecting the nation’s future.
As former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah noted in an interview with the New Straits Times on Dr Ismail’s role following the May 13, 1969, racial riots, “The Chinese did not have much confidence in [second prime minister Tun Abdul] Razak [Hussein], but they did in Ismail. Razak was always associated with Malay and rural affairs, et cetera. Ismail was a principled man — and was seen that way by the different races. He was the Rock of Gibraltar. Once he decided on something, you could be sure that he had gone through the relevant details and studied them. What is confidence unless it is based on the people’s belief in the leader?”
Indeed, Dr Ismail’s steadfast character and penchant for correctness was such that Razak seldom disagreed with him, including when the country was run by the National Operations Council during Emergency rule following the 1969 riots. Former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in the same article, recalled that Razak often took pains to accommodate Dr Ismail’s views, extending meetings whenever there was a clash of opinions so as to satisfy Dr Ismail.
The independence of mind that Dr Ismail displayed allowed him to articulate a moderate vision of nationhood that was reassuring to the different races in the country while retaining the special position of the Malays as a central pillar.
That vision was evident, for instance, in a statement that Dr Ismail issued as the home minister in the heated period before the riots broke out. Ultra-Malay leaders, including Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Musa Hitam, had called for prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s resignation in favour of a leader who would restore “Malay sovereignty”.
The Tunku responded by forcing Dr Mahathir and Musa out of Umno, at which Dr Ismail issued a statement that “these ultras believe in the wild and fantastic theory of absolute dominion by one race over the other communities, regardless of the Constitution ... Polarisation has taken place in Malaysian politics and the extreme racialists among the ruling party are making a desperate bid to topple the present leadership”.
The moderation that Dr Ismail espoused strikes an especially meaningful chord in current times, when inter-racial harmony is repeatedly being tested by inflammatory statements from right-wing groups.
Dr Ismail’s views on the multiracial nature of Malaysia’s politics are a far cry from the intolerant and extremist opinions being aired today. They tell us that the inclusive vision of our founding fathers has been supplanted by a narrow, regressive version of what Malaysian stands for.
Contrast Dr Ismail’s views with the oft-repeated call to extend the New Economic Policy (NEP) on the grounds that the bumiputeras are still unable to compete on a level playing field.
An avid golfer, Dr Ismail likened the NEP to a handicap for the Malays that “will enable them to be good players, as in golf, and in time the handicap will be removed.
“The Malays must not think of these privileges as permanent: For then, they will not put effort into their tasks. In fact, it is an insult for the Malays to be getting these privileges,” he was quoted as saying in a retrospective article on his contributions to the nation, carried in The Sun.
Dr Ismail’s courage in laying bare the reality behind affirmative action makes him a rare commodity in a field where development policy has been misdirected for political advantage.
It is time we drew strength from Dr Ismail’s honesty to realign our efforts towards the original goals of the NEP, namely the eradication of poverty and restructuring of society, weaning the able off its life-support system.
Even concerning the question of the special position of the Malays, which was a core issue in the Independence negotiations, Dr Ismail was quoted in his biography The Reluctant Politician (2007) as having written that “the leaders of the Alliance realised the practical necessity of giving the Malays a handicap if they were to compete on equal terms with the other races. The only point of controversy was the duration of the ‘special position’ — should there be a time limit or should it be permanent?
“I made a suggestion, which was accepted, that the question be left to the Malays themselves, because I felt that as more and more Malays became educated and gained self-confidence, they themselves would do away with this ‘special position’ because in itself this ‘special position’ is a slur on the ability of the Malays and only to be tolerated because it is necessary as a temporary measure to ensure their survival in a modern competitive world: a world to which only those in the urban areas had been exposed.”
Expressing concern over racial polarisation in the country, he once asked, “Why did we fight for Merdeka? So that the different races can be divided? That can’t be the way, right? That can’t be why all these great Malay and Umno leaders fought for this ... Something is wrong.”
I hope new discussions will start. Why are we building Malaysia? What Malaysia are we building? What kind of symbol is Malaysia supposed to be?
It is telling that more than 40 years after Dr Ismail’s passing, the questions that he had posed then continue to trouble us.
It is left to the people today to draw inspiration from Dr Ismail’s clarity of vision about the relations among Malaysia’s diverse communities in order to forge a common future.
His untimely death at 58 has truly made him “the best prime minister Malaysia never had”.
R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge