Tengku Rithauddeen - from lawyer to national leader

Tengku Rithauddeen - from lawyer to national leader
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[The following interview was conducted in December 2017 and published on Ignite, the student-led website - now discontinued - of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.]

Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen (1928-2022), is a former politician who had a political career spanning more than 20 years. His cabinet portfolios included Minister of Special Functions in the Prime Minister’s Department, Minister of Information, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Trade and Industry, Minister of Information and Minister of Defence.

Tengku Rithauddeen has prosecuted people for murder and been involved in the sometimes cut-throat world of politics. Yet, upon meeting him the first impression is of a warm, gentle man.Quite a contrast!

As well as being a prosecutor, he held many high-ranking political positions, some of which were also held by Malaysian Prime Ministers before they were appointed. When he was no longer in government,he took a position as Chairman of the UMNO disciplinary board. But talking to him made me feel like I was talking to a grandfather figure. With every question directed at him, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to turn it back towards me, and instantly, I felt comfortable talking to him about growing uncertainties. He laughed light-heartedly, telling me that he never knew that he would be a politician– it was the Prime Minister that just took a strong liking towards him.

During our short interaction, it was apparent he was a man of diplomacy. During this luncheon, he boasted to me about his staff and members of parliament, and introduced them to me.  When he was about to leave, he asked a member of parliament for “permission” to leave. To which, the member of parliament answered something along the lines of “Why are you asking me? You are the host!” Little gestures can speak volumes, and he seemed to have acknowledged everyone: from waiters to members of parliament. Clearly, he was revered.

When I left, I regretted that I had not asked him more questions.With no expectations of a response, I tried to get in touch with his secretary. And I’m glad I did. One month later, I got to meet Tengku Rithauddeen again. There he sat, very relaxed, in a black and white checked shirt. His office is decorated with golden frames and pictures of his accomplishments. His desk, surmounted with books.

Tengku Rithauddeen and Margaret Thatcher

Tengku Rithauddeen remembers the start of his political career like it was yesterday. Right until then, he had worked his whole life with the goal of becoming a lawyer and indeed, he was an established lawyer. As a public prosecutor in Kuala Lumpur at the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC), he advised on public and civil matters, and he had prosecuted three people for murder. 

However, one day, when he was back in his hometown, Kota Bahru, he received an unexpected note from the Prime Minister’s secretary – “Tun Razak wants to see you today, lunch time, at Istana Telipot.” 

Of course, Tengku Rithauddeen would never deny an invitation by the Prime Minister. The request that followed was unforeseen, as it required him to leave the career he had built for years. 

The Prime Minister said resolutely “Tengku, today at 5 o’clock, I am going to appoint you as UMNO Information Chief for the Kota Bahru division.” A shock, indeed. Tengku Rithauddeen declined, saying, “I am not really groomed to be a politician”. 

But the Prime Minister was adamant and insisted he should be appointed on that day. Tengku Rithauddeen, lost for words, pleaded with the Prime Minister saying “Let me discuss this with my wife”. His words were to no avail. 

Tun Razak said he did not care if Tengku Rithauddeen’s wife approved or not, he wanted Tengku Rithauddeen to be appointed. So Tengku Rithauddeen was appointed as the UMNO Information Chief of Kota Bahru and this was the start of his political career.

Looking back, Tengku Rithauddeen said this moment was abrupt and left no time for him to process the heaviness of responsibility he would carry for the next two decades. He attributes this initial resistance to his formative years because his father, Tengku Ismail, had a burning desire to see his son become a lawyer. 

“My father was so obsessed with the idea that I would be a lawyer”. At the tender age of ten, his father would tell him every day when he sat down at the dinner table, “I want you to be a lawyer”. So, like a religion, this idea was drummed into Tengku Rithauddeen and he thought about being a lawyer often. 

Admittedly, he said that he was never gifted at the arts; in fact, his natural inclination was towards the sciences. But, he worked hard at it. He reads voraciously to improve his proficiency in English. He spent all his working life edging towards this goal – and then walked away from it to face a new, and unexpected, challenge.

Tengku Rithauddeen and Yasser Arafat

Whilst the course of his life changed, Tengku Rithauddeen regrets nothing and would not have wished for a different career. To a certain extent, his childhood dreams were still fulfilled. 

Growing up, Tengku Rithauddeen had a role model, his uncle and a Malaysian Prince, Tengku Mahmood Mahyiddeen. His uncle had volunteered in the British Armed Forces as a Private. When a boat was attacked and bombed by the Japanese in Singapore, his uncle was commended for saving it; thus, he came back a Major. “I was obsessed [with the works of my uncle]… and I wanted to repeat what he has done”. 

The Malaysian prince’s other notable contributions include advocating the importance of education in the 1930s. He was responsible for establishing the first modern English school in Kelantan.  

An objective analysis about the role of his uncle in history had concluded that Tengku Mahmood Mahyiddeen had a “heart of the people” and he was an “influential” leader. What stood out in his uncle was a desire to be “instrumental” to society, and he wanted to emulate this. To him, giving a life in service for a greater good is one of the most noble ways to live.

When asked to pinpoint his greatest achievement, he stumbles, and says that would not be possible. “Everything I have done; I have done well.” He continues, “I have been recognised … in all my cabinet portfolios”. 

With his age and the responsibility of his vocations, comes a breadth of experience: he sees both glory and sin. It is his deep pride that he got to witness Malaysian politics through thick and thin. He recalls coming down to Kuala Lumpur to hear the Declaration of Independence by Tunku Abdul Rahman, “I am very happy to say that I was one of the people there”.

Tengku Rithauddeen also prides himself in always fighting for what is right. After his political career in the cabinet, he joined the UMNO Disciplinary Board, particularly fighting against “money politics”, and party misconduct in elections. Notably, he was in his 70s then. 

One of the most gratifying aspects of his career was the exposure, friendships formed and the privilege to see his friends evolve into world leaders. For example, his good friend, the Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah who was honoured in 2014 by the United Nations as a “Humanitarian Leader” for his “outstanding generosity towards Syrians and Iraqis in need”.

In describing the Prime Ministers, he said Tun Razak was a “a good man” and  “a man of integrity”. Tun Hussein Onn also was a “good man, and honest” – what he particularly admires is how ‘astute’ he was, and his keen eye for detail. As for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tengku Rithauddeen does not want to comment on his recent activities. 

Fidel Castro and Tengku Rithauddeen

However, back in the day, the success Mahathir brought Malaysia was commendable especially in the Asian Economic Crisis. Tengku Rithauddeen is truly grateful as Mahathir taught him a lot, giving him a new-found confidence. A memory that came to mind was when he was given the opportunity to officiate at the opening of the Defence Ministry building – a moment he is proud of, and he is thankful to Mahathir for that experience. He applauds the current Malaysian Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, for his attempt to improve the country’s economic conditions. “The value of our money has improved against the Greenback”. The GDP, while still not comparable to other developed nations, is still one of the best in South East Asia.

Finally, Tengku Rithauddeen advises young Malaysian students to“work hard, do whatever possible to achieve your dreams, and be more committed to doing well so that you can be recognised as bringing progress to Malaysia.” When you are instrumental doing so, the satisfaction you get is twofold, to the nation and to yourself.

Featured images courtesy of Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen

Years ago, there was no registration mechanism for births and deaths; hence contrary to official records, Tengku Rithauddeen’s actual age [in 2017] is 90 years old. But age does not stop him from his philanthropic activities. Tengku Rithauddeen may be retired but he hasn’t stopped being involved in various events. As well as being Chairman of many companies, he is the President of the United Nations Association Malaysia. 

In 2017, he donated RM 1 million in scholarships to support Malaysian national sportsmen and he organises annual nationwide essay competitions to encourage students to be aware of social issues. It is not often you meet a person almost 90 who still concerns himself with matters as such! If Tengku Rithauddeen can still do so, how much more can you offer [as young adults]?


Emily Chen Sue Mei is a management consultant at Ernst & Young focusing on digital strategy and customer experience optimisation.