Growing up, my siblings and I used to hear stories about the late Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj from our mother and late maternal grandfather, V. Sinnathamby.
During the Japanese Occupation, my grandfather lost his job as a technician in the Survey department in Kulim, Kedah.
With five children to feed, it would have been disastrous. But Tunku, as my grandfather fondly referred to him, came to the rescue. He was the District Officer of Kulim at the time, and he got my grandfather a permit to run a provision shop.
For as long as he lived, Tata (as we called him) waxed lyrical about Tunku, whom he described as being fair and kind, but mostly a leader of the people.
My grandfather used to faithfully send him a Hari Raya card and a birthday card every year till the late 1980s – he even got a couple of personally hand-written replies!
We hold on dearly to our family’s fond memories of Tunku’s benovelence, but our experience is not unique.
Stories abound about Tunku’s gestures of kindness, how he always delivered on his promises and believed in the importance of unity in diversity, as well as how he strove to serve his country. Some of these stories and anecdotes are now gathered in Dialog: Thoughts On Tunku’s Timeless Thinking.
In the book, pioneer woman activist Datuk Rasammah Bhupalan talks about how moving witnessing Tunku’s declaration of Independence at Stadium Merdeka on Aug 31, 1957 was.
But she also recalls another unforgettable Tunku moment at a rally two years prior to Merdeka.
Tunku was then campaigning in the rain but stopped midway to hand the umbrella shielding him to an elderly lady in the front row.
“In the lives of men, these humble moments can often be as revealing as the more acclaimed ones. This spontaneous sacrifice, captured by no photographer and perhaps not even noticed by the crowd, is a powerful insight into Tunku’s motivations as a leader,” she writes in her piece, An Umbrella For All.
Rasammah also highlights the instrumental role Tunku played in women’s fight for equality. He lent his support to Rasammah and other women activists’ demand for equal pay for women teachers, and the same wage policy was implemented in 1964.
Dialog was mooted by Tunku’s granddaughter, M&C Saatchi Malaysia managing director and chief executive officer Datin Sharifah Menyalara Hussein. It was designed and conceptualised by M&C Saatchi Malaysia in collaboration with the Insititute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).
The aim is to get Malaysians talking about Tunku and the values he stood for, which largely embody the spirit in which Malaysia was formed.
By inviting a diverse range of Malaysians to contribute their thoughts – from leaders like Tun Musa Hitam and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah to sportsmen such as Datuk Soh Chin Aun and Datuk Santokh Singh, to the cast of Ola Bola.
Ordinary Malaysians like S. Rajaratnam who was just 22 and about to start work at the Central Electricity Board (now known as TNB) in 1957 as well as 87-year-old couple Hoe Seng and Low Sow Fun who celebrated the birth of their eldest child on Aug 31, 1957 also shared their stories.
“When we started, the idea was to put together a simple book that compiled Tunku’s most famous quotes. But we felt that this would become too much of a one-way street. It would not allow Malaysians to express how and why Tunku’s values and principles are still relevant to them or our country.
“We wanted to involve youths who don’t know much about Tunku or only know him from history textbooks.
“If you go to South Africa or India, you will find that Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi are still very much alive in the hearts and minds of people. Tunku has spoken on so many issues relevant to Malaysia, so we wanted different people to have a ‘conversation’ with him by responding to his quotes,” says Sharifah.
In their piece The Spirit Of 5ifty Seven, Syed Sadiq and Colin Swee highlight Tunku’s quote, “We are so divided in cultures, thinking and religion, yet we are united”.
It’s the quote that has guided them not only in their lives but also in the establishment of their social enterprise Project 57, which sells patriotic T-shirts that support unprivileged youth and single mothers while reminding people of the true spirit of Malaysia.
To them, Tunku’s quote is simple but powerful. It is a reminder of one of the core values upon which the country stands on.
“We’ve seemingly forgotten what we should stand for as a nation. After almost 60 years of Independence, Malaysia is now at a crossroads. It’s time we dig deep and refocus on what can unite us as one people, regardless of our differences,” says Sadiq in their piece.
“There was a time when people of all races came together, in so many different ways, to make the country united. Why can’t we do it again today?” he asks.
Apart from just reading about Tunku, Sharifah hopes Dialog will encourage Malaysians to think about what “being Malaysian” means to them.
“Tunku was both a lawyer and (in effect) the creator of our Federal Constitution. He had a great deal to say about almost every aspect of the Malaysian national fabric – on unity, ethics, religion, law, civil liberties and more.
“As we move forward and become more modern and ‘richer’, let’s not forget how we got here …. what being ‘Malaysian’ means to each of us. We’re near the 60th anniversary of Merdeka; it’s all part of the ‘dialog’ to look back, discuss and evaluate the lessons of six decades and see if these principles are relevant for our future,” she says emphatically.
On a personal front, putting the book together has been heartwarming for Sharifah and her sister Sharifah Intan Syed Hussein (former Executive Editor with The Star who writes about her memories of her grandfather in the entry, The Little Country On The Hill.)
“It was wonderful and enriching. I learned so much more about him. It was also touching how people were so willing to be a part of this project. Everyone was excited and sincere. There was no agenda. It was pure and came from the heart,” she says.
Picking a favourite story in the anthology is almost impossible, she says. But there are a couple that stand out.
“What makes it interesting is that the stories in the book are both big and small. There are some major historical narratives, such as Tunku’s fight against apartheid in South Africa, securing of equal pay for women and the road to Merdeka, naturally.
But there are also rare, previously unknown, glimpses into his character throughout the book. For example, when a busload of school kids stopped briefly outside his home in Penang in the 1970s, he insisted on inviting them all inside. He then personally called the E&O Hotel and asked them to send cakes and drinks for all the children to enjoy.
“The book shows many facets of Tunku,” she says. “The statesman, the student, the irrepressible joker, the philosopher, the freedom fighter, the fond grandfather and the tireless champion of the downtrodden in society.”