“Merdeka, merdeka, merdeka …” cried Tunku Abdul Rahman seven times in a row on a humid Saturday morning at Stadium Merdeka on Aug 31, 1957. As he had envisaged, it was the most significant moment in this nation’s proud history, the day when Malaya gained independence from her colonial masters.
But getting to that point was a long and arduous process. The struggles of Malaya’s ambition for freedom are well-documented, but the human elements sometimes fall between the cracks.
From the start, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister knew that for the nation to progress and prosper on its own, he had to first bring its people together, and to have them all pulling in the same direction.
His own upbringing in the quaint, early 20th century Alor Setar exposed him to the various ethnic communities from the start, and Bapa Malaysia (Father of Malaysia, as he was fondly known) always believed in the concept of a multiracial country that lived in peace and harmony.
Following his education in Britain, he returned to Malaya in 1931 and was appointed a cadet in the Kedah civil service. A working stint in Kulim saw him scouring the district, getting to know the people, 90% of whom were peasants. He always led by example and was in tune with the people’s needs.
When the scourge of malaria threatened the community in Kuala Nerang, Tunku went all out to destroy the breeding grounds of mosquitoes, requesting funds from the State Secretariat to finance draining the swamps bordering the town. The well-being of Malaysians was always a top priority for him.
Where there was injustice, Tunku was never far off to right the wrongs. During the Japanese Occupation, when thousands of young Malayan men were despatched to work on the Burma Death Railway, he helped feed and shelter those who escaped, placing himself at serious risk in the process. Tunku was the man of the people, and often the man of the hour, too.
The formation of an independent Malaya was the handiwork of all Malaysians, but led primarily by Tunku and Tun Tan Cheng Lock, with support from Tun V.T. Sambanthan, all of whom represented the three major ethnic communities in Malaya. Tunku worked closely with them, listening to the issues presented by the leaders of their various communities.
He tread the fine line between these ethnic groups, and brought them all together with his genial and noble personality, for the sake of the nation’s independence and to simply be himself.
Malaya’s quest for independence gained momentum when, at the start of 1956, he led an entourage to London for negotiations. That dream would be realised less than two years later, the poignant moment coming in the shape of the scene when the Union Jack was lowered and the new Federation flag was raised at midnight on Aug 30, 1957, at Dataran Merdeka.
Malaysia has come a long way since placing itself on the world map for various achievements, but every success invariably goes back to the foundational work put in place by Tunku, who died in 1990 at the age of 87.
He enjoyed many of the simple pleasures the average person did – he liked his card games, loved his golf, had a keen interest in football and tennis, and had a love affair with red sports cars. While larger than life, these interests endeared him to the common man, and allowed us all to relate to him as a cultured man, who, while living a modest lifestyle, also enjoyed the finer things in life.