Tun Ismail: No Ordinary Politician

Review by Bakri Musa

Tun Ismail: No Ordinary Politician
The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr. Ismail and His Time
Ooi Kee Beng

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, 2006
338 pp RM55.00

Reading Ooi Kee Beng’s biography of the late Tun Ismail is akin to eating at a buffet in a cheap Chinese restaurant. The offering was generous and you gorged yourself. However, an hour later you were hungry again; worse you could not even recall what was so special about the menu. Then it dawned on you that the food tasted good simply because you were so darn hungry.

With the present pathetic state of leadership in Malaysia, there is a yearning for the kind of leaders like the late Tun Ismail, men of
strong convictions and who did not hesitate acting on them. Ooi quoted Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman who bore the wrath of Ismail’s anger over Tunku’s sudden policy change towards China. Ismail was so incensed that he tendered his resignation immediately. You would never see that kind of bravery among today’s leaders; they are more adept at toadying and ingratiating themselves.

Ooi worked hard for his book, interviewing scores of people and reviewing many documents locally and abroad. There is no shortage of quotes and anecdotes from those who knew Ismail, and Ooi added many details of Tun’s life. Therein lies the problem. The essence of the man gets buried in the avalanche of factoid overload. It does not enlighten us to know that he was awarded the National Order of Vietnam, or that he was president of the American Malaysian Society.

Ooi did not have to quote every interview. The book could do without the many “He was tough, brilliant, blunt, … ” type of general comments. They added nothing and took up valuable space.

Two interviewees, Lee Kuan Yew and Ghaffar Baba, stood out; they illuminated well Ismail’s character. Lee was expounding in his usual erudite and logical manner on a particular issue. At the end he asked Ismail what he thought about it, and the Tun simply replied, “I disagree!” Flabbergasted, Lee asked Ismail for his reasons, at which point Ismail remarked that since Lee had so brilliantly enumerated all the salient points there was nothing more for him (Ismail) to add. That reflected supreme self-confidence. By not trying to “out lawyer” the lawyerly Lee, Ismail stumped him.

Handling Failure Well

Ismail demonstrated his self-confidence early. He flunked his medical school in Singapore. Medicine is tough, consequently only the smartest and well motivated would be attracted. Unfortunately these are also the types who do not handle failure well.

Ismail was the exception. After being rejected by Hong Kong, he was accepted and succeeded at Melbourne. He attributed his success there to the superior teaching, as compared to the obviously sloppy style in Singapore. Interestingly, Ismail let it be known that he bombed his anatomy test in Singapore because on the evening before the examination, he had cut off a man on the cabaret floor. Unfortunately, that man turned out to be his anatomy instructor!

You have to hand it to Ismail for being on the dance floor instead of the library or the lab before an important examination!

Ismail spent his student life in Australia fully, venturing well beyond the campus, again rather atypical. Most Malaysians would rather congregate among themselves or rush home during vacations. In his frequent letters to his father, Ismail would note how conscious Australians were at exercising themselves. He wondered how much better it would be for Malay girls if they would be similarly involved. Alas, his observations merely reflected how far detached he was from the lives of ordinary Malays, being a member of the aristocracy. The girls and women of my life in the kampong did not have to exercise, they spent their waking hours hauling water and firewood, as well as toiling the padi fields.

The second anecdote was from Ghaffar Baba. He had arranged for Ismail to meet some religious leaders for the purpose of blunting Ismail’s deserved reputation for being aloof as well as to connect him with the grassroots. At the appointed event, Ismail briskly walked in and headed straight for the podium and began his speech, and then just as briskly walked out after he was finished. There was no shaking of hands, friendly eye contact, or enquiring about the attendees’ loved ones! No, Ismail was not a reluctant politician, more a politically tone-deaf one. It was remarkable that he was so successful.

Ismail was trained as a physician; we are supposed to be sensitive to the human side of things, unlike the engineers. No wonder Ismail’s private practice in Johore Baru was, in Ooi’s words, “moderately successful.” This at a time when the country was desperately short of doctors!

Ghaffar Baba and Lee Kuan Yew’s observations are the rare gems in this book. What impresses (or more correctly, intrigues) me is not the long list of people Ooi interviewed, rather those he did not, most notably Mahathir. Tawfik, Ismail’s son, recalled an unpleasant encounter with Mahathir when the latter was Prime Minister. As Ooi noted, Ismail was the one person most opposed to bringing Mahathir back into UMNO’s fold.

I would also love to hear what Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang have to say about Ismail. Both bore the brunt of Ismail’s toughness, having been incarcerated under the ISA while Ismail was in charge of it. Another would be Harun Idris, Selangor’s Chief Minister during the May 1969 riot. Ismail wanted him arrested on charges of murder!

Pivotal Player in the Nation’s History

Tun Ismail was a pivotal player in the seminal events of the nation’s history, but it would be difficult to discern from this volume what exactly were his contributions. He talked passionately about improving the economic plight of Malays, but there was hardly any specificity to his ideas, at least as can be gleaned from this book. He rightly forewarned of the dangers of being dependent with unrestrained special privileges, but again we do not know at what level or passion he pursued that argument.

The best parts of Ooi’s book are the beginning and ending chapters. The book begins with Ismail’s fatal heart attack on August 2, 1973 while he was acting Prime Minister. Ooi describes the chaotic situation during the medical emergency as well as at the subsequent state funeral. There was the poignant detail about Tun Razak ordering the body not be buried, as the intended grave was outside the Heroes Tomb. With the corpse still on the ground, Tun Razak ordered the army to dig a new grave right away.

As an aside, the book carries a picture of the soldiers chiseling the cement floor. To my clinical eye, none were wearing gloves or safety glasses! As Tun Razak would remark, you can’t have anything done right!

Ooi packs many details in his first chapter; consequently he could deal with them only superficially. A few scream out for amplification. For example, on the day of his death, Tun Ismail’s wife was in the hospital recovering from an abortion and sterilization procedure. She was not notified of her husband’s death till the next morning.

Having an abortion is not like having your tonsils out; it is emotionally charged, especially for a Muslim. I would like to know
(from interviewing his widow) whether this was the couple’s joint decision or one where the husband (and in this instance, also the
doctor) knows best. You do not have to be a psychoanalyst to recognize that how one reacts to stress (especially personal tragedies) can be very revealing.

Tun Ismail was rightly worried about the future of his many young children in view of his ill health and limited financial resources. If economics were the reason for the abortion, that would be troubling. Only in Russia are the doctors poor. As a physician, I find it unsettling that a doctor’s wife would have an abortion. This was the 1970s when birth control pills were already readily available.

This is a highly sensitive matter, and I am not sure the writer could handle such a delicate discussion with Ismail’s widow. But it would be highly illuminating.

The last chapter carries an extensive excerpt from Ismail’s unpublished autobiography. The entry was written less than a year before his death. He was remarkably introspective, unhesitatingly baring himself. He let it be known how grateful he was that Tun Razak publicly acknowledged his (Ismail’s) many contributions to the nation, and lamented that the Tunku never once did that to Ismail. Ismail had passionately and tirelessly defended Tunku, especially in the dark days following the 1969 riot when many in UMNO vilified Tunku. Ismail was not all gruff and emotionless after all; he, like all of us, hungered for and appreciated public praises.

It is clear from the excerpt that Ismail was quite capable of expressing himself well. He had already written 16 chapters of his
autobiography. This together with all his letters and speeches could be compiled into a book. I even have a ready title: Tun Ismail In His Own Words! This great patriot does not need a writer to tell his story. As the custodian of Ismail’s papers, ISEAS needs an editor to organize and publish them.

While waiting for that, ISEAS could digitize those documents and put them on the Web to make them readily accessible. ISEAS did not pay for them, thus it should be willing to put them in the public domain. That would also be the best way to preserve and archive those documents. I agree with Ooi that Tun Ismail’s legacy has yet to be discovered. Putting those documents out would be an excellent beginning.

In his will, Ismail specified that these papers not be released until some thirty years after his death, presumably to protect those for whom Ismail had some unkind words. I do not find anything harsh or offensive in this volume except for the observation Ismail had of his assistant when he was our Ambassador in Washington, DC. Ismail was greatly relieved when Tuanku Jaafar was transferred out. Of course no one knew then that he would later be King!

I am surprised that Ismail’s papers ended up in Singapore, considering our prickly relations with that republic. Looked at another way, that of course is a rousing endorsement of the integrity and professionalism of ISEAS.

In a recent interview, Tawfik remarked that he tried to interest Malaysian institutions and academics but there were no takers. This speaks volumes on the capability of our institutions and the intellectual curiosity of our scholars. It is an observation worth
emphasizing. Tun Ismail may be buried in the Heroes Tomb, but if he knew of the terrible downslide of our nation since his death, he would crawl out of his grave to reprimand those responsible.

  1. #1 by undergrad2 on Monday, 26 March 2007 - 11:48 am

    Ismail was a controversial UMNO politician who did not see eye to eye with those around him – especially Tunku. In his relationship with others he was abrasive, blunt, more feared than popular. When Tunku was busy projecting his image as the “happiest Prime Minister in the world” in the years immediately leading to the race riots of 1969, Ismail and Razak and Ghazalie Shafie were making decisions for him from behind the scenes.

    He was what you call those days an ‘ultra’ among UMNO leaders. As a westernized Malay individual educated abroad, he often appeared conflicted. He was fond of pants with flairs, wore white shoes and scarfs – seldom seen without his pipe. He carved an unusual if not aberrant figure those days. He definitely was not a Malay traditionalist but like other Malays educated overseas, a professional from a newly emerging elite Malay class. As a Malay leader he was impatient for change, struggled in search of the correct mindset for the Malays to emulate in a world fast modernizing, and during a time when ‘modernization’ stood for nothing much more than ‘westernization’.

    I would love to read Ooi Kee Beng’s biography on Ismail. I expect it to be more balanced and objective than had it been written by a Malay. As a biography written by a non-Malay on a Malay leader the downside is that it may be superficial on occasions in the treatment of things Malay.

  2. #2 by Jong on Monday, 26 March 2007 - 2:50 pm

    Not only would Tun Ismail crawl out of his grave at the Heroes Tomb, to repimand those responsible for the state our nation is in – polarised and corrupted to the core, Tun Hussein Onn would be rushing out ahead of him to use the keris on his own son Hishamuddin Tun Hussein Onn, wondering what had he done to deserve such a scumbag for a son.

  3. #3 by tsn on Monday, 26 March 2007 - 7:43 pm

    The actual picture is: Before even Tun Hussein Onn manages to open his mouth, Kerismudin will say: orang tua, you have wasted a lot of Malays time and opportunities, Malays are cursing you now, now I have to doubling up my effort to do whatever you didn’t do.Tun Hussein Onn will nod his head and shamefully crawls back to his six feet long comfortable hero bed. Sekianlah sahaja.

  4. #4 by undergrad2 on Monday, 26 March 2007 - 7:53 pm

    Tun Ismail was headstrong, opinionated and dogmatic in his approach – not easy to get along, was the opinion of his colleagues. His chosen style to interact with others was abrasive.

    But the measure of a man is not in his chosen style of leadership, his personal idiosyncrasies but is in his actions.

    Of the three Tunku, Razak and Ismail, Razak was the more moderate. Tunku was more of a visionary leader whilst Razak was more of a hands on manager, much like Hussein Onn. Ismail? Well, he had very strong though sometimes inconsistent world view.

    But it would be a mistake to characterize the man as a ‘moderate’ politically. In Sino-Malay affairs Ismail would stand next to the likes of Musa and the young Mahathir – a Malay ‘ultra’.

  5. #5 by undergrad2 on Monday, 26 March 2007 - 7:55 pm

    Tunku was far left of the three.

  6. #6 by Godamn Singh on Thursday, 29 March 2007 - 5:29 am

    You’re still goddamn right, Undergrad2

  7. #7 by Angry_Malaysian on Tuesday, 3 July 2007 - 11:39 pm

    It just goes to show that those older generations Malaysians were more advanced in thinking and open-minded than the present ones. Sorry dear Malaysians, this is a fact. Yet again, tribute to MALAYSIA BOLEH spirit!!

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