M. Bakri Musa
30th November 2015
Datuk Onn was a brilliant strategist and farsighted leader. Indeed he was so far ahead that he left his simple village followers behind.
In 1951, just five years after he established and led UMNO, he quit the presidency of his young struggling party and left in a huff. The issue was over admitting non-Malays into UMNO. On the surface this would seem to be a liberal move to engage non-Malays in the political process and to make the party race-blind. Indeed many contemporary commentators are effusive in their praise of the man for his supposed foresight in thinking beyond communal lines and racial identity.
I have a different take; I see his move as the earliest expression of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Hegemony). Onn saw his move as a means to establish Malay control on the political process by co-opting non-Malays, in particular the Chinese, into his Malay party. The reason was obvious. A year or two earlier the Chinese community under the leadership of the staunchly anti-communist Tan Cheng Lock had formed the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). To Onn, it would be much easier to “control” the Chinese politically if they were to be co-opted within UMNO than if they were to have their own separate party. Onn feared that the newly-formed MCA would not only be a formidable power but also be on par with UMNO in the anticipated negotiations for independence.
As a preemptive political strategy, that initiative was stunningly brilliant. Obviously such a strategy could not be stated publicly lest it would lose its power. No Chinese would willingly allow themselves or their community to be trapped that way. Consequently Onn was unable to publicly enunciate his reasons to the rank and file members for this presumed “liberalization” of UMNO’s membership. The average UMNO members, being simple honest village folks, could not readily comprehend Onn’s subtle and brilliant strategy.
Of note is that all in the senior leadership of UMNO then, in particular Razak Hussein who would two decades later lead the party, were in total agreement with and supported Onn. They however, quickly capitulated when they read the mood of the membership. I do not know whether that was an expression of leadership wisdom or political expediency.
Being the aristocrat that he was, Onn felt no compulsion to explain his thinking to the membership; he felt that they should just trust him implicitly. After all, it was his brilliant idea to form UMNO in the first place, and he was the one who single-handedly led the fight against the Malayan Union. So they (UMNO members) should simply trust his judgment on the wisdom of admitting non-Malays to the party. So when the membership rejected his initiative, Onn walked out of the party in a huff.
Datuk Onn had a very high opinion of himself that went with his aloof and aristocratic bearing. His persona bordered on the arrogance. He was undoubtedly expecting in the grand old Malay tradition of merajuk (sulking) that when he walked off the stage, UMNO members and leaders would come to him begging him to stay. Unfortunately for Onn, they saw no need for that as they had another far-sighted, even more brilliant, and much younger leader to boot waiting in the wings. That person was Razak Hussein, head of the party’s Youth Wing.
As for Onn, I remember as a youngster listening to his campaign speeches in my village. What I recall most was his undisguised look of disdain as he addressed the villagers. It was as if he was wasting his time explaining sophisticated political ideas to these simpletons. The voters of course saw that; his candidacy and his new multiracial party were soundly rejected in the first general elections of 1955. It turned out that not only were Malays not buying his argument, so were non-Malays.
Datuk Onn did not win his first parliamentary seat until 1959 when he led his avowedly Malay nationalistic Party Negara. The irony was that the party explicitly restricted its membership to Malays!
Datuk Onn was right in sensing the potential strength of the newly-formed MCA, in particular its leader Tan Cheng Lock. Apart from the personal rivalry between Onn and Tan, there would now be a potentially more explosive political one. While both were committed Anglophiles, Tan would be a formidable adversary for he was staunchly anti-Communist and had proven his pro-British core during the Japanese Occupation. For another, he was also fabulously wealthy. That counted considerably in politics, then and now.
As leader, Onn showed great foresight as well as free-mindedness. Had he been the typical civil servant with the mindset of Kami menurut perentah (I follow instructions) he would have followed in his sultan’s lead by supporting the Malayan Union Treaty, and be amply rewarded in the process. Had he done that, there would be no limit to the honors heaped upon him by the sultans and the British. Instead he heeded the voices of the rakyat and paid close attention to the key phrases of the treaty. That decided for him, and he ignored his sultan. Malays owe Datuk Onn a huge debt of gratitude for without him, Malayan Union would have prevailed.
The UMNO masses in turn showed great political wisdom and maturity in not letting Onn blackmail them by joining him in abandoning the young fledgling party. Malays, specifically UMNO members, were indeed grateful to Onn for scuttling the Malayan Union, but that gratitude had its limits. When Onn breached that by quitting UMNO, the members rightly rejected him.
Today Malays, in particular UMNO members, unabashedly express their gratitude to leaders whose accomplishments pale in comparison to that of Datuk Onn’s. We continue doing so long after they have betrayed our trust in them through their repeated acts of greed, corruption and incompetence.
There is yet another point worth noting. When Onn left UMNO, its leaders beginning with Tunku Abdul Rahman (who succeeded Onn) and Datuk Razak Hussein right down to the lowly branch committee member as well as ordinary members, did not demonize Onn. They respected his decision to leave and left it at that.
The UMNO of today is a far different party. When former Prime Minister Mahathir retired after leading the party for over two decades, those small characters he left behind took every opportunity to snipe at him. Malay culture has not changed; only UMNO.
Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
Next: Tun Razak Hussein