Tun Razak – A Leader With A Free Mind

M. Bakri Musa
7th December 2015

Notwithstanding their common aristocratic background, obvious brilliance, and genuine nationalism, plus their overlapping leadership in UMNO, Tun Razak had little in common with Datuk Onn Jaafar. To start with, there was their obvious age and thus generational difference, Onn being about 30 years older. The critical differentiating feature separating the two however was their personalities.

Like Onn, there is as yet no authoritative biography of Tun Razak. There is William Shaw’s, published in 1976, sympathetic bordering on the hagiographical. Razak had many contemporaries, some very erudite, but none had sought to pen an account of this great man. Likewise his sons (he had no daughters) who are all well educated, including one who is a Cambridge graduate, yet none has seen fit to write an account of their great father, apart from the anecdotal recollections in responses to interviews.

The contrasting personalities between Onn and Razak could not be more obvious then when they were campaigning or otherwise engaging the common people. To be sure, both were atypical politicians; neither exhibited the usual politician’s backslapping or feigned familiarity and affability. They both seemed aloof and uncomfortable with crowds. While Onn had the imperious look of an aristocrat who is forced to be with the peasants, Razak had that of a policy wonk embarrassed at being unable to articulate more simply his complex ideas. Both however, had great intellect and more importantly, were remarkably free-minded although expressed in very different ways.

Razak was head of UMNO Youth at the time when Onn walked out of the parent party in 1951. Razak’s remarkable leadership talent was already widely recognized. The members saw great potential in Razak and very much wanted him to take over the party. He however demurred. A man of quiet self-confidence to match his considerable intellect, Razak was not easily flattered. Or tempted! He knew that he was too young (not yet thirty when Onn bolted out of UMNO) and had joined the party only the year before. He rightly thought that the Malay masses would be more accepting of someone older and more experienced, considering our culture’s reverence for age and seniority for with that, it was assumed, would come wisdom and tolerance.

Razak saw no one in the party’s hierarchy capable of leading it, especially considering the critical mission it was about to undertake – securing the country’s independence. That was an unusually perceptive and brutally honest assessment. Then he remembered his old fellow law student friend back from their days in England who was by then the Sessions Court President, and persuaded him to take over UMNO’s leadership with Razak as the number two.

It was a perfect match. Tunku Abdul Rahman was more than an Anglophile; he was once married to an English woman and thus was very familiar and comfortable with the ways of the English. Though he was a member of the Kedah royalty, Tunku had a touch for the common man. Even more remarkable, he had the knack for extracting money from citizens for worthy projects. An excellent fundraiser is always an asset for any organization, especially a political party.

Tunku presented the benign affable public relations face required of the number one, while Razak was the able second-in-command doing the heavy lifting. Knowing their age difference, Razak was in no hurry to get the top slot.

Razak’s free-mindedness enabled him to view problems from many perspectives. He saw Onn’s departure not as a crisis, as many did, but an opportunity to look beyond the party for new talent, as he did by bringing in Tunku. Razak would later demonstrate this same resourcefulness when as Prime Minister he brought many outstanding young talent into his administration, such individuals as Tengku Razaleigh, Chong Hon Nan, Abdullah Ahmad (not that forgettable Badawi character who would later succeed Mahathir as Prime Minister but the former Special Envoy to the UN), and the late Ghazali Shafiee.

Razak’s subsequent turn to be the number one did not come smoothly however, or in the best tradition of succession. Instead it was triggered by the bloody riots of 1969 that reduced Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to a hapless soul unable to control a nation that had gone berserk.

In his memoir the Tunku lamented the many conniving ways Razak undertook, at the behest of the “young Turks” and others in UMNO, to undermine the Tunku. Razak did not need to go through all those ugly and unseemly contortions. All he had to do was tell Tunku that he (Razak) wanted to take over and the Tunku would have gracefully given way. Razak however, bound by tradition perhaps, could not do that to his old mentor.

That little personal blemish, though regrettable, did not diminish the luster of Razak’s leadership. Under less able crisis management, that 1969 conflict could have proved not only deadly but also intractable. Razak however, brought it under control within days. Bleeding-heart liberals may complain of his methods but there was no mistaking their effectiveness. Consider that the 1969 riots coincided with the modern flare-up of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. While Malaysians today have long forgotten that dark period in our history, the folks in Northern Ireland are still busy settling deadly scores.

Razak declared a state of emergency and suspended parliament. To this day he remained the only leader in the world who assumed dictatorial powers because of an emergency and then gave that up voluntarily 18 months later to the previously elected parliament.

Razak was not at all perturbed by negative outside opinions although, unlike Mahathir, he did not purposely go out of his way to thumb his nose at the world. Razak was focused on the job at hand, confident that the results would vindicate his methods. He was right.

In the same manner, Razak’s New Economic Policy was a bold and imaginative piece of social engineering. He was not in the least bothered by possible charges of racism or of favoring one race over another. He did what he thought needed to be done. Forty years later, the various successors to the NEP still keep its basic elements. None however, could match the efficacy of the original.

In instituting his bold NEP, Razak anticipated the wisdom of modern economists by decades. Today it is an accepted wisdom that gross inequities especially between highly visible groups as with race, is not only incompatible with economic growth but would also undo whatever gains you may have achieved.

In the geo-political arena, it was Tun Razak’s free-mindedness that made him undertake that trip to China in 1974, at the height of the Cold War and when the communist insurgency was still active in Malaysia. That also reflected the brilliance of his strategic thinking and visionary aspirations. He saw the rise of China and the importance of its inclusion into the international community earlier than any other statesman, either regional or global.

History records Nixon visiting China two years earlier. However, Razak started his initiative, as did Kissinger for Nixon, in 1971. Unlike Nixon and his State Secretary who went though various intermediaries and did so in secret, Razak wrote directly and openly to Mao’s Chou En Lai. Like the American initiative, Razak’s too followed the visit of the Chinese ping pong team.

Razak was a leader unencumbered by fixed ideas, the hallmark of a free mind. That is precisely the leadership that Malaysia desperately needs today. Alas, I see little hope of that happening.

Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.

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