This article was written on 27 July 2007 in my past life as a journalist:
ON THE EVENING of May 13 1969, two hours before the May 13 riots erupted in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, former Home Affairs Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman wrote a letter.
It was addressed to the chairman of Guthrie Corporation, telling him not to expect him (Ismail) back in London the coming week.
In the letter, quoted in the book “The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time”, he told the Guthrie chairman that the Alliance Party had suffered a badly reduced majority in the just-concluded general election.
Ismail, known for his strong character and integrity, had written: “Tun Razak has strongly pleaded that I join the government. I told him to ask the Tunku and if he wants me I have no alternative but to accept. Tunku is very likely to ask me.”
The Tunku was Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, Malaysia’s first prime minister, and Tun Razak Hussein was then the deputy prime minister.
True enough, on the morning after the riots broke out, Razak called Ismail back into the government, and thus began the Razak-Ismail dynamism that defined Malaysia’s history during those tumultuous years.
Two years earlier, Ismail had resigned from the Cabinet as the home affairs minister because of failing health.
Those who read “The Reluctant Politician” authored by Dr Ooi Kee Beng, will know how Ismail had tried to fight the ailment — a leaky heart valve — by exercising regularly.
A recurrent neck cancer had also bothered him but the turn of events and his sense of duty for the country forced him out of retirement.
On rejoining the government, he was appointed deputy director of operations of the National Operations Council and later Minister of Home Affairs. When Razak succeeded Tunku as prime minister in 1970, he picked Ismail as his deputy.
Penang-born Ooi, coordinator of the Malaysia Study Programme at the Singapore Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), recounted in his book how Razak and Ismail easily complemented each other “in laying the foundations for a new Malaysia that would hopefully not see a repeat of inter-communal violence.”
But between them was a secret — that Razak was ill. In 1969, the prime minister was diagnosed with leukaemia — a fact, according to the book, known only to Ismail, his very close friends, and a few medical staff who were all sworn to secrecy.
“At that time, people didn’t know that these two were dying,” Ooi said in an interview with Bernama ahead of the launch of the Malay version of the book in Kuala Lumpur.
Bashir Basalamah, an experienced translator in Singapore, worked on the Malay version of the book with the title “Bukan Kerana Pangkat: Tun Dr Ismail dan Masanya”.
The 311-page book, published by ISEAS, is based on Ismail’s private papers as well as his unfinished memoirs titled “Drifting into Politics” which came into the possession of his eldest son, Tawfik.
The Malay version is jointly published by ISEAS and the Strategic Information and Research Development Centre (SIRD) in Kuala Lumpur.
Ooi said academics and other people who want to study history, especially of that era, need to now look at it from the point of view that the rest of Malaysia did not know that the two leaders were dying but they (Razak and Ismail) knew about each other’s condition.
“The two were living on borrowed time,” said Ooi. “Their decisions, therefore, were based on the fact that they knew they were dying. They were in a rush,” he said.
Ooi had meticulously researched the book, conducted numerous interviews with Ismail’s close friends as well as prominent personalities including Singapore’s Minister Mentor and founding father Lee Kuan Yew.
In one of the interviews, Lee had told Ooi of Ismail: “Within the leadership of Malaysia, he was a source of moderation and common sense, a stable man not given to extremes, always very firm in his views, and who would not go with wild theories”.
The long-overdue biography of Malaysia’s powerful personality of that era created immense interest in Malaysia as well as in Singapore and has so far sold 10,000 copies.
In Singapore, the book stayed among the top 10 best sellers for six weeks and is now into its fifth reprint. “The response has been fantastic, it’s beyond our expectation,” said Ooi.
“We knew that there will be good response but not this good. I think what is interesting about the book is the historical context in which it appears. It actually kicked off Malaysia’s 50th Merdeka year,” he said, referring to Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of independence this year.
“But what will be a more long-lasting impact (of the book) is that Malaysians, from now on, cannot say that they didn’t know about Tun Dr Ismail, that they didn’t know what sort of a man he was, of his role in building Malaysia and his ideas about the New Economic Policy (NEP), and about all sorts of things,” said Ooi, who noted that politicians were “surprisingly quiet” about the book.
The story of Ismail, as told in the book, can act as a bridge among Malaysians, he added.
“It’s to give them another dream, I suppose. The young Malaysians now come up and say `what are we going to do with this country?’ They don’t dream anymore. But if they go back to the early days before things really got started, then maybe that will inject some dream back into them,” he said.
Tawfik, who was 22 when his father died of a heart attack in August 1973, kept his father’s letters and unfinished memoirs with him in Johor and finally decided to hand it over to the ISEAS.
“I felt that Singapore is the closest point from which I could refer the book because Johor and Singapore have got a very long common history and the personalities in Singapore and Malaysia knew each other.
“So if there wasn’t anyone from Johor to write the book, I think the writer should be someone based in Singapore in order to get access to all the newspaper reports. It has to be based somewhere convenient,” he said.
The other reason, he said, was that ISEAS was willing to take up the project and allow Ooi to research materials in England and elsewhere.
“This makes the book well-researched. Whatever was mentioned by my father was corroborated and verified … which is very important,” he said.
Ismail’s letters are quoted widely in the book and, reading them, one cannot help but be awed by his clarity of thought and the passion that he had about nation-building.
He could have been very well writing them for Malaysia. [Published in Bernama, July 25, 2007]