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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE TUNKU

By Toh Chin Chye


Curriculum Vitae

MALAYA HAD BEEN A POLITICALLY FRAGMENTED country before the war, with nine sultanates and two settlements governing themselves, albeit with British advice. After Japan surrendered, a central government was set up under the Malayan Union with a British governor. For the first time Britain faced organized political opposition. Datuk Onn Jaafar mobilized dissent, founding the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). In 1948, the Union was replaced by the Federation of Malaya, which was more favorable to Malay interests. But Datuk Onn believed independence could be achieved only if Britain were convinced that all the races agreed to the goal and proposed that UMNO open its membership to all. He was rebuffed and left to form the multiracial Independence of Malaya Party (IMP).

Tunku Abdul Rahman succeeded Datuk Onn as UMNO president in 1951. A prince of Kedah state, the Tunku, as he was generally known, moved easily among the different races just as he moved between Malay royalty and the masses. He was convinced that the Malays, Chinese and Indians, long accustomed to taking problems to their community leaders, would be better served if each had their own political party. But like Datuk Onn, he knew the races had to demonstrate national unity before the British would cede independence.

He effected an alliance between UMNO and the Malayan Chinese Association, initially to contest municipal elections. It beat the IMP convincingly, vindicating the Tunku's belief in race-based political parties. The Alliance subsequently included the Malayan Indian Congress, and repeated its landslide victory in the 1954 elections for the Federal legislature. The Tunku became chief minister of Malaya. Used to the ways of the palace, the Tunku was particular about protocol. But there was no reception and no transport for him and his ministers. As chief minister, he was allotted old colonial quarters, which had a leaking roof. One night it rained so heavily he was forced to move out of his bed. He swore then that the sooner he got the British out the better. Sure enough, Malaya became Independent in 1957 with the Tunku as prime minister.

Independence was not without its problems. The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) had waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese during the occupation, cooperating with the British. There was no political recognition of these efforts when war ended, and the communists launched an anti-British campaign, ostensibly to fight for Malayan independence. A state of emergency was declared as the CPM terrorized the countryside and attacked tin mines and rubber estates, then mainly British-owned. To end the emergency, a meeting was held with CPM secretary general Chin Peng in 1955. While nothing concrete emerged, the Tunku made it clear that the CPM was not fighting the British but the elected government of the people. Leaflets promising amnesty were dropped into the jungles, and many communists surrendered. Three years into independence, the insurgency was stabilised. The Tunku was at the peak of his political life.

In 1961 he proposed the next national step forward: a merger with Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei to form Malaysia. The mystery was why the Tunku included Singapore when he had rejected merger overtures from former Singapore chief ministers David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock. The Tunku was conscious that the Alliance had not managed to gain a toehold in mainly Chinese Singapore. The only explanation was Singapore would be counterbalanced by the non-Chinese in the North Borneo states.

Incompatibility between mercantile Singapore and the agricultural and mining-based society of Malaya threatened the merger. Because it was richer, Singapore's contribution to central government coffers had to be raised from 40% to 60%. The carrot was no more than the prospect of a common market for the goods that Singapore industries were producing.

Singapore's participation in the 1964 Malaysian general elections was a test whether merger conferred equal rights in the democratic process. After all, the Alliance had taken part in the Singapore polls in 1963. But escalating political rhetoric roused tensions between Malays and Chinese that threatened to grow out of control. In 1965, the Tunku decided Singapore should secede. It was not well-received within UMNO. Four years later, on May 13, 1969, racial riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur after the results of general elections became known. The Constitution was suspended and emergency declared. That signalled the Tunku's decline. UMNO had lost several seats in the polls. The Tunku was blamed and, under pressure, he resigned as prime minister in 1970.

Toh Chin Chye, founding chairman of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, was in Parliament from 1959 to 1988.


THE TUNKU

•Born 1903 in Alor Star, Kedah

•Quit legal service for full-time politics in 1951 when he became UMNO chief.

•Forms an alliance with other race-based parties and wins Independence from Britain in 1957. Serves as PM for 13 years

•Helps found the Organization of Islamic Conference. Died in 1990.

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