Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Enduring Legacy in Foreign Affairs

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Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Enduring Legacy in Foreign Affairs

Malaysia’s first prime minister fell short of realizing his domestic vision, the impacts of his diplomacy are still being felt today.

Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Enduring Legacy in Foreign Affairs

Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman arrives on a state visit to The Hague, Netherlands, November 25, 1960.

Credit: Harry Pot/Anefo

Had he lived, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Alhaj, Malaysia’s founding leader, would have turned 121 years old on February 8. He was born in 1903 in Alor Star, a town in Kedah State, which he chose as his final resting place, unlike many other Malaysian prime ministers, including his successor Tun Razak Hussein.

The Tunku was the first prime minister of Malaya, serving from 1957 to 1970. During his time in office, he embraced multiculturalism and racial diversity and positioned himself as a leader for all races. However, his easy-going style and penchant for horse racing, golf, soccer, and mahjong did not sit well with conservative Malay politicians who schemed to remove him as the leader of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and eventually as premier.

The coup against him gathered steam soon after the racial riots of May 13, 1969, which cost hundreds of lives of both ethnic Malays and Chinese and led to the establishment of the National Operations Council under Tun Razak, which eclipsed and undermined the Tunku’s power as major decisions were no longer made in the PM’s office.

The rest is history.

The Tunku is the most misunderstood and maligned politician in the history of UMNO, the political party that he led after Onn Jaafar, another forgotten Malay hero who fought for independence and was known for promoting racial justice. Both failed to make Malaya a melting pot of races, creeds, and ideologies. In his short stint as foreign minister, Onn Jaafar helped lay the foundation of Malaya’s (and later Malaysia’s) external relations with the help of civil servants like Ghazali Shafei, the first permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many other qualified civil servants and community leaders were tapped during this time to serve as ambassadors and high commissioners.

A Cambridge-educated lawyer, the Tunku steered Malaya, and after 1965, the Federation of Malaysia, through some of the most difficult times in the country and the region. Many consider his foreign policies as staunchly pro-British, attributed to his long days as a student in the United Kingdom, where he also developed an acute understanding of geopolitics. For example, as soon as Malaya gained its independence in 1957, he sought membership in the British Commonwealth, justifying it on the grounds that “it would be to the benefit of the Federation” because the Commonwealth comprised other “nations of many races and creeds, but with common concepts of democratic government, administration and justice.”

The Tunku also embraced the ideals behind the United Nations. Three years after attaining independence, the Tunku sent a battalion of soldiers, including his only son, to serve under the U.N. flag as peacekeepers to the Congo at the request of the U.N. secretary-general. Sending his son should be seen as a small personal contribution on his part among larger personal sacrifices. Tunku Abdul Rahman also sold land and houses inherited from his mother to help UMNO, as did his close colleagues from Kedah, Senu Abdul Rahman (the minister of information) and Khir Johari (the minister of education). All three died without amassing large property, unlike some UMNO leaders today.

In its early days, UMNO did not have a large political fund. Money for elections came mainly from party members. When he retired in 1970, the Tunku had no money to settle his income tax. Someone close to him confided to me he helped pass hats to collect money to pay the outstanding amount.

The Tunku also played a significant role in establishing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. Although the Bangkok Declaration carried the signature of his deputy Tun Razak and four other foreign ministers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, it was the Tunku who pushed hard for Malaysia to join. As a strong supporter of regionalism, the Tunku was also involved in the establishment of MAPHILINDO and the Association of Southeast Asia, two stillborn regional organizations that preceded ASEAN.

The five Foreign Ministers who signed the Bangkok Declaration were Adam Malik of Indonesia, Narciso R. Ramos of the Philippines, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, S. Rajaratnam of Singapore, and Thanat Khoman of Thailand who earlier helped broker reconciliation between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines over the formation of Malaysia.

Although the Tunku was regarded as being staunchly British in his foreign policy outlook, during his premiership, he looked beyond Whitehall, focusing on fostering diplomatic ties with various countries, especially those in the region, to promote trade, investment, and cultural exchange that would bring benefits to the newly independent state.

Writing in The Straits Times Annual of 1957, he stated that “close and friendly relations with our neighbors in Southeast Asia must be one of the foremost aims of the Alliance Government.” He went on: “It goes without saying that this applies particularly to Singapore, with whom we have such close ties.” As for the “possibility of the political unification of the Federation [of Malaya] and Singapore after independence,” the Tunku reminisced he considered it “rather remote, because conditions in the two territories are quite different.”

Singapore was part of Malaysia but separated in 1965 due to two strong personalities (the Tunku and Lee Kuan Yew) who could not get along politically. Their political differences and governance styles were at variance with each other and caused them to split ways, although they remained friendly. However, the formation of Malaysia itself marked a significant milestone in the region’s history and was a testament to the Tunku’s efforts to unite diverse territories to create a new nation. Credit for the formation of Malaysia should also go to the local leaders in Sabah and Sarawak, who along with the late Lee Kuan Yew contributed significantly.

The Tunku recognized the importance of regional cooperation and unity among Southeast Asian nations for mutual economic, social, and political benefits. An astute leader, he was well versed in geopolitics believing correctly that Malaya could not survive in a turbulent world without friends. So he befriended the big boys like the U.K., United States, and Soviet Union. Two months after independence, he concluded the Anglo-Malayan Defense Agreement (AMDA), which was designed to provide a security umbrella for the newly independent state and became very useful in dealing with external threats to the country, for example, during the Indonesian confrontation.

Although AMDA was a bilateral agreement between the U.K. and the Federation of Malaya, troops from Australia and New Zealand were deployed to assist Britain in the defense of Malaya and later Malaysia. The AMDA was replaced in 1971 by the Five Power Defense Arrangement, a still-existing consultative agreement between Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the U.K., and Singapore.

Besides making friends with their immediate neighbors, Tunku Abdul Rahman also befriended India and Pakistan. When the two went to war in 1971, he sided with India. His relationship with India could be traced back to 1934 when he met with Jawaharlal Nehru while the latter was on a social visit to Penang. During the Brunei rebellion in 1962, the Tunku sided with the British and the Sultan to quell the uprising. Brunei was supposed to join Malaysia after the uprising but, at the last minute, the Sultan decided to stay out due to Brunei-Shell’s discovery of a new giant offshore oil field.

Malaysia would go on to officially recognize the People’s Republic in China (PRC) in 1974, four years after the Tunku left office. However, unknown to many, he was among the first to broach the idea. According to some sources, the Tunku surprised everyone in 1959, including Dr. Ismail Abdulrahman, the newly appointed Foreign Minister by airing the possibility of opening relations with the PRC, following a meeting with French President Charles De Gaulle in Paris. Without informing the Minister, the Tunku announced in his casual style announced that “it was appropriate [for Malaya] to recognize the Peoples Republic of China”.

While Tunku Abdul Rahman’s domestic legacy fell short of expectations, he his foreign policy legacy has been more enduring than his critics are willing to admit.