Marks of a good Malaysian leader

Ooi Kee Beng, New Mandala

There is an anecdote told among close acquaintances of the late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s feared and respected Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister in the early 1970s, that he once in confidence said that he felt he was at heart a greater racist than in his actions, unlike most of his politician colleagues, who were more opportunistic and were racists in words and deeds, but not at heart.

And yet, he was the Malay leader that Chinese Malaysian leaders of his day trusted. In fact, even Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore has often reiterated that Tun Dr Ismail was the only Malaysian leader he had faith in.

As a reflection of the Malaysian culture prevalent during his time perhaps, many of his best friends throughout his life were non-Malays. When Tun Dr Ismail was growing up in Johor Bahru, among his family’s closest friends were the Cheahs, the Kuoks and the Puthuchearys.

Dr Cheah Tiang Eam was a medical doctor who was very close to Ismail’s father, Abdul Rahman Yassin. Ismail’s elder brother, Suleiman, later a member of Malaya’s first Cabinet, was sent to the Cheah home to learn English manners from Mrs Cheah, who was an English lady. Ismail was especially fond of the youngest Cheah daughters, who later married the Kuok brothers, Philip and Robert. The Kuoks would be among Ismail’s closest friends in adult life.

The painful process of securing independence and negotiating a workable path of nation building in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s seared the ever-present issue of race onto the political foreground, where it has stayed until today. Racial issues submerged consciousness of the inter-ethnic exchanges and cultural hybridisation, which continued nevertheless. Understandably, in many Malaysians, strong ethnocentric emotions were stimulated for a time, something that the ensuing politicking would not allow to dissipate.

What went wrong, of course, when we look back over the last few decades, was that they allowed themselves to be manipulated into seeing themselves exhaustively in racial terms and not in citizenship terms. The political establishment grew to depend on this discourse, and turned it into a chronic pathological state.