As Malaysia observes the 57th anniversary of its founding it is appropriate to remember Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country’s first prime minister and the preeminent influence on the nation’s international diplomacy in the first years of independence.
The Tunku was a prince from Kedah. His father was Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah who officially reigned from 1881 to 1943. The Tunku was the third child of one the Sultan’s consorts, Makche Manjalara.
As Kedah was one of the Unfederated Malay States it had much less British colonial control and presence than the four Federated Malay States and Penang and Melaka( then known as the Straits Settlements). But the state was ahead of most other states as bright and promising students were provided scholarships to pursue their studies at the best English universities. The Tunku’s older brother, Tunku Yaacob had also studied agriculture at Cambridge.
The Tunku was born on February 8 1903 and passed away on December 6, 1990.
He was first educated at the Government English School(later called the Sultan Abdul Hamid College, Alor Star, the only school to have produced two Malaysian prime ministers ), a school in Bangkok, and the Penang Free School. Later he attended St Catherine’s College at Cambridge where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in law. He enrolled for a full law course but it took him 25 years to obtain that qualification.
In the meantime, the Tunku got married, joined the Kedah Civil Service, and served as District Officer of Kuala Nerang, Langkawi, and Kulim and worked in Kedah during the Second World War under Japanese rule. Then he went back to complete his studies, qualified as a lawyer, and came back home and become a deputy public prosecutor in Kedah and later in Kuala Lumpur.
He was approached to contest the presidency of UMNO which he won in August 1951. Some months later he took up residence in Johor Baru. He lived there for the next three years doing party work and worked with other social activists, news people, diplomats, sports officials, and some business people.
The Tunku almost singlehandedly set up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia (then known as the Ministry of External Affairs). When the Tunku became chief minister after the July 1955 general election he set about laying the framework of the external affairs section. It was set up almost exclusively with the help of some British and Malaysian MCS officers. Apart from Ghazali Shafie he seems to have relied on his British civil servants and some of his contacts from Kedah, Johor, and Selangor.
On Merdeka Day it was, it would seem, the most Malayanised government agency although there were British officers handling issues of security, finance, and the most important internal audit responsibility. They were all housed in small cubicles in the old Sultan Abdul Samad Building referred to as the ‘Clock Tower’ building.
The Ministry of External Affairs was also one of the first to have a Malayan permanent secretary( or Setiusaha Tetap), or KSU in today’s parlance.
This permanent secretary was Dato’ Othman bin Mohammed, a senior civil servant who had earlier served as Malaya’s second commissioner in London. He had succeeded Raja Tun Uda Raja Muhammad who was possibly our first diplomat abroad.
Most of the other federal ministries, other than the Prime Minister’s Dept ( Tun Abdul Aziz Hj Majid, a 1941 recruit to the MCS served as a permanent secretary there from August 1 1957 to August 31, 1964) generally had British permanent secretaries. The Ministry of Defence, for instance, had had two Caucasians -F Brewer (1957-1959) and RGK Thompson(1959-1961)- before Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Shamsuddin took over in April 1961.
During Raja Uda’s term, four Malayans were selected to attend a diplomatic service course in the UK. They were Tun M Ghazali Shafie, H F Geoffrey Leembruggen(from RIMV, Singapore), Tan Sri Zaiton Ibrahim, and Yeo Beng Poh(from Shell). Leembruggen and Yeo Beng Poh subsequently headed MIDF and MIDA respectively.
Dato’ Othman, like quite a few of our earlier Foreign Service officers, had been educated at the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur where he had been the first head boy. He had also served as State Secretary and as the Menteri Besar of Selangor, then the most senior civil service post in the state. After retiring from being the head of MEA he went on to become deputy chairman of the Public Services Commission.
Tan Sri Nik Ahmad Kamil took over from him and Ghazali Shafie was his understudy and deputy until the latter became the permanent secretary in 1962. Tan Sri Nik Kamil was Malaya’s first high commissioner in London.
On Independence Day Nik Kamil was already in London. The Straits Times of the week August 30 to September 4 1957 carried reports of some of the activities of Nik Kamil. On BBC’s special program on Malaya Nik Kamil had read out the country’s ‘ Proclamation of Independence.’ He also hosted a ‘Malaya Coming Out’ party at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane. There were 1000 guests at that dinner and dance function which attracted key officials of the UK establishment including the Earl of Home, Lord and Lady Attlee, John Profumo, then Colonial Undersecretary and his wife, the actress Valerie Hobson. Malayans from Sandhurst and trainee teachers from Kirby etc were also there. (As reported in The Straits Times of September 1 1957.)
Emeritus Prof A J Stockwell describes Ghazali as a person to whom the Tunku gave ‘ an unusually wide measure of responsibility.
One of the most senior MCS officers recruited into the External Affairs Service was Tunku Tan Sri Mohamad Tunku Burhanuddin( April 19, 1914- February 1995) who in 1955 was appointed Federation of Malaya Commissioner in Pakistan. On Merdeka Day he became High Commissioner there attesting to the importance given to relations with Pakistan. When Tunku Mohamad returned from Pakistan he was made permanent secretary of the Ministry of Health, State Secretary for Perak, and Federal Secretary for both Sabah and Sarawak. He then became the Principal Establishment Officer and was subsequently appointed the (third) Chief Secretary to the Government(7 November 1967- 31 December 1969). One of the earliest observations of him was that he was always immaculately attired to suit any occasion.
Ghazali Shafie had been appointed in 1955 as Commissioner to India and he was asked to return on the eve of independence to assist in setting up of our ministry.
Tunku’s Pivotal Role
Most of these early contacts in the region seem to have been derived from the Tunku’s period of residence in Johor Baru after he became the president of UMNO. Consular and trade officials stationed in Singapore kept in close touch with the Tunku to monitor the Emergency and political developments in Malaya. The Tunku would also travel occasionally to Singapore for a day, sometimes to be at the races. In 1952 the Tunku had attended the Hiroshima peace conference which had drawn participants from all of Asia. He had met one Dr. W I Liao, president of the exiled Formosan Democratic Independence Party at this conference.
One of the diplomats stationed in Singapore was Dr. Mohammed Razif who was later to serve as Indonesia’s first ambassador to the Federation Of Malaya(1957-1963). It would seem that quite a few of the diplomats who were stationed in Singapore were subsequently posted to Kuala Lumpur upon our independence. Interestingly the Tunku was extremely close to the diplomats and sports officials from the Republic of China who later settled in Hongkong.
Apart from being an affable, warm, and hospitable personality the Tunku also had a keen interest in sports. He was involved in football associations from the early 1940s and on account of this interest, he got to know sports officials from many Asian countries. Golf was another medium of his links with the expatriate community in both Johor and Singapore.
From this exposure to diplomats, consular and trade officials based in Singapore and Penang(were their many consulates, including from Thailand) the Tunku seems to have had a fairly good idea of what he expected of his young nation’s first diplomats. The Tunku, although rather westernized in some ways, retained Malay charm, simplicity, and sophistication. He wanted his diplomats to be well-spoken in English, personable and sociable. He felt they had to dress appropriately and hold a drink and carry on a polite conversation. He required their wives to also speak some English, have good table manners, and observe decorum in dress and deportment. If they were well educated and experienced in particular areas of profession and management he saw that as a bonus.
It was on this basis that he chose our first set of head of missions. For the US, seen then as a champion of democracy he selected Tun Dr Ismail bin Abdul Rahman. Ismail, together with his brother, Sulaiman, and Tun Abdul Razak had prevailed on the Tunku to challenge Dato’ Onn Jaafar’s leadership of UMNO. He first sent Ismail to Washington and New York to recce the place.
On August 21, 1957, the Straits Times had reported on its front page that Ismail had been ‘selling’ Malaya in the United States. The report stated that he had negotiated to purchase three separate buildings- the chancery, the ambassador’s residence, and the minister’s residence for a total cost of one million Malayan dollars. We still own the 4-acre property which is the Malaysian ambassador’s residence in Rock Creek Park.
The Tunku’s older brother, Tunku Yaacob, a Cambridge University Agriculture graduate was the second high commissioner in London. After qualifying at Cambridge Tunku Yaacob was sent to Trinidad and Tobago for a course in Tropical Agriculture and returned to be absorbed into the federal agriculture service. The first high commissioner in London was a lawyer, civil servant, and politician, Nik Ahmad Kamil bin Nik Mahmood who had his first diplomatic exposure as Malayan Commissioner in Canberra. In 1956/57. He continued his diplomatic career with a term as the second permanent secretary for foreign affairs followed by a stint as ambassador to Washington.
For Canberra, the Tunku chose another Cambridge product, Tan Sri Gunn Lay Teik as the first high commissioner. To Indonesia, he sent Tan Sri Senu Abdul Rahman, his political collaborator from Kedah. Senu, after graduating with an American degree had worked as a senior liaison staff member of the Indonesian Mission to the UN. When he was posted to Jakarta in 1957 he was already acquainted with most senior Deplu officials, having met them in New York.
The Tunku also virtually screened every one of the first recruits to the early Malayan Diplomatic Service which seems to have included the first 1957 batch consisting of:
Tunku Tan Sri Mohamad Tunku Burhanuddin, Tun M Ghazali Shafie, (Dy Perm Secretary , Tuanku Jaafar Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Tan Sri Zaiton Ibrahim, Tengku Tan Sri Ngah Mohamed Tengku Sri Akar, Dato Haji Kamaruddin Mohd Ariff, Tan Sri Zakaria Hj Mohd Ali, Toh Chor Keat, Jack de’ Silva, Datuk Ahmad Zainal Abidin bin Mohd Yusof, Datuk Abdullah bin Ali, Datuk Jamaluddin bin Haji Abu Bakar,Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Jalal , Datuk Hashim bin Sultan, Dato’ Mohd Hashim Sam Abdul Latiff.
There were also the two Latiff Brothers, both Tan Sris: Jamal and Yaacob, the latter was master of ceremonies at the Merdeka Ceremony on August 31, 1957. There were also the two distinguished Abdul Rahman Brothers: the older one a lawyer and the second, a medical doctor-Sulaiman(Cabinet Minister and later high commissioner in Canberra) and Tun Ismail( Ambassador( to USA & United Nations), well known Turf Club personality and medical doctor, Tan Sri Dr. Lee Tiang Keng, Dato Seri Hussein Mohd Osman, Raja Tan Sri Aznam bin Raja Ahmad, Yusof bin AriffH.F.G. Leembruggen( Counsellor, Tan Sri Lim Taik Choon, Tan Sri Zainal Abidin Sulong, Dato’ Mohd Sopiee bin Ibrahim, Tun Syed Sheh bin Abdullah Shahabuddin, and Tan Sri S C MacIntyre.
Most of the above personalities like the two sets of brothers were drawn from the top drawer of Malayan society. The father of the two Tan Sri brothers, Dato Dr.((posthumously Tan Sri) Abdul Latiff bin Dato Abdul Razak(1889-1956) was the country’s first Malay doctor. He used to work in the General Hospital in the late 1940s and used to treat the Tunku as a patient. Jamal was appointed the senior protocol officer, a very important post at that time as he was given the responsibility of coordinating Merdeka Day events, state visits, and extending handwritten invitation cards. Some people at the junior levels were hired on the basis of their courtly bearing and handwriting by Jamal, a generous host, and a stickler for appropriate conduct and protocol.
Dato M Santhananaban
(The writer is a retired ambassador)
§In the March 16 edition of the Straits Times under the caption ‘Singapore Names its first diplomat’ it was stated that Leembruggen, aged 29 was Asst Secretary for Defence and Internal Security in the Defence Branch of the Colonial Secretary’s Office. He had been selected for training in Foreign Service duties.
*1 Yaacob Latiff was master of ceremony according to Stanley Jewkes(1914-2011), an architect and engineer. Please see Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong ‘The Merdeka Interviews’ April 2018 Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival
** There was a reference to this meeting in the Straits Times front-page report of September 11, 1957.