M Santhananaban – Remembering Tun Salleh Abas.
The late Tun Salleh Abas
An Upright & Outstanding Patriot
I learned, with sadness, early this morning of the passing of Tun Salleh Abas, a former Lord President of the Supreme Court of Malaysia and a highly distinguished civil servant of the country.
I recall my first meeting/ experience with this great soul.
In June 1974 Malaysia hosted a summit meeting of the foreign ministers of the organisation of Islamic countries. This large conference was hosted by the then Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein who was also the Foreign Minister.
I was an entry-level officer in Malaysia’s diplomatic service at that time. For the duration of that Islamic Summit I was assigned some protocol and logistics responsibilities at the secretariat of this summit and at Subang airport. The Secretariat was located in the Hilton Hotel in Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.
My regular designation was assistant secretary in charge of treaties. The job involved amongst other things proof reading and the finalisation of the treaty documents to be signed by duly authorised high officials of the government. I also had the responsibility of preparing credentials and full power instruments for Malaysians attending international conferences. These documents were prepared on special parchment paper which was kept in my custody.
On the sidelines of this conference a letter addressed to me was hand delivered to me. On opening the letter I realised it was from the country’s former(and first) prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. The letter had a simple request which was to have the attached document typed up on parchment paper so that the prime minister could sign it the following day. The gentleman who delivered the letter, was a retired senior judge who told me that the documents had to be ready by the following morning. After reading the contents of the documents I had some reservations as to whether the prime minister should sign it. The former judge did not agree with me. He said it was a simple matter and the prime minister would sign it. My reaction was that if I had it typed up on parchment paper the prime minister would assume all the formalities had been fulfilled and he would in all probability sign it.
I explained to the former judge that this was the first time I was encountering this kind of a situation. Normally this sort of document would only reach me after the Attorney- General’s Chambers had cleared them. The former judge said I could speak to my superiors who were all in our vicinity at the Hilton Hotel and get their approval. So, together with the former judge I went to see Tan Sri Zaiton Ibrahim, the then Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The former judge spoke first and then Zaiton asked me what was my reservation about. When I told him the substance of it he said I should get the views of the then solicitor general before presenting it to the prime minister. This was already at about five in the evening.
The former judge insisted that we should go to the Solicitor General’s house and see him. I managed after a few calls to ascertain where the SG lived and travelled to the SG’s house in the former judge’s chauffeured car. When we reached the SG’s house somewhere in the Ampang area we were greeted by Dato( as he was then) Salleh ‘s wife. I realised that she knew the former judge. She informed us he was praying and served us some coffee.
When Dato’ Salleh eventually joined us he greeted the former judge and me. I introduced myself to him. After exchanging some pleasantries Tun Salleh wanted to know why I was there.
The former judge explained the matter at hand. When he had finished I informed Dato Salleh Abas of my reservations. Salleh then read the document concerned and informed the former judge that he agreed with my view. He said there was one clause in the agreement which maybe in conflict with the country’s land laws and advised that the prime minster should be advised of it. This was the crux of my reservation.
When we returned to the Hilton Hotel I informed the former judge that I would get the documents typed up but would also advise the prime minister of the reservation. The former judge was not pleased but he left me in peace. I got the documents typed up that night and the following morning went to see Tan Sri Zaiton. Zaiton told me to rush to the prime minister’s office with the SG’s advice and the documents.
But by the time I got there the Tunku was already there. Tun Razak and he were having a chat prior to the arrival of the Foreign Minister who was to sign the document. I saw Dato Wan Ahmad Wan Omar, thePM’s PPS and explained the situation. He advised me to alert Tan Sri Zain Azraai Zainal Abidin, the principal private secretary( Foreign Affairs) to the prime minister and explain the situation. Zain asked me to pen down my objections to the agreement which was also the view of the SG. I wrote it on a piece of paper and handed it to him. He took it all in to the meeting between the prime minister and his predecessor. I waited there. In the event the agreement was signed I would have been responsible for sealing it and recording it. About 45 minutes later Zain informed me that Tun Razak had agreed with the objection raised and had explained to both the Tunku and the visiting Foreign Minister why he could not sign the agreement. The controversial clause related to the ceding of a small parcel of land in Kuala Lumpur in perpetuity to a foreign party in return for a loan to put up a building.
That was Tun Razak who was very cautious about accepting a loan by an NGO. Tun Salleh Abas was an impeccable gentleman of probity, piety and principle.
January 16, 2021