Remembering Tun Dr Ismail

15 11 2009

By Ron CK Sim



Almost two years ago, I asked a group of friends during one of our mamak stall sessions whether they know a man by the name of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman. I received some weird stares. And quite expectedly, none of these three friends of mine actually had a clue of who this man was.              – Who would you have preferred?

This is a clear proof of the failure of our education system, so I thought. Or was there a deliberate policy not to publicly acknowledge Tun Dr Ismail’s contribution to nation building – simply because his ideals, principles and sense of fairness were not in sync with our former PM of 22 years?

It is a shame to our country that Tun Dr Ismail’s biography titled “The Reluctant Politician” was only published 33 long years after his eventful passing, and by Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) which is based in Singapore! Why not a Malaysian publisher? Why the long wait?

The story goes that no Malaysian publishers dared to venture into the project lest it be seen that they were going against a certain Almighty PM! At least, Malaysians should be grateful that the long-awaited biography was authored by a fellow Malaysian, the renowned Dr Ooi Kee Beng, with Tun Dr Ismail’s eldest son, Tawfik, as consultant and adviser to the project.

To put it in historical perspective, Malaysia as a nation changed forever on that “fateful” night of 2nd August 1973. That night, Malaysia lost its most faithful and dependable son, DPM Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, because of a fatal heart attack. He was Malaya’s third man throughout the negotiation for independence and nationhood, the formative years after independence, the communist insurgency, the formation of a new country called Malaysia and the Indonesian aggression thereafter, the eventual separation with Singapore, and the formation of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Up till then, he had held the posts of independent Malaya’s first Permanent Representative to the United Nations cum the Ambassador to the USA, as well as the ministerial portfolios of external affairs, internal security and home affairs – the latter portfolios seeing him put in charge of detaining people under the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA). He defended the necessity of the Act at that time of communist insurgency, stating that “abuse of the Act can be prevented by vigilant public opinion via elections, a free Press and above all, the Parliament.”

Tun Dr Ismail retired in May 1967 as Malaysia’s respected and powerful Home Minister due to his worsening health. However, he was being hauled back (hence “The Reluctant Politician”) by Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, again as Home Minister and later as DPM, to restore stability to Malaysia during the aftermath of the May 13 racial riots. He was called “the man who saved Malaysia”.

Robert Kuok, a close friend of Tun Dr Ismail describes him: “He was a lovely man with strength of character, high principles, and a great sense of fairness. In my opinion, he was probably the most non-racial, non-racist Malay I have met in my life. And I have met a very wide range of Malays from all parts of Malaysia. Doc was a stickler for total fair play, for correctness; total anathema to him to be anything else. Every Malay colleague feared him because of this, including MAHATHIR.”

I recall that in March 2008, I read in NST Online that the then Selangor UMNO Information Chief said that “those who want the New Economic Policy scrapped are historically blind” and that “the NEP is a time-tested policy”. I was furious. I would denounce him as the actual one who is historically blind! 

Tun Dr Ismail, being the most influential racial policy-maker of his time, to the extent that Razak seldom disagreed with him, realised the danger of the preferential treatment in favour of the Malays but thought it necessary at that time of uneven competition caused by colonial policy. He, a passionate golfer, often liked to describe the NEP using a golfing metaphor.

Quoting from his biography, he likened the NEP to a handicap which “will enable them to be good players, as in golf, and in time the handicap will be removed. The Malays must not think of these privileges as permanent: for then, they will not put effort into their tasks. In fact, it is an insult for the Malays to be getting these privileges.”

I was told that in the early 70’s, many Malaysians believed that Malaysia would one day have a medically-trained PM in the name of Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman (following on after our first two English-trained Barrister PMs). Never had they thought that it turned out not to be him but another medical doctor by the name of Mahathir Mohamad – the author of the infamous book “The Malay Dilemma”.

Although I had yet to be born in the early 70s but after having learned about the man, I now feel a real sense of “how it would have been” if Tun Dr Ismail were to helm the country during the years I innocently grew up. Given Tun Dr Ismail’s distrust towards Dr Mahathir’s extremist Malay nationalism, the latter would never become the PM who ruled Malaysia with an iron fist for 22 years!

As fate would have it, Tun Dr Mahathir was indeed a very lucky man, just as Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was, albeit with no happy ending for the latter!

That’s why I call 2nd August 1973 a “fateful date that changed Malaysia forever”.

To play an active role in shaping the destiny of our beloved country, one needs to know its history during those crucial years. History “in fact”, not the history as presented by the ruling government. I have no doubt that we had been systematically put through those sweet (but mind-poisoning) school days to think the way UMNO wanted us to think.

To the young people among my countrymen, while we learned and remember fondly about our founding fathers like Tunku and Tun Razak, there is another man who held the nation together during its most crucial times, and by doing that lost his life for the nation. 

Forget him not.


Quote of the Day: “I will do for the country what I will not do for myself and my family.” ~ Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia (1970-1973)

Injury Time: Whilst I admire the quote, I admire the man even more. He is indeed “The best PM Malaysia never had”.




8 responses

15 11 2009

Great to see more people appreciating the sacrifices, values and achievements of that great man. Its a disgrace not only that his biography came out 33 years late, and from Singapore, but also because there is only one. There is so much more to be known about the man and his time, particularly how he was seen by the Opposition and his role in the many infamous ISA arrests in the 60s–more accounts need to be written. Malaysian history could use more such knowledge

15 11 2009
Ron CK Sim

Thanks Dinesh. Me too wish to see more is written about the man and his time. Perhaps we have to wait for another Singapore’s initiative, since the current 1 Malaysia PM is no different from TDM in terms of his tolerance for dissent!

On the ISA, TDI demanded of his subordinates a stringent adherence to due bureaucratic process and exercised extreme caution in choosing senior personnel. He once wrote in his memoir:

“To ensure that each case for detention was fully investigated and the pros and cons well argued before it reached me, I arranged for it to pass through the hands of several responsible senior officers of the police and Home Ministry. When it finally came to me, I went through each case carefully and when in doubt, I always slept over it. It really took a lot out of me to approve cases for detention, because some of the people detained were well known to me. My only consolation is that on my retirement, nobody could accuse me of sending anybody to detention camp out of malice.”

If what he wrote is sincere, which I believe it is, one can see it was from the bottom (the police, Home Ministry) up to him as Minister, instead of the recent detentions which I tend to believe was from the top (Home Minister, DPM or even PM) ordering the police to detain. Sadly, none of the recent HMs has any conscience in their hearts like TDI.

15 11 2009
Ron CK Sim

Following are the Comments posted on The Malaysian Insider for the article “Tun Dr Ismail, the best PM Malaysia never had” (the same article as the above but of a different title) published on its website on 15th Nov 2009. I especially like the comments by Peter Pan, Padman and Don 4672, who all lived through the years of TDI and have shared their personal stories/views on the man.

written by greateagleone, November 15, 2009

“WITHOUT A DOUBT” he would had been “The best PM after TUNKU Malaysia never had.”

The “RELUCTANT POLITICIAN” is a must read for all Malaysians to understand what Nation Building is all about in the eyes of a COLOR BLIND Gentleman of distinction. Had fate not dealt Malaysia a cruel blow, we would not had to live through 22 years of bigotry, racists and corrupt rule of Mahathir.

written by Ememkay, November 15, 2009

Ron CK Sim, you are absolutely right, Tun Dr Ismail was a brave personality and because of his ideals, principles and sense of fairness had he become PM of Malaysia he would have removed the crutches called NEP and ensured a level playing field for all Malaysian. If only that had happened, all Malaysian irrespective of race or color would work together towards a united and prosperous Malaysia and our economy would have been ahead of Singapore and almost equal to South Korea.

written by Kazakian, November 15, 2009

Tun Ismail would indeed have been the life changer for Malaysia. I liken him to LKY of Singapore – a man of principle who would do the right thing and put his country above all else. How cruel fate has been to our country. Tun Ismail was also a pipe smoker and he became just one of the many victims of this addiction. Our country is now run by small people who have morphed the time limited handicaps into so called rights and who now lord it over and bully the minorities with ‘Malay Supremacy’. I’m sure Tun turns over in his grave very often because of the state Malaysia is in these days.

Lowly rated comment
written by youth of the nation, November 15, 2009

and he is an UMNO man…

written by Peter Pan, November 15, 2009

Yes, it is a good piece on Tun Dr. Ismail. I had the privilege to know him when I was an undergraduate of MU more than 45 years ago. The late Tun was close to our hearts. He had inspired a great many of us what devotion to service of the nation was all about. He also had a open heart and good ears to hear us out. Never uttered anything racial in nature, and all for the nation. I remembered vividly on the ISA issue and when he met a group of us and told us that look at the Act and if we can come out with better alternatives, he would readily use them because at that time the communist struggle was not ended yet. He was always ready to meet us even in the late evening in the campus’s student union premises. A man of broad vision and big heart, liberal in thinking, a truly nationalist. During the May 13th incident, he called upon the late Tun Tan to gather a group to help in relieve work. I respected him and certainly missed him, otherwise, he would have been a good PM for this country.

written by Anak Kedah, November 15, 2009

None of the Malaysian politician in UMNO meet his credential shows how pathetic the political situation in Malaysia. The current batch in UMNO are either third grader, power hungry, lack of principles or sum of these characters.

Lowly rated comment
written by sri hartamas, November 15, 2009

People sing praises of TDI because he died at a relatively young age. We are born romantics, and often biased towards one who has passed on early. Who are we to be so sure that TDI would have been the best PM Malaysia never had? Truth is, nobody knows what kind of PM he would have been. It was easy for him to talk about dismantling the NEP and so on, but I doubt he would have been able to do that, even if he had wanted to. And on the part equating him with Kuan Yew, that is the most idiotic comparison ever. What is so great about Kuan Yew anyway, other than that he was a great coward and masochist who derive pleasure from bullying and imprisoning his political opponents?

written by Joe, November 15, 2009

Maybe but would he survive later year politics in Malaysia. I doubt so because the tyrant whom we had would not have lied low to allow the late TUN to have his way with Malaysia or the late TUN may well change but no doubt that it would not be as racist as the tyrant whom we had.

What I would say is that the wrong person died on that “fateful” night of Aug 2 1973

Lowly rated comment
written by Shamsul Anwar bin Ahmad, November 15, 2009

But why blame Mahathir? Tun Ismail died in 1973 and Mahathir joined the Cabinet in 1974. Is this another way of trying to blame Mahathir for everything. Well, you are still breathing and alive. Do you guarantee if another PM could ensure such life to you? Tun Ismail was great during that time. He may not be great during these times. Mahathir’s work still command influence till today. That is something.

written by Padman, November 15, 2009

Yes, he was a man with a lot of ‘ideals, principles and fairness’. I was in secondary school during Tun Ismail’s tenure as a minister and deputy prime minister. He never licked any superior’s slime balls. Why? Because I remember him tendering his resignation from the cabinet a couple of times because of his principles. And he was always recalled to the cabinet. Can you recall any cabinet minister resigning from the cabinet all these 50 or more years because they are in disagreement with their bosses or cabinet. Tun Ismail has that quality of decency which we will never see in our lifetime in any of our present day politicians.

written by Alan Goh, November 15, 2009

Yeah, if I am correct, Tun Ismail said that the NEP is like a golf handicap system. It would be removed once the economic imbalance amongst the races has improved. But unlike golf this NEP is now redifined as never ending policy. If it is to uplift the poor malays, no one race will complain but it has been abused over the years to help the UMNO putras and its cronies, that is the sore point.

The worse part was during the 22 yrs premiership of Apa Nama Dia. Not only was corruption at its highest peak, his successor who said, dont work for me but work with me rhetoric, brought it to the next higher level, until money politics become the norm in Malaysia. Now this apa nama dia wants to inform the whole country that he is appearing on foreign media, a 2 parts series interview beginning on 15th Nov 2009. Pergi-lah and dont waste Malaysians time watching, what has he to be so proud of when our Ringgit to Singapore Dollars now stand at RM2.45 to S$1.00 and our Judiciary is probably better than Zimbabwe, Somali or Nigeria.

written by Don 4672, November 15, 2009

I absolutely agree with Ron on his write up. I have an unforgettable experience relating to Tun Dr.Ismail as DPM the way back 1971. I was then a young MARA officer stationed at Johore Bharu MARA state office. I have processed a loan application for buying a school bus from an applicant that I didnt know his political bearing. I have no reason not to support his application and eventually MARA has approved this application. Before MARA could disbursed the loan MARA received a letter from Senior Private Secretary of DPM asking for an explanation why MARA approved a loan to DAP strong supporter by attaching a complain letter from one of UMNO man. I have drafted the reply and edited by my Boss then stating amongst 1. MARA recommend the application not based on political bearing but the feasiblity of the project. 2. He has been a good loanee and has setlled his earlier loan to buy a school van. 3.He fulfilled all the relevant requirements. At lastly I mentioned that MARA must support the effort to provide a better transport system to ferry Malay children from kampongs to urban to get a better school. After a few months we received an answer to our joy and happiness. The DPM’s Private Secretary reply to MARA as (more or less) “jawapan tuan telah dipanjangkan kemakluman YAB Tun Tim. Perdana Menteri dan saya diarahkan mengucapkan Syabas kepada usaha MARA dalam menaikkan taraf pelajaran anak anak Melayu. Teruskan usaha yang murni ini dan kes ini di anggap selesai”. Just imagine if I am the said officer presently, where do you think I will be? Timbaktu, Conggo? During Mahathir era and after even a Ketua Cawangan UMNO can pushed a transfer of a Head Master or any government officer. Government officers were made the servants of UMNO hooligans. I have one more an unforgetable encounter with the late Tun Dr. Ismail as DPM. He passed away when I was in Kelantan and I cried in grief for this great man. Alfatihah….

written by tun lanang, November 15, 2009

Indeed Malaysia has been blessed with a few good leaders from the three main races: Malays, Chinese and Indians. Comparatively speaking we are not that bad in terms of political stability and economic well being.

What a good PM Tun Dr. Ismail would have made is purely conjecture based on his character, personality, etc. Being number 1 is different from being number 2 in running the country. I shall only praise Tun Dr. Ismail for being a good TPM and Home Minister in handling the situation after 13 MAY 69 racial riots and suppressing the communist insurgency.

written by rocky, November 15, 2009

So very true but in many ways he was running the country when Tun Razak was ill. If only he lived longer. A man of principle unlike our current leaders.

written by susie, November 16, 2009

The end is more important than the beginning. In the end, Tun Dr Ismail made a name for himself as honourable in our history. As for Mahathir, I feel sorry that only he sees himself great in leaving a great legacy. Others are increasingly feeling more indignant and contempt because more and more people are realising he is the source of our decline in judiciary, integrity, cohesion and unity of the people.

15 11 2009
Ron CK Sim

Following are the Comments posted on Malaysia Today for the article “Remembering Tun Dr Ismail” published on its website on 15th Nov 2009:

written by batsman, November 15, 2009 12:48:20

A true Malaysian patriot.

written by arazak, November 15, 2009 15:42:58

“The story goes that no Malaysian publishers dared to venture into the project lest it be seen that they were going against a certain Almighty PM!”

I am not surprised by this. Not only do they obliterate some facts and history of good deeds by some others. . ., they even run down the good people. Remember what they did to Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister during Toon Kutty’s era? UMNO’s spin media under Toon Kutty portrayed the former first PM as “nyanyuk” (senile) and traitor to the nation.

We can see now who is the real traitor and the “nyanyuk” old man (even worst a thief enriching his families and cronies)!

On the other hand, may God bless Tun Dr. Ismail. . .!

written by Sabahfan, November 15, 2009 21:58:21

Well, I for one, would like to turn back the clock and see if we can have this Malay Doctor be the PM, and not mamak kuty who turned out to be the most corrupted FIRAUN, giving a bad name to the Egyptian history….

FIRAUN OH FIRAUN, trying to make your son be the next FIRAUN is it??

written by sydput, November 15, 2009 23:04:18

Seeing Dr M on history channel made me want to puke.
This guy single handedly turned Malaysia into a pariah state.
What Malaysia does in affirmative action policy is what other referred to as ethnic cleansing and apartheid.
UN should impose a trade sanction on us.

written by rocky, November 15, 2009 23:13:05

Tun Dr. Ismail was a great leader and a great man. We have to thank him for many things he did for this nation when it was just a baby. He was at times running the country. And we have to thank him for not allowing the army to rule after May 13th, 1969. Too bad he died too soon. A man of principle unlike our current leaders.

written by rocky, November 15, 2009 23:14:28

The Reluctant Politician is a must read book.

written by penangboi, November 15, 2009 23:30:27

Mamakutty, the mother of all corruption. That sneering look and arrogance. He must be the epitome of a curse put on Malaysia by God.

written by Angela Ooi, November 16, 2009 15:21:59

Unfortunately sad era for Malaysia that Tun Ismail untimely left us early… as a result of this, look at the amount of shitty, nonsensical happenings today.

15 11 2009

I never knew him. I was only 4 years old when he passed away… But, based on the stories told to me by my father and uncles and their friends.. all of them respected him…

15 11 2009

What would you guys do when Mahathir has passed? Who would you next choose to put all blames on your mediocre lives? We never blame ourselves do we. Someone else is always to blame. We are never at fault.

Its funny to blame the demise of Tun Dr Ismail for the rise of Mahathir, inadvertantly. Tun Dr Ismail smoked like a chimney. He was a medical doctor who should have known what tobacco could do to a person. His early demise is his own fault so to speak. Yes he was just & fair. He was also principled. But I do not think he would be a great PM. He may be a great deputy. But not the PM. His style of leadership will create more enemies and trample on too many toes, and he will not be able to garner the support needed to carry the mantle of leadership.

He would resign the soonest he discovers that too many (perhaps UMNO’s people) who are against him although he may be just or even right.

16 11 2009

I would not agree with you more on your article Remembering Tun Dr. Ismail. Even LKY respected him and I remember his visits to Singapore just after separation and the warmth between the two. Had he taken over the reins and fate had not dealt a cruel blow what a different MALAYSIA COULD HAVE BEEN, instead of the 22 years of corrupt and racist rule of Mahathir.

18 11 2009
A Malaysian Lawyer

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