A year after taking office, Tunku became the driving force behind a very important development in Malayan politics. His first challenge was the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal elections.
The elections had intended to give Malayans a taste of politics before forming the Federal Government. It was in these elections that Malaya witnessed political cooperation between race-based parties, cooperation that paved the way to independence.
As Umno president, Tunku, through Kuala Lumpur Umno and Selangor MCA, had formed a pact which proved to be a beneficial partnership.
Although Onn’s multi-ethnic IMP enjoyed the support of Malay aristocrats and non-Malay political leaders, the Umno-MCA pact had handsomely beaten IMP, who had teamed up with MIC, by nine seats to two in the 12-seat contest. This victory, along with other successful endeavours in other major towns, sealed the Umno-MCA pact.
|Tunku Abdul Rahman addressing Umno Youth in 1958.|
It was in 1954 that Tunku began his campaign for Malaya’s independence, but his initial efforts proved futile.
The British administration was averse to the idea of granting independence for Malaya, worrying about racial harmony and economic self-sustainability.
Tunku’s persistence began to bear fruit when the British administration finally agreed for Malaya to hold its first general election to the Federal Legislative Council, to be held in 1955. It was announced that nomination day would be in June and that July 27 would be polling day.
Tunku travelled tirelessly, campaigning for the coalition, which later gained popularity among the people. In 1955, Umno, under the leadership of Tunku, braced for Malaya’s first general election, fielding 34 candidates.
The Alliance won the 1955 General Election with a landslide victory, winning 51 of the 52 total seats.
This was a resounding defeat for Party Negara, formed by Onn, who did not capture any seats from the 30 it had contested.
The sole opposition seat was secured by the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party.
The ruling Alliance party, now consisting of three political parties of Malaya’s three major races, played an important role in negotiating the transition to independence from British rule while facilitating the preparation of its constitution.
Now Malaya chief minister, Tunku continued his work to gain independence for Malaya.
Tunku held constitutional talks in London in January 1956 with the Secretary of States for the Colonies Alan Lennox-Boyd. On Feb 8, 1956, on Tunku’s 53rd birthday, he and Lennox-Boyd signed the Independence Agreement, which was scheduled for Aug 31, 1957.
Tunku announced the success of the Merdeka Mission in a public announcement at Padang Bandar Hilir, Malacca, on Feb 20, 1956.
His brief speech was muffled by the constant chorus of “Merdeka” being chanted, and it was celebrated with much jubilation.
After Malaya’s independence, Tunku, as its first prime minister, continued to dominate Malayan politics.
He led Umno to its second successful general election in 1959, where the Alliance won 74 seats out of the 104. Umno’s performance, however, showed a decrease.
Only 51 candidates won out of the 69 the party had fielded.
Tunku remained as prime minister, and proceeded to oversee the formation of Malaysia, which was described as one of his greatest achievements In 1961, Tunku spoke at the Foreign Correspondents Association of Southeast Asia in Singapore, where he proposed a federation of Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo (now Sabah), Sarawak and Brunei.
Two years later, on Sept 16, all of the states, except Brunei, formed Malaysia.
The country went into its 3rd General Election in 1964, and while the Alliance party emerged victorious once again, support for the Alliance party had severely deteriorated in the 1969 elections.
The opposition won 54 seats, causing the Alliance to lose its two-thirds majority. The Alliance lost its grip on Penang to political party infant Gerakan, Kelantan to Pas and lost its footing in Perak and Selangor.
The drastic change in the political landscape resulted in the racial riots in Kuala Lumpur on May 13, 1969, three days after polling day.
A state of national emergency was declared by the king, resulting in the suspension of Parliament. While coping with the May 13 racial riots as well as with losing a few local governments to opposition parties during elections, Umno was plagued by in-fighting, which later saw the young Dr Mahathir Mohamad (later Tun) requesting Tunku to resign.
Due to these crises, the government had announced emergency rule all over the Malay peninsula under the National Operations Council, helmed by the then deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.
Tunku was forced to resign as prime minister in favour of Razak on Sept 22, 1970, and stepped down as Umno president in 1971. Umno Veteran Club secretary-general Datuk Mustapha Yaakub said Tunku’s biggest contribution to the country was that he brought about independence, with the help of Umno and its allies under the Alliance coalition.
The reason Dr Mahathir became critical of Tunku’s leadership, Mustapha said, was the fact that he was not entirely successful at fulfilling the Malays’ aspirations after gaining independence.
“Tunku was indeed the Father of Independence, but many Malays were against his premiership, as they believed his achievements did not go beyond securing independence for the country. “
Mahathir did not agree with the way Tunku managed the country at that time and this caused a rift.
Despite this tension, however, Umno remained strong at the highest levels, which made the leadership transition to Razak rather smooth,” he said.
Mustapha said Umno had been able to weather leadership issues as all leaders in branches and divisions believed that unity was important. “We would always fall back to our slogan ‘Bersatu. Bersedia. Berkhidmat’ (Unite, Be loyal and Serve).”
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