September 4th, 2015

Tunku was selfless and in tune with the people’s needs

“Merdeka, merdeka, merdeka …” cried Tunku Abdul Rahman seven times in a row on a humid Saturday morning at Stadium Merdeka on Aug 31, 1957. As he had envisaged, it was the most significant moment in this nation’s proud history, the day when Malaya gained independence from her colonial masters.

But getting to that point was a long and arduous process. The struggles of Malaya’s ambition for freedom are well-documented, but the human elements sometimes fall between the cracks.

From the start, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister knew that for the nation to progress and prosper on its own, he had to first bring its people together, and to have them all pulling in the same direction.



Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Datuk Panglima Bukit Gantang Toh Muda Haji Abdul Wahab Abdul Aziz in a Nash Rambler Custom Convertible 1951, at Padang Bandar Hilir in Malacca where Tunku announced the date of the country’s independence after he returned from London. Photos: Filepics

His own upbringing in the quaint, early 20th century Alor Setar exposed him to the various ethnic communities from the start, and Bapa Malaysia (Father of Malaysia, as he was fondly known) always believed in the concept of a multiracial country that lived in peace and harmony.

Following his education in Britain, he returned to Malaya in 1931 and was appointed a cadet in the Kedah civil service. A working stint in Kulim saw him scouring the district, getting to know the people, 90% of whom were peasants. He always led by example and was in tune with the people’s needs.


February 20, 1956 - Tunku giving a speech before a crowd to welcome home
the Merdeka delegation from London at Padang Merdeka, Malacca. - Filepic


When the scourge of malaria threatened the community in Kuala Nerang, Tunku went all out to destroy the breeding grounds of mosquitoes, requesting funds from the State Secretariat to finance draining the swamps bordering the town. The well-being of Malaysians was always a top priority for him.

Where there was injustice, Tunku was never far off to right the wrongs. During the Japanese Occupation, when thousands of young Malayan men were despatched to work on the Burma Death Railway, he helped feed and shelter those who escaped, placing himself at serious risk in the process. Tunku was the man of the people, and often the man of the hour, too.

The formation of an independent Malaya was the handiwork of all Malaysians, but led primarily by Tunku and Tun Tan Cheng Lock, with support from Tun V.T. Sambanthan, all of whom represented the three major ethnic communities in Malaya. Tunku worked closely with them, listening to the issues presented by the leaders of their various communities.

He tread the fine line between these ethnic groups, and brought them all together with his genial and noble personality, for the sake of the nation’s independence and to simply be himself.


Founding fathers and great friends, Tunku Abdul Rahman (left) Tun Jugah anak Barieng,
paramount chief of the Iban and the first and only Minister of Sarawak Affairs at the federal capital. - Filepic


Malaya’s quest for independence gained momentum when, at the start of 1956, he led an entourage to London for negotiations. That dream would be realised less than two years later, the poignant moment coming in the shape of the scene when the Union Jack was lowered and the new Federation flag was raised at midnight on Aug 30, 1957, at Dataran Merdeka.

Malaysia has come a long way since placing itself on the world map for various achievements, but every success invariably goes back to the foundational work put in place by Tunku, who died in 1990 at the age of 87.

He enjoyed many of the simple pleasures the average person did – he liked his card games, loved his golf, had a keen interest in football and tennis, and had a love affair with red sports cars. While larger than life, these interests endeared him to the common man, and allowed us all to relate to him as a cultured man, who, while living a modest lifestyle, also enjoyed the finer things in life.

‘They should learn to regard themselves as Malayans first irrespective of their race’

He devoted his life to social and political reform, played a crucial role in government committees and in civil society efforts, and fought to improve the well-being of the poor.

Key public figure and successful businessman Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock was born into a well-to-do family. Tan’s great-great-grandfather, Tan Hay Kwan, first set foot in Malacca between 1771 and 1775. He married a local woman named Lee Chye Neo.

Although Tan did not speak Chinese, his family embraced Buddism and Confucianism principles.


A photo from the historic Baling talks between David Marshall, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock (far right) and Chin Peng. - Filepic

The third of seven siblings, Tan studied at Malacca High School and Singapore’s Raffles Institution, obtaining his Cambridge School (Leaving) Certificate.

He wanted to study law in Britain, but due to financial constraints, became a teacher of English and Literature at Raffles Institution instead in 1902.

However, he was still looking for his role in life and returned to Malacca in 1908 to work as an assistant estate manager in a rubber plantation company.


Tun Tan Cheng Lock founded the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). ...
the ideal to be aimed at by every community in Malaya is that they should learn to regard themselves
as Malayans first irrespective of their race.


Recognised for his leadership by the British colonial administration, he was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1912.

In 1923, he was appointed an unofficial member of the Legislative Council and, subsequently, member of the Executive Council of the Straits Settlements in 1933.

In 1947, Tan led the All-Malaya Council of Joint Action in pushing for a united Malaya (including Singapore), self-government by stages and equal status among all ethnic groups.

In 1949, he founded the Malayan Chinese Association (later renamed Malaysian Chinese Association, MCA) and became its first president, from 1949 to 1958.

In his presidential address to the party, he pushed for independence and a multiracial Malaya with equal rights for all races.

Although he was proud of his Chinese roots, he encouraged the Chinese to support Malaya and not China.

In the crucial 1955 Baling talks, Tan, with then Chief Minister of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj and Singapore’s Chief Minister David Marshall, met Chin Peng, the Malayan Communist Party leader, to negotiate an end to the communist insurgency that had led to the declaration of the Emergency in 1948 by the British (it ended in 1960).

Working together with Umno and MIC leaders, Tan played a pivotal role in obtaining independence from the British in 1957.

In terms of education, Tan fought for free English primary level education, yet supported free Malay schools, too. Although he did not manage to obtain state funding for Chinese-language schools, as MCA president he ensured that the party subsidised Chinese schools, especially in the new villages that had been set up by the British during the Emergency to keep Malayan Chinese away from the communists.

Always concerned about the underpriviledged regardless of race, Tan helped improve the livelihoods of Malay farmers and Indian plantation workers, and proposed ways to help the poor in terms of minimum wage, housing and medical aid.

Tan opposed the negative effect of opium on the Chinese and fought to get it banned when the British had supported its use in China and Malaya.

He also did not agree with the treatment of and trade in the mui tsai (young Chinese girls) brought from mainland China to Malaya, and played a leading role in ending the trade.

In 1940, he also assisted the colonial government in the drafting and enactment of the Civil Marriage Act, which ended polygamy.

Tunku visiting Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock (second from right) in his home in Malacca.

Umno leaders like Datuk Onn Jaafar and Tunku Abdul Rahman were close friends and would often visit Tan at his Malacca home, which still stands today.

In 1952, Tan received a knighthood from the British Government. In 1958 he was bestowed one of Malaysia’s highest awards which carries the title “Tun”.

His only son, Tun Tan Siew Sin (Tan had four daughters as well), was Malaysia’s longest serving Finance Minister from 1959 to 1974.

Tan died at age 77 in Malacca on Dec 13, 1960, and was accorded a state funeral, the first ever for a member of a non-royal family.

Tun V. T. Sambanthan believed in truthfulness and inclusiveness

Mention Jalan Tun Sambanthan in Kuala Lumpur and city folk will recognise it as one of the major (and busiest) roads in the heart of Brickfields.

The road is named after Tun V.T. Sambanthan, a man who played a prominent role in the movement for independence in Malaya.

Sambanthan needs no introduction as one of the founding fathers of Malaysia, with his name etched in history books for helping to consolidate the Malayan (now Malaysian) Indian Congress (MIC) and turn it into a mass-based party.



Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman at a Thaipusam celebration in Batu Caves in 1967.
Beside him is Tun V. T Sambanthan (far right), Works and Telecommunications minister. Photos: Filepics

Sambanthan, who died in 1979 aged 60, played an important role in forging ties between the MIC, MCA and Umno to form Barisan Nasional.

And through it all, he understood the importance of racial harmony in cementing national unity.


Tunku Abdul Rahman at Tun Sambanthan’s Deepavali open house. His six-year-old nephew looks delighted to be between the two great men.

Sambanthan was born in 1919 in Sungei Siput, Perak, to a rubber plantation owner. After completing his secondary education at Clifford High School in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, he furthered his studies at Annamalai University in Tamil Naidu, India.

At varsity, the undergraduate witnessed India’s struggle to gain independence from the British (which it achieved in 1947).

As a supporter of freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi’s religious principle of “ahimsa” (non-violence), Sambanthan understood the importance of “satyagraha” (insistence of truth) in a nation striving for independence.

It was Gandhi’s influence that sparked Sambathan’s interest in Malayan politics, especially in gaining independence for his homeland.

After completing his studies in 1946, Sambanthan returned to Malaya to take over the family business and continue his father’s passion for improving the plight of estate workers who suffered from illiteracy and poverty.

Eight years later, in 1954, he set up the Mahatma Gandhi Tamil School in Sungei Siput, Perak. He also lobbied for the introduction of the English language medium in Tamil schools in Perak and transformation of the South Indian Immigration Labour Fund into an education fund to assist children of plantation workers.

As recognition of his efforts, he was appointed a member of the Board of Councillors by the Perak State Department.

A June 19, 1978 file photo of Tun V. T. Sambanthan presenting a souvenir to Tunku Abdul Rahman.

In the early 1950s, the young man took his first steps into politics. He started a recruitment campaign among plantation workers, focusing on Hinduism, increased use and fostering of the Tamil language, and supported Tamil cultural activities.

In 1954, Sambanthan – a prominent member of MIC by then – played a vital role in forming the Alliance Party, the political collaboration with Umno led by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, and the MCA, founded by Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock.

The following year, Sambanthan chalked up another milestone in his career when he was elected the fifth MIC president, a post he held till 1973.

He also left a historic mark as one of the signatories of the Merdeka Agreement on Aug 31, 1957, alongside Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tan.

In the early 1960s, Sambanthan also set up the National Land Finance Co-operative Society to help plantation workers acquire assets in the form of shares.

He was among the country’s first Cabinet ministers, having served as Labour Minister (1955-57), Health (1957-59), Works, Posts and Telecommunications (1959-71), and National Unity (1972-74).

In a 2014 article, “The meaning of nationhood” (The Star, Aug 27), Sambanthan’s wife, Toh Puan Uma Sundari Sambanthan (with whom he had a daughter), explained that throughout his life, her husband was always concerned about national unity and building bridges among the ethnic communities.

In a famous speech he gave calling for greater cooperation among the communities during the debate on the draft Constitution before Merdeka, Sambanthan said:

“We belong to a plural society, and we should always remember that in such a society we have to recognise that psychology has its own place.”

The next time you drive along Jalan Tun Sambanthan or past Wisma Tun Sambanthan on Jalan Sultan Sulaiman in KL, take a minute to reflect on this man’s efforts to promote racial harmony and national unity.

Tun V. T. Sambanthan adorning Tunku Abdul Rahman with a garland to welcome him to Malacca where he proclaimed the date of Independence in February 1956. Independence was in fact first proclaimed in Padang Pahlawan in Bandar Hilir, Malacca on Feb 20, 1956. But for logistical and administrative reasons, it was decided that the official proclamation on Independence would be 1957. Photo: Arkib Negara - MPS