Book Review: Three Who Built Malaysia

Among those credited with having built Malaysia, three came from the same family: Jaafar Mohamed, the first chief minister of Johor;his son Onn Jaafar, the founder of the United Malays National Organization; and then his son Tun Hussein Onn, the country's third prime minister.

Yet, although their involvement in public affairs spanned nearly a century and a half from 1854 to1981, their names are not the most widely lauded. A charitable explanation might be that Malaysians do not know their history well enough, so that the first seems an antique and far-off figure; the second a quarrelsome fellow who abandoned his party, thus ceding the honor of being the leader at independence to Tunku Abdul Rahman, and whose political career ended in failure; and the third a relatively short-term premier whose administration appeared to be no more than a lull compared with the rough seas successfully navigated (stirred up, would be another way of looking at it) by his predecessor Abdul Razak and successor Mahathir Mohamed.

Not so, says Zainah Anwar, a respected and independent columnist and the long-time head of the feisty Sisters in Islam group. Her handsomely produced volume aims to give these men's achievements the weight they deserve; and as her father was a close associate of Onn Jaafar – his private secretary when Onn too served as Johor chief minister and the man who came up with UMNO's name – she is in a good position to make the case.

Her well-sketched biographies show just how far the country has come. Although Jaafar Mohamed's family had been part of the elite who had served the Johor royalty for generations, originally in Riau (now in Indonesia, but which had been the capital of the old sultanate) and then in Singapore (the seat of government only moved to the peninsula in 1866), no wealth accompanied that connection. Jaafar's father worked as a fisherman and his mother took on embroidery jobs.

It was when the state coffers started filling from the mid-19th century onwards, with revenues from newly opened pepper and gambier farms, that Johor began to develop. And men such as Jaafar who, along with other children from the royal retinue, had received a good education in English and Malay in Singapore, were ready to form a modern administrative corps that was far in advance of the other Malay states and enabled Johor to resist the imposition of British rule longer than any other.

Three of Jaafar's sons, his stepson and his nephew were later to follow him as chief minister – a remarkable record of public service.

ot that this was always easy, as the career of Jaafar's son Onn shows. Despite the closeness of their families, he was frequently in conflict with Sultan Ibrahim, who reigned from 1895-1959, being not only sacked on his orders in 1927 but exiled to Singapore as well. Later they were to be reconciled, and Onn also became Chief Minister in 1946; but more momentous events took place that year.

The British Malayan Union plan would have reduced the nine hereditary rulers to ciphers (not that they complained – they all signed up to the proposal) and gave equal citizenship rights and status to "the Chinese and other races whom the Malays regarded as immigrants brought in without their agreement by the colonial masters". It was Onn who led the fight and brought a hitherto unknown unity to Malays across the peninsula, and he too who persuaded the sultans, just as they were about to attend the installation of the first governor of the Malayan Union, not to go.

In the event, "the only Malay present was an officer who had been appointed as ADC to the new governor.... It was an unprecedented demonstration of Malay resistance and it made the Malayan Union a non-starter." For that alone, as the spiritual father to the Federation of Malaya that gained independence in 1957, Onn deserves to be better remembered; but his later falling out with UMNO – he left in 1951 when his suggestion that membership be opened to other races was rejected – made his record one that the official narrative has found inconvenient to emphasise.

The book devotes more time to Hussein Onn than to his father and grandfather, and is described as being the most comprehensive account of an "overlooked and underrated" prime minister (1978-81). It is certainly a warm portrayal of a man so painstaking and thorough that he took eight years to pass his law exams in London, as he insisted on answering each question so fully that he kept running out of time to complete the others.

If Zainah does not quite rescue Hussein from the charge that this meticulousness and caution led to nothing very much happening during his administration (although she points out that under his leadership the country enjoyed growth of 8.6 per cent, compared to 7.1 per cent in the preceding four years), it is, as with much in this book, the contrast between what Hussein was, and what others have not been, that counts. She does not labour this, but she has no need to.

Hussein was not avaricious, had no cronies, and was so scrupulous in avoiding any appearance of favouritism that on becoming deputy prime minister in 1973 he "issued instructions – in red ink – to department heads that any proposal from his family members for government contracts should not be entertained." His sister Azah was particularly badly affected by this, as a licence she already had to import rice from Thailand was terminated as a result. Later she submitted a paper to set up a car assembly plant to his office, only to discover that her brother had thrown it into the bin without even looking at it.

Hussein's relatives were actually disadvantaged by his stance – they were not granted the consideration that others enjoyed - as he discovered in retirement when he asked Azah how she, a divorcee with seven children, had managed. "I told him I robbed a bank. He apologised and said he didn't know I had suffered," she said.

It goes without saying that such Puritanism is virtually unknown in Malaysian politics today. But this is just one of many examples in which the characters and times of these three men could serve not just as an inspiration to their countrymen, but also as a very stern reproach. When Onn Jaafar, for instance, was made a Dato (sometimes spelled Datuk) in 1940, Zainah writes that it was "then a much-honoured title, limited to only 28 recipients at any one time in the state of Johor."

The elaboration left implicit is that while there are still some who do that title equal honour, the numbers of those thus elevated have become so large that it is hardly surprising the currency has been devalued, to put it politely.

The relationship to and the standing of the sultans is another area in which the lives of Jaafar Mohamed and Onn Jaafar, in particular, are instructive. Today, the very mildest criticism of a ruler carries the risk that some ardent Malay chauvinist will threaten legal action. But Jaafar, that most loyal of royal servants, would have disagreed. He told his children before his death that "all his life he had believed and acted in accordance with the Malay adat that to go against the sultan constituted menderhaka or treason. But after his death, he said, the next generation must be brave enough to oppose the Raja. If the Raja was cruel or did anything that was not right, the people must speak out."

His son took this to heart with gusto, frequently acting in a manner that would surely later have had him locked up under the ISA in a trice. But Onn knew, not least because of the Johor constitution of 1895 that his father had helped draft, that obligation went both ways between the rulers and their subjects. Their agreement to the Malayan Union was, as Zainah writes, a "betrayal of Malay rights". He told them in the showdown before the governor's installation that if they did not change their minds, "their rakyat would withdraw their support and loyalty."

On a note of personal behaviour, some may also find a more contemporary echo to a 1929 letter by the then British High Commissioner, Sir Hugh Clifford, about Sultan Ibrahim of Johor: "He occasionally forgets the dignity due to his position so far as to stoop to acts of personal violence."

If Zainah Anwar makes a good defence of Hussein Onn (father of the current Home Minister, and uncle of the Prime Minister), particularly over his disgust with a political culture that could see a man imprisoned for corruption – former Selangor Chief minister Harun Idris – elected to UMNO's supreme council while still in jail, it is Onn Jaafar who emerges as the real hero of the book. He may well have been too unbending for his own good and capable of massive miscalculation when it came to his own political career (his formation of the Independence of Malaya Party in 1951 was a disaster that consigned him to the wilderness), but he was also prophetic about the necessity of overcoming divisions rather than entrenching them.

He looked forward to the day, he told a British official in 1949, when no citizen would say "I am a Malay" or "I am a Malayan Chinese", but would instead declare "I am a man of Malaya".

Change Malaya for Malaysia and Onn would still be waiting. "Legacy of Honour" is valuable not only as the history of three men whose lives should be better known, but as a mirror to those aspects of the country for which they strove that have not met their expectations. Many Malaysians may wish that, like Dorian Gray, they had a picture in the attic to save them from the reality of what that looking glass exposes.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and divides his time between Kuala Lumpur and London