Malaysia Loses a Founding Father

Tan Sri Mohamad Ghazali Shafie, universally known simply as Ghaz, who died January 24 at 87 in his home in Kuala Lumpur, was one of the last surviving integral players of Malaysia's independence era. But he was neither a Malay aristocrat leader in the early days of UMNO and the independence movement nor a grassroots politician in the style of Mahathir Mohamad or Musa Hitam. Ghaz made a transition from intellectual civil servant to politician but always seemed more at home in the kind of ruthless internal politics of institutions than arousing the passions of the kampongs.

As a young man, originally educated at Raffles College in Singapore, he is believed to have played some role for the British during the Japanese occupation. After the war he got an education in the UK then joined the civil service. On independence he joined the foreign ministry and at the age of 35 became its top permanent official, a position he held until 1970, playing a particularly key role during konfrontasi and the subsequent formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

However, his ambitions could not be contained by the civil service. He entered politics in the wake of the 1969 riots and as a protégé of Tun Razak, father of the current prime minister, became a minister and later Home Minister. Despite his lack of an UMNO grass roots base he set his hopes on becoming prime minister. During the tenure of the honest but sometimes naïve Hussein Onn he abused his position as Home Minister by arranging the jailing of senior figures associated with rivals.

Ghazali's most prominent victims were Abdullah Ahmed, Abdullah Majid and Samad Ismail, three high profile UMNO figures who were accused of promoting communism. This was at a time when, in the wake of Communist triumphs in Indochina and a revival of the Communist Party of Malaya activities in Malaysia an anti-communist drive seemed to have credibility. Although Samad and Abdullah Majid had been linked to the communists during the 1950s independence movement, the assertion 20 years on that the three were in league with the Soviet and/or China was a brazen fabrication. Ghazali even tried to implicate both Mahathir and Musa in similar subversive activities but could not produce enough evidence to convince Hussein Onn.

On the latter's death and Mahathir's succession, Ghazali was moved to the Foreign Ministry, a position of some prestige but no political power. His successor in the Home Ministry, Musa Hitam, soon released the above three persons and various others detained under the ISA as part of Ghazali's scheme to maneuver himself into the top office on the back of a supposed anti-communist drive.

His final claim to fame was surviving a helicopter crash in the jungle near his home town of Kuala Lipis which killed his copilot and aide-de-camp. The local newspapers devoted pages of coverage to his death, "Ghaz Lives!" was the memorable headline when he was walked out of the jungle.

But his political career was already on its last legs. Mahathir dispensed with his services in 1984. Thus ended the career of a highly intelligent and often charming man who contributed much to Malaysia and to regional peace. But he was also one, like too many others in UMNO, who would use trumped up charges and lengthy prison terms against rivals in his own thirst for power.