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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Tunku’s Tapes: More Than “Coffee Shop Talk”

Tunku’s Tapes: More Than “Coffee Shop Talk”

Book Review of K. Das & The Tunku Tapes. Compiled and edited by Kua Kia Soong, Strategic Info Research Development, Petaling Jaya, 2002. 148 pages, RM 20.00.
(www.Malaysiakini.com March 3, 2006)

Editorial lead: The Tunku’s frankness was refreshing, except when he got carried with those he disliked. His disparaging personal remarks on Mahathir’s heritage were unbecoming and offensive.

In the 1980’s, while Tunku Abdul Rahman was alive and still very much in the news, I wrote to a number of Malaysian historians to interest them on an oral history project. It was to be modeled after the excellent ones at major American universities. As was the typical Malaysian response, I did not get any reply, except from one. Typically Malaysian again, he curtly responded that local history was not his specialty!

Mine was more than a mere suggestion; I offered to fund the program. My particular interest was Tunku, and the few surviving members of his first cabinet.
Little did I know that at the time a prominent journalist, K. Das, had been interviewing the Tunku for a planned biography. Sadly, Das died before he could complete his project. Fortunately his estate had made those tapes available. This book, K. Das & The Tunku Tapes, is the final product.


Limitations of the Written Word

Historians recognize the limitations of the written word as a historical source. Unlike the days of yore, today’s leaders rarely keep personal journals. While they give speeches and write official correspondents, for the most part those are “ghost written,” with specific audiences or political purposes in mind. There is minimal personal reflection.

The private communications of leaders today are rarely recorded, unless of course done secretly a la the Nixon White House. Some leaders do keep personal diaries, but more with their memoir in mind. Such notes thus serve to put the writer in a favorable light.

Modern technology makes voice and image recordings easy and cheap. The resulting materials can be digitized, archived, and disseminated with high fidelity without damaging the original.

There is more to an interview than merely placing a microphone in front of the subject and recording the ensuing conversations. Poorly done and you get nothing more than a rambling journey into nostalgia, or the settling of old scores. That is, coffee-shop talk.

Good interviews bring fresh insights or reveal hitherto unknown facts. They enhance our understanding of events.

It would be best to have institutional sponsorship of such projects. This point is validated by Das’ premature death, with the tapes entangled in probate. We thank the estate of Mr. Das for sharing these tapes. I would further urge that the tapes be donated to a university so scholars could readily access them.


Bringing out the Real Tunku

The book is “compiled and edited” by Kua Kia Soong, who has no less than 17 titles to his credit. I am familiar with Das’ work during his tenure at the Far Eastern Economic Review and enjoyed his crisp prose and incisive reporting. My expectations are therefore high.

After the foreword by Kua, the book begins with Das’ “Introduction” to what would have been his magnum opus, an authorized biography of the Tunku based on those tapes. My disappointment begins with the very first sentence; it is 118 words long! This is not the Das I remember from his FEER days. More likely, this was his initial rough draft; had he been alive, he would have definitely untangled it. He would never have let that kind of convoluted prose see the light of day. Either that or Das must have had some fine editors at FEER.

Kua should have been more respectful of the memory of his friend by polishing up the manuscript; editing means more than merely compiling.
Fortunately, that longwinded first sentence was the exception; the rest of the introduction was vintage Das, skillfully weaving snippets of the conversations with astute observations of the Tunkus’ relationships with his household help. What surprises me was that all of Tunku’s personal help were non-Malays. They doted on him, reverentially, fully aware that they were taking care and in the presence of a great man.

It is a tribute to Das’ literary skills that he successfully brought out the Tunku’s basic humanity, a man without pretensions despite his royal heritage and being a former Prime Minister. The Tunku was truly “a prince with the heart of a commoner.”

The Tunku readily admitted to his many personal failings, a humility rare among humans especially leaders. As for his well-known fondness for alcohol, haram (forbidden) in Islam, he had a disarmingly simple rational. He sought Allah’s forgiveness, and added that Allah would surely forgive him, certainly ahead of those leaders who oppress and torture their people. Iran’s Mullahs, please take note!

The rest of the book is a verbatim transcript of the interviews with Tunku, except for the last chapter, which is Kua’s tribute to Das.

This is raw – very raw – transcription, with no attempt at clarification or editing. Consequently there are many ambiguous and orphan pronouns. Readers have to pause and reconstruct the whole conversation to figure out to whom the “he” or “him” refers. Mildly irritating!

There were also no notes to place particular interviews in perspective. Unless one is familiar with the topical issues at the time of the recordings, it would be difficult to follow the conversations. It would have been helpful if Kua were to add background information to fill in the void.


More Reminiscing, Less Introspecting

These are less introspective sessions between a seasoned journalist and a retired statesman, rather of two old friends, full of admiration for one another, reminiscing.

The Tunku was amazingly frank in his opinions of the various personalities. Tuanku Mahmud, the King, was described as “mad, raving mad.”

Tunku’s frankness was refreshing, except when he got carried away with those he disliked. His disparaging personal remarks on Mahathir’s heritage were unbecoming and sullied the Tunku’s good natured image. Frankly, they were offensive.

The Tunku was indeed a cultured gentleman of the old world. I can see him being contemptuous of and unable to get along with those less refined like Lee Kuan Yew.

There were two events during Tunku’s tenure that represented polar extremes of his achievements: Malaysia’s independence and the May 1969 race riots. Alas there were minimal reflections on the two important episodes, a failure of both interviewer and interviewee.

These interviews were conducted in 1988 when the Tunku was 86 years old, physically frail but amazingly still mentally alert. His recollections may be selective and details of painful events forgotten, nonetheless the Tunku had done another great service to his beloved nation by giving these interviews. K. Das’ untimely death robbed the nation of what would have been a highly readable and perceptive biography of our first Prime Minister.

I have one suggestion: include a CD of the actual interviews, with appropriate introductory and clarifying remarks, with future editions.

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