Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #97
In 1969, shortly after the traumatic race riot that nearly ripped Malaysia apart, an angry and impatient young politician wrote a most unusual letter to the prime minister at the time, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Written in Malay, the letter used the most polite and deferential language, tone, and form that characterized communications between a peasant and his ruler. It was classic of a feudal Malay society, as Malaysia was at that time. Despite that, the petition could not hide its blunt and trenchant message: The Tunku must go.
Such a frontal challenge to a leader was unprecedented in polite and highly structured traditional Malay society. Malay society prides itself in an orderly and predictable succession. That gauntlet could only have been thrown by someone either unbelievably stupid and reckless or very sure of himself and his assessment of the citizens’ mood.
What galled the Tunku was that the challenger was a low-level politician who had lost his parliamentary seat in the elections that took place just before the riot. Most losers in combat would quietly withdraw to lick their wounds, not come out swinging looking for new adversaries, at least not so soon afterwards! Yet there it was, the impudence and impertinence of a hitherto obscure political backbencher challenging the nation’s revered leader amidst a national crisis! Incensed, the Tunku saw to it that the politician was expelled from the party. Thus was how Mahathir bin Mohamad was stripped of his UMNO’s membership.
It was a tribute to the Tunku’s basic humanity that he did not do more. He could have easily behaved like the usual Third World leader and declared Mahathir “prejudicial to the security of Malaysia,” and thrown him into the slammer. Or worse! Many a Third World politician have met untimely fatal “accidents.” Mahathir in turn was smart enough to lay low and not further provoke the Tunku. If only some of today’s adversaries of Mahathir were as smart!
In the end the Tunku did resign, and the ever-wise Mahathir did not crow. After a suitable grace period in deference to the Tunku’s sensibility, his successor Tun Razak “rehabilitated” Mahathir and soon after, appointed him to the important position of Minister of Education. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Thanks in large measure to Mahathir, today Malay society is less feudal; communications between the rulers and ruled are no longer formal, rigid, or deferential. They are direct and often frontal, dispensing with the ceremonial and reverential language of the past.
Mahathir is no Tunku, but more to the point, I am no Mahathir. I have simply chosen the following format of a letter to the prime minister merely as a literary device to summarize my book. Nothing more and nothing less! Thus I do not expect a Tunku-like response from Mahathir, nor do I await a Mahathir-like fate.
Next: An Open Letter to the prime Minister