The youngest son of Malaysia’s second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, who died on this day 39 years ago, has called for the setting up of a national consultative council to bring Malaysians together, just as his father did after the 1969 race riots.
Banker Datuk Seri Nazir Razak said this when asked by The Malaysian Insider (TMI) what message his father would convey if he could speak to Malaysians today.
“I think he would say that it is time to set up another national consultative council, like he did in 1970, to discuss critical issues around preserving harmony and fostering unity amongst Malaysians,” says Nazir. “I think he would be shocked that it is 2015 and race and religion divide Malaysians even more today than during his time.”
Nazir was replying to questions posed to him and his other brothers, Johari, Nizam and Nazim about their father as part of a series of articles TMI will be publishing over the next few days to mark the passing of Razak, who died of leukaemia in London in 1976, to the shock of the nation, at the young age of 54.
Razak and his wife Tun Rahah had five sons and the eldest is, of course, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
Taking over as Prime Minister in 1971, Razak formed the Barisan Nasional to include erstwhile opposition parties like PAS, the Gerakan and SUPP as part of his national reconciliation efforts.
Abroad, his biggest achievement was establishing diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1974 – the first member of Asean to do so. Beijing had till then supported communist insurgencies in many southeast Asian countries.
Historians say that it was unfortunate that Razak died too soon as he was only into the fifth year of implementing key policies introduced post 1969, like the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the National Education Policy that led to the conversion of the medium of instruction in national schools from English to Bahasa Malaysia.
Despite the fact that radical policies were introduced to stabilise the country post 1969 and were opposed by some as being pro-Malays, those who knew him well and even his political opponents say that Razak was a strong advocate of moderation and multi-racialism.
“As the most outstanding leader among our founding fathers, it was Tun Razak who wished our country to be the multi-religious, multi-racial one that would be to the well being of all Malaysians,” says Tun Musa Hitam, who back in the early 1970s was deemed as a young turk of Umno and a prodigy of Razak.
DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang says that together with Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn, Razak made sure that Malaysia stayed as a strong secular and multiracial society in the first 25 years after independence.
“During their premierships from 1957 to 1981, the basis of Malaysia as a multi-racial, democratic, secular state where Islam is the federal religion was not in question,” he told TMI.
Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, then a young civil servant, says Razak was an inspiration to civil servants as he led by example. “As a prime minister, he touched all our lives by his wonderful example. And at that time, we took it for granted because such was the ethics of civil service then,” he says.
Another trait of Razak that was legendary was his frugality and his careful use of public money and this was something he had always impressed on his children.
“He made sure of the distinction between private funds and public funds,” says Nizam. “Spending on family was always private (money).”
Below is the full Q&A with Johari, Nizam, Nazim and Nazir. Over the next few days TMI will be carrying the interviews with Musa, Lim, Ramon, Kassim Ahmad, Tan Sri Abdullah (Kok Lanas) Ahmad and Tan Sri Michael Chen on their thoughts on Razak and his legacy.
TMI: January 14, 2015, would be the 39th anniversary of the passing of your father Tun Abdul Razak. How would the family be marking the occasion?
Nizam: As with every year for the last 38 years we are holding tahlil prayers to mark the occasion. This is one day of the year that the family locks in the calendar. We invite family friends, relatives and the friends who were his contemporaries.
Nazir: This year it will be held at the Ar Rahah Mosque in Bangsar South.
TMI: 39 years is a long time ago but what do you remember of that day in January 14, 1976, and the days leading to his passing? We understand the children were not aware of how ill he was. Where were you then and when were you told that the illness was terminal?
Johari: I was with my father in London during his last days there. I was studying law at Lincolns Inn and it was during the Christmas holidays that he came to London. I was told that it was only for a check-up and I was not aware that it was for anything more serious. I remember that after he arrived, we went straight from the airport to the hospital and remember thinking that it was strange that we went straight to the London clinic. If it was only a check-up, there seem to be no reason why we had to rush there without checking into the hotel.
I was only told by the doctor a week before he died that he had been suffering from leukaemia and that he was diagnosed around September 1969. In fact, the doctors had at that time told him that he had at the most two more years left. You can imagine the shock I felt when I was told by the doctor. It was almost unbelievable since as far as I knew, he was never sick and to suddenly be told not only that he had leukaemia but also that he did not have much longer to live.
In my naivety I asked the doctor how many more years did he have left? The doctor replied without mincing any words that it was not a matter of years or months or even weeks. It was only a matter of days.
He never told the family. The doctor told us not to discuss with him as he might be upset that we had been told. This might also indicate to him that he might not have longer to live and might adversely affect him. Till today, I am not sure why he did not want the family to know but my guess is he did not want us to worry. He also did not want any political instability which would probably arise if other people knew of his leukaemia and that he might not live much longer.
He kept working right up to the end and did not stop to take time off as many people would have if they were suffering from a terminal disease.
Nizam: I was 17 at the time, studying in England. We were excited when we received the news of our father coming to London during our Christmas holidays for a rest. I did not have any plans for Christmas except to stay in London so his visit was a welcome treat.
I was taken aback when I saw him alight from the plane. He looked terribly gaunt and not at all well but as we had been told he had been unwell and was coming to rest, I thought this was a normal ‘sick and then recover’ situation.
My father was hospitalised for some days. After he was discharged, I thought everything was going to be normal. My mother’s sudden appearance was not a surprise and did not set off any alarm bells. We had some memorable days in London with many walks in the parks and nostalgic visits to his favourite restaurants and shops.
In less than a week after his discharge he had a relapse and was readmitted to the hospital. It was then that I was taken aside by the doctor who informed me that my father was seriously ill. Like any child I didn’t want to consider any eventuality other than a recovery. However his condition steadily worsened and within a few days after being told he was seriously ill, he passed away. I was by his side when he passed away as it was my ‘shift’ early that morning.
One unforgettable incident when he was out of hospital was his insistence on buying me a present which was unusual because buying things for the children was normally my mother’s domain. My father actually followed me to buy a present. I eventually settled for a squash racquet. Little did I know that this was his “farewell” present. He had bought something for everyone. Needless to say this racquet is treasured and has never been used.
Nazim: I was unaware of the seriousness of the illness, neither was I told that it was terminal. However when I was to postpone my return back to school when term started I realised that it was more serious than I had thought.
Nazir: I was 9 years old. I remember being left at home alone for a long time while he was being treated in London but I had no inkling of how ill he was. A few days before he died, Najib came back to KL so even more reason not to think of the worst.
Then one day I was told to pack my bags as he (Tun Razak) wanted to see me, and that Najib and I would be flying that night itself. Initially I was thrilled as I had never been overseas, and I was going all the way to London. I became a little worried when it dawn on me that something must be very wrong; we were breaking family protocol that said we only get to travel overseas after turning 10. But, I still did not think he was dying.
Then some hours later, before we left for the airport, the phone rang for Najib. I was next to him and listened as he reacted to the news that Dad had died. I was in complete shock.
TMI: What was Tun Razak like as a father, politician and prime minister?
Johari: He was a loving but stern father who emphasised the importance of studying and getting a good job. He told us to always be humble and to help other less fortunate people. He sent us to boarding school so that we could learn to stand on our own two feet. He always felt that we might be spoilt staying at home with so many servants and other people being nice to us because we were the children of the prime minister. He was always very busy but had time to talk to me whenever I asked him any question.
Nizam: Despite being very busy as a prime minister, my father always kept a watchful eye over me especially on my academic performance. He never missed a report card. Quality time with him was limited though but we tried to make the most of what we had which was normally the lunches and dinners when he ate at home and post-dinner family time. Holidays did not always present good opportunities to spend time with him because there were always an entourage of people who followed him on trips and as a young child/teenager I was always in the “background”.
Nazim: As a father he was caring and was always very concerned about our well being and most of all our studies. He charted my education and that became a target for me to complete them in the years to come.
TMI: What were the values that he as a father tried to inculcate into you as his son?
Johari: To work hard, to be humble and to respect and help other people.
Nizam: My way of learning his values was to observe the things he stood for. Humility, simplicity, honesty, hard work and frugality were some of the more important values I learnt from his conduct in life and in politics. I can never forget how careful he always was with government spending on himself and family.
He made sure of the distinction between private funds and public funds. Spending on family was always private. Additionally, my father never forgot that he was there to serve the people. His ultimate purpose was to uplift and improve the quality of life of the people. He never forgot where he came from and the hardship he had gone through.
He sent me at a young age to study in England because he knew that was the way I could grow up without being sheltered and having an easy life.
Nazim: He always stressed the importance and value of education, strong discipline, honesty and hard work. He always undertook his tasks very seriously, be it studies, sports or the positions he served in.
TMI: As his son, how are you trying to live up to those values now that you are a father with children of your own, and with responsibilities of your own whether in private or public service?
Johari: Of course, as a son, I do try to live up to his values and to inculcate the same values in my children.
Nazim: I try to measure up to his dedication, determination and above all his loyalty and hard work. He was passionate about his work and passionate about his goals in life.
TMI: As the prime minister, your dad was obviously a very busy man but on the occasions when there was family time, did he ever talk about his job and what he was trying to do and achieve for the country?
Johari: We were a relatively young family. He did not discuss his job directly with us as he wanted us to concentrate on our studies and not be distracted by political issues. We did listen to many discussions that took place in the house when other people were present. We also talked to his advisers and others working with him and by talking to them we learnt about his job and what he was trying to achieve for the country.
Nizam: Given that I was very young at that time (17) it would have been inappropriate to discuss serious national issues with me. In any case I was away studying in London from the age of 13 so there was not much occasion to do so even when I was older and able to understand national issues better. I do remember two occasions when he talked to me on national issues. The first was during the May 1969 incident. He was very upset at what had happened. I was 11 at that time and I remember he told me that fighting had broken out in the streets. He just couldn’t fathom how the situation could have deteriorated to that extent.
The second again an upsetting incident, concerned an aid that was offered to the country. It was obvious that he did not agree with the terms of the aid. He was furious, saying that he didn’t care if we didn’t get colour TV in Malaysia as long as Malaysians remained in control of its own destiny.
TMI: Your father took over as prime minister in the aftermath of the 1969 race riots and one of the first things he did was to stitch together a new coalition in Barisan Nasional by bringing in parties that were in opposition to the Alliance e.g. Parti Gerakan, the People’s Progressive Party, PAS, SUPP, just to name a few. The coalition that he founded is today under a lot of stress and facing a lot of challenges. Do you have any thoughts about this?
Nazim: The coalition was the best solution in the aftermath of the riots. It is now 39 years and society has changed (and)… the world has changed.
Nazir: It was a very different time and set of challenges. He was a democrat. When he had dictatorial powers in the aftermath of May 13th he chose to return power to Parliament as soon as possible even though many people around him tried to convince him to maintain NOC rule. He formed a bigger coalition of parties with BN as a legitimate way of lessening political tensions while preserving parliamentary democracy.
I think he would have realised that the BN formula would change and evolve over time. I believe that he had hoped that in 20 years (by 1990) the NEP experiment would have succeeded in eradicating poverty and closing the wealth disparity between races, and create the foundations for more conventional democratic politics.
TMI: How do you think your father would be remembered by Malaysians 39 years after his death? What do you think will be his enduring legacy?
Johari: As an honest man who worked tirelessly and selflessly for the country. He abhorred corruption and self-aggrandisement. His thoughts were always for the people. Their welfare was his priority. His focus was on the development of the country. Politics took a backseat for him.
Nizam: Of his many achievements, I believe rural development is his most enduring. Hence of all the titles accorded to former leaders, his was “Bapa Pembangunan”. Although prime ministers since then have not placed as much emphasis on rural development as he had done, the strategies and institutions he put in place have continued and endured long after his death. The restoration of democracy and uniting the country after 1969 and the formation of Barisan Nasional were his two other major achievements.
Nazir: Tun Razak should be remembered for dedicating his life to the nation. When he knew he was dying, he pushed himself harder at work. He was not interested in personal material gain and was in fact even more frugal when it came to government finances. So, even those who disagree with his politics or policies tend to respect the person.
He has been aptly dubbed the Father of Development. He was deputy PM from independence until he became PM, but under Tunku’s leadership style the DPM was like a chief operating officer in today’s corporate parlance. Therefore, he was the key figure behind so much of what happened in the first 19 years of Malaysia’s life – from rural development to education, to negotiating peace with Indonesia, to forming Asean.
I think it is also important to recognise that he left a great legacy of leaders for the future. He spotted and groomed the likes of Mahathir, Musa, Razaleigh, Badawi, Rafidah and Keng Yaik in politics and Zain Azraai, Navaratnam, Thong Yaw Hong, Sarji and Azizan in the civil service. Truly great leaders ensure their organisations succeed after they are gone, and even though he died suddenly, he had groomed a cadre of very capable leaders.
TMI: If your father could speak to the people of Malaysia today, what message do you think he will convey to us – the people, the politicians and those who are in positions of power?
Nazir: I think he would say that it is time to set up another national consultative council, like he did in 1970, to discuss critical issues around preserving harmony and fostering unity amongst Malaysians. I think he would be shocked that it is 2015 and race and religion divide Malaysians even more today than during his time.