Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman: “The Third Man” of Malaysian history

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Johan Saravanamuttu reviews a book by Ooi Kee Beng on the political life and times of former deputy premier Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman and provides his own insights.

It does not have as complex a plot nor is it as noir as the 1949 movie classic The Third Man. Ooi Kee Beng’s The Reluctant Politician, however, certainly connotes a tale of the critical role played by ‘the third man’ in Malaysia’s early independence history.

Let me hasten to add that I’m not one to deny the plural character of our politics and the multiple struggles of Malayan society for independence from the British. Surely more than a few men were responsible for the shape of our history.

But when independence did arrive, admittedly there were only a small number of persons, indeed usually ‘men’, and perhaps just three, who were in the driver’s seat from 1957 to 1976. They were the Tunku, Tun Razak and Tun Ismail.

There are certainly elements of plot and noir in Ooi’s book. As perhaps revealed publicly for the first time, Ismail was the only one (besides their mutual doctor, Stewart MacPherson) who had intimate knowledge of Razak’s terminal leukemia while Razak was himself acutely aware of Ismail’s congenital heart problem. Both men, however,  believed that Ismail would outlive Razak. In the event, Ismail’s heart failed him on 2 August1973 while Razak went on to helm Malaysia until 14 January 1976. Ooi captures these remarkable facts succinctly and dramatically in the opening chapter of the book.

How different would Malaysian history have been or could it be had Ismail outlived Razak? Any reading of The Reluctant Politician would impel one to try to imagine this, however wistfully. What would have happened had Tun Ismail been at the helm after Tun Razak? For starters, certainly individuals whom Ismail disliked may never have gained political ascendancy. Contrariwise, those he truly respected would probably still be in the thick of politics or at least be in political contention.

For example, what would have been the fate of Mahathir Mohamad?  All indications from a reading of the book would be that Mahathir would probably have stayed in the political doldrums since Ismail had objected to his reinstatement to UMNO. Thanks to Razak, who evidently succumbed to party politics and pressure, Malaysia’s longest serving premier of 22 years was resurrected, in spite of Ismail’s objections. In the event, Musa Hitam, Ismail’s preferred candidate for political ascendancy, probably lost out. But we are already ahead of our story and it is not really my intention here to delve into counter-factual ‘what- might-have-beens’.

Although Ooi Keng Beng’s book does not problematise history in the manner that I for one would like, his meticulous rendering of Tun Ismail’s life and time provides us with rare and profound insights and fascinating details about the Third Man of Malaysian History. It reminds us pointedly of Tun Ismail’s egregious contribution and impact on our political life in the post-Merdeka years, up until the May 13 riots and the momentous changes after May 13.

Thanks to the letters and papers (including a short memoir) left behind by Tun Dr Ismail and thanks to the liberal-mindedness of his son Tawfik to deposit them with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Ooi has been able to produce this highly readable book, after also drawing on sources in the British archives at Kew and conducting numerous interviews with Tun Ismail’s friends and previous associates in Malaysia and Singapore.

In this review, I wish to touch on the following aspects of the biography; Tun Ismail’s personality and character; his politics and foreign policy; and his political and social relationships. Perhaps from such a reading we could surmise what sort of government and overall temper of politics could have prevailed in Malaysia had more honourable men such as Ismail taken the helm.

Certainly, Ismail was not without faults and one can easily glean this from this rich biography. There was also a very human and sociable person tucked within the outer exterior of a somewhat severe and no-nonsense persona. So let me begin with his personality and character.

The man

What I found most engaging in the biography were the insights into Ismail the man, warts and all. The story of his failing health due to a faulty heart-valve which led to his death at 58 years is already well-known. In spite of this, Ismail was an active athlete who was into hiking and swimming in his Melbourne University days and, in later years, an ardent golfer. From golf, comes his famous analogy on the temporality of the special position of the Malays:

The special privilege or position accorded to the Malays under the Constitution is mainly intended to enable them – to borrow an expression from the game of golf – ‘to have a handicap’, which would place them in a position for fair competition with better players. Therefore, like a golfer, it should not be the aim of the Malays to perpetuate this handicap but to strive to improve their game, and thereby reducing, and finally removing, their handicap completely (p 217).  

The young Ismail was an avid dancer as well and, from that, one could well adduce his open-mindedness and his sociability. A vignette from his days as a medical student in Singapore serves to illustrate this. Ismail used to frequent a local buy-a-coupon–per-dance cabaret with his friends. The practice was to rush to the most popular hostesses and get one on a first-come-first-serve basis. Writes Ismail:

As I was dancing away, I happened to look behind and saw a face red with anger. It was the face of one of my professors, who had expected me to step aside and give way to him to dance with the hostess. The next day happened to be the day on which I had to present myself to the professor for an oral examination of the anatomy of bones. He naturally gave me a difficult bone to identify and describe and when I could not, he made the sarcastic remark that if I were to concentrate more on bone anatomy rather than surface anatomy, I would make a success of myself as a medical student (p 20).

In the event Ismail had to complete his medical studies in Melbourne and returned home only after the Second World War.

Reluctant politician

Ooi gives an interesting account of how Ismail was persuaded to enter politics, essentially by the Tunku, and to become the Alliance member of the executive council of the Federal Legislative Council in 1953. Tunku himself had demurred taking up the position as he wanted to focus on the independence process. After independence, it was again the Tunku who prevailed on Ismail to lead Malaysia’s mission at the United States and the United Nations.

In his various dealings with superiors and subordinates, Ismail cut a character who was principled, if feisty. He detested incompetence and was not one to suffer fools.  As minister plenipotentiary at New York, he worked hard to maintain Malaysia’s anti-communist stance and non-recognition of the People’s Republic of China in the face of the continuing communist insurgency in Malaysia.  He was therefore incensed and immediately threatened to resign when the Tunku blurted out in Netherlands that it was not a bad idea to consider recognising China. The Tunku, who belatedly realised his mistake, intimates that Ismail tried to submit his resignation a few times, but after the Tunku deliberately avoided him, the resignation never came.

It is interesting to note that, while at New York, Ismail was also irritated by the manner some of his subordinates under-performed while he praised and thought well of persons who were responsible and conducted their work intelligently. Among the individuals who won Ismail’s respect were Musa Hitam, (who went on to become deputy premier; Mohamed Sopiee, a former Labour Party leader, who became first secretary to Ismail in New York; Ismail Ali, later to be Bank Negara Governor; Albert Talalla, a diplomat; Suffian Hashim, chief justice; and Lim Chong Eu, the MCA leader who later became Gerakan leader.

The Kuoks, Philip and Robert, were close friends, and in the book, copious reference is made to Ismail’s conversations and intimations to both brothers. William, the third brother, who died as a guerrilla at the hands of the British, is also mentioned in Ooi’s book. Other family friends and associates included the Cheahs and the Puthuchearys.

The picture one gets of Ismail the man is clearly that of a person who was liberal-minded and had close associates from all the communities of Malaysia. Indeed, some of his closest friends were non-Malays, some of them left-leaning. In fact, Ismail had few hang-ups when it came to relating with “others”; while studying in Melbourne, he had three relationships, including one with an Australian girl and one with a German girl.

Democrat and pragmatist

Tun Ismail’s view on politics and foreign policy issues are weaved in throughout the eight chapters of the book. We have already noted that he was introduced into politics by the Tunku. But, in truth, Ismail’s own family was already deeply involved in public affairs: his father Abdul Rahman Yassin was president of the Senate and his brother Suleiman, having been in Tunku’s circle since Cambridge days, was High Commissioner to Australia.

Ismail was a democrat at heart but, like most people of the Tunku’s generation, had strong views about communism. As a diplomat and as Malaysia’s acting foreign minister, he ably argued for Malaysia’s anti-communist and pro-western stances and worked hard to get US financial aid for Malaysia.

Interestingly though, Ismail was also responsible for the very important shift to nonalignment in Malaysian foreign policy which came during Tun Razak era. In 1968, after retirement from the cabinet because of his health, as Umno backbencher, he called for the neutralisation of South-East Asia, to be guaranteed by all the major powers including China. This later became Malaysia’s and Asean’s iconic policy for a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (Zopfan) in South-East Asia. And close on the heels of his proposal came the recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1974, Malaysia being the first South-East Asian country to make the move.

Thus, it is clear that Ismail was a pragmatist while being staunchly democratic in his approach to politics. In spite of his gloomy May 13 statement that “democracy is dead in Malaysia”, it was very evident that after the May 1969 incident, he was working hard to resurrect democracy. Forced to re-emerge from his retirement, he played a crucial role under Tun Razak in the six-member National Operations Council (NOC), and for all intents and purposes, Razak depended heavily on Ismail for final decisions.

Interestingly, Ismail initially pressed for Harun Idris’s arrest but was dissuaded by Hanif Omar who said that the first incidents of May 13 occurred in Gombak, not Kampong Baru in Kuala Lumpur. Most importantly Ismail cogently argued against any military takeover or martial law which was apparently what the Tunku had wanted in the beginning. The sense was that Ismail was conscientious about the eventual return to democratic politics as much as he was uncompromising about stemming political instability. Detentions and arrests comprising all major ethnic groups totalled 8,114 by 5 July.

Ismail also dealt firmly with the Malay “ultras”. Mahathir Mohamad was expelled from Umno on 12 July and Musa Hitam was sent off for study leave to Sussex University. Tengku Razaleigh in an interview said it was Ismail who wanted Mahathir expelled and it was also Ismail who stopped two attempts to re-admit him into Umno (p 206).

A significant aspect of Ismail’s political thinking relates to the episode of Singapore’s merger with Malaysia and its subsequent separation on 9 August 1965. While it was the Tunku’s decision that Singapore should leave Malaysia, the authors behind the separation agreement were Razak, Ismail and Tan Siew Sin as well as Singapore’s Goh Keng Swee and Eddie Barker. In an article to the National Geographic, Ismail wrote:

“At the moment both nations, comparatively speaking, are well off. If they can co-exist for some time, each understanding the other’s point of view, the time will come when they will merge again. It is better to wait for this to come because if they do not do so they will sink together instead of coming together” (p. 160, emphasis added). 

Another important contribution of Ismail to political changes was the setting up of the Anti-Corruption Agency. He led the anti-graft cabinet committee, which tabled the motion for the ACA on 12 April 1967. Robert Kuok intimates,  “You would say, in Confucian terms, that he was a man who led a very correct life, a man of the highest integrity. Money, favours, political hypocrisy or deceit, all those were anathema to him” (p 173).

Where are the honourable men?

No doubt from Ooi Kee Beng’s comprehensive and penetrating biography of Tun Dr. Ismail, we could conclude that Ismail was a loving and sensitive family man, a loyal colleague and friend, a fearless and peerless politician, and not least of all, an honourable man. He was at heart a democrat, if a bit authoritarian. He was not averse to using the Internal Security Act to achieve the political imperatives of the day, but one senses that, were he given the choice today, he may opt for its removal.

Admittedly, his firmness of decision-making style verged sometimes on intolerance. His hot-tempered nature may have reinforced this aspect of his character but his sharpness of judgment of human character perhaps more than compensated for his feisty disposition.

Beyond his actual impact on Malaysian politics, how is the life and time of a man like Tun Dr. Ismail important for us today? I would rather not indulge in counter-factual thinking of what would have happened had he become “the third prime minister Malaysia never had” but raise the more pertinent question, where on our political landscape are the honourable men of Malaysia now, foibles and all? Where have political courage, intellectual honesty and political imagination gone?

It is well known that politics in Malaysia today has become infested by pseudo-intellectuals, dishonest politicians, incompetents and fools. It will be of some solace that the life of Tun Dr. Ismail may inspire a new generation of genuine men and women of honour to take to the political stage.

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Johan Saravanamutu is currently Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. The thoughts presented are his personal views.

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