A window into Malaysia’s past and future aspirations

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A new book about Malaysia’s first year at the UN, based on Tun Dr Ismail’s dispatches home is out. Ooi Kee Beng, who compiled the book together with Ismail’s son Tawfik, reports on the launch of the book.

The Launch of Malaya’s First Year at the United Nations as Reflected in Dr Ismail’s Reports Home to Tunku Abdul Rahman (ISEAS 2009)

The domestic politics of a country is unavoidably reflected in its external politics, and vice versa. This is not only because the two express some more or less common views about social order and international order entertained by leading groups in the country; it is also because the international community – through the diplomatic corps and through the international mass media – follows political events meticulously.

During the Cold War, when the world community was polarised into two camps, small governments were often expedient pawns in a bigger game played by superpowers. And so, when Malaya was born on 31 August 1957, it was imperative that its place in the Cold War line-up was made obvious to all parties concerned. The peaceful way in which Malaya gained its independence from Britain meant that many Third World countries harboured suspicions that it was a neo-colonial entity created to continue serving Britain and its allies.

In that context, no documents can possibly provide us today with a more enticing account of the country’s situation in the early years than the confidential reports that Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman sent home periodically to Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

These notes are now published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) as Malaya’s First Year in the United Nations as Reflected in Dr Ismail’s Reports Home to Tunku Abdul Rahman (ISEAS 2009). The speeches Dr Ismail made in the UN during that period are also included along with annotations in this compilation by his son Tawfik and his biographer Ooi Kee Beng.

Ismail’s basic job from September 1957 to Jan 1959 as the country’s first representative to the United Nations (and first ambassador to the United States) was to project the image that Malaya was indeed an independent country trying hard to carve out its own path in a world in upheaval. He would later note in his unfinished autobiography that “the surest way to get into trouble was not to have a definite policy of our own on foreign issues because then we would be at the mercy of others”.

This book was launched at the Lake Club in Kuala Lumpur on 20 January 2009 by the US Ambassador, James Keith. The event was organised by the ISEAS and the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli), with Perak regent Raja Nazrin Shah as the guest of honour.

Appropriately, ambassadors from at least 25 countries were present, along with numerous retired civil servants, scholars, family members of Tun Dr Ismail and a host of interested dignitaries. All in all, the launch was attended by about 200 people.

In his welcoming speech, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, representing Asli, expressed pleasant surprise at Ismail’s honesty, liberalism and integrity, and at his dedication to his work. It was noteworthy indeed, he added, that any minister could have written regular reports “so diligently and in such great detail” to the prime minister.

Keith, noting that the launch was taking place the same day Barack Obama was to become the first black president of the United States and how the president-to-be wished to advance multilateral fora, complimented Ismail’s and Malaysia’s preference for multilateralism. The book, he said, was also a celebration of first impressions – those that Ismail had of the United Nations and the United States of America – which allowed us today to imagine and experience the life in the United States of a Malaysian diplomat.

More power to the scholars who might pursue this tremendous trove of primary source material that is available. It seems to me many PhDs are yet to be written on this period.

ISEAS Director Ambassador K Kesavapany promised in his speech that the institute would continue to study the early history of Malaysia, and invited scholars and possessors of primary material to come forward to contribute to such ventures. Some projects that are in the works at ISEAS include one on the New Economic Policy and another on the May 13 riots.

Tawfik Ismail, in a highly appreciated closing speech, revealed that primary documents left behind by his father will continue to be arranged and published.

I understand enough to know that any medicine must be carefully introduced and administered in doses so as not to shock the patient. The patient has been diagnosed with mild amnesia, occasionally forgetting who he is, and must be brought back to normal with a combination of love for what he can be, gentle reminders and an occasional harsh dose of hard historical reality. Also important to the long-term recovery of the patient is that the doctor is an optimist, a trait my father described of himself.

The launch ended with Tawfik urging “all who have played a part in the nation’s history to put pen to paper and recorder to lips, and tell their grandchildren of their hopes and ideals so that communalism and bigotry are sent into the dustbin of our history.”

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