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Tun Ismail: Autocrat or democrat?

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Did Tun Ismail preside over a golden age of democracy and liberalism? An Aliran Monthly reader finds Johan Saravanamuttu’s review of Ooi Kee Beng’s book on the late Tun Dr Ismail rather disturbing. Johan responds and, in the process of this debate about memory and politics, we gain further insights into the man who could have been prime minister and his times.

Disturbing review of Tun Ismail biography

I found Johan’s review of Ooi Kee Beng’s book on Tun Dr Ismail (Aliran Monthly Vol 27 Issue No. 3) rather disturbing.

One would think that the first post-independence generation was some kind of golden age of political giants of a progressive democratic tenor. Nothing about the ISA; nothing about Operation Cold Store; not a word in passing about the much-admired Lim Chong Eu being booted out; a gloss over the composition of the numbers detained in the aftermath of May 13; nothing about the termination of local elections, the decimation of the Labour Party, the breaking of the railwaymen’s union’s strike, nothing even to point out that it was Ismail who was afraid that Tunku might make “concessions” at the Baling talks. Just sweetness and light.

Regarding Malay special privileges, perhaps it was Ismail’s viewpoint, or perhaps it was more widely held by leaders of that generation, or perhaps, even, that was the way it was justified in the context of the independence constitution, given the misgivings in the UK House of Commons about it. After all, wasn’t it Tan Siew Sin who defended the provision? But then, how do we deal with the entrenchment of Article 153 in 1972, when Ismail was very much back in government?

As for Ismail frequenting the cabaret, one doesn’t have to look far to realise that it really says little about the man and much about the times – the films of P Ramlee from the 1950s,  would tell all, as much as the photographs of the Sultan and Sultanah of Kedah from the same period. We can only blindside ourselves with such a neglect of history, to read the man’s behaviours against the tenor of our times and thus conclude that he must have been liberal and open-minded. He may have been of the liberalism of his time, but was that any different from others of somewhat similar status and social standing of the same period?

But the speculation that he would have removed the ISA takes the cake. If anything, the Tunku was actually more bothered about ISA detentions than Ismail. Wasn’t it Ismail who, when asked in Parliament what would happen to the detainees if they didn’t confess, replied “Let them rot!”? And, irony of ironies, the Malaysian distributor of the biography – the man known affectionately as “Pak Chong” by many – was an ISA detainee who spent the better part of his youth in detention under an order signed by none other than Ismail himself.

Nor should we forget that – for those who imagine a golden age of the judiciary – it was the judiciary who ousted themselves from judicial review of ISA cases, declaring that matters of national security were best left to the discretion of the minister and it wasn’t for the courts to consider objective evidence.

That said, it should be remembered that Ismail did give a speech in USM around 1970 in which he acknowledged the contributions of various groups, including the communists, to the achievement of independence. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the man moved with the times – a quality that is perhaps all too rare among so many of our current generation of so-called leaders who, if anything, are only too intent to protect their narrow interests while masquerading as defenders of the Malay poor.

Still, it is a sad reflection of our times that we should now apparently engage in a kind of collective amnesia to imagine a golden age of democracy and liberalism that never was.


Tun Ismail showed no tinge of racism or bigotry

I was amazed by Observer’s critique [AM Vol. 27(6)] of my book review [AM, Vol.27 (3)]. It is rare indeed that a book review gets such an extended review! Why not review the book itself?

First, I should disabuse readers of the suggestion that my review implied a “golden age of democracy and liberalism” in Malaysia. Observer mentions a series of repressive events which I had apparently neglected to mention. Would it not be more pertinent since one is reviewing Tun Ismail to see if he was connected to any of the repressive acts mentioned by Observer? Operation Cold Store of February 1963 (when Singapore was still out of Malaysia) was a desperate move of the PAP government to weed out its left wing when admittedly Ismail was already the representative to Singapore’s Internal Security Council.

But I cannot see how “the much-admired” Lim Chong Eu being “booted out” from MCA had anything to do with Ismail. Chong Eu resigned after a quarrel with the Tunku over seat allocations. The Labour Party’s decimation, it may be argued, was partly self-inflicted. It chose to leave the Socialist Front and boycott elections. The PSRM, on the other hand, continued the electoral struggle despite detention of many of its leaders. Terminating local elections, yes, what a dastardly act of which I have written about in the pages of AM. It was a Razak Cabinet Committee that put the final nail to the end of local elections in 1968.

In fact, as I had said, Ismail, after May 13, 1969, was working hard to “resurrect” democracy. A careful reading would have revealed that I stressed that, even in those troubled times, Ismail remained a democrat although I also pointed out that he was a pragmatist. There was no allusion whatsoever to any golden era of democracy, which is the ‘strawman’ which Observer has set up for rhetorical effect. 

Secondly, I readily admit that I may have taken some poetic licence to suggest that Tun Ismail may not today defend the ISA as he used to. I agree that this is a speculative leap, which is counterfactual, and one can make too much of it. However, it is true that one of Ismail’s erstwhile protégés, Musa Hitam, has called for the ISA’s abolition. I would like to point out further that, going by the facts, Ismail was a man willing to accept change and to admit mistakes.

Ismail was staunchly anti-communist, as I had stressed, and was incensed by the incident in which the Tunku said Malaysia should think of recognising China, so he tried to resign as Foreign Minister in 1959. But it was this same Ismail in 1968 (as an Umno backbencher) who proposed the neutralisation of Southeast Asia to be guaranteed by all major powers, including China. Hence, the recognition of China, which came in 1974 under Tun Razak, was greatly impelled by Tun Ismail’s changing ideas on foreign policy.

Incidentally, Observer may have got some dates mixed up. As far as I can tell there was no so-called entrenchment of Article 153 on Malay privileges in 1972. Instead, the Constitution (Amendment) Act of 1970 and the Sedition Act of 1971 were promulgated after May 13 to proscribe all discussions on “sensitive issues” (including Article 153).  More importantly, it heralded the NEP which was launched in the Second Malaysia Plan (1971-1975). It was after the launch of the NEP that Ismail opined that Malay privileges were temporary. He wanted a 20-year limit on the policy (as mentioned in Ooi’s book, p.215).

Observer raised the question as to how Ismail was any different from others of his time who were liberal and open-minded. Fine, if that be the case, but my point was to say that here is a leader of Malays and of Malaysians who, as the biography and many interviewees testify, showed no tinge of racism or bigotry. Should we get all roiled up by someone making such a point?

On the ISA again, Ismail, in his memoirs said that he pondered hard on each case of ISA detention, to wit:

"To ensure that each case for detention was fully investigated and the pros and cons well argued before it reached me, I arranged for it to pass through the hands of several responsible senior officers of the police and Home Ministry. When it finally came to me, I went through each case carefully and when in doubt, I always slept over it. It really took a lot out of me to approve cases of detention, because some of the people detained were well known to me. My only consolation is that on my retirement nobody could accuse me of sending anybody to detention camp out of malice.” (Cited in Ooi’s book, p.132)

I’m inclined to take Ismail at his word although I’m sure he made some horrible mistakes. Indeed, the ISA itself was a horrendous and repugnant mistake! Which brings me to “Pak Chong” (ex-ISA detainee) who has now benefited from the sale of the Ismail biography. Are we now to deny this man his bread and butter?

“Sweetness and light” was certainly not the point of my review at all. I was trying to show that men of honour, even if we don’t agree with their politics, are few and far between these days. Having said that, I agree that none of us should fall prey to a “collective amnesia” and only selectively remember events and certain personages of merit. Let a hundred flowers bloom! Hopefully this exchange will also spur others to contribute further to this important debate about memory and politics for which we thank Observer.  Finally, in the spirit of openness and accountability, it would be nice if Observer would do us all the honour of revealing his/her name.

Johan Saravanamuttu

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