Man at His Best

We are so young now

Merdeka-Malaysia Day Special! The Tunku, LKY and the Malaysia split; wushu and silat heroes; hinterlands and Sonny Liew; KJ and a question of sport...

BY Jason Tan | Jul 28, 2017 | Culture

Cover of "Conversations with Tunku Abdul Rahman" by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad (Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd) and "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" by Sonny Liew (Pantheon).

In a kinder, gentler era before antisocial media and reality TV, the definite article was reserved for persons of stature.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Tunku, founder of Malaysia, was one such person. He once told King Faisal of Saudi Arabia that he “loved dancing, drinking and gambling,” to which the latter replied, “Yes, but I am not looking for an imam” and then proceeded to make the Tunku secretary general of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

In this issue’s exclusive excerpt of Conversations with Tunku Abdul Rahman by the late Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, the Tunku shares with the author the story behind Malaysia’s formation, his views on Lee Kuan Yew, and Singapore’s sudden split from its hinterland.  

It’s worth noting that Abdullah was, by his own admission, part of the putsch against the Tunku, which some also associate with Kuala Lumpur’s race riots of May 13, 1969, a turning point in Malaysian history. Abdullah was political secretary to Tun Razak Hussain (father of current Malaysian prime minister Najib) who replaced the Tunku after May 13, and to whom he was a close confidante and alter ego. And yet, the Tunku granted Abdullah the privilege of his personal insights, which were recorded on tape but remained unreleased until the book was published last year.

Abdullah, who passed away not long after, was also regularly invited by the Singapore government to share his views on Malaysian affairs, briefings attended by Lee Kuan Yew. The two men knew and respected each other. (It was also in Singapore that Abdullah presented on Malay dominance in national politics, translated as ketuanan Melayu, a tale for another time.)

Despite it all -- or because of it all -- Abdullah described the Tunku as “Still the Greatest Malaysian”. I had the privilege of working with him on Conversations, and have heard part of the recordings of the many hours of their conversations, now kept at the National Archives. The Tunku, graciously and with no rancour, describes his responsibility to being true like this:  “People can say anything about me but none will accuse me of ever being a hypocrite.”


A taxonomy of the thousand silat schools in Malaysia show the history of the country as a federation of states, which we should acknowledge whenever talk turns to independence and nationalism. Pencak silat played a role in Merdeka in Indonesia, in the resistance to the Dutch occupation. Less seems to be known about its history and origins here, which allows it to be misappropriated for expedient personal ends. Wushu and silat likely share deep origins (from Agastya Muni and Bodhidharma) and their cultural origins mean they have a strong community base. Like silat, wushu is impervious to those who do not speak its language. Unlike silat, however, wushu benefits from a more formally organised network and while silat is organic its multiplicity. This kind of cosmopolitanism is part of the land described as Southeast Asia, and occurs in its hinterlands, of especial currency in a city state like Singapore that lacks one, and which Sonny Liew’s so artfully covers in the excerpt of his magnum opus on his country’s founding in this issue.

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Is it a good time be young?

A significant percentage of the Malaysian population is now under 40, making the youth vote key in the next general election that must be called by August next year. Khairy Jamaluddin has been Minister for Youth and Sports since after the last general election in 2013. This year’s SEA Games is his end of term exam.

Speaking of the Games, Asean could certainly do with some sexing up, according to year’s Q2 FT Confidential Research Asean Political Sentiment Index which puts optimism in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam at a low ebb.

We quote: “The mood continues to lighten in Malaysia as its index rose 1.5 points to 31.8 after the economy picked up from the middle of last year. Nevertheless, the below 50 reading shows respondents expect political conditions to worsen in the next six months. Elections due by August 2018 hold little hope of improvement in the political climate, currently marred by corruption allegations at the state fund 1MDB and mismanagement at state-linked plantation company, Felda Global Ventures.”

Speaking of youth and popularity, this is good point to segue to Trudeau, Macron and Varadkar, headline hoggers as the youngest this and that (of recent memory) of their countries, and even for their partners and of course Varadkar's sexual orientation and half-Indian immigrant parentage. Below our radars are Matteo Renzi, Alex Tsipras, Sebastian Kurz, et al. (We had the likes of Chin Peng and Aung San, but alas they're historical rather than contemporary.)

It's been pointed out that they're youthful leaders for greying populations; antidotes to Trump and May. We, on the other hand, are a youthful population with... what kind of leaders?  Are younger Malaysians ready for youthful prime ministers?

Could a local Trudeau Macron Varadkar PM candidate ever spring from our primordial political soup? Of course, we must not forget the tragedy of Blair and Cameron. Is a young woman PM even within the youthful contemplation of Malaysia? Would it help if she were sporty… To answer and not answer some of these questions, we interviewed KJ for this issue.

The print edition of Esquire Malaysia August 2017 issue will be out at your nearest bookstore and newsstand this weekend. Download the digital edition here.