Muzil Abdullah

 

On 31 August 2015, our nation celebrates the 58th year of its independence. On this day more than any other, we remember the first Prime Minister and Father of Independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman. What was he like in real life? What kind of personality and character exemplifies him? One person who can describe Tunku in detail is none other than my late uncle, Dato’ Wan Mansor Wan Abdullah, who served as Tunku’s Private Secretary from 1962 to 1964. His recollections from his days with Tunku are contained in many of his memoirs, and here are some of the stories.

 

The Residency

My late uncle became Tunku’s Private Secretary on Saturday, 20 January 1962. On that morning, he arrived at the Residency office of the Prime Minister and was brought by Nik Hassan (now Dato’), Tunku’s Personal Secretary, to be introduced to the Tunku.

 

The Residency office, actually a study, was a small semi-circular room on the right wing of the Residency. Tunku preferred to work here rather than the in the ‘official’ office at the Prime Minister’s Department about 200 metres or so from the Residency. Those days the Prime Minister’s Department was housed in timber buildings on low stilts on the terraced hillside of what was then known as Residency Hill (now Bukit Perdana) at Brockman Road (now Jalan Dato’ Onn). The Prime Minister’s Office was part of the bigger Prime Minister’s Department. It stood on its own in a similar timber block of building on the highest level of the hill slope with direct walking access to the Residency. The building consisted of a general office at one end, the Prime Minister’s office suite on the other, and a conference room, a waiting room and the secretaries’ offices in the middle. The Private Secretary’s office was immediately next to the Prime Minister’s.

 

Work Hours

My late uncle remembers vividly his first day of work:

“At our first meeting on that Saturday morning, Tunku asked how old I was. I told him I was then twenty-eight years old, married for less than a year. I looked younger than my age so Tunku commented, “Cannot be, you must be eighteen! These people keep on sending me young officers to be trained!” Tunku then proceeded to explain our working style. The first thing he told me was that he did not work after lunch. He would have a little siesta until after Asar prayers when we would resume work. Tunku’s reason for taking this early afternoon break was, “to charge the batteries”. He said, “We must be able to switch on and switch off in order to last long.”

In fact, Tunku instructed my late uncle to go home during this time and return later in the afternoon to resume work; but the latter rarely was able to do so because these were the times when he would deal with office correspondence and communicate with other government agencies.

 

How To Brew A Good Cup Of Tea

The afternoon sessions began by having tea together. Tunku taught my late uncle how to brew a good cup. Tea leaves not tea bags, should be used and for best result it should be brewed preferably in a silver tea pot. If taken with milk, milk should be poured first into the cup, then tea. Tunku used to take tea with honey, one of his longevity prescriptions.

During this time, Tunku was in his most relaxed and jovial moods. While having tea the staff would pass on to him papers or file which required his attention, letters for his signature and letters that needed his instructions on how to reply. He frequently interspersed this official work with tales of his early life and his experience as District Officer in the mosquito infested districts of Kedah and of how British colonial officers treated him badly.

 

Dealing With Paper Work

Tunku did not like ‘paper work’ and disliked reading long letters and memoranda. My late uncle wrote: “Whenever he saw me carrying several thick files he would ask, “What are those, Wan Mansor, it’s too much; we better do it tomorrow.” So I devised a strategy: extracting the sheets containing the minutes or memos addressed to him and showed him only those without the files. Of course I had to read through the files myself to understand the background of the cases to enable me to explain to him when asked.”

 

Writing Letters

Tunku had an impeccable command of the English language and was quite particular about the way letters were written. Tunku was especially particular about being polite when rejecting an application or request. He was not happy with the government’s terse expression of “I regret to inform you that….”, considering it rather rude and would hurt the feelings of the recipient. When replying to invitations or requests that he could not fulfil, Tunku would instruct the letter to be phrased thus: “I would love to accept your kind invitation but unfortunately due to a most pressing prior engagement I would not be able to find time to do so…”

 

Private Secretary and Personal Secretary

Often, the general public was unable to distinguish between a Private Secretary and a Personal Secretary to the Prime Minister. The difference was quite succinctly described by Tunku himself. On a visit to the White House in July 1964, Tunku met with President L.B.J Johnson and introduced his Private Secretary and Personal Secretary to President Johnson, saying “Mr President, meet my Private Secretary, Wan Mansor and my Personal Secretary, Nik Hassan.” President Johnson then asked, “Mr Prime Minister, what is the difference between a Private Secretary and a Personal Secretary?” Tunku replied, “Well, he” pointing to my late uncle, “looks after my office, and he (pointing to Nik Hassan), looks after me!”

 

“Cheese, sir, cheese”

One day, a journalist from ‘Asia Magazine’ was assigned to follow Tunku and to observe and take photos of Tunku’s daily activities. At Tunku’s office, this journalist (an American) wanted to take a close-up picture of Tunku; he asked Tunku to smile and said, “Cheese, sir, cheese.” He then added, “How do you say ‘cheese’ in Malay, Sir? Tunku answered, “There is no Malay equivalent, but there is something which smells like it.” When the journalist asked Tunku what is was, Tunku did not answer but started to laugh instead. After being asked repeatedly by the journalist what it was, Tunku finally answered: “Petai!” Everyone guffawed in laughter, and this moment with Tunku smiling broadly was captured by the journalist and published as the cover picture of ‘Asia Magazine’ of 17 June, 1962 with the title “The Happiest Prime Minister”.

 

The Tunku’s style

In spite of being of royal birth and brought up in the luxury of the palace, Tunku’s life style and taste was surprisingly simple. His residence was an old building formerly the official residence of the British Resident of Selangor and still maintained in its old name of ‘The Residency’. Its furniture and furnishings were those of the then standard government quarters issued by the Public Works Department except for the main drawing room called the Cairo Room because the furniture there was of the style seen in the Middle East. This air-conditioned room was the place where Tunku usually received VIP guests, foreign diplomats and dignitaries. The Residency now forms part of the Memorial Tunku Abdul Rahman complex which is well preserved in its original form.

 

Tunku was always well dressed when he attended office even though it was in his own residence. He would normally be attired in full suit or in full Malay dress with songkok. Tunku was not happy with the dress worn by government officers at official functions. One day returning from an official function as Istana Negara he complained to my late uncle, “You civil servants dress like a circus”. Tunku promptly dictated a memo to the Permanent Secretary, Prime Minister’s Department (now Chief Secretary), suggesting that an official ceremonial uniform should be designed for the civil service. An official ceremonial uniform for the Malayan Civil Service was finally introduced in 1966.

 

Tunku on the cover page of TIME shortly after the agreement to form Malaysia

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Tunku and His Staff

Tunku had a deep sense of humanity which, used with tact and diplomacy coupled with the desire not to hurt the feelings of other, contributed to his ability to amicably solve many problems. In administrative matters if he did not agree with some proposals submitted to him, he would not commit it to writing but preferred to discuss the matter with the person who originated the suggestion, and have the suggestion withdrawn or amended.

Tunku treated officers and members of his staff like members of his own family. He called each staff by name, or nickname if he knew, while everyone addressed him as ‘Tunku’. No one addressed him as ‘Yang Amat Mulia’ except in writing, ‘Yang Berhormat’ or other honorific titles. Later, with the proliferation of so many honorific titles in the country, Tunku used to say that a Tunku or Tengku should not add any more honorific titles like Datuk or Tan Sri to his name and it was not right to call someone Tan Sri Datuk Seri Tunku etc.

Tunku was always concerned about the welfare of his staff. On his visits overseas when the accompanying officials were not invited to attend dinners or official functions he would always give some money so that the staff could have dinner on their own somewhere else. On his official visit to the United States in 1963, his delegation included the late Dato’ Senu bin Abdul Rahman (then Minister of Information), the late Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Shamsuddin (then Secretary of the Ministry of Defence), Nik Hassan and my late uncle. At the end of the visit Tunku decided to return via London to further discuss matters with the British Government although it was originally planned to return via the Pacific and to stop in Hawaii, for Tunku had accepted the invitation of its governor. Since passages had been booked via Hawaii and Tunku did not require the services of the other members of the delegation, he asked them to proceed as planned to return via the Pacific. On discovering that my late uncle had never been to Hawaii before, he gave my late uncle one thousand dollars, saying “Take this, go and enjoy yourself in Hawaii!”

 

“If You Cannot Be Good, Be Careful”

After three years, my late uncle ended his service with Tunku when he was selected for further studies at Cambridge University in October 1964. Tunku was pleased that my late uncle was going to his alma mater, saying to him, “Go, Wan Mansor, Cambridge is the best university in the world.” It was also during this time that Tunku confided to my late uncle that he was looking at retiring soon, and that Tun Abdul Razak (then Deputy Prime Minister) will be carrying out more of the government business. However it was not until 1971 that Tunku stepped down as Prime Minister of Malaysia.

My late uncle always treasured his working life with Tunku, and remembers him as a great man who loved his country. Above all, Tunku was always willing to act as a mentor to guide and advise him, a young man only beginning his career in the civil service at that time. A piece of advice given by Tunku to my late uncle is found as an autograph in a book given by Tunku to him. In his typical humorous manner, the Tunku wrote:

 

“If you cannot be good, be careful.”

 

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A piece of advice from Tunku

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After thirty years in the civil service, Dato’ Wan Mansor Wan Abdullah retired in 1989. He passed away in October 2011. His various papers, documents and memoirs are now kept in the National Archives of Malaysia.

 

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MUZIL ABDULLAH is a graduate of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and is currently a partner of a law firm in Kuala Lumpur. He wishes to thank Wan Mazwin Wan Mansor and Raja Elyn Maryam for their assistance in the preparation of this article, and to the National Archives of Malaysia as the custodian and publisher of Dato’ Wan Mansur’s memoirs. Muzil can be reached at muzilabdullah@gmail.com.

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