Written by Sharifah Intan
TUNKU Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj and his many achievements as prime minister, and later as elder statesman, have been the subject of endless prose but little is known about his family and private life. I remember when one reporter wanted to interview the Tunku about his family, his reply was an indulgent “Buat apaaa? (what for)”, in his pronounced Kedah accent. Like most Asian public figures, he preferred to keep his personal life private. To me, his eldest granddaughter, he was always larger than life and so much a part of my life that I could never envisage him not being around. From a young age, I realised he was no ordinary grandfather who could be contented whiling his days away pottering about the house, relaxing and enjoying his retirement.
Of course, we never really had him to ourselves. He belonged to the nation and even after he died, his personal possessions and art collections had to go to the National Archives.
His home was always full of people. Everyone wanted a piece of him and he gave of himself freely to the chagrin of the family.
Even at the end of his life, we had to share him with others. On his deathbed in the Intensive Care Unit of the then Kuala Lumpur General Hospital, there was a large crowd of friends and relatives by his bedside.
The doctors had said only the immediate family members could be allowed in but even they couldn’t prevent the concerned crowd from surging in. My family had to literally jostle our way to his bedside.
It’s always been said among the family that he may be Bapa Malaysia (Father of Malaysia) but he was never a bapa to his family. For him, his country came first, his family second and we all had to accept that. He sacrificed a lot for his country at the cost of a personal life.
It has been more than 10 years since his death but the pain of losing him has not diminished.
The sense of loss I feel now is even greater at Hari Raya and on his birthday on Feb 8.
These used to be wonderful occasions for family reunions and celebrations. The family would come from Alor Star and Kuala Lumpur to be with him in Penang and the house in Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman would be full of life and children’s laughter.
He was undoubtedly the grand patriarch of the family, a strong influence in our lives. Whatever we did, we would defer to him first. It was he who held the family together.
Growing up with the Tunku as grandfather, we always had to keep in mind that we must not tarnish his good name. It was also important to us to have his blessing in whom we chose as marriage partners. Being broad-minded, he wasn’t particular as long as the person was a Muslim.
He would have been pleased if we had chosen vocations in which we could serve the country he loved so dearly. People often asked him why none of his family followed in his footsteps. His reply was he never interfered as we had our own lives to lead.
Family togetherness meant so much to him that he even built extensions to his homes in Penang and KL to accommodate his ever growing family.
His enduring wish was for the family to remain together. I remember him telling me of a time when his mother, Makche Menjelara, had only one apple to share between her seven children; she cut it into seven equal pieces. He wanted to demonstrate that the bond between his brothers and sisters was that strong.
Nowadays during Hari Raya, it is sad to see the family go their separate ways and the house in Penang which used to radiate with his energy and vitality seems desolate and forlorn.
Dignitaries used to stream into his home, too, to call on him. Its spacious garden was the scene of lively parties and social gatherings for friends and relatives.
My favourite time was dinner-time. All the guests would have left and only the immediate family would be around. The traditional meal served was my favourite – roast beef and Yorkshire pudding based on the Tunku’s own recipe. Sounds rather incongruous to have it on Hari Raya but it was served by popular demand.
Another dish he liked to serve the family was steamboat. Tunku loved to cook in his younger days and he could often be found in the kitchen supervising the cooks.
I always observed how attentive he was to the family during these times, especially to his great-grandchildren. He spoke proudly of having four generations in the room and how he was fortunate to be alive to see his great-grandchildren considering he was already in his 30s when he had his children.
He had also been widowed early. Tunku’s first wife, my grandmother, died a few months after her son, Tunku Amat Nerang, was born.
It was difficult for my mother, Tunku Khadijah, and Tunku Amat Nerang to grow up without a mother and an absent father. They were shuttled from relative to relative as Tunku was involved in the struggle for Malaya’s independence at that time.
In his later years, he tried to make amends and spend time with his grandchildren and adopted children – to the extent of spoiling them! Tunku’s love for children was well known. And when his own had grown up, he adopted three more.
I am the eldest of his eight grandchildren and the first to get married. Incidentally, he named me Intan because he had in mind Intan Terpilih (from pilihan raya or general election) because that was the year the Alliance party won all except one seat in the country’s first general election. The name is also derived from Malay folklore, meaning the chosen one.
My wedding in 1980 took place at the Commonwealth Institute in London where I had been living since my father’s diplomatic posting there in 1975.
With three adopted children in tow, 11 boxes of orchids (one to be given to Queen Elizabeth II as was his usual custom when he visited Britain) and a host of other wedding paraphernalia, my grandfather and my step-grandmother, Tun Sharifah Rodziah, travelled to London for the wedding.
To come so far required a great deal of effort on their part considering their age and their having to deal with the cold weather as well as the immense cost of arranging accommodation for the entourage.
Tunku later quipped that the next one of his grandchildren to get married could do so in Malaysia as it would be a lot easier and cheaper!
Tunku’s generosity was as much material as it was in spirit. He was always willing to help anyone in need but he would never do anything against his principles.
He drew the line when it came to using his influence for material gain and he was proud that he never abused his position. He would repeatedly tell us that when he died it would be with “hati suci”, a clear conscience. You only had to look at his houses to see that he never lived a lavish lifestyle.
He never amassed great wealth during his premiership. What little he had was inherited from his mother, a shrewd Thai businesswoman. It has also been well-documented that whatever property he had was sold to raise funds for Umno and other such purposes.
I know he was disappointed no one in his immediate family pursued a career in politics. My youngest sister, Sharifah Menjelara (named after the Tunku’s mother), had the makings of a politician but she opted for a career in advertising instead.
Tunku was a contradictory person in some ways. He greatly admired career women and supported women’s movements. But, probably because of his age, he had certain conservative ideas about other things, such as the way girls should dress. He also wanted to see the women in the family quickly married off, believing they would thus be well taken care of.
He used to say how he owed everything to his mother and often quoted the saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.”
Tunku was a fair man and never showed favouritism towards the boys in the family even though girls outnumbered them. He had one son and a daughter by his first wife, two daughters by a later marriage, one grandson and eight granddaughters, three great-grandsons and nine great-granddaughters.
Tunku was one of those rare people who could laugh at themselves. He had a cheeky brand of wit and used to regale us with humorous anecdotes.
He recounted once when he was sitting in a darkened theatre in London and suddenly the spotlight was turned on him. He beamed, thinking he had been recognised. Alas, it turned out that Elizabeth Taylor was sitting just two seats away!
He also spoke fondly of his rapport with Queen Elizabeth and how he was graciously welcomed into the parlour at Buckingham Palace instead of being hosted at a formal banquet which is the norm for visiting dignitaries.
Tunku had a wealth of knowledge and would impart snippets of family history so we could pass them on for posterity. It was incredible that even in his twilight years his mind and memory were as sharp as ever.
I admired his open-minded views on religion. He hated sanctimoniousness or hypocrisy and often ventured into areas where angels feared to tread. For example, he was lambasted by religious groups for giving financial assistance to a Malay mother of five children whose husband, a labourer and the sole breadwinner, had been jailed for drinking alcohol. “After all,” he said, “why should the family suffer for the sins of the father?”
When some groups called for adultery to be punished by stoning, he doubted “whether there would be enough stones in Malaysia to punish everyone guilty of adultery.”
That was typically Tunku. He followed his heart, which was big enough for everyone. Sure, he was no saint and he never hid his fondness for horse racing and the occasional card game or glass of brandy but he could always be counted to do the right and honourable thing.
I am proud of his indomitable spirit, humility and courage to fight for what he believed in, though sometimes his was the only voice. His legacy to our family and, indeed, to our nation, is his strong sense of fair play, integrity, tolerance, and compassion. Long may he live in our hearts.
Notes: STF – : Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, remained a private man throughout his very public career. In this special Millennium Markers article, the Tunku’s granddaughter, SHARIFAH INTAN, shares the private side of her ‘Tok’.