Kuala Lumpur, 9 June 2006
By PADDY BOWIE
Your columnist ever mindful that what she writes is destined for the BMCC Journal, is always on the look out for any correspondence between Malaysia and Britain. This time she did not have to look far. Both are Monarchies which add a delightful ceremonial dimension to our lives and occasions for celebration. The birthday of the Agong fell on 3rd June. Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 80th on 21st April, 2006.
Both events produce a Birthday Honours List which as it happens has given us our breaking news for this month. Musa Hitam one of our most prominent Malaysians was honoured with the title “Tun” the highest Federal Award. Another prominent citizen, Francis Yeoh, received the CBE which, him being a Malaysian recipient, makes it also one of the rarest of feats. Between them they offer a contrasting picture of distinction, Malaysian style and some relief from the gloom and doom lobby. Where one is a Bumiputra, the other is of migrant stock. The first true to his origins followed the natural inclination of his race towards politics, the other the tradition of his forebears towards business.
Who then are these two gentlemen we have to congratulate? Yang Amat Berbahagia Tun Musa Hitam, as I am now delighted to address him, is a former Deputy Prime Minister who after relinquishing the second highest political office in the land, has largely devoted himself to service to the nation, both in Malaysia and globally.
The honour roll reads, inter alia – Special Envoy to the United Nations, founder head of Suhakam, our Human Rights Commission, Chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). He currently chairs the Eminent Persons Group tasked to draft the ASEAN Charter, leads the Malaysian-China Business Council and the World Islamic Economic Forum Foundation. He is a renowned speaker, irrepressibly at home and indefatigably on international platforms where he is in demand just about everywhere. He addressed the British Malaysia Society in London in the House of Lords in early March. He qualifies, albeit unofficially, as our foremost Ambassador-at-Large championing Malaysia.
Let’s talk about his origins. He was the youngest of 10 children, orphaned during the war. And very much to the point, he is anak Johore, the most politically conscious State. This is of particular significance. It was the crucible of UMNO founded there in 1946 by Dato Onn Jaafar. Tun Musa feels he “has always been a politician”. He lived down the road from Datuk Onn and grew up in the presence of history.
Dato Onn fathered not only a Party, but our foremost political dynasty – in former Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn and the present Youth Leader Hishamuddin. No less than four of the present Cabinet hail from there – Hishamuddin (Education), Syed Hamid Albar (Foreign Affairs – another dynastic case), Dr. Chua Soi Lek (Health) and Azalina Othman Said (Youth and Sports) and no one questions this as hogging more than their share. The present incumbents come from a long line of political anak-anak Johore – including one of our five Prime Ministers, two Deputy Prime Ministers, near misses both of them to be PM, one of the early women Ministers, Tan Sri Fatimah and Tan Sri Kadir, Minister of Law and Attorney General. Nor has it wanted for “characters” - like the colourful and aggressive Syed Jaafar Albar “the Lion of UMNO” who headed UMNO “youth” at 60, and our present day maverick Shahrir Samad. Tun Musa is the political doyen of the State.
The private sector roll call includes Tan Sri Taib Andak, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz, Puan Sri Sharifa Azah Aziz, Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Professor Syed Hussein Al-Attas, Tan Sri Arshad Ayub, Tan Sri Robert Kuok, Tan Sri Vincent Tan and others I’ve no doubt missed. It must be something in the water.
Johore is once again in the spotlight in Parliament for the shenanigans surrounding the Back Benchers club. Given its proximity to Singapore it inevitably features in the hottest controversy of all – if for nothing else but that the much-debated bridge would have started here – with implications for Pelepas, the fastest growing port in the region. On the economic front, we were given the dazzling prospects of a Disneyland (now also contested) and a new university. And in the jungle the search goes on for Big Foot (The writer pleads “not me” – I take size 4 shoes).
But there is one large footprint we are much more concerned with – the imprint on affairs made by Tun Musa. Educated at the prestigious Johore English College, then the University of Malaya where he read philosophy and history, he was one of the class of ’57 – the Merdeka generation. A student leader, it goes without saying. But also an international one surprisingly early. He spent 2 years in The Hague, elected to represent the Asian region in the International Student Secretariat in Holland. The future crisis manager got an early manager taste of political upheavals during this time. He was in Cuba when the Cuban Student Revolution overthrew Batista and installed Castro (1959). He was in Korea for the student uprising against Syngma Rhee and in Algeria to witness the Independence struggle against the French. On return he had a brief brush with business in, our Scottish readers will be glad to know Jardine Mathieson, but his political learning were not to be denied especially when insistently encouraged by Tun Sardon. A political activist, he soon got into trouble – went into exile at the same time Mahathir Mohamed was expelled from UMNO. He used this time to good purpose acquiring an M.A. in International Relations at the University of Sussex.
He and Dr. Mahathir accomplished the rare feat of a comeback – reinstated as “Young Turks” soon to be labelled “Ultras” and before you knew it, they came to power as the famous “2 M’s” breaking the mould of the former exclusive aristocratic elite. The epitome of Lat’s “Kampung Boy” – theirs was a view from the bottom. They become synonymous with radical pragmatic reform with their slogan “Cekap, Bersih dan Amanah”. “Prompt, Clean and Trustworthy”. He has dedicated his Tunship to the loyal coterie - the “cba” set he calls them, who never wavered in their support for these guiding principles.
A highlight of his stint as Home Minister was his handling of the Memaling incident, when religious extremism first surfaced. He became branded as a crisis manager in which a role today he is called on by international bodies like the Commonwealth to troubleshoot around the world – the latest being the Maldives. As he himself quips, he is to-ing and fro-ing between one of the smallest countries in the world and the largest (China). He has not acquired any spurious gravitas in the process – not when at 72, he still looks all of 16 and cannot suppress that boyish grin.
The writer tells a story that bears on his special niche in Malaysian politics. It goes back years. I used to visit the Musa Hitam household to collect my children. There on the verandah would be a gaggle of men – all Malay, all UMNO. It smelt of politicking all the way. One man stood out by virtue of his infectious smile. We smiled at each other across an uncrowded room, without speaking, for years. That man is now our Prime Minister and the smile still distinguishes him. He was first identified and groomed by Musa Hitam, his patron and, we may surmise, still a mentor. When Musa embarked on that bold but ill-starred bid which came to be known as Team B to challenge the Prime Minister – Abdullah joined him out of loyalty. When Tengku Razaleigh and his cohorts left to form S46, Musa and Abdullah stayed behind, committed anak UMNO. Stripped of office, and on the dark side of the moon, it took years of patient determination to be restored to favour – dramatically self evident in Abdullah’s case when the “favour” constituted being chosen by the PM as his Deputy a conspicuous act of forgiveness. And now his patron’s rehabilitation has also become highly visible in today’s news. “Tun” Musa says it all.
One other affiliation is worth mentioning: Tun Musa’s long and close association with the presently controversial Shahrir Samad. The writer has another memorable story (readers by now will be familiar with the fact that she is in her anecdotage). This concerns a clock. We had sold our flat in London to an Arab gentleman called Musa who wanted it “lock, stock and barrel”. But this included some of my most precious or sentimental possessions. We came to a deal on certain exclusions in which an ormolus clock featured. When it came to the crunch, the purchaser refused to relinquish it. One morning, I received an early phone call. The voice said “Musa”. I waded in: “If you do not give me my clock. I’m going to burgle your premises” The voice replied, “I don’t know anything about your clock Paddy. This is Musa Hitam ringing to tell you of Shahrir’s victory as an Independent in Johore Bahru with a majority of 12,000.” This was the first occasion Shahrir had quit the Government but not politics.
Of the present high honour, Tun Musa takes it all with his usual good natured humour. He is “only 72, not old enough to be venerable”. My heartfelt congratulations to this latest and very “young” Tun.
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