The last excerpt from Legacy of Honour shines a light on Malaysia's third Prime Minister, Tun Hussein Onn, a man ahead of his time and much overlooked by history.
Perhaps if Hussein had emerged as the leader of UMNO and the government in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, his voice would have had the resonance it deserved. It was the voice of reason, of moderation, of integrity, of respect for the rule of law, of abhorrence for the corruption of politics — all in the mould of old-fashioned values of men of honour, pride, integrity, and duty. Perhaps, like his father, he was a man ahead of his times.
It was said he was a reluctant politician. But he went to London to obtain a legal qualification in order to be better qualified when duty called to serve the country once again. He as much as admitted that he was timid and cautious because every decision he made would be on his conscience.
And yet, this man confounded everyone by taking tough decisions that were politically unpopular because he was convinced that they would be in the best interest of the nation. He surprised the nation with his choice of Deputy Prime Minister, he risked his own popularity by insisting on law-above-politics in dealing with Harun, he removed old-style Menteris Besar and Chief Ministers from eight states and replaced them with young dynamic technocrats, he imposed federal rule in Kelantan and called for early elections which saw the end of 19 years of PAS rule.
As one writer said, this toughness should not have caused so much surprise. There was a steel of moral conviction in this man which made him immovable in all questions of justice, duty and fair play. It was this personal integrity that gave him his toughness and won him the respect of the nation.
Stories of Hussein’s honesty are legendary among those who knew him. His youngest son, Haris, recalled how he was taken by his maternal grandfather on a Chinese New Year visit to a tycoon who gave the Prime Minister’s son two red packets, each containing an eye-boggling crisp $500 note. On their return to Seri Taman, the excited Haris ran to his father to show off his windfall. Hussein was not amused.
He swiftly grabbed the two notes from Haris and ordered a bodyguard to immediately send back the angpow to the tycoon. On the way, he was instructed to stop by Tun Rahah’s house to collect two more $500 notes that Haris’s cousin, Nazir, Tun Razak’s youngest son, had also received. Hussein had no illusion that the only reason his son and his nephew were each given a hefty angpow was their relationship to him. To Hussein that was akin to bribery. But knowing how disappointed the boys were, Hussein reimbursed them $1,000 each from his own pocket.
The pains Hussein took to ensure that his family did not benefit from his position hurt and alienated some of his family members. His sister Azah, in particular, had a number of run-ins with big brother. Azah, a divorcee with seven young children to raise, was trying various business ventures to generate income. In early 1973, the National Padi Board awarded her a licence to import rice from Thailand. The licence was renewable on a monthly basis. When she tried to renew her licence for September, Azah was told by the Board’s managing director that her licence had been withdrawn on the express instruction of the new Deputy Prime Minister who was also the Trade and Industry Minister. Azah was the first in the family to find out that her brother had issued instructions – in red ink – to department heads that any proposal from his family members for government contracts should not be entertained.
An enraged Azah called the Deputy Prime Minister’s secretary to demand a meeting. “I had seven children to raise and he was closing all doors to my ability to earn money.”
On another occasion, Azah personally submitted to Hussein a working paper to set up a car assembly plant with Japanese partners. She knew better than to submit it to the appropriate department head. The ever optimistic Azah saw her brother place the proposal in his briefcase. She thought he intended to give it serious consideration in his office. The next day when she called his private secretary to find out the fate of her working paper, she was told that Hussein had thrown it into the waste paper basket.
He didn’t even look at it, she was told. “He really thought I should live on air,” said the feisty Azah, still shaking her head in disbelief decades after the incident.
As Hussein climbed up the political ladder, his relatives, close and far, learnt fast not to bother to ask him for any help in business. In his determination to be above any suspicion of wrongdoing, Hussein was scrupulous to a fault. It was not as if his relatives had asked him to make a phone call or write a note in favour of their application for a business licence or a government contract or even a much deserved scholarship for a child.
They just wanted to be treated equally like any other applicant. After his retirement, when he spent more time with his siblings, perhaps to mend the broken fences, Hussein asked Azah how she managed to put her children through school and college. “I told him I robbed a bank. He apologised and said he didn’t know I had suffered,” said Azah.
The former chief secretary to the government, Tan Sri Abdullah Salleh, who had served during Hussein’s premiership, recalled how one day the Prime Minister told him no politician or relative of his should be awarded any land. As chairman of the Land Committee of the Federal Territory, Tan Sri Abdullah said he often came under tremendous pressure from politicians and other well-connected citizens to allocate them precious land in the federal capital. Hussein relieved him of this burden following a question in Parliament about a piece of land awarded to a minister.
Upon investigation it was found that the previous administration had given the land to the minister as a reward for past services rendered. Hussein did not appear very happy with the decision, but felt he could not rescind it. But he gave the chief secretary explicit instructions: “In future, if any of my relatives ask for land, you have no power to give them. If any politicians ask for land, you have no power to give them. Is that understood?”
Hussein also put this rule to personal practice. When he was offered a piece of beach front land in Port Dickson, he declined. Tan Sri Abdullah said he was more than happy to have the power to decide on applications from politicians removed from him. Soon after, a group of over 20 Members of Parliament saw him about a piece of land in Kepong that was over 100 acres in size. “They had formed a company and wanted to apply for the land. I told them I had no power to award them the land and if they wanted it they should ask the Prime Minister. Of course, nobody dared to approach the Prime Minister, knowing what his answer would be and what he would then think of them.”
The seriousness with which Hussein viewed the responsibility of public office and the strength of his convictions on matters of public trust, came across very clearly in a revealing interview he gave to Noordin Sopiee in 1973. Tun Razak was going to announce to the country that he had selected Hussein Onn as the new Deputy Prime Minister following the death of Tun Ismail.
The announcement was to be made in three days time, but the public knew little about this man who was about to occupy the second most important office of the land. Tun Razak’s office called Noordin Sopiee, then editorial writer with the New Straits Times, and told him that arrangements had been made for him to interview Hussein the next day.
It was Noordin’s job to introduce Hussein and what he stood for to the Malaysian public. Over a simple dinner of nasi goreng and fried chicken, Hussein talked for hours about his life, his father, his career, and what he believed in and what he hoped for the country. It was an unforgettable evening for Noordin.
The conversation gave the public a rare insight into the kind of person Hussein was, a man of principles and values, a man with the strength of his convictions, a leader so acutely aware of the corruption of power, and the grave responsibility of leadership and public office. In hindsight, many of the principles Hussein articulated that evening sound apocalyptic today. Temptations and enticement surround men in power, but few have the moral fibre and strength to resist them.
So conscious was Hussein of the gravity of his responsibilities and the impact of his decisions on the country, that he was extremely cautious and slow. Ministers and aides complained about the time he took. He wanted to consider every aspect of the issue, the pros and cons, the different opinions, and the options open to him before he finally made up his mind. If you could not brief him on all these questions, then it was likely that you would go away from his office with your mission unaccomplished.
Cabinet meetings could be lengthy affairs as Hussein wanted everyone to speak out and the issue to be discussed thoroughly, lest anyone went away dissatisfied. He would go around the table, pointing you, you, you. According to one minister, this was intimidating to those ministers who did not read their Cabinet papers or did not know what position to take. So those with no opinion would say they would follow the decision of the majority.
Due to the democratic nature of Cabinet meetings, the debates that ensued would often be lively and engaging. The vocal ones were ministers such as Mahathir, Musa, Razaleigh, Ghazali, Lee San Choon, Manickavasagam, and later Samy Vellu, and Rafidah Aziz when they joined the Cabinet. Hussein, said Rafidah, was a great listener. He would only let his opinion be known after everyone had spoken as he did not value the opinion of a “Pak Turut” (one who only parrots the leader), said an aide. He would weigh carefully what had been said, evaluate the pros and cons, sometimes not just in his mind, but on pieces of paper to be considered over and over again, and only then make a decision. He spoke precisely, choosing his words well to get his points across, said Rafidah. “You knew exactly what he was saying as he enunciated his ideas clearly.
He was not one for rhetoric. He never minced his words. And when he disapproved, it was so easy to see … he would grit his teeth and purse his lips tight.”
While many who dealt with the Prime Minister might have found Hussein infuriatingly slow, others saw it as the hallmark of a leader who was intensely aware of the responsibility and power of high office. In the interview with Noordin Sopiee, Hussein asked, “How can you be anything but cautious when an error in judgement may cause misery to thousands?” His capacity for detail and the depth of his knowledge and thinking on complicated subjects impressed many. This was because he saw it as his duty to understand fully any subject he had to deal with. Very often, he would ask his aides to buy books and photocopy articles on subjects he was not familiar with because he wanted to understand every aspect of the issue and wanted to know the thinking of experts. He did not just glance through his readings. He read and underlined the major points with his famous red pen and six-inch ruler.
Tan Sri Abdullah said the gravity with which the Prime Minister held the responsibility of his office was reflected bya plaque he kept in front of him on which was engraved the famous quote, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Finding the Prime Minister in a chatty mood one day, the chief secretary asked why was that quote in front of him and Hussein said: “You know Wak Lah, I am the Prime Minister. I’m the most powerful man in this country. I have the power to do good or to do bad. That plaque is to remind me of the power I have in my hand.”
According to Tan Sri Abdullah, Hussein was very straight, very meticulous, very particular, and very careful and, therefore, took his time to make decisions. When he first took over, the aides he inherited from Tun Razak were worried at the delays this would cause. The traditional red boxes which contained cabinet papers were piling up fast on his table as the memoranda and papers for the Prime Minister’s consideration kept flowing in. He was lugging more and more boxes home to office to home and to office again day in and day out. Abdullah and the Prime Minister’s aides were getting very worried and Hussein soon realised that a system needed to be established which would expedite the decision-making process. Tan Sri Abdullah recalled how Hussein wanted the memos structured: “He said he did not want lengthy and unwieldy reports. He said first, give him the title of the memo at the top of the paper and introduce the subject; second, state the problem; third, how the problem could be solved and list the options, and fourth, state the recommendation.”
Once a week, either a Thursday or Friday, the chief secretary would spend about three hours with the Prime Minister, going through the memoranda, one by one. The Prime Minister would pick up one memo at a time, read it with his ubiquitous six-inch ruler and red pen, ask for clarifications and underline the important points to be considered. If he agreed with the recommendation, he would write “agreed” in red ink and sign Hussein in his small and neat handwriting. If he needed more time to think about the matter, he would sit on it, consult others, read more on the subject and call back Abdullah to raise further questions, especially on the social and political implications of the recommendation. With this system established, the Prime Minister made decisions fast, said Tan Sri Abdullah.
Rafidah agreed that Hussein could make decisions quickly if you presented him a precise and concise memo on the pros and cons of the issue you wanted him to consider, together with your recommendations. Clarity was important to Hussein. If the facts were clearly before him, he would feel confident that he had considered all points, and thus a decision would come easy.That was why it was difficult to change Hussein’s mind once he had reached a conclusion — because it meant he had thought through the issue carefully and the decision he made he was sure was the right decision.
Noordin Sopiee wrote that Hussein was a man unaware of his own importance. But what he was acutely aware of was the importance of his office. “What I do is important. But me, I’m not important,” he said. This was a rare quality in a political leader. It was Hussein’s disinterest in personal glory and in power per se that made him state clearly to his aides that he did not expect personal loyalty from them, but loyalty to the office of the Prime Minister. Dato’ Shahrir Samad who was Hussein’s Parliamentary Secretary (1976-8), said whenever Hussein’s aides scheduled appointments, Hussein never asked whether that person was a supporter or not or whether he or she would work against him. Hussein, he said, never exacted personal loyalty. “He stressed integrity and honesty. The moment he catches somebody abusing his trust, that’s the end of the relationship. He believes that without integrity and honesty, you’re nothing but an opportunist.”
In a political system that rewards personal loyalty rather than talent, Hussein indeed was a rare politician. He was a loner, and some would say even aloof. Whatever free time he had, he liked to stay at home, undisturbed so that he could read. The only friends he would see in his years in office were his Johor friends from childhood days, with whom he also enjoyed the occasional round of golf.
He was not your typical gregarious political leader who loved to be surrounded by fawning acolytes who were programmed to laugh at jokes and jump at the slightest cough. He had few close friends in the political world. In fact, when he became Minister of Education, even some of his close friends who could be seen as influencing his decisions were dropped. Tun Daim, who used to have lunch with Hussein daily in their days as practising lawyers, said he met Hussein only once in those years he held office — when he invited the Prime Minister to launch a housing project he had developed in Malacca. Moreover, neither he nor Hussein’s other friends from the London days felt offended when Hussein stopped seeing them. They knew Hussein well enough to know it was not because of the headiness of high office, but because Hussein was so scrupulous in not wanting to be seen to be influenced by anyone’s private or personal interest.
While his close friends understood this, a number of his ministers and UMNO politicians who were used to enjoying ready access to Tun Razak, were upset, recalled Shahrir. First of all, Hussein wanted to be scrupulous in treating all those under him equally so that he would not be accused of favouritism. He knew any perception of a special relationship he might have with any aide or politician could be open to abuse. Secondly, he believed that the relationship they enjoyed with him must be based on trust and respect, not personal closeness or loyalty. As Prime Minister, time was too precious for him to “borak, borak” (indulge in small talk), or to get involved in petty squabbles and rivalry between ministers. He did not like people to pop in and out of his office to discuss matters over which he had no authority or that should be solved at a lower level.
Perhaps, it was because he kept so much to himself that his ideas, his principles, and his values somehow did not capture the imagination of the people. The significance of his values to Malaysian politics and governance was overlooked. He did not have anyone; not political allies, loyal supporters, nor friendly journalists to help promote what he stood for. Therefore, Hussein’s tenure as Prime Minister of Malaysia is often minimised by critics and political commentators when compared to other Prime Ministers. Hussein focused on getting the job done and shunned personal publicity and popularity. He was in office as Prime Minister for five short years compared to Tunku’s 11 years. Tun Razak held the top office for five years as well, but he had been a high profile deputy since 1957, and was effectively in charge since 1969. He was also the man of the time, charged to draw up innovative economic and social policies and political power sharing in response the crisis of 1969. Dr Mahathir was in office for 22 eventful years and was seldom out of the headlines as he spearheaded Malaysia into modernisation and industrialisation.
Somehow, Hussein’s premiership, compared to Tunku’s, Tun Razak’s, and Mahathir’s seems lacklustre in the public mind. Tunku was the leader who led the country to independence. The confidence the Chinese had in his leadership was a crucial factor in keeping multi-ethnic Malaysia together in those first years of independence.Tun Razak was the man with the vision and courage to transform the economic foundations of this country to address historical injustices and imbalances. Hussein was the man who implemented that vision, filling out the detail behind the vision, identifying and promoting politicians and civil servants who would ensure that the vision was realised. He believed in talent, promoting young, dynamic, and educated men to positions of authority. He was also the leader who consolidated a party torn apart by factional rivalry. It was his unquestioned integrity that gave him the high moral ground to preach and chastise those found wanting. In history, the implementer, the consolidator has little time or opportunity for the heroic. Hussein was the man Malaysia needed to bring the country and party together, establish stability after the shock and turmoil of Tun Razak’s sudden death, and the factionalism that ensued. He did all this with little trumpeting, with little grand standing.
Perhaps Tan Chee Khoon’s words rightly sum up what he means to us today: “In the future we may have strong leaders to admire — but we may wish that we had an honest leader once again.” As is won't to happen, it was only after he left office, and when a tsunami of endemic corruption seemed to overwhelm the country, that more and more people became aware of how rare and precious a leader Hussein had been.
■ Legacy Of Honour was commissioned by the Noah Foundation and written by Zainah Anwar. It is available at major bookstores nationwide. Taken from TheStar 2, Sunday 12 June 2011, pg 18.