Waiting For The Tunku
It was about 10 in the morning. We were all waiting for the Tunku in the reception room-cum-office, stacked with souvenirs, trophies, walking sticks and memorabilia. This was to be my second encounter with Tunku; two weeks earlier,I’d had my first appointment with him, and had spent several hours talking about the Burmese Rohingya refugees and many other subjects, while he recorded it all on a mini-tape recorder (very rarely seen in 1978).
Samad,his driver,and Owen Chung, his aide-de-camp, stood around chatting. In a corner his Chinese secretary was pounding on a typewriter. I was seated beside a humble Malay lad of about 18 years of age. Facing us were three distinguished-looking men – two Chinese and an Indian Muslim. Obviously some rich tycoons, I thought.
As the Tunku came down the winding staircase, before I could stand up, the three big shots went forward and greeted the old man with gusto. “Tunku, Tunku! I just bought a 300-dollar shirt from Hong Kong for you. Can you play golf this Thursday? We’ve booked the golf course,” one of the Chinese said loudly.
Tunku, with hardly a glance, waved him aside. The second Chinese man cheerfully came forward and said, “Tunku, we’ve formed a Bumiputera company – 51 percent Malay and 49 percent Chinese. Can you sign for us? We got a piece of land in Balik Pulau we want to develop into a holiday resort.”
Tunku retorted, “Where did the Malays get the money to form the company to do big business?”
The tycoon confessed, “Actually, we put up the money for them.”
“I know the Malays have no money. You Chinese have the money, but still I just can’t simply sign the application for you. You have to tell me who are these people, what is their background?” Tunku admonished.“OK, OK, I’ll do that, Tunku,” the guy said, and quietly sat down.
Then the Indian Muslim man announced that he had convinced a friend in Sungai Petani to accept Islam.Tunku nodded happily and asked him to sit down. He then came straight to the Malay lad and me, and warmly shook our hands and attended to us, enquiring whether we had our coffee and how he could help us.
We said yes, and thanked him for the coffee. The Malay boy and I felt ten feet tall, the way Tunku treated us in front of the three rich and powerful guests.
The Malay boy said he had left school after Form Three and could not find a job and his family were poor. Tunku told him if he was not fussy about manual work, he would get him a job with the JKR (Public Works Department) tending trees and parks, and promptly dictated a letter to his secretary.
Turning to me, he said, “You have a problem with your passport after deportation from Burma. Just yesterday the immigration director from KL was here to visit me. What a coincidence! He told me if I need any help, don’t hesitate to tell him. I will give you a letter. You go to KL immigration and see him. You will get your passport back in no time.”
Tunku’sofficial letterhead was printed on paper of a special and unusual size, in order to prevent forgery. Cradling thefreshly typed and signed letter, I got off the next day at the Kuala Lumpur railway station and went to Immigration. I gavethe letter to the amazed officers there, who promptly handed over my passport. Thanks to Tunku, I had my job, my life and my future back.
After these episodes I had many more encounters with the Tunku, each of them memorable, educational and an insight to his wisdom and humanity.
The Visit To Bangkok
Tunku’s visit to Bangkok with Perkim officials in 1985 was another unforgettable event.
By then, my work had been going well and many of my articles were published in local and international media. After hearing complaints from the Malaysian attache, Tarmizi Hashim, that nobody had covered the news of Tunku’s arrival, I pulled every string I could among my reporter friends and the Foreign Correspondents Club. The next day, the entire Bangkok press corps turned up to hear a beaming Tunku talk about Perkim’s humanitarian work among Bangkok Muslims.
Tunku was a hit with the Thai reporters because he grew up in the Thai court of King Rama VI. To them, Tunku qualified as Thai royalty, and the government honoured him with two police outrider escorts whenever he came to the kingdom.
A Thai reporter asked Tunku whether he could still speak Thai. Tunku said that in Kedah, Thai is spoken differently from in Bangkok, for example “Tham Pleu, Tham Pleu” means “What to do, what to do!”Tunku’s knowledge of this phrase, common in southern Thailand but not part of the Bangkok dialect, greatly impressed the reporters. The next day it was front-page news in all the dailies: “Tunku speaks fluent Thai,” together with the comment that Tunku also pointed out the Malaysian journalist Kim Gooi who was once jailed in Burma, whom he knows.
Tunku, being a Kedahan prince by birth, had a special concern for the residents of the big Muslim community of Nongchok on Bangkok’s outskirts. These Muslims were the descendants of Kedahan slaves captured and brought to Bangkok to build the canals in the last century. That’s why all the mosques and many Muslim communitiesin Bangkok are along the canals. Tunku commented that they had not only survived but werenow living well, as the land where many settled had become valuable.
Tunku was so busy and had so many engagements during this trip that I was unable to sit down for a full conversation with him. But my camera recorded these encounters between Tunku and the local Muslims. He seemed genuinely touched by their presence and the opportunity to help them, and would never tire of relating the close historical ties between Kedah and Thailand to reporters.
Tunku also remembered that he had complained to the Thai government during an earliervisit that there was no central mosque in Bangkok, despite the substantial number of Muslims. The result was the big mosque we see today at Hua Mak district of Bangkok, he said proudly.
The Living Room in Ayer Rajah Road
Tunku’s home in Penang was a handsome British-style bungalow in Ayer Rajah Road, now renamed Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman in his honour.
I visited Tunku whenever I could, sometimes to update him after returning from an interesting overseas assignment. (I once hand-delivered a Shan army commander’s walking stick to Tunku, a personal gift from the warlord Khun Sa. All Shan commanders carried these carved rattan canes into battle.)
His birthday open houses were also warm and touching affairs, as the guests’ children swarmed around him naturally, taking to the kind old man like ducklings to water. Tunku loved children.Once when a whole busload of primary school studentsdropped by, unannounced,to view the father of independence at close range, he personally called up the E&O Hotel and asked them to bring over cakes and refreshments for the children. (They obliged.)
In time, I became familiar enough to the security guards for them to wave me inside when I arrived. I would wait in the reception hall. It featured a tiger skin rug and sofa, and quite often the intimidating handlebar moustache of Owen Chung, Tunku’s aide-de-camp. Owen had a soft spot for Tunku, and told me how Tunku had obtained the best possible medical care for him after Owen had suffered a minor stroke.
Soon I would be invited to join Tunku in the living room. It became the venue for our many memorable chats. Casually but immaculately dressed, Tunku would fill the air with a lifetime of wisdom as well as smoke from his John Player slims.
For a journalist, talking to Tunku was a goldmine of information. He was astonishingly well-read and informed, with a particularly impressive grasp of history and world cultures. In our very first meeting, I explained at length the suffering of the Rohingyas in Burma and the growing refugee problem. Tunku seemed to have some knowledge of the issue already, and asked me to fill in the details.
“But I would regard the Rohingyas as Burmese, based on history. Wouldn’t you?” Tunku asked me. After all, they had been there in Arakan state for many generations, dating back centuries, and had their own kingdom at one stage. They may have genetic ties to the people of Bangladesh, but that should not make them strangers in their own land. “What is a race, anyway?” mused Tunku. “Look at the southern Thais. They may share some DNA with the Malays, but that makes them no less Thai, surely.”
Tunku was saddened by what I told him, and promised toorganiserelief efforts via the OIC. He had already done much to help Muslim refugees at the Cambodia-Thailand border who were the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Tunku, as the son of a Thai princess, had used his connection to the Thai kingdom to create a passageway for the refugees to come to Malaysia. Due to his efforts, about 10,000 Cambodian Muslims were given shelter in Malaysia in the 1970s.
Tunku, for his part, seemed interested in journalists and what we saw and thought. I recall visiting him on my return from covering the Aquino assassination in 1983. As usual, we had coffee and a long chat.When I told him I had just been in the Philippines, he told me of the arrogance of the then-president Ferdinand Marcos towards our Agong a few years before.
During a cruise stopover in Manila, our ambassador had arranged for a visit by the Agong to Malacanyang Palace. When the Agong’s limousine arrived at the palace gate, Marcos ordered the car to stop and the Agong had to walk up the driveway to the palace. Our ambassador was aghast and protested. Finally Marcos relented and a great insult to Malaysia was averted.
“Even then Marcos showed his arrogance,” said Tunku. “Instead of coming to the door to greet our Agong, he stood behind the desk and made the Agong walk up to greet him.
“This was too much,” Tunku said indignantly.
Just before that fateful first meeting in 1978, close to 40 years ago, I remember my mother being quite excited that I was going to meet the great man himself. She called me up later to find out how it went, and asked:
“So, what was he like?”
So, what was he like. My memories are still vivid enough. Tunku had an ability to make you feel completely at ease, and to open up. There was always jovial laughter, but also a warmth and sincerity about him that you could feel were truly genuine. He was humble, human, respectful; he never talked down to you or lectured you, which is not always the case for men who have held position and power.
It was easy for time to fly past in that living room in Ayer Rajah Road.
The Most Memorable Ride
I cannot to this day explain why Tunku would go out of his way to help a jobless eighteen-year-old Malay boy, a Chinese photojournalist without a passport, or the countlessother acts of kindness to others that marked his life.Many, I am sure, were never recorded but I hope at least they were not forgotten by the recipients of his compassion.
Tunku liked to explain this trait by relating the famous story of his mother, Che Menjelara, who claimed to be pregnant so that the Sultan would not punish the family of the Keeper of the Ruler’s Seal, as no harm could be done to others in a household expecting a child.When she eventually did become pregnant with Tunku, her compassion was passed on to him. “My complexion is dark because my mother told a white lie”, Tunku would chuckle.
He had no interest in material wealth, yet he enriched others with his gifts of empathy and compassion, his generosity and humility. Sometimes all you can do is count your blessings that your paths have somehow crossed.
On one occasion Tunku asked me how I had come to his house and how I planned to return to Tanjung Bungah. I told him I took a taxi and intended to walk to Pulau Tikus and take a bus back.
He said he could give me a lift to Pulau Tikus, since he went there most afternoons, to shop around in his favourite market.
In the car, his bodyguard Owen Chung sat in the front beside Samad. I sat proudly in the back beside Tunku as the limousine eased out of the driveway and cruised along the tree-lined Ayer Rajah Road, to Cantonment Road towards Pulau Tikus. That was the most memorable ride ever in my life.
Kim Gooi is a veteran photojournalist who has contributed to some of the world’s most renowned publications, including Time, National Geographic andthe New York Times, as well as American, European and Japanese TV networks. He now resides in his hometown of Penang, pursuing his interests in the blues, holistic health, and taiji. His book “The Poet of Keng Tung Jail” is available from Gerakbudaya Penang; Gallery 1921 Kampung Kolam