Speech by S. M. Mohamed Idris, President of Consumers’ Association of Penang on being conferred the Tun Abdul Razak Award 2014 by the Tun Razak Foundation on 22 June 2014, Kuala Lumpur.


Assalamualaikum Wr Wb
Bismillahi Rahman in Rahim

I wish to thank Tun Razak Foundation for giving me this opportunity to register my deep appreciation and admiration for the unique contributions made by Allahyarham Tun Abdul Razak. He laid the foundations for the emergence of a united and progressive Malaysia rooted in its past history and traditions.

I am now eighty seven years old, having lived through the British colonial period in India and Malaya (now Malaysia), suffering the humiliations and indignities of the colonised, and fighting for freedom, dignity and independence. Throughout this period, in whatever I did, I have been guided by the Qur’anic teaching:  Qul  innasalati wanusuki wamahyaya wamamati iillahi rabbil aalamin [6:162]  (Say: Truly, my prayer and my service of sacrifice, my life and my death, are (all) for Allah, the Cherisher of the Worlds). The small contribution that I may have made to society is to please Allah and not in search of recognition, titles, honours and rewards.

Therefore, when I received the offer of the Tun Abdul Razak Award 2014, my instinctive response was to decline it as I had done previously to similar offers. My response was not out of arrogance or disrespect to the Foundation but submitting to a deeply held principle of not linking my service with honours, titles or rewards. My family and close friends persuaded me to give thought to the offer since I have been a great admirer of Tun Razak’s political acumen and leadership. After thinking about it for a month, I finally decided to accept it, not as a reward for my services to the community, but in honour of his qualities of leadership which we all should seek to emulate.

Tun Razak assumed the leadership of this nation at its most critical juncture after twelve years of independence. Parliamentary democracy had collapsed. Irresponsible campaigning and conduct by several political parties by whipping up communal prejudices and hatred during and immediately  after the May 1969 elections had led to riots, ethnic conflict and violence which had torn the nation apart and was on  the verge of collapse as a functioning state. In this period of chaos, confusion and uncertainty, the National Operations Council (NOC) with Tun Razak as its Director was set up to bring peace and stability.

The challenges were daunting – maintaining internal security; reviving the economy and investor confidence; healing the wounds of the conflict and building national unity. Tun Razak was the right leader to lead a team of capable and dedicated nationalist leaders to meet these challenges. Within weeks, security was established and life returned to normal with people going to work, enjoying themselves, and leading a normal life without any fear of violence and harm. We did not go down the path of Sri Lanka or Bangladesh because of the wisdom of our leaders and the tolerant and forgiving nature of our people.

There were calls from several Malay groups to continue with the NOC rule for a longer term or to form a Malay government which were roundly rejected by Tun Razak and the other leaders. In response to this Allahyarham Tun Dr. Ismail said:

“We do not wish to form a Malay Malaysia, but a Malaysia owned by and with the potential to be passed on to all races and religions. Our National concept is a multi-racial concept and actions taken by one race in this country would have effects on the other races as well.”

In less than two years democracy was restored and parliament reconvened.

Tun Razak was convinced that national unity is the key to developing Malaysia into a prosperous, progressive and peaceful nation. As Minister of Education in the 1956 Cabinet, he was responsible for our education policy which was to serve as an important instrument for uniting the various races with Bahasa Malaysia as the main medium of instruction. He wanted a uniform system of schools with a common national curriculum. He launched the Operation Torch (Gerakan Lampu Suloh) aimed at wiping out illiteracy. Thousands of teachers were trained and hundreds of schools built under this project.

He realised that, while the educational system can provide the opportunities for children of different races and background to interact and develop a national consciousness, it was not sufficient to build national unity. Gross poverty and disparity needed to be addressed to weld the different races into the Malaysian nation we desired.

In his July 1969 speech, Tun Razak explained the objective of economic development:

“Clearly our economic and development policies must be geared towards bringing about unity among our people and towards rebuilding the trust and confidence of this Nation of ours (if it is) to survive and continue to progress and prosper. … We must gear our economic policy towards these all important objectives of strengthening the foundation of our nationhood; of building that unity among our people; unity which alone can ensure … happiness of all of us and of our descendants in the years to come.”

He directed his officers and advisors to review all the existing policies and to devise a new strategy for dealing with the problems of national unity, poverty and inequalities. In the discussions leading to the adoption of the New Economic Policy (NEP) there were two policy prescriptions, one emphasising economic growth and the other advocating restructuring of the economy.  Just Faaland, the Norwegian economist, advisor to the Malaysian Government and the architect of the NEP, explained:

“Two major schools of thought emerged on how to react to the political and social upheaval. One emphasised economic growth over other priorities. Proponents of the NEP interpreted the challenge of development differently. To them there was clear evidence of a growing structural defect in the country which had to be rectified urgently. Large segments of the population remained ill-prepared to participate in the modern economy and key policies and major institutional, social and cultural obstacles prevented effective participation of segments of the population. These imbalances had to be addressed directly, not just as elements of a growth strategy,” he said.

Tun Razak readily accepted the proposal by Just Faaland for the NEP as he himself believed in economic growth with equitable distribution of the wealth created, and the need to restructure the economy to achieve national integration. The NEP, with its twin strategy of eradicating poverty regardless of race as well as reducing and finally eliminating identification of race by economic function and geographical location, has achieved a measure of success. We have enjoyed 45 years of peace without any social unrest; absolute poverty has been nearly wiped out but inter and intra ethnic inequality has grown; identification of race with economic function and geographical location has to some degree been reduced.

While being appreciative of the success of the NEP, we should not ignore the abuses in implementing the policy after the passing away of Tun Razak and Tun Dr Ismail which have drawn flak on the policy itself by its critics. These abuses were the products of the shifting away from the social-welfare ideals of Tun Razak and the NEP to the worship of economic growth and greed of the neo-liberal model influenced by Thatcherism and Reaganomics.

Both Tun Razak and Tun Dr. Ismail believed in party control over government as trustee for the rakyat and they expected those discharging that trust to be people of high integrity. During the time they led the country, the government did not deviate from this policy and all efforts were directed towards discharging this trust. Tun Dr. Ismail had warned that those who are entrusted with power should not abuse it for their own interests. In a democracy, the government is for all citizens who also have similar rights. Politicians competing for power should heed this golden advice.

Tun Razak was aware of the corruption in government involving political leaders and senior civil servants abusing their position and enriching themselves by illegal means. He immediately took action and had the NOC pass the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance No 22/70 which gave power to the Director of the Anti-Corruption Agency to act on his own without interference from any quarter.  He was answerable only to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The Ordinance made it an offence for any person using his public position or office for his pecuniary or other advantage. Within a year of the law coming into effect, the MB of Perak and the MB of Terengganu were removed and one Minister expelled. This illustrates how serious Tun Razak was in fighting corruption in public service.

Tun Razak believed that a strong, clean government and political stability were pre-conditions for achieving the targets of the NEP and building national unity. His qualities as a great statesman can be seen from the way he went about trying to achieve these pre-conditions. Immediately after the May upheaval, he started engaging the opposition leaders and talking to them about working together to focus on economic and social development and promoting unity.

His direct approach, sincerity and deep conviction in building a united and progressive Malaysia must have influenced the decisions of the opposition leaders. The result was that, by January 1973, there were coalition governments in Sarawak, Perak, Penang, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah. The experience of the state coalition governments evolved into the National Front (Barisan Nasional) which was registered as a political party on 1st June 1974.  His hopes were that the BN would in due course become a “durable foundation for a strong, united and multi-racial Malaysian nation” but, because of his early demise, they remain unfulfilled.

The other major contribution of Tun Razak was the radical transformation of our foreign policy from being pro-West to one of non-alignment. Malaysia, during Tunku Abdul Rahman’s administration, was perceived as a British neo-colony and had very little influence on developing countries. Tun Razak established diplomatic and trade relations with communist countries and took active part in the Non-Aligned Movement.

The highpoint in this development was his visit to China in 1974 leading to the establishment of diplomatic relations. It was a bold and brilliant move given the communist phobia and the disapproval of some Asean leaders.

Tun Razak cared a lot about the “small man and woman” – the farmers in the padi fields, the tappers in the estates, the traditional fishermen, and the workers in the factories and services. As Minister of Rural Development he developed and implemented a co-ordinated plan for improving the conditions in the rural population who had been neglected by the British colonialists. He promoted agriculture, animal husbandry and production of food. During the recession in the seventies he launched the Buku Hijau Project to encourage people to grow their own food. Realising the importance of being self-sufficient in food, he said: “…priority should be given to efforts to increase production of food products and not to be overly dependent on industries.”

He was very concerned about service delivery, over four decades before it became a World Bank jargon. He set up committees and operation rooms at national, state and district levels to ensure that the development plans were implemented and achieved the desired outcomes. He introduced the Red Book which contained guidelines on planning and implementing rural development projects without Red Tape. He personally visited hundreds of district operation rooms to see for himself the progress made and the problems encountered as well as to motivate the officers on the ground.

As Director of NOC he introduced laws to improve the conditions of the workers, their welfare and security of employment. They were given paid annual leave, medical and maternity benefits and overtime payment for work exceeding eight hours.  In 1969, a law providing social security for workers was introduced and in 1971 the Social Security Organisation (SOCSO) was created to implement the schemes provided under the law. SOCSO pays out compensation to workers who are injured in accidents at the workplace or on their way to work. The dependents of workers killed in accidents are also provided compensation. Workers suffering from serious disablement are entitled to an invalidity pension.

Within the short period of six years, Tun Razak’s administration succeeded in creating the policies and institutions needed for a Malaysian nation rooted in its Malay-Islamic history, traditions and heritage; celebrating the diversity of cultures and beliefs; promoting national unity, and social security for all; protecting the peace and security of the nation; and playing an active role in regional and international affairs. During this period, he knew he was suffering from a life-threatening disease, leukaemia.  He kept it a secret even from his own family members and did not allow it to interfere with his duty to the nation. The energy and
dedication with which he performed his work was simply amazing and heroic.

Without Tun Razak’s guidance and leadership, the NEP failed to achieve the goal of building a united multi-racial nation based on an equitable share of economic wealth among all races. The failure is due not to inherent defects in the policy but to its implementation that lacked vision, wisdom and fairness. Just Faaland and his two co-authors warn in the 2003 edition of their book Growth and Ethnic Inequality:

“Today, as in 1969/70, massive inequality of income and of levels of poverty coincide with ethnic, social and religious divides. In such a situation – if it is not seen to be remedied – political and social instability and even violent turmoil as in 1969 may recur. This has been the fate of other countries who have failed to address such problems, some have disintegrated in the face of persistent and deepening racial segregation and antagonism. For Malaysia, the main question is how to find a solution at minimal cost and as quickly as possible, so as to create a level playing field which does not require particular policies of affirmative action on an ethnic basis.”
Prof. Dr. Noraini M. Noor of the International Islamic University warns of increasing ethnic polarisation, indicating a pre-conflict situation. She writes:

“…there has been a rise in polarisation between the Malays and the Chinese in terms of education, job opportunities and housing. In the current educational system, most Malays send their children to government and/or religious schools, while the majority of Chinese educate their children in Chinese schools. Malays tend to study in public/government universities where the language of instruction is Bahasa Malaysia while most Chinese study in private universities where English is used. Most Malays work in the government sector while most Chinese in the private sector. And because the private sector is more competitive and pays better than the government sector, there is a substantial earning differential between the groups amplifying perceptions of power inequalities. In many instances, members of each group live in housing areas that are predominantly either Malay or Chinese. Thus, many do not know, nor do they interact with, members of the other group.”

As someone who has in my small way worked for a vibrant, dynamic, fair and just Malaysia it is my fervent hope that we address this problem urgently before it sparks an ethnic conflict which we cannot afford, the second time. Political leaders from the ruling party and the opposition should engage in a dialogue to understand the gravity of the problem and to find ways to contain it. There is now too much politicking of the worst kind with the internet spewing out lies, hatred, character assassinations and poisonous ethnic prejudices. This abuse must be put to an end.

The government should organise consultations with civil society groups and individuals on their grievances and suggestions for containing racial polarisation, breaking the educational and socio-economic barriers of racial segregation and promoting unity. We need to work for achieving a national consensus on important issues, as was achieved in 1969-70 through the National Consultative Council (NCC).

May Allah bless Tun Razak’s soul and give him a place in Jannah. May Allah give us hidayah to realise Tun Razak’s vision of a united, democratic, multi-racial and progressive Malaysia anchored in social justice.

And I would like to conclude by thanking the organisers, especially Tengku Harith Aziz and all of you for giving your time for making this occasion a memorable one for me.