The Life and Times of Tunku Abdul Rahman – Malaysia's Father

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Tunku Abdul Rahman is a man cherished by Malaysians as the father of the nation, and while he may be immortalized in buildings and road names, Sarah Rees discovers that the man himself lived a diverse and varied life before emerging to lead the country.

On 31 August 1957, The New Straits Times printed an article beneath the attention-grabbing headline “From Playboy to Malaya’s First Prime Minister.” Despite the eye-popping title, this was no derogatory piece. What followed was a sweet, informal interview with a man who considered himself “just an ordinary human being”; one who advocated a snooze after lunch and confessed to a penchant for fast cars.

It is fascinating – when one has only associated Tunku Abdul Rahman with glory and power – to get a glimpse of a man whose road to brilliance and leadership was pot-holed and curious, taking unexpected diversions and encompassing a whole ream of experience that made his tale an interesting one, and ultimately ensured that he truly was a man of the people.


Tunku may have been born, in 1903, into a comfortable household as the son of the favourite wife of the Sultan of Kedah, but he was never one to enjoy life within the royal skin. Tunku would opt to rush off and play with the village boys rather than remaining sedately in the palace, and would howl with frustration when the Court Retainer insisted on carrying the youngster to and from school. Those were the days when royalty’s feet were not to be dirtied by contact with the floor, but the headstrong Tunku soon put a stop to that, and was tearing up the football field as soon as he could get away.

The high-spirited youngster was sent to Bangkok and then Penang to study, and it was on his brother’s suggestion that he was packed off to the UK – on a cargo ship on which he almost died of malaria – to complete his studies on that distant isle. The image of the young Malay prince turning up in a rural English village seems almost fictional, and while the residents had never heard of that distant land called Malaya, they fondly nicknamed him “Bobby,” while the local boys swiftly initiated him into their football team.

As per his family’s strict instructions, Tunku went on to enrol at Cambridge University to study Law and History, but decided to switch his degree from an Honours to a Pass. He spent his student years picking up speeding tickets in his beloved Riley sports car (being a prince had its perks) and cooking Malay food for his homesick compatriots.

When he arrived back in Malaya with his Pass degree in 1926, the family was not impressed, and he was promptly dispatched back to the UK to take the Bar exam, which he failed. It would be easy to deem the young Tunku as unintelligent but, as his shimmering future proved, he was merely easily distracted. Instead of working for his Bar exams, he was enthusiastically founding and running the Malay Society of Great Britain.



Tunku eventually made his way back to Malaya in 1931 in disgrace, and soon found a position as a cadet in the Kedah Civil Service, a role he loved. His hard work and natural talents secured him the role of District Officer for various states — various due to Tunku being shifted around the country each time his strong-minded antics earned him disrepute with officials. It was always, however, the people’s rights he was fighting for, and he became much loved by the Malayans fortunate enough to be under his care.

The Second World War brought tumultuous changes to Malaya and it was a time in which his bravery and charity had a chance to shine. Even as the war came to a close and the Japanese surrendered, Tunku was in the midst of the effort to support and rehabilitate the survivors. One lovely anecdote remembers how, when a straggle of sick and dying men returned from their gruelling, lethal work on the railway that the Japanese had instigated, they were shunned by the community due to their horrendous appearance and their skin infections. Tunku, however, set up a shelter for these men, and rallied around to raise money for supplies to sustain them, keeping them fed with daily deliveries of food cooked up in his own kitchens.


Once the war was over, political manoeuvres were on the rise as negotiations for the formation of the Malaya Union were underway and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. While Tunku spoke passionately at many rallies, he was adamant that violence was not a solution for bringing about change, and the 40-year-old’s wisdom separated him from his younger, eager compatriots.

It was by now the late 1940s and Tunku set sail, once again, for the UK where he finally passed his Bar Finals and returned to Malaya, jubilant. His satisfaction was punctured when he was saddled with a dull job reading case files, but his passion found a new outlet when an invitation to join UMNO as chairman of the Kedah branch caught his attention. When the UMNO President stepped down, Tunku was encouraged to take up the mantle, and he reluctantly agreed to be nominated. The man of the people had many supporters, and when the results came in, he had beaten his nearest rival by 43 votes.

It is here that Tunku’s story enters the tussle of politics, but popular vote slowly moved him up the ranks until he was made Chief Minister in 1955. By the following year, Tunku was leading a group to London for the Merdeka Mission, where the plans for independence were wrangled  over in the offices of Lancaster House, just a month before his 53rd birthday.

And then it was just a matter of time until 31 August 1957 and the moment that is preserved forever in the hearts and minds of Malaysians. Tunku was there, in Stadium Merdeka, to raise his arm and shout “merdeka” to the cheering crowds, having made the unexpected rise from playboy to the first Prime Minister of his nation.


There can be no doubt that this (very) brief glimpse of what was an extraordinary life tells of a man who was truly a voice and vehicle for the people. His rebellious streak, his strong-mindedness, and his unswerving belief in his own moral standards and the rights of others all served to make him an
inspiring leader. Additionally, his charm and charisma, the playful humility that comes through when one casts their eye over the interview from all those years ago, ensured that he was someone to relate to, and one who won the admiration of the people whose lives he touched.


Being the son of a Sultan undoubtedly had its benefits in the eyes of those with power, but his tale makes it clear that a gritty determination and, most importantly, the approval of others, were key factors in transforming the rebellious boy into the leader that the country can never forget.

Independence Day is celebrated on 31 August each year. The cited newspaper article is available online.

This article was written by Sarah Rees
Source: The Expat August 2012

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