Thomas’ book may evoke debate on Tunku tapes

It’s time to release recordings of Tunku Abdul Rahman’s views on May 13.

COMMENT | Tommy Thomas’s book My Story: Justice in the Wilderness has stirred a myriad of controversies.

Since its release at the end of last month, it seems like everyone who is anyone has weighed in on the welter.

Reactions to the book can be said to be polarised: They are either laudatory or condemnatory; there appears to be no middle ground.

What makes matters more nettlesome is that the controversies the book has stirred are unamenable to swift or easy resolution.

This may be due to the miasma of contention that besets matters on which Thomas has vented his opinion.

The facts behind the fog need first to be established before opinions expressed can be regarded as substantive or spurious.

However, one controversy could well open up the path to a sorting out of an issue that has remained in the attic of the nation’s memory, laying there in unsplendid isolation, too painful or febrile to be exhumed and discussed openly.

This concerns the May 13, 1969 race riots. More than a half-century has elapsed since that seismic event.

During this time public opinion has congealed around two – antithetical — positions.

One is that the riots were a spontaneous conflagration; the other is that it was a pretext for a putsch by Umno’s young Turks to oust prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

In his book which is also a memoir of his life, Thomas leans to the latter position on May 13.

This has provoked a response by Nazir Abdul Razak, a corporate figure who is the son of Abdul Razak Hussein, Tunku’s longtime deputy who took over as PM in September 1970.

Nazir contends that Thomas’s dim view of Abdul Razak and the aftermath of May 13 is contradicted by the fact that it was the Tunku who agreed to Razak’s becoming the man in charge of the country after the riots.

Also, Nazir says that it was the Tunku who endorsed the appointment of Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman as the home minister.

Together, both Abdul Razak and Ismail steered the ship of state out of the stormy waters caused by the May 13 riots.

Hence, argued Nazir, Thomas’ view that Abdul Razak benefited from the political upheaval caused by May 13 is a mean-spirited reading of events and political personalities that figured in the drama.

Now, Tawfik Ismail, eldest son of Ismail, has proposed to join the debate on the issue by calling for the release of recordings of conversations that Tunku had with the late Abdullah Ahmad, an Umno politician and former Malaysian Special Envoy to the United Nations, who was also group editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times.

Tawfik has in recent decades shepherded the publication of diaries and journal entries made by his father who died prematurely in August 1973, at the age of 58, while he was deputy prime minister of the country.

Tawfik’s effort at getting these jottings of his father published in a series of books has been regarded as a signal service to the historical record.

Between 1982 and ’84, Abdullah interviewed the Tunku at his retirement home in Penang.

Based on the conversations he had with the Tunku, Abdullah readied a book for publication in 1985.

It is believed that Abdullah held back on the publication because of the explosive nature of some opinions aired by the Tunku in the course of his interview with the statesman.

Tunku was reportedly unfazed by the explosiveness of the opinions.

The latter inferred that the Tunku had adopted a stance of “publish and be damned” when venting those views.

Towards the end of 2015, Abdullah was terminally ill with cancer, a circumstance that compelled him to publish in December 2015 an expurgated rendition of the conversations that ranged on issues and personages that factored during the Tunku’s tenure as PM, from 1957 to ’70.

Titled Conversations with Tunku Abdul Rahman: 1982-84, the book was released in April 2016.

On the occasion of its release, Abdullah announced that he had turned over the entire recordings of his conversations with the Tunku to the National Archives for release at a future date.

These recordings will help shed light on the May 13 riots and who the Tunku thought had done what at the time.

Tawfik Ismail, in an interview with this reporter yesterday, said the time was nigh for the release of the recordings that Abdullah had turned over to the National Archives.

“Those recordings may indicate what the Tunku, with the benefit of hindsight, felt about events in 1969 and in its immediate aftermath,” said Tawfik.

“For an understanding of that period of time – the leaders who figured in it, their motives and aims – the Tunku’s views are now indispensable and should be released for public consumption,” he opined.

No doubt, the Tunku tapes will go some distance in establishing what the Tunku felt about his successor’s conduct in the immediate prelude and aftermath of May 13.


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