The Reinvention Of Malaya: Lessons From Tunku Abdul Rahman

Sep 02, 2016 7 Min Read


The man behind the formation of a united Malaysia

Malaysians know him as the Father of Independence. None would deny the role Tunku Abdul Rahman played in securing our independence and bringing about the formation of Malaysia.

Here are some leadership lessons that we can glean from his life.

tunku abdul rahman

Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Photo taken from Kini X on Flickr and is copyright material under the Creative Commons license.

Be open-hearted to people from all walks of life

Tunku was born to the Sultan of Kedah in 1903. Despite being born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Tunku was known to be an open-hearted “man of the people.” He played with the kampong children and hated being carried around by servants. He also loved to share his passion for football.

While studying Law at Cambridge University, he easily made many friends. Failing to pass the London Bar examinations, he returned to his home state and served in the Kedah civil service. There, he helped the peasants solve their daily problems and improved their livelihoods.

His kindness and easy-going attitude, coupled with his keen desire to help others, brought him much popularity among the people around him.

Help others even in the face of adversity

Tunku decided to finish what he started – passing the Bar Examinations. He succeeded in 1939, but the unfortunate outbreak of the Second World War led to his recall to Kedah.

The Japanese invasion brought about many trials and tribulations. Tunku organised efforts to evacuate the citizens and ensure their security. At great cost to his own safety, he later helped many escaped prisoners who were commissioned to build the infamous Death Railway, by providing shelter and food.

Always be mindful of the bigger picture

With the defeat of the Japanese, came growing interest among the populace for an independent Malaya. The British’s attempt to impose a “Malayan Union”– a system that would diminish the powers of the Malay rulers – led to widespread protests among major Malay organisations. The most notable one was Datuk Onn Jaafar’s Umno.

Tunku’s major leap into the political sphere occurred when he was chosen to chair the Kedah branch of Umno. Tunku’s leadership and contributions to the community made him a favourite of the party.

In 1951, Datuk Onn made a proposal that was far ahead of its time – he wanted Umno to be a party for all races. He resigned when this proposal met with rejection from party members, and went on to found the Independence of Malaya Party (IMP). Tunku succeeded him as president of Umno that year, his popularity with the crowd winning him a landslide victory at the Umno Assembly elections.

Datuk Onn’s dream of a Malaya that transcended racial lines would manifest itself in another form. Tunku knew that the diverse communities must unite for the greater good –Malaya’s independence.

He formed an alliance with the MCA, and together they won the municipal elections across Malaya from 1952 to 1953.

As the possibility of an independent Malaya drew closer, state and federal elections were held to determine who would lead this nation. The Umno-MCA Alliance later joined hands with the MIC.

Tunku was, by now, a popular figure and a champion of Malayan unity.

The Alliance won 51 out of 52 contested seats at the general election in 27 July 1955, proving that a united front was crucial to make our freedom a reality.

Win your battles peacefully

Malaya was facing a great threat: the Communist militants. Many atrocities were committed including the assassination of British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney, and terrorist attacks on civilians and public infrastructure. The need to maintain unity among ethnic groups to counter the threat was at an all-time high. A state of emergency was declared.

Given his character, Tunku loathed bloodshed. He rejected the pleas of the Communist Party of Malaya to be treated as a legitimate party that would compete alongside other parties at the ballot boxes.

In 1956, the Sultans convened with Tunku to discuss the proposal of a constitution for an independent Malaya. On Feb 8, 1956, Alan Lennox-Boyd (colonial secretary) and Tunku signed the agreement that would secure our freedom from the British.

When the clock struck midnight on Aug 31, 1957, the Union Jack was lowered, signifying the end of British rule. After centuries of colonial rule, the Malay Peninsula stood on equal footing with other nations as an independent state. Thousands, including leaders from neighbouring countries, gathered at Stadium Merdeka to witness the declaration of independence. Tunku’s shouts of “Merdeka!” were met with resounding applause.

A united front was crucial to make our freedom a reality.

Tunku succeeded in winning our independence peacefully, much to the chagrin of the Communists. The wars of Emergency finally simmered down and came to an end in 1960, with the repelling of the Communist insurgents.

Be an advocate of unity and harmony

Tunku served as the first Prime Minister of the now independent Malaya; but the desire for independence in neighbouring territories had been brewing. The formation of Malaysia would become Tunku’s next greatest achievement.

In 1961, he proposed the idea of a combined Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei to form Malaysia. With the exception of Brunei, the aforementioned states were sold on the idea, which led to the birth of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963.

Things were not as smooth sailing with the newly formed Malaysia. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew – the leader of the People’s Action Party – campaigned for a “Malaysian Malaysia”– a call for equal rights for all Malaysians regardless of race. Fears of “racial disharmony” reared its head again as leaders grew worried that racial riots would erupt.

Tunku finally came upon a peaceful solution to the delicate situation. He proposed that the Malaysian Parliament should vote on whether to have Singapore leave Malaysia. On Aug 9, 1965, the Parliament voted unanimously for the split.

Although the separation led the teary-eyed Lee to express his anguish, both nations eventually benefited in the long run.

To promote unity, Tunku took an active role in many regional and global initiatives.

He played a key role in the founding of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for promoting solidarity among Muslim-majority countries. He also played a major role in forming Asean.

His efforts to maintain peace among various communities would later encounter another setback – the May 13 incident in 1969.

Tunku’s pacifism during the crisis was seen as a weakness by some in his party.
Following the event, Tunku resigned in 1970 as Prime Minister, and later in 1971, as Umno president.

His legacy

Tunku passed away on Dec 6, 1990 at the age of 87. Having lived through many tribulations, his determination to drive the nation forward, while preserving national unity, is a gargantuan feat. The struggles he faced for a harmonious Malaysia is something that we should keep in mind this Merdeka celebration.

Jack Chua majors in psychology and works as a researcher in the field of psychometrics. He is also a regular Leaderonomics writer on leadership topics. Share your thoughts with him at
Like Tunku, here at Leaderonomics we believe that anyone can be developed into a great leader who will go on to transform the nation. From providing camps and programmes for youths, to training corporate employees into becoming leaders of an organisation, we believe that leadership is the key to transforming our developing country. For information on youth camps, e-mail To find out more about our corporate training programmes, e-mail

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