'The Reluctant Politician' Keeps Dr Ismail's Achievements Alive

he late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman's name may not ring a bell for the young generation but a township, located between Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya, has been named after him as a tribute to Malaysia’s second deputy prime minister's significant contributions to the nation.

Today, a programme will be held at Dataran Merdeka here in conjunction with this year’s National Month celebration to commemorate and appreciate Dr Ismail’s services to the country. Organised by the Communications and Digital Ministry, the event is set to be officiated by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim this morning.

Dr Ismail was known to have had a unique agenda for Malaysian politics, race relations and how the average Malay, Chinese, Indian and members of other communities should conduct themselves in taking the nation forward.

In fact, Malaysian politics may have been very different today if Dr Ismail had not succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 58 on Aug 2, 1973 – he was at the prime of his political career then.




Meanwhile, some 17 years after the publication of 'The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time', Penang Institute executive director Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is still grateful he was given the opportunity to author Dr Ismail’s biography narrating the life journey of the great leader and his nation-building efforts that left an indelible mark on the nation.

Edited in collaboration with Dr Ismail's eldest son Tawfik Ismail, the book was published in 2006 by the Singapore think-tank Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, now known as ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Penang Institute Executive Director, Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng

Recalling the moment when he was assigned to write Dr Ismail's biography in 2005, Ooi told Bernama the then ISEAS director K. Kesavapany wanted to publish a series of books focusing on particular leaders.

"I was the person who came to his mind to write Dr Ismail’s biography since I also wrote various political and historical materials and had an interest in Malaysian history.

"Tawfik decided at that time, at the instigation of his old friend Ambassador Verghese Mathews, that his father's private papers should be given to us. The papers were also kept in the ISEAS library, which is one of the best in the world for Southeast Asian studies. It was a good place to preserve those papers.”

Ooi completed the book within a year and a half after he was assigned the job by ISEAS. The 311-page book has eight chapters and is divided into two parts titled ‘Merdeka or Medicine’ and ‘Remaking Malaysia’, providing a comprehensive narrative of Dr Ismail's political career from the 1950s until his passing in 1973.

Besides relying on the late deputy premier’s private papers – comprising parts of an unfinished autobiography, correspondence and reports he wrote while serving as ambassador to the United States – and secondary sources for the biography, Ooi also interviewed some of the people who had worked with Dr Ismail as well as his family members, close friends and contemporaries such as Tun Musa Hitam, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Lee Kuan Yew who knew him well.

Ooi said his interviews with people like the late Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew and Hong Kong-based Malaysian business magnate Robert Kuok were very important for the project as their views, not only on Malaysian politics but on Ismail the man, were very objective. 

"I travelled all the way to Hong Kong to interview Robert (Kuok), and made several trips back and forth between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore while writing the book.

"We researchers want resources but we don't want too much of it. Fortunately, Dr Ismail's private papers were not too voluminous and not too limited. They came in about five plastic bags so I could actually go through all of them properly," he said. 




Unlike Malaysia’s first and second prime ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj and Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, whose achievements are well depicted in school history textbooks, Dr Ismail has received little attention in Malaysian history references and textbooks.

On page 275 of the biography, Ooi writes: "Historiographic convention has always allowed the Tunku and Razak to overshadow Ismail's achievements, and his name is often mentioned in combination with the other two, and with (former MCA president) Tun Tan Siew Sin. 

"This has meant that latter-day Malaysians have not learned to know him (Dr Ismail), and what is worse, they have not had the opportunity to understand the ideas behind the deeds. His legacy has yet to be discovered."

The 311-page 'The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time' has eight chapters and is divided into two parts titled ‘Merdeka or Medicine’ and ‘Remaking Malaysia’, providing a comprehensive narrative of Dr Ismail's political career from the 1950s until his passing in 1973. (PHOTO BY SOON LI WEI)

Ooi hoped that Dr Ismail’s biography can, at the very least, provide inspiration to the younger generation, especially aspiring leaders, to focus on nation-building rather than attacking others in politics.

"I'm glad I wrote the book because he (Dr Ismail) died so early and given the political culture in Malaysia, if you die early, you will be forgotten and that is true. So, he was almost forgotten and it is thanks to his son Tawfik, who adored his father, that we still know so much about Dr Ismail, his inspirational character and his hopes for Malaysia.

"There was one young UMNO member who approached me in 2007, holding the book and telling me: ‘This is how we will reform UMNO.’ I'm happy about that of course," Ooi said. 

“I remember Karim Raslan of KRA (Karim Raslan Associates, an ASEAN-focused public affairs and political risk consultancy) coming to me and asking that he be allowed to launch the book, which he did. He got (Tun) Musa Hitam (former deputy prime minister) to be the guest of honour as well. (Former NSTP group editor-in-chief) Kalimullah Hassan of the New Straits Times serialised the book for a whole week in January 2007, and that helped catch the imagination of the Malaysian public.”

Ooi, 68, said he was a teenager when Dr Ismail was deputy prime minister and the May 13 riots broke out in 1969.

"I actually remembered him from TV. I chose the portrait of him with a pipe for the book because that's sort of how I remember him," he said. 

Dr Ismail’s image on the cover of ‘The Reluctant Politician’, taken from a side view, features him with a pipe in his mouth and a golden yellow background.

The book, incidentally, received the Award of Excellence for Best Writing published in book form on any aspect of Asia (non-fiction) at the Asian Publishing Convention Awards 2008 and was turned into a play by the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.




Among the book’s more interesting accounts are those detailing Dr Ismail’s most noteworthy contributions during the period when he took up the portfolios of external affairs, followed by internal security and home affairs. 

Together with Abdul Razak, Dr Ismail played an instrumental role in the separation of Singapore from Malaysia (due to ideological differences), negotiating behind the scenes with his Singaporean counterparts who included Goh Keng Swee, the then minister of finance, and Eddie Barker, the minister of law.

Ooi told Bernama during his interview with Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore leader had described Dr Ismail as exceptional and 'the one I trusted absolutely in UMNO'. 

Dr Ismail's intolerance for incompetence was well known and although he was a Malay loyalist, he believed in racial equality. 

According to his biography, his acceptance of racial equality can be traced to his childhood when he had Chinese adopted sisters and grew up with friends from different backgrounds including the Kuok brothers (Philip and Robert); Leslie Cheah, a businessman and brother-in-law of Robert Kuok; and the Puthucheary brothers (James and Dominic, both lawyers). It also helped that Dr Ismail was exposed to multicultural education and was the first Malay to study medicine in Melbourne, Australia.

Never one to suffer fools, Dr Ismail was considered a formidable, decisive and fair person. 

To pick a choice quote by Robert Kuok from the biography, Dr Ismail was a “man who stood by principles. Asking him to use his political power to help you would be tantamount to putting yourself in jail!”

Malaysian Tycoon, Tan Sri Robert Kuok

Ooi said Dr Ismail did not tolerate any form of corruption, even if it was just a small gesture from some people he had helped in the past.

"There was an incident when a Chinese couple, both farmers, brought vegetables to his door but he angrily chased them away... because Dr Ismail believed that corruption always started with little things," he said.

Ooi added that having been born with a heart ailment, Dr Ismail valued physical exercise and took up walking and hiking whilst studying medicine in Australia. 

"I personally think that for people to do that (walking and hiking) in isolation, it is considered a character-building experience. It allows one to think alone and get to know oneself, which means becoming a contemplative person," he said. 




Tragically, Tun Dr Ismail's journey was cut short when he passed away in August 1973 while serving as acting prime minister. The nation mourned his untimely death which left behind a void that would be felt for years to come. 

Nevertheless, his compassionate and visionary leadership will continue to inspire future generations, encouraging them to embrace the values of integrity, unity and selfless service to the nation.

"Abdul Razak made him (Dr Ismail) his deputy in September 1970 and the two would share the painful fate of knowing that one or the other might suddenly die in office. 

"According to Robert (Kuok), Dr Ismail knew that his time was not long and was thinking of resigning due to his health while Razak was ready to go to Ottawa (Canada) to attend the Commonwealth (Heads of Government) meeting.

"However, his heart failed him on Aug 2, 1973, while he was the acting prime minister when Razak was in Ottawa," Ooi said, adding that if Dr Ismail had lived longer, he could have gone on to become Malaysia’s best prime minister. 


Edited by Rema Nambiar



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