Remembering Tunku as a skilful leader who went to great lengths to push for the unified Malaysia he dreamed of.
Every child’s grandfather is special. Even if to history he is nobody in particular.
But one little girl’s grandfather really was special.
He was Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s founding father and first prime minister.
And she was his second granddaughter, Sharifah Hanizah Syed Hussein.
For the first crucial years of her life, Sharifah Hanizah was brought up by Tunku.
She was born in 1958, a year after Merdeka.
Soon, her mother Tunku Khadijah left Malaysia for England.
She had to join her husband, Sharifah Hanizah’s father, Syed Hussein Syed Abu Bakar, in Nottingham, where he had been sent by Tunku to study political science.
She was forced to leave her infant daughter behind as it was too expensive to raise a child in the UK.
So Tunku stepped in and offered to care for his grandchild over the five years her parents would be away.
Sharifah Hanizah moved in with her datuk. They quickly developed a loving bond that would endure.
She often tagged along with him to the Royal Selangor Golf Club at the weekends when he played golf, and even though he was very busy he made sure holidays and her birthdays were always fun.
When her parents returned, Tunku was adamant that Sharifah Hanizah should not leave him.
So she stayed for many more years with him at the Residency on Jalan Dato Onn where she saw a softer side of him than many people did.
He was busy building a newly independent country, establishing international trade and diplomatic ties, and dealing with problematic domestic issues.
But at home, he was the kind datuk she loved.
When she was a little girl in the 1960s, every year she went with him to Merdeka stadium to take part in the celebrations.
Because of this, Merdeka still reminds her of her grandfather and those who fought alongside him to gain Malaysia’s independence.
She worries young people now take this legendary struggle for granted.
“The younger generation will never know the feeling of not having the freedom to speak out or move,” Sharifah Hanizah told FMT.
“They will never know the feeling of being colonised under foreign rulers.”
She recalled that for Tunku, it was not just about living in fear of going out of your house or barely having enough food for the family to eat. It was also about personal loss, for his brother had been killed during the Japanese occupation.
As she grew up under his guardianship, he was constantly dealing with history-defining issues.
“The British didn’t trust that we would survive as a country unless the three major races came together to form a government. So Tunku tried to convince the sultans and the three races to do so,” she said. “It was not easy. Johor didn’t want to be part of it. From the very beginning, they said no.”
Tunku visited the UK for crucial talks but instead of going by plane, he and his entourage went by ship. The voyage took a month.
“By the time he reached Great Britain, he had somehow convinced the Johor menteri besar to get on board with the plan.”
That’s the Tunku she remembers: a skilful leader who went to great lengths to push for the unified Malaysia he dreamed of.
Sharifah Hanizah laments that today’s Malaysians are becoming more conscious of their ethnicity rather than identifying with their nationality.
“Back then, there was no separation of the races. All of us could speak English, and non-Malays could speak Malay very well.
“There was no segregation within politics either. You didn’t divide people into races, unlike today.”
Tunku himself warned about this happening. During his last trip to Sarawak shortly before he passed away in 1990 at the age of 87, he said it was sad that the country had turned out the way it had. He blamed politics.
“People today, all they want is money and to squeeze the government of every dollar they can. The government, in turn, wants to squeeze money out of the people,” said Sharifah Hanizah sadly.
“And corruption is so bad now. This is not what Tunku wanted.”
As a little girl she never realised exactly how important a figure he was until later. She’s now worried that many young people today will never reach that stage.
“Only at Merdeka do people remember him. If you ask them ‘Who was the father of our independence?’ I don’t think they will know even though he is right there in that famous image, declaring Merdeka, on the back of each 50 ringgit note they hold in their hands.”
Tunku was always kind and caring with the ordinary folk. Sharifah Hanizah remembers a trip with him to a house he owned on a hill in Pendang, Kedah. The government limousine they were in couldn’t make it all the way to the top.
“We had to call the villagers, and they helped us push the car the rest of the way up. And what did Tunku do next? He arranged for a free screening of the latest movies for everyone to watch.
“That’s why those who knew him loved him.”
Now 61, Sharifah Hanizah lives in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. She is a senior manager in industrial relations.
She is more than an incidental character in the drama of the aftermath of Merdeka.
For we can surmise just how much strength Tunku drew from having his happy, loving granddaughter at his side as he steered the country on its path to being a successful independent nation. – FMT