An enduring relationship of values

The writer with Tunku Temenggong Kedah, Tunku Temenggong Johor and the Prince of Wales at the Royal Gala Dinner on Nov 3.

The Yang di-Pertuan Besar, Tunku Ampuan Besar, Tunku Besar Seri Menanti, and the writer with the Treasurer of the Inner Temple and his wife on Nov 4.

ALL the countries that recognised the Federation of Malaya at its independence have been celebrating 60 years of bilateral ties with Malaysia this year (the 1963 entity inherited the 1957 entity’s seat at the United Nations). Of course, some countries, principally Britain, had relations with Malaysia’s component states well before that, through which many economic and geopolitical lessons can be learnt.

For example, in Negeri Sembilan, Yamtuan Antah came into conflict with the British Crown for trying to resist economic access in 1874; a generation later Tuanku Muhammad entered treaties with Her Britannic Majesty that resulted in political reform and economic growth. His son Tuanku Abdul Rahman became the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong of independent Malaya imbued with parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, and within succeeding generations, a great number have followed in his footsteps in contributing to the ever-thronging Malaysian student population in the United Kingdom across diverse fields of study and subsequent economic activity. Thirty years before I attended Marlborough College with the now Duchess of Cambridge, my father shared the same hall of residence as her father-in-law in Aberystwyth.

The just-concluded visit of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall to Malaysia has been the zenith of the Malaysia-UK 60th anniversary of bilateral ties.  Significant because it was their first trip to Malaysia, the agenda was clearly influenced by the causes that the world’s most recognisable heir to the throne (actually 16 thrones) is famously passionate about.

At the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Prince Charles paid homage to an excellent partnership with his Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, but as I reminded him, it wasn’t its first Malaysian collaboration. In 2011, it showcased the songket of Tengku Ismail Tengku Su in the Royal Weaves project; the school and British Malaysian Society later established a scholarship in his memory.

At the Royal Gala Dinner later that evening, the prince touched on issues concerning young people, mentioning the Commonwealth Youth Summit and his Prince’s Trust, before focusing on climate change, specifically the scourge of plastic in the oceans and the imperative of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. For decades he has been criticised on his stance on environmental issues, but increasingly he is being proved right.

Attended by the Sultans of Selangor and Perak, Permaisuri of Johor, Tengku Mahkota of Kelantan, Tunku Besar Seri Menanti of Negeri Sembilan, and Tunku Temenggong of Kedah, the dinner echoed historic occasions that brought Malay and British royals together, such as in 1956 when the Duke of Edinburgh met the Rulers at King’s House.

Throughout the next four days, Prince Charles’ itinerary included the Sarawak Cultural Village, the Belum Rainforest in Perak, and multiple places of worship in Penang.

Meanwhile, in London, another milestone of the bilateral relationship occurred when the Inner Temple hosted a dinner for the unveiling of the portrait of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Tuanku Abdul Rahman became a student member of this Inn of Court in 1925 and was called to the bar in 1928, then rejoined the Malayan Civil Service, becoming a Magistrate before being elected Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan in 1933 and Yang di-Pertuan Agong by his brother Rulers in 1957. Unfortunately, his significant contributions to Malaya’s Constitution – and institutions more widely – are not well known even by Malaysians today.

As the Tunku Besar Seri Menanti pointed out, during his time in London, Tuanku Abdul Rahman served as president of the Kesatuan Melayu Great Britain while his fellow Inner Templar Tunku Abdul Rahman of Kedah served as secretary: their later roles as King and Prime Minister was a reprise of sorts. Incidentally, our first three Lord Presidents were also Inner Templars.

Two annual November commemorations seem to dovetail with these events of bilateral significance. In remembering the Gunpowder Plot on Nov 5, we appreciate how religious divisions in society led to an attempted attack on Crown and Parliament. And with Remembrance Day on Nov 11, we honour the sacrifices of soldiers of various faiths as they protected not just their homelands in a physical way, but also defended the values underpinning parliamentary democracy (even if it took time for that to be equally expressed throughout the Commonwealth). It is fitting therefore that Prince Charles visited the Taiping War Cemetery, managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

These events, bringing together the people of Britain and Malaysia to remember our shared story and to inspire common aspirations for the future, imbued with a royal legacy, provide an assurance that the bilateral relationship will flourish for decades to come.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is president of the Malaysian British Society.

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