Of names and trees 


WHEN I was little, an elderly person gave me some crass but well-meaning advice on choosing friends.

“Avoid politicians’ children. They are corrupt, arrogant, and nouveau. They don’t understand culture or etiquette and they will probably use you.”

There was no need to worry: by then I had already established a gang of fellow introverts and none of us knew or cared what each other’s parents did. However, later in life when I encountered politicians’ children, I worked out the reasonings behind that strongly-worded advice. Equally importantly, I discovered that many people harboured assumptions about me: apparently, being a Tunku (or equivalent) can carry various degrees of negative stereotypes.

The realisation of these prejudices made me conclude that the best policy in any social interaction is, as much as possible, to treat people as individuals, regardless of the attributes that may be immediately evident about them – and hope they will do the same towards me. This policy was further reinforced after witnessing (sometimes all too first-hand) the damaging effects of racism and sexism living in the UK and USA, observations travelling across several other countries, and of course experiences living in Malaysia too.

Tan Sri Nazir Razak and Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir are certainly individuals. They have both accomplished many things, been the subject of praise and criticism, and coincidentally, have recently written books (occupying the top two bestseller positions) where, right from the title page, reference is made to their fathers. The ‘name’ in ‘What’s in a Name’ is that of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, while the ‘tree’ in ‘The Apple and the Tree’ is Tun Mahathir Mohamad.

Regular readers will know that neither of these former leaders would feature in my list of favourite Prime Ministers (for different reasons, despite their oft-touted ideological similarities) – what more if hypothetical possibilities like Datuk Onn Jaafar and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman were to be considered.

I became acquainted with these Prime Ministerial children quite coincidentally. I met Tan Sri Nazir first when he was displeased about some work I did as Research Fellow at the CIMB Asean Research Institute (Cari), then when he became a member of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) Council, and thereafter on the squash court.  I met Datin Paduka Marina numerous times at various civil society panels, and she once described me as “the Justin Bieber of think tanks” – not intended as a compliment.

Naturally there are the “juicy” bits of these autobiographical perspectives that reviewers turn to first: 1MDB and the Sheraton Move, respectively.  Some reviews have focused exclusively on these excerpts with the aim of discrediting those accounts. And a few go overboard; including self-professed liberals who claim to reject all forms of discrimination, but then happily excoriate someone because of the sins of their father or brother, or placing an unrealistically high bar for the redemption of their relative’s crimes, with no allowance given for the natural ties of family that is so ingrained in our culture.

Yet, for those who believe resolutely in judging a person by their individual actions, there can be different conclusions about whether both writers “did enough” during those controversies. But they too can fire back, seeing betrayal and disappointment in people who they think should have done better.

Away from those hot topics, reading first-hand narratives about the the evolution of Malaysian banking (especially investment banking) or the challenges of improving awareness and policy surrounding HIV/AIDS is genuinely interesting, especially as both authors have received international recognition for their work in these areas (though that doesn’t mean infallibility.)

Undoubtedly the most emotionally engaging sections are recollections of family. For Tan Sri Nazir, losing his father at a young age has meant evaluating how Tun Abdul Razak’s legacy should inspire him, his brothers and the nation: his proposed Better Malaysia Assembly is its most specific manifestation. For Datin Paduka Marina, Tun Mahathir’s continued political interventions must trigger responses that have been familiar throughout her life, but even more pointedly now as new generations cause even greater divergence.

Throughout, there are glimpses of a different kind of Malaysian social milieu, and a politics designed not for reactive social media but to Cold War ideological differences or the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution.

Massive changes will continue to affect our politics. Yet today, as we seek to restore our Federal Constitution (such as by re-elevating the status of Sabah and Sarawak) as written and approved by fathers of the nation, including Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tuanku Abdul Rahman, there may be many political fathers who will now pause to think what their descendants might truthfully write about them.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.