From playboy to Malaya’s first Prime Minister 5 August 2018 – Posted in: Newspaper Archives

We were talking in the small air-conditioned sitting room upstairs in The Residency in which he likes to relax for a half-hour or so after lunch.

Tengku Abdul Rahman Putra, first Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, likes to consider himself above all as “just an ordinary human being.” So he advocates a half-hour sleep after lunch.

Exercise? He took a quick look at me, and with a friendly grin, said, “Can you do this?”

He went to his writing desk and stood a couple of paces away from it, his back to it. He bent backwards until his head touched the desktop. Then he straightened, chuckled again, and said, “I bet you can’t do it.”

He won. I did not have to try. It was so obvious that I could not do it.

It was an interesting sidelight into the make-up, physical and mental, of “The Tengku,” as he is now familiary, is not affectionately known. 

He is a man who believes implicitly in Allah and in his guidance. This does not mean that he regularly attends mosque; he goes when he is able to.

But he prays at deeply-important moments in his life. He thanks Allah for his blessings just as he beseeches guidance before attending a critical conference. His colleagues and his friends are profoundly impressed by his regard and his reverence for not only his own religion but also that of others.

We talked about religion. He said, “Let me give you the answer I gave an Englishman in London in 1947 when I was determined to pass my Bar examinations.  

“I told him that when I was a child, I felt very secure and consequently happy because I had the protection of my parents. This sense of security became embedded in me.


“When I grew up and stepped beyond the protection of my parents, I believe very strongly that Allah was there to protect me.

“I still believe it firmly.”

Of course he is also superstitious. He never cuts his nails or his hair on Jumaat (Friday—the Muslim sabbath), or walk under a ladder, but he looks on “13” as his lucky number.

The ordinary man emerges as he chuckles, “If racing falls on the 13th of a month, I never lose. As for Friday the Thirteenth, that is even luckier for me—but I will not sit down at a table with 12 other people.”

So these paradoxes and incompatibles are to be found in the life of this very human Prime Minister whose creed is, “I am a man of the people; I am here to serve them.”

Few Prime Ministers in the world can have as delightful a story about his birth as “The Tengku” can relate when pressed.

His mother, Makchik Menjelara, a Siamese of noble birth, the sixth wife of Sultan Abdul Hamid,  of Kedah, was an attractive woman with a shrewd business sense.

In 1902, the Keeper of the Ruler’s Seal was exposed as a man who had misused the trust placed in him and had sold state land for his own gain.

Punishment lay with the Sultan, who ordered death for the Keeper, and decreed that the right thumb of the Keeper’s wife, as well as those of all his children, should be chopped off as a taint they would carry the rest of their lives.

The Keeper’s wife sped to Menjelara, then known to be the Sultan’s favorite, and implore her intervention.

Menjelara, a mother, promised to intercede. 

She had an audience with her husband. She told him she was pregnant again, but she feared her child might be seriously affected if the punishment on the Keeper and his family were to be carried out.

The Reprieve

Menjelara was a subtly clever woman. There is a Malay superstition that a husband should do nothing evil during his wife’s pregnancy otherwise a dark spirit will enter the child in the womb.

Sultan Abdul Hamid was so elated at the news that his favourite wife was presenting him with another child, and so anxious that nothing unfortunate should happen, that he ordered the Keeper to prison instead and cancelled the punishment on his family.

The truth, however, was that Menjelara was not pregnant at the time. But she conceived very soon afterwards, and the child born was Abdul Rahman who delights to say that he was “born under a lie.”

The orthodox Malays in Kedah like to aver that Menjelara’s grace and charity in intervening on behalf of the wife of the rascally Keeper was passed to her next child, and that is why Abdul Rahman is the kind, generous, open-hearted man he has always been.

It is a strange anomaly that a prince of perhaps the oldest Royal family in the Malay states, and one that has been autocratic and feudalistic, should become such a “man of the people.”

As a child he liked nothing better than to play with the children in the kampongs beyond the istana in which he was reared—an istana built by a Chinese contractor in the style of pagoda, with fire-snorting dragons climbing round the walls in tiled fantasies.

The istana no longer stands. It was razed by fire and on its foundations rose the State Council chamber which marked a new era in the history of Kedah.

When he first went to school in Alor Star, little Abdul Rahman screamed against what he consider was the indignity of being carried to and fro by a Court retainer.

Royalty was autocratic, and in those days little tengkus were not supposed to dirty their feet; hence they were carried everywhere.

He sighed with relief on the day he no longer had to be carried to school.

The in the Penang Free School, where he was a boarder, he was ragged because his mother insisted on sending him comforts—things like pillows in bottle green velvet and heavily embroidered with gold thread.

Abdul Rahman sought relief by passing his pillows over to his tormentors, few of whom anyway could resist the temptation to lay their heads on a royal pillow.

He was frail in school. For many months, he was not permitted to play games. Then he developed into footballer, playing right wing.

A Good Mixer

When he was being coached in the village of Little Stukeley, in Huntingdon, England, for entry to a public school, he played regularly for the Great and Little Stukeley XI.

The Tengku next became a mainstay in the second XI of St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge University.

He was a good mixer in England—just as he was a good spender. His mother sent him enough money to keep him in luxurious living.

He was fond of fast driving and it should solemnly be recorded that the Prime Minister has a good record of 28 convictions for speeding and for other traffic offences during the 10 years he spent in England.

It was a delightful life for a young man with lots of funds, a popular young man, too, who apart from going to the turf, to “the dogs,” to boxing matches, and as little as possible to law lectures, liked nothing better than to entertain his friends by cooking rice and curry for them in his flat.

Actually, Cambridge and London were not really wasted years. Abdul Rahman got to know and learned to get on with people of diverse types. His circle of friends was wide and their characters correspondingly varied.

Perhaps it was in those early years in England that he unconsciously began to develop his ability to handle people.

It was in London that Abdul Rahman used to “talk politics”. He was a royal son of Kedah, and he disliked the introduction of even a benevolent colonial rule in his state.

He talked glibly of “independence,” but he did not mean freedom for the country, but rather freedom for Kedah. He had not yet reached that stage of being able to look beyond the bounds of his own state and view problems as problems of a whole country.

Yet strangely enough, he intuitively felt that nothing positive could happen unless the Malays themselves understood each other and did not consider one another as strangers.

So in a serious flood of enthusiasm, he brought the Malays students in England together and formed “The Malay Society of Great Britain,” a body which thrives today.

First President

Its first president was another young but much more serious law student from Negri Sembilan, also named Abdul Rahman, who today is the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Independent Malaya.

Abdul Rahman of Kedah, was first honorary secretary of the society.

In 10 years in England, Abdul Rahman only succeeded in passing his Part One law examinations. The Kedah Government angrily and despairingly summoned him back.

He admits today, “I was a dismal failure.”

He found his metier though as a district officer, and it was first in lush Langkawi, then in Sungei Patani, and finally in Kulim, that he built up a tremendous popularity with the ra’ayat—and it made him unpopular with the Government hierarchy.

He also contributed towards his unpopularity by barefacedly disobeying instructions which he felt were adverse to the life of the people.

Few Promotions

The fact that he was royalty perhaps saved him from dismissal, but he suffered by receiving few promotions.

He had his escaped from Japanese brutality and execution in the early months of the occupation when time and again he, interceded on behalf of Chinese and Malays who were on their way to death and who he knew were not guilty of anything the Japanese alleged against them.

Quite a number of people in Kulim aver today that they owe their life to him.

The end of the war brought its other tremors to Malaya, the bubbling of political consciousness. In Alor Star was born “Seberkas.” Abdul Rahman was its patron, but he was not as extremist as some of its members who cried, “Independence immediately.”

They were echoing the cry of Indonesia and Burma and India.

The MacMichael episode, with its hateful connotations, turned the Malays into a living political force led by the dynamic Onn bin Ja’afar.

The United Malays National Organization was born and it so harassed the British Government that the Federation of Malaya was created, and the magic phrase “self-government” was inherently promised in the new Treaty.

Abdul Rahman played his little part in the beginning of that drama but quarreled with his party, which wanted no truck with “discussions” and asked for violence.

He told them that the struggle must be constitutional. He left Saberkas. He also left Kedah because he felt dejected and depressed. He went to England to try and pass the last law examinations.

He did so, and upset the staid and sombre atmosphere of the graduation dinner in the Inner Temple. As no under-graduate had gained high honours that year, the task of speaking on behalf of the successful law students went to Abdul Rahman because he had been enrolled longest.

He should have delivered a formal address of thanks but the Tengku, now 47, turned it into a personal speech by saying, “Tonight, I not only celebrate my being called to the Bar but I also celebrate the Silver Jubilee of my association with this Inn.”

His Malay friends in London had been perceptive enough to notice some of Abdul Rahman’s qualities—his sincerity, his honesty of purpose and nis natural political intuition. 

‘Black Uncle’

They called him “Ayah Hitam” (Black Uncle—the “uncle” was the honorific, the “black” a reference to his very dark visage) . They asked him, “Ayah Hitam, will you play a part in UMNO when you return to Malaya? It needs men like you.”

He replied, “Yes, I am keen to do so—that is if I am given a chance.”

Two years later, in 1951, he was given the chance, that of becoming President when nobody else would accept the position after Dato’ Onn bin Ja’afar had junked it because UMNO would not be “non-communal.”

Nobody wanted the job because everybody thought most of the members of UMNO would follow Onn to his new “Independence of Malaya Party”.

Nobody outside Kedah and the Legal Department in the Federal Secretariat, where he was a Deputy Public Prosecutor, had heard of Tengku Abdul Rahman except as a playboy.

When General Sir Gerald Templer brought him into the Federal Executive Council there were sniggers. There were more when stories emerged from behind the secret doors of the Council chamber.

Wrong Papers

Such as Templer turning once angrily to Abdul Rahman and saying, “Tengku, I wish you’d read your papers”… such as Abdul Rahman suddenly joining a discussion and speaking lucidly for five minutes until someone interrupted and said, “Tengku, what papers have you got there?” and then Abdul Rahman apologising with his disarming smile, “Oh, dear, I’m afraid they’re last week’s.”

Today, Abdul Rahman admits he did not make a good Executive Councillor.

“I was not interested in anything except subjects which concerned UMNO, the Malays, or politics. I was not co-operating at all.”

Templer, perhaps solely among them all, felt Abdul Rahman had something—even if it was not visible at the time.

He offered him a portfolio because he contemplated expending the “member” system. Abdul Rahman refused, saying, “I am against your Government. I am fighting for freedom.

“I cannot work against the Government and at the same time accept a remunerative appointment.”

The Alliance had been in being for some time. Templer asked Abdul Rahman to nominate a Malay and a Chinese for two portfolios. Without consulting his executive committee because Templer had asked him to “keep it to yourself,” he nominated Dr. Ismail bin Dato Abdul Rahman and Col. H.S. Lee.

“I was confident that one day the Alliance would take over and I felt it would be a good thing for members to gain experience in the running of the Government,” he explained later.

He also had a lot of explaining—but of a different type—to do to the UMNO Executive who were furious at his undemocratic acquiescence of an “imperialist” behest.

When he became Chief Minister in 1955, Abdul Rahman began to slough off his vagaries, his inconsistencies, his whims and some of his capriciousness, but this took a little while. He is still settling to the stern necessity of thinking seriously before making public statements. 

His metamorphosis in the last six years is still a matter for wonder. In 1955, before the Federal elections, he was still regarded as a playboy politician. Very few people beyond his circle of intimate friends, considered him the man to watch in the future.

However, as occasionally happens when people have greatness thrust upon them, Abdul Rahman was able to assume the mantle with a certain naturalness and ability.

Of course he has his weaknesses. His biggest perhaps is his inability to understand financial matters, but he wisely and unhesitatingly falls back on his experts.

Abdul Rahman is still essentially a simple man.

On the eve of independence—the eve of the day which brought him to what he describes as “the end of my quest”—he could still talk simply, sincerely and honestly.

It was typical of him that when I asked him what he considered his best achievement in the years of his Chief Ministership, he should say, “I think I have given confidence to all Government servants and won their respects.”

A generous man, Abdul Rahman pays a tribute to his political opponent Dato Sir Onn bin Jafar. He said to me, “He must also be regarded as the builder of a nation. What he did for UMNO when he was its president, we must remember with gratitude.”

The Tengku has become a hard worker. He has never done so much work in all his life. He is up before sunrise and has a cup of strong tea. He quips, “I like my tea like I like my brandy—strong.”

His day is a hard one of meetings, discussions, writing minutes, dictating letters, receiving visitors.He likes to lunch at home so that he can “take a quick nap afterwards.”

Soon after five o’clock, he leaves his office, which is so conveniently situated just below his house, and returns home to Puan Shariffa Rodziah, his wife, and to their adopted children, of whom Meriam, a Chinese, is the apple of his eye.

Quite often, he takes her into his own little car, and goes for a drive, with himself at the wheel.

“It’s the only way I can go around incognito,” he declares. And he stops at the shop in Old Market Square and buys Meriam a chocolate, and then resumes his drive.

Will He Change?

Abdul Rahman has reached the pinnacle of his political career in an absurdly short time—from party leader to Chief Minister to Prime Minister in six years.

Will he change in character, will he dominate the Government, will he become dictatorial in the same way as Nkrumah, of Ghana, has done?

His close colleagues and friends do not think that he will change so violently. They agree he can be demanding and stubborn when he wants to, but despite this he will remain “a man of the people.”

Ask him what his ambition is, and he replies, “To serve the people and the country.”


Miller, Harry. “From playboy to Malaya’s first Prime Minister.” The Strait Times (Kuala Lumpur), August 31, 1957, A Strait Times Merdeka Special ed.: 10-11. Print.

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