I can still remember vividly on the evening of Jan 14, 1976 when the late Tun Hussein Onn appeared on RTM, with tears in his eyes, announcing the demise of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein in a hospital in London.
As one who was very close to him, and his deputy, in addition to being the in-law of Tun Razak’s wife, Tun Hussein found it most painful to convey the message which had shocked him and other Malaysians. Many a time, he stopped and wept during the announcement.
A couple of days later, as I stayed glued in front of my black and white television at home in Muar, focused on the aircraft bearing the body of Tun Razak from London approaching the runaway, it was my turn to sob.
Watching the flag-draped coffin of Tun Razak with great state respect and care being carried away from the aircraft, with thousands of people waiting outside the Subang airport terminal to pay their last respects, my heart was uttering, “.... here is a statesman, a leader who dedicated all his life, without heed to his state of health, to the development of his country and his people .....”
It was bitingly ironic that, as Tun Razak was on his deathbed, Kuala Lumpur was still claiming that he was on holiday. During his long career in public service, beginning as a civil servant in his home state Pahang and subsequently a politician, he took very little rest.
The clumsy attempt to conceal that he was critically ill and the reason for the desperate dash to Paris, and then London were possibly in deference to his desire not to worry or upset the people of Malaysia.
The situation seemed almost calculated to create rumours.
It had been known for some time that he had been unwell and photographs had shown that he had lost a great deal of weight, but few realised the serious condition of his health. Tun Razak had gone first to Paris and then London for treatment for leukaemia, a disease which was diagnosed six years earlier but kept highly confidential.
Tun Razak, had in 1970, been given less than six years to live, but he had seemingly held his own against the encroachment of the disease.
He had kept the knowledge of his ailment to himself and to only one or two others throughout those years. One was his deputy, Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, who was a medical doctor.
For many years, while travelling, especially on overseas trips, Tun Razak was always accompanied by his British doctor, Dr Stewart MacPherson, who was a close friend of Tun Dr Ismail.
In mid-1975 people close to Tun Razak or those who often met him began to notice a change in him. He was looking more tired, his bush jackets hung loose on his shoulders as he grew gaunt. His jowls began to sag.
The disease was progressing faster, but he refused to tell the people, even his close aides. His mind was still churning with ideas, projects and proposals. This was a man in a hurry to accomplish as much as he could for the nation in the short time he had.
Government servants often withered under his grilling as he was efficient and he wanted others to be as efficient as he was. After the first few years of his premiership, Tun Razak probably knew that the time left for him to complete his dreams and visions was limited.
Towards the end of 1975, his condition deteriorated. He carried on with his job as if nothing was amiss. But, he spent more and more time at home with his family and less at the office.
It was one night in December, with only a few close aides in attendance, that he boarded a French aircraft specially diverted from Singapore to pick him up. He had left the country on his final journey.
When Tun Razak entered the London Clinic on Dec 22, 1975, his condition was so serious that he was diagnosed not to last beyond Christmas Day. However, he rallied and appeared to be progressing well until Sunday, Jan 12, when he had a relapse from which he never recovered.
His eldest son, Datuk Seri Najib, was told of his father’s terminal illness three weeks earlier, but he never told his mother. Toh Puan Rahah knew that death was imminent only a week before. His death came quickly on Jan 14.
Tun Razak never did develop a genial political style. But, by the time he died, at 53, he had become an effective leader for Malaysia, as well as one of the most influential political figures in all of Southeast Asia. His domestic policies, aimed at improving life for the country’s rural population, earned him the title “Father of Development” and had produced a steadily growing economy.
He daringly pursued an innovative and independent foreign policy course, steering Malaysia from an ardent pro-Western stance zealously protected by his predecessor Tunku Abdul Rahman, to non-alignment.
His demise was in the same week as that of Chou En-lai of China. Asia had lost two prominent regional figures at one time. Both had much in common. It was said that both were singularly free from the egoistical ambitions of most politicians, very loyal when they were deputies, but showed their charismatic capabilities when they held top leadership. Both practised arduously the belief that actions spoke louder than words and were essentially executives, efficient implementers rather than creators of policies.
In many ways, Tun Razak had been the country’s top executive for almost two decades. As one of Asia’s efficient administrators, at times accepting several ministerial responsibilities, he made sure to push through plans and projects and to keep the files moving.
He was a brilliant manager. He travelled constantly throughout the country to see how projects were progressing. He would talk to the people to find out what impact his government was having on their lives. Malaysia’s high degree of organisational effectiveness was his monument. When he died, the country mourned. Here was a man who had unselfishly contributed the whole of his working life for the benefit of his fellow countrymen.
Tun Razak was a remarkable man with many achievements to his credit. A true architect of his country’s development. His contribution to his nation is legendary.
The writer , a former lecturer of UiTM, Shah Alam and International Islamic University Malaysia (UIA), Gombak, is the author of the book ‘Tun Abdul Razak: A Phenomenon in Malaysian Politics, A Political Biography’