In the 1960s and 70s, it wasn't just the "domino effect" of communism that threatened the countries of South-East Asia. Autocrats were seizing power and overthrowing or reducing democracies to a shell all over the region: Ne Win in 1962 in Burma, Suharto in 1967 in Indonesia, Lon Nol in Cambodia in 1970 and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1972.
In Malaysia, parliamentary democracy was suspended in 1969, after the opposition did unprecedentedly well against the Malay-dominated governing coalition, leading to the May 13 race riots between ethnic Malay and Chinese that left hundreds dead. And all of this against the backdrop of an ongoing armed communist insurgency.
A state of emergency was declared, and a National Operations Council with supreme powers was set up to rule the country, headed by the long-serving deputy prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who became prime minister the following year.
And then, something extraordinary happened. In February 1971, 50 years ago last month, Tun Razak gave up his powers and reconvened Parliament. As his eldest son, the prime minister at the time, Najib Razak, said at a seminar in memory of his father in 2016: “Many others in that situation would have held onto those powers. Indeed, his actions went against the grain of many leaders in the world and this region at the time. But Tun Razak was a great democrat. He never wanted to use the powers he wielded – in fact he seemed fearful of them – and as soon as he could he sought to relinquish them.
“By 1971, peace and order had been restored in the country and Tun Razak willingly re-established parliamentary rule. That… saved Malaysia, and it saved Malaysian democracy from the fate that many other developing countries endured.”
Given the knife-edge racial tensions – due partly to the fact that Malays and other indigenous peoples were the majority but only owned three per cent of the country’s wealth in 1970, compared to the 27 per cent owned by the large Chinese ethnic minority – Tun Razak could easily have justified holding onto his autocratic powers. Many advised him to do so.
“There were sections of Umno” – the United Malays National Organisation, which anchored every administration continuously until 2018 – “that wanted the NOC to continue,” Tun Razak’s youngest son, the leading corporate figure and public intellectual Nazir Razak, tells me. “It was much easier to govern that way, and they feared a return to civil disorder.” But Tun Razak wouldn’t hear of it. “My father was a strong democrat,” says Mr Nazir. “He never envisaged a non-democratic Malaysia.”
Tun Razak and his deputy Tun Dr Ismail had a vision to “recalibrate”, as Mr Nazir puts it, the country’s foundations. The “Rukun Negara”, or national principles, were promulgated in 1970, and a New Economic Policy that aimed to reduce racial inequality was launched the following year. Both were supported by a National Consultative Council of 67 people from all sectors of society.
“They really robustly debated the causes, and what was needed to bring back a more stable politics,” says Mr Nazir. Part of the problem, he says, was that the Westminster-style governance structure Malaysia had been bequeathed by the UK “was designed for a homogenous society, not one where people view matters in racial terms. We needed to tweak it. Because it was unfettered racial and religious talk that had led to 1969".
Tariq Ismail, grandson of Tun Dr Ismail, says that the aim was to “glue back Malaysia’s fragile multiculturalism". He mentions a quote from his late grandfather’s memoirs: “Why did we fight for Merdeka [independence]? So that the different races can be divided? That can’t be the way, right? I hope the new discussions will start. What Malaysia are we building? What kind of symbol is Malaysia supposed to be?”
Tun Razak went on to form a huge parliamentary coalition that co-opted opposition parties in pursuit of national unity. Both he and Tun Dr Ismail died tragically young in office, but both are revered across the political spectrum in Malaysia to this day, to the extent that the current Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, ordered a state funeral to be given for Tun Razak’s widow when she died last December.
Their achievements resonate across the decades. Not just because they fought for an inclusive and equitable future for their young nation, and not just because the way they did so provides a model for others to follow. The consultative council is “useful for all countries to consider", according to Mr Nazir. “If the system gets into a jam and is no longer adequate, the kind of structural changes necessary cannot be done by elected representatives with short-term mindsets.”
But it is above all the example set by a leader who had untrammelled authority – and who then freely gave it up for something greater. As Tun Razak said: “Unless we restore power to where it properly belongs, and to the people through Parliament, all the struggle for independence, the struggle against communism, all that will have been in vain.”
Elina Noor, my former colleague at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies and now a director at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington, sums up Tun Razak’s contribution beautifully: “Perhaps the enduring lesson of that era is that the security of the nation cannot hinge on the insecurity of its leaders; that service to the nation means fidelity to its people and their choices; and that the nation is more than the state.”
Tun Razak is already honoured by being called the country’s “Father of Development”. Younger generations, and not just in Malaysia, should know about the distinguished public servant who may well have saved his nation’s democracy as well.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National