On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Let’s march on as Rakyat Malaysia

But he was a larger-than-life figure to me. I held him in awe and even reverence whenever I visited him at his house and, as a veteran politician, he must have noticed that.

The Tunku was no longer newsworthy but as the former premier and chairman of our company, he insisted that the newspaper ensured that he would be in the news. He also wanted to be referred to as the first prime minister.

The coverage was limited to courtesy calls from various organisations and old friends of his. It was a lonely job because The Star reporter would be the only one there and the job often fell on me, being the most junior reporter in the Penang bureau.

But it allowed me to be up close and personal with the Tunku. I spent hours talking to him in his study filled with books and papers. Sometimes he would just ask me to sit outside, when he wanted privacy, as he read his column using a magnifying glass.

It was not easy as many times we had difficulty trying to converse, what more understand each other. He could no longer remember names, let alone dates, of personalities involved in major events. His critics had by then called him senile.

But when his mood allowed, he would give me a history lesson and I felt privileged as this was the man who lived through it. I did not realise the importance of it all until years later.

He was a kind man, always making sure that I was properly treated as his guest but what struck me most was his constant reminder that Malaysians must tolerate each other in a multiracial society.

Pragmatic and easygoing, he enjoyed his poker and horse racing.

The Tunku's staff was almost entirely made up of non-Malays. There was his ADC Owen Chung, his secretary the late Mrs Bernadette Lee, clerk Hassan Abdullah and his driver, whom I remember as Muthu.

There was also a female Chinese cook who took care of his meals while Muthu's son, Appu, served drinks and snacks to guests  and attended to the needs of the Tunku.

The message he continuously drove into me and my colleagues was that he was the happiest prime minister and that moderation must be defended at all costs and that religious extremism had no place in our country.

Fast forward to 2005. Last week, I had the opportunity of sitting down with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for dinner, together with a group of editors. I had covered him as a political reporter, lost my job for five months when he revoked The Star's permit in 1987, travelled with him overseas, talked to him privately about Anwar Ibrahim hours after the then deputy premier was sacked, and interviewed him in his final days as prime minister.

The dinner was special because it was our first meeting after I wrote an article in May questioning him on his handling of corruption during his 22 years as prime minister.

He was upset and had called a press conference to rebut my article. In that same press conference, he also talked about the allocation of approved permits, which is still unfinished business.

I apologised if my piece had offended him but Dr Mahathir laughed and patted me on my shoulder, preferring not to dwell on the past. He turned 80 years old recently while I am now 44 years old.

As the conversation flowed through dinner, we found the man to be still as we knew him as journalists – witty, sarcastic, meticulous, and sharp. He remembered figures, dates, events and decisions he had made.

He was in his element and answered our questions frankly and filled many gaps in history, which we promised we would jot down in our diaries. But like the Tunku, he too spoke passionately about moderation.

He was perceived as an ultra nationalist when he became Prime Minister in 1981 but by the time he retired, he was well regarded by the non-Malays, especially the Chinese. He told us that made him happy and appreciated, which he described as one of the satisfying  milestones of his career.

Those of us who know Malaysian history would be aware that the Tunku and Dr Mahathir were never close buddies. Dr Mahathir's criticism of the Tunku got him expelled from Umno in 1969 while the Tunku openly spoke at Semangat 46's ceramah against Dr Mahathir.

But like the Tunku, Dr Mahathir is practical and has no time for religious extremism. He makes no bones about his disdain of Muslims who are more concerned with ritual, appearances and form than the principles of Islam.

As Malaysians celebrate National Day, we must remind our young, as well as our politicians, that this country is founded on the blood, sweat and toil of our forefathers from all ethnic groups.

It was the moderation of the Umno, MCA and MIC leaders who understood the importance of sharing political power. It was the  Malay padi farmers and fishermen, the Chinese mining workers and Indian rubber tappers of the early days who brought Malaysia to what it is today.

That racial distinction is gone today in corporate Malaysia and more than ever, Ali, Ah Chong and Muthu are working together in business. There is no shame in combining our resources.

For the Tunku and Dr Mahathir, their only concern was who could do the job, whether political or economic, and not their ethnic background. It was national interest first. That same belief has been continued by Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

We have always been partners and we should be partners as fellow Malaysians if we want to compete on the global stage effectively. The more we remind ourselves that as Malaysians we should not dwell on our racial background, the better we would be.

After 48 years of independence, most of us have grown tired of listening to worn-out communal and religious arguments from politicians. This is 2005; let's get our act together to march on as Rakyat Malaysia.