Rockstars of Malaysian politics

10 Oct 2022 08:00am
Prominent political figures of Malaysia
Prominent political figures of Malaysia
SHAH ALAM - Malaysia has witnessed 14 elections so far and with the political scene changing at a tremendous rate since the last elections, Sinar Daily looks at some of the country's political rockstars.

Some of them have left us in awe with their achievements and integrity while others have forced Malaysians to show their frustrations on the streets to demand freedom of expression and media, transparency and better governance.

Below are some of the politicians who helped shaped Malaysia for the better or worst.

1. Tunku Abdul Rahman

He freed Malaysia from the clutches of the British Crown. Tunku Abdul Rahman, aptly known as the Father of Independence was born on Feb 8, 1903, in Alor Setar, Kedah.

He was also of royal blood being the son of the 24th Kedah Sultan, Sultan Abdul Hamid Halimshah.

Aside from Malaysia's Independence being credited to his hard work, he also had many other contributions up his sleeves.

Before his venture into politics, he first served as an assistant district officer or district officer (DO) in several districts in Kedah.

In 1935, he was the DO in Kuala Nerang, Kedah and he fought for the betterment of healthcare services as he was alarmed by the rising malaria cases in that district. Unfortunately, his first wife died of malaria.
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His first participation in politics was after the Second World War when he fought to raise awareness for independence.

Tunku's main aim even from the start of his leadership was to foster cooperation and unity among Malays, Chinese and Indians in the country.

Prior to Malaysia's independence, he declared amnesty on Sept 9, 1955, for communist terrorists who surrendered voluntarily.

During the first general elections held in July 1955, Umno, MCA and MIC, they won 51 out of 52 contested seats. With that, Tunku Abdul Rahman led the Malaysian delegation consisting of four representatives of the Malay Rulers and four representatives of the Alliance Party to the British government to discuss Malaysia's independence which was finally achieved on Aug 31, 1957.

To maintain a regional friendship, he established the Southeast Asian Organisation (ASA) in 1961 comprising members from Malaya, the Philippines and Thailand and was later dissolved to make way for the establishment of Asean in 1967.

The racial conflict that blew on May 13, 1969, caused Tunku to suspend Parliament and declared a state emergency. The authoritative body Majlis Gerakan Negara (Mageran) was established to restore law and order following the incident.

Tunku remained the country's prime minister but Tun Abdul Razak Hussein was the director of Mageran.

Tunku resigned from his premiership in Sept 1970 and after being assured that the country would return to democracy, Mageran was dissolved. In February 1971, Tunku retired from politics.

2. Tan Cheng Lock

Founder and first president of MCA, Tan Cheng Lock was a Malaysian Peranakan businessman born in April, 1883 and devoted his life to the improving the rights and social welfare of the Chinese community in Malaya.

Prior to politics, he was active in the rubber business and founded three rubber companies, the United Malacca Rubber Estate Ltd., Malacca Pinda Rubber Estates Ltd. and Ayer Molek Rubber Company, Ltd.

Like many Straits-born Chinese, Tan was partial towards Britain but was deeply influenced by the idea of independence that were sweeping throughout British colonies at that time.

The ethnic Chinese were unhappy with the establishment of the Federation of Malaya as citizenships for both the Chinese and Indians were withdrawn. He then founded MCA alongside Tun Leong Yew Koh and Colonel Lee Hau Shik after world war two in 1949.

MCA's primary goal was for the Chinese population in Malaya to be united and to safeguard the rights and interests of the Chinese.

For a Malaya that embodies multi-ethnic cooperation, he realised having a partnership with Umno would be wise and worked together with Umno to form the Alliance party.

Tan's legacy was mostly remembered for his active advocacy in having a "united self-governing British Malaya" and a number of social causes like opposing opium smoking, urging for immigration policy reform, legislating against polygamy and forwarding Chinese vernacular education.

3. Tun Sambanthan

Tun V.T. Sambanthan was born on June 16, 1919, to a family of rubber planters as his father M.S. Veerasamy migrated to Malaya in 1896 to work in Sungai Siput, Perak.

Sambanthan's involvement in politics was fueled by his dreams to develop and unite the Indians in Malaya and with that ambition, he organised the United Indian Council of Perak in 1953. He was later appointed as the Perak Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) president.

Despite not being the MIC founder, he became a household name following the visit of Indian prime minister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit in 1954 to Malaya which boosted Sambanthan's name to contest for MIC presidential post in 1955.

He was later elected as the Sungai Siput MP in the same year.

He served as MIC president from 1955 to 1973 and while in power, he sold half of his rubber plantation to help both the Indian community and the party economically.

He also established the National Land Finance Co-operative Society (NLFCS) to uplift the socio-economic condition of Indians in Malaya.

After forming an alliance with Umno and MCA, MIC was given two seats in Batu Pahat, Johor, and Sungai Siput, Perak to contest in the first general elections. Sambanthan was appointed as the Labour Minister in the Alliance government.

During the formation process of the Federal Constitution in July 1957, Sambanthan reminded the council members that Malaya is a multiracial nation and urged more cooperation between racial communities.

4. Dr Mahathir Mohamad

The longest-ruling Prime Minister in Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamad rose to power twice firstly from July 1981 to October 2003 and later from May 2018 to March 2020.

He joined Umno upon turning 21 and ran a medical practice service for seven years before becoming a Parliamentary member in 1964. However, he was expelled from the party in 1969 after his open letter against the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

He also wrote a controversial book titled "The Malay Dilemma" where he argued that the Malays had been marginalised. His writings echoed the views of some Umno youth leaders.

Mahathir's long years of premiership saw Malaysia's political stability and various economic developments.

He introduced New Development Policy (NDP) in 1991 aimed at general economic growth and to eliminate poverty. He welcomed foreign investment, reformed the tax structure, reduced trade tariffs, and privatised numerous state-owned enterprises.

Malaysia prospered and faced rapid modernisation and economic growth under his care.

He was also responsible for major development projects like the Malaysian Twin Towers, to develop Putrajaya as the centre of Malaysia's public service as well as building a Formula One Grand Prix in Sepang.

In 2018, he fought to reopen the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal.

Mahathir also prioritised eradicating corruption and reduced spending on large infrastructure projects like those under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.

5. Anwar Ibrahim

Another prominent name in the Malaysian political sphere is definitely Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

His first step into politics started when he became one of the founders of an youth organisation called Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim) and after joining Umno, he held several high-profile positions in his political career from the 1980s to late 1990s.

Anwar's first major post was as culture, youth and sports minister in 1983 followed by agriculture minister in 1984. He was appointed as the education minister in 1986.

While in education ministry, he introduced various policies to strengthen the national school curriculum and renamed Bahasa Malaysia to Bahasa Melayu.

However, that initiative invited criticisms from the non-Malays who voiced concerns as the younger generation would feel detached from the national language.

He was also appointed as the 25th President of Unesco's General Conference.

He was deemed an Islamist by former law minister Zaid Ibrahim due to his efforts to Islamise the government and education system.

One of his financing strategies was his refusal to offer government bail-outs.

From March to September 1998, he became the chairman of the Development Committee of World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Unfortunately in the same year, he was removed from his position deputy prime minister's position by Mahathir.

he eventually started his Reformasi movement against the government.

He was convicted on April 1999 for sodomy and corruption and was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA), spending 20 months in the Kamunting Detention Centre.

Anwar's Reformasi movement consisted of several mass demonstrations and rallies against BN and led to the formation of Keadilan, a multiracial party. Keadilan joined hands with Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) and formed Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) led by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as the President.

PKR won 31 seats in the 2008 general election making it Malaysia's largest opposition party. In April, PKR formed Pakatan Rakyat coalition with Pas and DAP.

6. Karpal Singh

Karpal Singh or the "tiger of Jelutong" was the Bukit Gelugor MP from 2004 to 2014. He was also the National Chairman of DAP.

His political venture started in 1970 after the 1969 racial riots as he was convinced that Malaysia needed to take the multiracial path to solve racial issues in Malaysia. He contested in elections under the DAP ticket in Jelutong and was elected to Parliament in 1978.

He held the position for more than 20 years until his defeat in 1999.

The lawyer was a staunch fighter against the death penalty, especially for drug trafficking cases.

Karpal had defended various high-profile cases such as drug-trafficking charges against foreign nationals and sodomy accusation against Anwar.

He was true to his title of being the "tiger of Jelutong" for his consistency to criticise certain matters on legal immunity for the Malaysian royals which was later abolished in 1993.

He also fought for media freedom against Mahathir.

He further clashed with Mahathir and Pas on the status of Malaysia as an Islamic state as under the constitution Malaysia is a secular nation with Islam as the official religion.

Karpal was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in October 1987 under Operation Lalang and he was found guilty of inciting "racial tensions" in Malaysia.

Despite being a controversial figure, Karpal was known to be "a friend to the oppressed and marginalised" and was fiercely known for pioneering in drug trafficking and habeas corpus cases, and for opposing the death penalty.

7. Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat

Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat or Datuk Tuan Guru was born in 1931 at Kampung Pulau Malaka, some 20 kilometres away from Kota Bharu, Kelantan.

He was very much known for his humble lifestyle despite his long years in politics. He dressed in his simple robes and sarong to mirror the lifestyle of the people.

Nik Aziz's political career started after winning the Kelantan Hilir state seat in 1967. In 1968, he was elected as the chairman of the central Pas Ulama Council replacing Datuk Tuan Guru Husain Rahim's the latter's death.

He retained the position until his life in 2015.

Nik, the former Kelantan Menteri Besar made sure Pas' had a people-centric vision and mission which saw the party gaining popularity.

In the education sector, he was unhappy with how the education system had become stagnant where he observed several schools and boarding schools in both Kelantan and other states had been adopting the mono-material curriculum which meant that the institution only taught one particular discipline, such as either Hadith, Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), Tafsir (interpretation) or Tasawwuf (Sufism) only.

He felt the exposure was limited and adopted a curriculum he studied in Egypt which included Tafsir, Hadith, Fiqh, Usul Fiqh (principles of Islamic Jurisprudence), Sufism and political thought to be studied in one academic year.

He also proposed to implement Islamic laws in the legislation, especially on the application of Hudud laws (Islamic criminal law) in Kelantan. His proposal sparked quite a heated debate among Umno leaders as they had been ruling over criminal matters in accordance with the English Common Law.

Nik Aziz was also active in his campaign against tobacco farming but he could not outrightly ban the farming as it was one of the biggest revenues of Kelantan so he advised people not to use the money from profits of tobacco cultivation for pilgrimage to Mecca, implicitly saying the profits were from illegal means for Muslims.

He tried to introduce alternative crops such as potatoes, maize for cattle fodder, chilies, sweet potatoes and vegetables.

8. Tun Daim Zainuddin

Tun Daim Zainuddin was a businessman and former finance minister from 1984 to 1991. He was the youngest out of 13 siblings born in Alor Setar, Kedah on April 29, 1938.

Daim started as an aspiring businessman and entrepreneur by undertaking various projects like salt production, land and property development and also in plastics production. Apart from business, he had an eye for politics which started while he was still in university, although not directly, he echoed shared interests with friends on rising political issues like independence and post-independence implications on the socio-economic and religious condition of Malaysian society.

His first step in politics was his involvement as the appointed lawyer for the Governor of Sarawak for a case against the chief minister of that state and he assisted with drafting the governor's statement. Impressed by his legal skills and political knowledge, he was offered the Sungai Petani seat but rejected the offer in preference of establishing his name in the business world.

Daim was also a close companion to the fourth and seventh prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1978, the former premier urged him to contest in the general election.

In 1980, then prime minister Tun Hussein Onn elected Daim as a Senator.

What truly boosted his political career was during the 1982 general elections where within just two years, he was appointed as the finance minister.

In early 1980s,Malaysia was hit by a severe global recession due to the US Federal Reserve’s contractionary monetary policy against rising inflation rates. Malaysia's financial management under Daim saw him implementing stricter policies to boost country's economy.

Under his financial leadership, the federal government was able to pay off external debts faster than scheduled which no other developing nation was able to do.

In his financial reforms from 1986 to 1991, he applied four strategies specifically the mobilisation of the private sector, having proactive external policies, the supportive role of the private sector and the recovery of public enterprises.

He became the government's economic advisor after stepping down from his position as finance minister in 1990 but returned during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 to lead an emergency task force.

He resumed the position of finance minister from 1998 until 2001.

Daim and Mahathir were a force to reckon with and it was said that if Mahathir was the mastermind, Daim was his executioner.

9. Muhyiddin Yasin

Pagoh MP and the eighth prime ministerMuhyiddin Yasin was born on May 15, 1947. His journey as the eighth premier had been a rocky ruling of only 17 months from March 1, 2020 to Aug 16, 2021. Under his leadership, there was political instability and he also had to deal with Covid-19 pandemic.

However, prior to his premiership, Muhyiddin was also responsible for some of the developments in Malaysia.

As the Johor menteri besar from 1986 to 1995, the Johor state economy grew at nine per cent with full employment. He also empowered the Islamic Syariah by upgrading Syariah courts and mosques and the position of court officials were raised.

He also increased the teaching staff in religious schools by introducing Kursus Perguruan Asas Guru Agama Kerajaan Johor Darul Ta'zim.

As the youth and sports minister, he initiated the Rakan Muda programme involving 10 healthy lifestyles as part of the Wawasan 2020 development blueprint. The programme had a whopping 500,000 registrations just six months after launching.

Muhyiddin also led a clean-up operation of the football corruption within the sports and youth ministry which saw over 100 footballers being arrested and persecuted for corruption.

He created a 36 per cent increase in new businesses in his first year as the domestic trade and consumer affairs (KPDNHEP) minister. He also introduced the Goods Price Fixation Scheme and succeeded to ensure that the supply of necessities was always sufficient and at a reasonable price.

Muhyiddin also implemented the Consumer Protection Act 1999 (Act 599) to regulate business activities and provide protection to consumers.

One of his efforts as the agriculture and agro-based industry minister was to boost agricultural activities and to change the mindset of people that agricultural entrepreneurship was lucrative. The Malaysian Agricultural Park was also upgraded to become the Shah Alam National Botanical Garden making it the world's largest agro-tourism park with an area of ​​813 hectares.

During his appointment as the home affairs minister, he terminated the Employment and Resettlement Programme for Illegal Immigrants in June, 2018 and introduced the 3+1 voluntary surrender programme to give illegal immigrants the opportunity to return back to their home country.

Being the eighth prime minister at the height of the Covid-19 infection, one of his major response plans was the implementation of the Movement Control Order (MCO) on March 16, 2020 to contain the infections. He also introduced an economic stimulus package worth RM 250 billion on March 27 to soften the economic pressure during the MCO.

On May 1, 2020 in conjunction with Labour Day, Muhyiddin announced the Conditional Movement Control Order (PKPB) where certain economic sectors were allowed to operate gradually as long as the standard operating procedures (SOPs) were followed.

10. Rafizi Ramli

The PKR deputy president have been actively involved in politics from his university days ans joined PKR after Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister in 1998.

He contested the Pandan parliamentary seat in 2013 general election but did not contest in the 2018 election due to pending appeal of his 30-month jail sentence for leaking the bank details of the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) and its chairman.

Apart from that, he has exposed several government scandals like the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal involving former Women, Family and Community Development Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil for misusing RM250 million public funds meant for a state cattle ranch in Gemas, Negeri Sembilan.

Other scandals include awarding over-priced closed tender projects and purchasing overpriced assets.

He was also in favour of lower petrol prices and criticised the government in its decision to end petrol subsidies in 2014. For him, ending the subsidies would only benefit oil companies and petrol station owners but not the people.

Rafizi was also the founder of the National Oversight and Whistleblowers Centre (Now), a whistleblower organisation and Invoke Malaysia, an election volunteer organisation.