Life has been good to the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan Tuanku Ja’afar Tuanku Abdul Rahman who celebrated his 86th birthday last Saturday.
I am told to be on time for my appointment with Negri Sembilan’s Yang di-Pertuan Besar Tuanku Ja’afar Tuanku Abdul Rahman because apparently His Royal Highness is a stickler for punctuality.
And sure enough, HRH arrives on time at 11am, the appointed hour.
Istana Hinggap, in the centre of Seremban, is an elegant colonial building, but Tuanku Ja’afar’s office is surprisingly compact, with a large desk, small sitting area, cabinet and TV. The interview takes place in the grand Dewan Mengadap (Reception Hall) but I take the liberty to comment on his relatively modest office.
“It is a working office, not a showpiece,” Tuanku Ja’afar says.
“I have an average of three functions (to perform) each day, including weekends, which can be even more hectic. I tend to be more busy on weekends when most people are relaxing. I work non-stop and then take a long break of one or two months.
“I usually go to Europe with the family; lately it’s been England. I have not been to the US since Bush became president,” he sighs.
I congratulate Tuanku Ja’afar on being Malaysia’s oldest ruler at 86 and what it feels like being on the throne for 41 years.
“It is difficult to say how I feel nowadays. Having reigned for so long, I think of my birthday as just another day. It’s the same thing year after year. I just carry on. There are many events, both official and private. I blow the candles on many birthday cakes and have a private party with my family, which numbers over 40 members now.”
Tuanku Ja’afar looks the picture of health despite his years. His voice is a tad softer now, but his figure remains trim and his mind alert. He has a sense of humour, too. When asked how he keeps hale and hearty, he quips, “Exercise and looking at young girls.”
“In life, you cannot expect things to go your way all the time. If something goes wrong, just accept it as ‘one of those things’! What cannot be cured must be endured.”
Tuanku Jaa’far, an Arsenal fan, is pleased when I note that his family is referred to as the Royal Family of Sports.
“I played all sorts of sports in school and was captain of the squash, cricket and tennis teams. I also played hockey, football and badminton. I excelled in games, not studies,” the law graduate and Chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia for 31 years notes wryly, adding that the sporting trait has been passed on to his children.
Malaysia’s 10th king
Tuanku Ja’afar was the 10th King of Malaysia, reigning as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong from 1994 to 1999, thereby completing the first cycle of Malaysia’s unique system of rotating monarchs which begun with his father.
Tuanku Abdul Rahman Tuanku Muhammad was Malaysia’s first King from 1957 to 1960 when he passed away while in office. The title Yang di-Pertuan Agong was inspired by Negri Sembilan’s royal title of Yang di-Pertuan Besar.
“My father Tuanku Abdul Rahman and our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman were great friends. Tunku discussed with my father what title to use for the King of Malaysia. As we already had Sultan, Raja and Yang di-Pertuan Besar titles, none of these could be used.
“There could not be a Sultan of Malaysia, for instance, so my father suggested something similar to his title of Yang di-Pertuan Besar, which means ‘Supreme Ruler’. Tunku Abdul Rahman liked the idea, so another word similar to Besar had to be found and, of course, it was Agong, which means ‘paramount’ so the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is ‘Paramount Ruler’.”
Tuanku Ja’afar said he was involved in the discussions over Merdeka (independence) in London.
“Tunku Abdul Rahman was demanding Malaysia’s independence and there were five Malayan representatives, including Temenggong Jugah from Sarawak. The British were dilly-dallying but Tunku insisted on a date. Many wondered why August 31 was selected but there was no particular reason.”
The fact that both the King and Prime Minister were named Abdul Rahman led to much confusion and letters were often misdirected, Tuanku Ja’afar recalled.
“It was to overcome this problem that Ayah (our name for our first Prime Minister) added Putra (‘Prince’) to his name so that he became known as Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, as though to emphasise that he was a prince, not a king.”
I ask Tuanku Ja’afar if 10 was a significant number for him since he is the 10th Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan and was also the 10th King of Malaysia, after having been deputy King for 10 years.
“I don’t put anything in this number. It’s just a nice coincidence!” he smiles.
Tuanku Ja’afar has fond memories from his time as King.
“As King, my state visits were most memorable. I visited Argentina, Chile and Uruguay in South America, and in Europe I visited Poland, Russia and met the Queen of England privately. In South-East Asia, I visited Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines but not Singapore.
“I must have met over 100 dignitaries and VIPs. The president of Germany told me, ‘Tuanku, you must come to Germany, not to see me, but the captain of our football team Beckenbauer!
“Once I attended a Commonwealth meeting in South Africa with Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the President of South Africa was also there. South Africa was then under Apartheid rule, and Tunku Abdul Rahman was all for dismantling it. In fact, he proposed that South Africa be kicked out of the Commonwealth.
“The South African president explained, ‘Our policy is not perfect but it makes for good neighbours’, to which Nehru of India retorted, ‘I won’t be your good neighbour because I have to go in separate buses and live in separate housing’. When we went to visit a waterfall, Prince Alexander of Ethiopia was not allowed to step down from the bus!
“He had to wait for us inside the bus because the police stopped him.”
“Things are getting expensive now. My suggestion is to create more land development so farmers can make money. Some Felda settlers now earn RM2,000 to RM6,000 a month. Sabah and Sarawak are doing it also on a big scale.
“People should cultivate the land and grow vegetables, fruit and flowers. Animal rearing, fish farms and raising chickens and cows are also good. In my day, people were much poorer and worked the land. Now all the smartly dressed young men prefer to work indoors in air-conditioned comfort as officers and administrators.”
He points to an astonished servant who has just entered carrying a tray of tea and cakes.
“He earns RM1,600 a month just carrying things and all that. Pay is lacking in some private sectors compared to government posts.”
Tuanku Ja’afar is against the idea of minimum wage.
“Malaysia is not ready for it yet. We are still not as rich as the western countries. Some people really work but others don’t want to work hard as they know they will still get the same pay, so it is not fair. Those who work hard and have the entrepreneurial spirit should be rewarded, not the lazy ones.”
He says corruption is a concern.
“Corruption is getting rife as some elements from the police and government servants could be involved. The Government is taking action, and it must be drastic. They must be seen to be taking action. Likewise, justice must be done and seen to be done!”
Surveying the current political scene, Tuanku Ja’afar sighs, “One is ambitious to be Prime Minister, one wishes to retain the post. This political game is very complex and difficult to forecast.
“We may have Tengku Razaleigh (Hamzah) and (Tan Sri) Muhyiddin (Yassin) in the Umno presidential race. In the papers, I read that Tun Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) has said (Datuk Seri) Najib (Tun Razak) will not be PM. The Malays are not united, and Umno needs to be resuscitated.
“My advice is to unite if possible. But one must lose, either Pak Lah (Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) or (Datuk Seri) Anwar (Ibrahim). We may have to choose between Umno and PKR while Pas is getting stronger. I would also advise Negri Sembilan people not to attend demonstrations as these things should be settled in Parliament.”
Meanwhile, we all wish Tuanku Ja’afar many more birthdays to come!