ON an afternoon in September 2020 in the pouring rain, I made a special trip to interview Tun Dr Mohamed Salleh Abas at his Kuala Lumpur home in Wangsa Maju.
His daughter Azlina had kindly set up my appointment with her father as part of a series of interviews I was conducting in my work on national unity.
As a member of Team Ahli Pemikir (TAP) of Kementerian Perpaduan (Ministry of National Unity) headed by Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, I was meeting with the personalities who were directly involved in the formulation of the Rukun Negara.
Salleh was very much a part of the original committees which deliberated on the Rukun Negara’s objectives of forging unity, identifying its precepts and principles and drafting its final structure.
Salleh remembers that when the riots broke out on May 13, 1969 the country was thrown into a state of political chaos and civil disarray.
A state of emergency was declared with the dissolution of Parliament and an emergency administrative body, headed by Tun Abdul Razak as director of operations, was established to run the country.
The immediate task of the National Operations Council (NOP) was to restore security of the country and people reeling from the aftermath of the bloody interracial riots.
A closed-door forum the National Consultative Council (NCC) comprising representatives from the state governments, public servants, political parties and civil society groups was convened to address the factors that instigated the civil disturbances, and to come to a consensus on the “guidelines for interracial cooperation and social integration”.
As solicitor-general at the time Salleh was co-opted into several committees tasked with bringing the country back to order and restoring the rakyat’s confidence in its development.
The two areas identified as critical and needing urgent attention were the economy and national unity.
Salleh played an active role in the subcommittee responsible for writing and drafting the Rukun Negara whose precepts and principles were discussed in great detail by the main committees.
From the Attorney-General’s Chambers, the young Tun Salleh Abas was the legal mind, eye and voice to advice on matters of the law.
Fifty years on when was asked about the Rukun Negara, Salleh focused immediately on its purpose and why it was felt necessary at the time to prevent the occurrence of serious interracial alterations.
In his own words: “Rukun Negara was thought to be a prescription like an ubat (medicine) ... to bind the people together ... to make them love the country ... to participate together and build the nation.”
While agreeing that it was important to remind people of the Rukun Negara’s main aspirations or cita-cita of forging unity, Salleh was quick to add that equally meaningful are its five principles.
He expressed pride in the fact that the precepts such as Belief in God and Loyalty to King and Country are already entrenched in the value system of Malaysians of diverse faiths and religions.
With regard to Rule of Law and Supremacy of the Constitution, Salleh pointed out that Malaysia has a well-established legal and justice system reaffirmed by a sound Federal Constitution to regulate the lives of the people in achieving a peaceful, stable and prosperous society. He was confident that the rakyat would maintain their courtesy and morality as they are guided by strong cultural and religious mores, in their adat and adab.
It was refreshing indeed to hear Salleh’s rather positive assessment of the conduct and behaviour of Malaysians.
When asked to comment on modern-day thinking on concepts like atheism, liberalism and freedom of speech Salleh laughingly said people are free to think what they like as long as they understand and respect the views and rights of others.
In relation to the term “inclusive” his view was that the term does not mean we are expected to accept everyone unconditionally; rather, it means we are prepared to consider other people’s views however different they are from our own.
Generally, people must accept that living in a society comes with the commitment to abide by the country’s laws and conventions, the community’s customs and traditions.
Only then can any semblance of unity be achieved. Only then can consensus through consultation be reached.
In answer to the last question of what his hope was for Malaysia’s future and what his suggestion was on how best to achieve inter-ethnic harmony, Salleh despondently said the country’s future really lies in education, to bring people together from young through the primary schools and then secondary schools.
Salleh suggested that a good compromise in the national education system would be to have the first three to four years of primary education in the national language, with vernacular education being introduced at a later stage.
A great suggestion which the country’s policy makers, movers and shakers should and must pick up.
Fifty years after proclamation of the Rukun Negara on Aug 31, 1970 it was indeed an honour for me to meet Salleh and hear his reflections on the Rukun Negara and other related matters.
My husband and I were warmly welcomed by Toh Puan Junaidah and another daughter Natrah, and Salleh himself was most forthcoming in addressing the issues and in answering some of the rather pointed questions that were posed.
Contrary to my expectations that the legendary former Lord President and Chief Justice would be standoffish and dismissive of my lay views, I found Salleh to be an extremely attentive conversationalist, listening keenly and taking time to offer his comments. Al-Fatihah.
Halimah Mohd Said is a member of the Ministry of Unity’s Think Tank. Comments: email@example.com