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Symbol of a new generation (Raja Zainal Raja Sulaiman)

Millennium markers - Personalities

BETWEEN the two World Wars (1918-1939) of the 20th century emerged a new generation of Malays who took their place in the modern world of commerce and industry created by British colonialism.

This new generation was small in number but high in quality. Their small numbers was the result of scanty opportunities for higher education under the colonial regime.

For talented Malays without the resources, the only opportunity to go to university came in the form of the Queen's Scholarship which was offered in the Federated Malay States (FMS).

Every year, the two most outstanding students from the English-medium schools would be given the scholarships. One of the scholarships was open to all races, while the other was restricted to Malays.

Of the Malays who managed to get a university education, most studied law, joining the Malayan Civil Service (MCS) upon their return.

Even so, by 1940 there were only 20 Malays compared with 120 Europeans in the civil service. Those who survived the war and the Japanese Occupation were well-placed to form the administrative elite when Merdeka came in 1957.

The number of Malays with a pre-war university education who took up medicine and returned home as qualified physicians formed a mere handful, while a Malay presence at professional levels in technical fields such as engineering was non-existent.

Thus it came as something of a surprise to Bazell, headmaster of the Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, in 1928 when one of his students told him that he wanted to become an electrical engineer.

The student was Raja Zainal Raja Sulaiman, a scion of the Selangor royal family. Like nearly all his classmates at college, he aspired to join the MCS but as told that he was too young and would have to wait his turn.

Raja Zainal was disappointed but he had already acquired an interest in electrical engineering. One reason for this interest was the experience he had gained in using electrical apparatus when put in charge of the projection equipment and generating set that Bazell had acquired for cinema shows held at the college.

His interest was also fuelled by a course in motor mechanics which was conducted by an Australian engineer engaged in the construction of the Iskandar Bridge near Kuala Kangsar at the time.

What was remarkable about Raja Zainal's choice of career was that electrical engineering was a field which the Malays then never showed any interest in or aptitude for.

Equally remarkable was Bazell's own open attitude, for he did everything to help Raja Zainal achieve his ambition once he was satisfied that Raja Zainal was really keen on such a career.

Bazell got Williams, director of the Electrical Department, FMS, to take in Raja Zainal as an apprentice at Bangsar power station, Kuala Lumpur.

Bazell was also instrumental--with the help of Lornie, the British Resident Selangor--in getting a scholarship for Raja Zainal to study electrical engineering at Birmingham University in England.

So Raja Zainal went off to England to study electrical engineering in 1930 and returned in 1935 as the first Malay electrical engineer in the country.

Raja Zainal joined the Electrical Department as a technical assistant. Three years later, he got his first executive post as Consumers' Engineer in Ipoh.

Raja Zainal remained in the Electrical Department for the whole of his career, moving up the ladder as the country's electrical industry expanded by leaps and bounds, particularly after the Japanese Occupation and the Electrical Department of the FMS evolved into the National Electricity Board (NEB), the predecessor of today's Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB). Finally, in 1964 he became General Manager of the NEB, the first Malaysian to hold that post.

Raja Zainal's career provides a copybook illustration of the typical career of a good number of Malays who were fortunate and capable enough to receive higher education prior to 1941.

Cynics might say that the members of that generation, born with golden spoons in their mouths, could hardly go wrong. But it should be remembered that the academic standards demanded of the graduates of the 1920s and 1930s--particularly in British universities--were much higher than those expected of graduates (whether locally or overseas) today.

In the case of pre-war Malay aspirants, only the most brilliant got chosen and only the most brilliant survived. Moreover, during the course of their careers they were called upon to face unprecedented situations and challenges.

The first great challenge came with the Japanese invasion and occupation. Raja Zainal, like all his Malayan colleagues, went to earth during the first few days of Japanese rule.

But because they were trained technicians, they were indispensable to the Japanese in restoring and maintaining vital electricity supplies.

In the case of Raja Zainal, he was tracked down to his Kuala Langat kampung, interviewed by the new Japanese governor of Selangor, and posted back to Bangsar as Consumers' Engineer.

Raja Zainal served the Electricity Department throughout the whole of the Occupation. He was not a Japanese collaborator; he had no choice for he was maintaining an essential public service.

However, the experience greatly enhanced his pragmatic knowledge and skills which stood him in good stead after the war.

In the circumstances prevailing after the war, the energies of all concerned in the Electricity Department--now known as the Central Electricity Board (CEB) which was responsible for electricity supply to the whole Peninsula--were focused on the rehabilitation and extension of supply to meet ever-rising demands.

Against this background, Raja Zainal owed his rapid rise in the post-war years to his pre-war status and experience, honed by the exigencies of the Japanese Occupation. He was the natural choice, as a Malay, for the top post when Sharples, the last British general manager of the NEB, left in 1964.

Raja Zainal was general manager for 10 years until he finally retired in 1974. Those were years of trial and travail. To cope with the great variety of serious and urgent problems that he met, he required the skills of a diplomat rather than those of an electrical engineer.

Raja Zainal had to manage a dynamic but somewhat fractious senior (Malaysian) staff who belonged to a younger and different generation.

He was confronted by the problems caused by the Indonesian Confrontation, the May 13 incident, the great Kuala Flood of 1971 which knocked out 90 sub-stations in the city. Any one of these could have easily thrown the whole NEB organisation into disarray.

There were nagging labour issues complicated by the Suffian and Harun Commissions' Reports, issues of re-organisation to improve services and efficiency, the need to improve public relations, and the issue of implementation of the national language.

There were debates over the use of nuclear power and government encroachment on the NEB's professional autonomy. Above all, there was the problem of maintaining the basic function of the NEB--to supply electricity at a reasonable cost.

This was Raja Zainal's experience, symbolic of the experiences undergone by those of his generation in other spheres, for which none of them had been specially trained. But they all coped.

In Raja Zainal's case, despite all these problems and issues, the number of NEB consumers quadrupled, in tandem with the units of electricity sold and the generating capacity. All these proved the effectiveness of his stewardship.

The most eloquent testimony to Raja Zainal's achievement was seen in the fact that Tun Abdul Razak, as prime minister, had turned down two of Raja Zainal's requests to retire before finally releasing him in 1974.

Raja Zainal, who passed away early last month, was a worthy symbol of the achievements of the generation of Malays who emerged as an educated elite in the years between the wars, and subsequently helped lay the foundations of an independent nation.

 Muzaffar Tate is a historian who has written books on various events in Malaysian history. Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years.

Pix: Raja Zainal (seated,in white suit) poses with Electrical Department meter readers in 1937.

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