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A benchmark for integrity (Tan Siew Sin)

Millennium markers - Personalities

RIGHTEOUSNESS was a virtue literally worshipped by my father, the late Tun Tan Siew Sin. On a wall high above the first altar in our ancestral home in Malacca hangs a plaque inscribed with two large characters: the spirit of righteousness.

And under the plaque hangs a painting featuring Guan Yu, an enduring symbol from Chinese literature of steadfast loyalty and righteousness, and Zhang Fei. The two characters, along with another called Liu Bei, swore an oath of brotherhood in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a novel depicting 60 years of constant warfare, shifting alliances and frequent betrayals.

Nurtured in such an environment, my father grew up with a high regard for the Confucian precept that "trustworthiness is close to righteousness''. That is why he derived greater satisfaction from his reputation for intellect, integrity and incorruptibility than from the fact that his 15-year tenure as Finance Minister was record-breaking in its length.

As finance minister, he refused to allow my mother to subscribe for shares offered in an initial public offering (IPO). To avoid allegations of preferential treatment, my mother suggested she could apply for the IPO shares in her maiden name. My father vetoed the idea. The wife of the Minister of Finance, he said, should avoid giving even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Not surprisingly, corruption was a concern frequently articulated in my father's speeches.

"Nothing can be more depressing and self-destroying than to see significant sums of income-generating capital leaking through the cracks of corruption, while the people continue to be deprived of the fruits of economic development,'' he said (in a speech entitled The Need for Dedicated Civil Servants, delivered in February 1968).

As finance minister, my father regarded himself as a trustee of public funds. For this reason, he was extremely tight-fisted with government expenditure. Occasionally, the result was personal discomfort. A few streetwise wives of Malaysian ambassadors realised the best way to emphasise the need for more funds to refurbish an embassy was to let my father sit on the most decrepit chair available!

Yet another of his concerns was inflation. The greatest achievement, he often said, was that Malaysia enjoyed "growth without inflation with a promise of greater growth to come.''

At a seminar for senior government officials in June 1980, my father recalled his consternation when informed by Datuk Malek Merican - a senior Treasury official who traditionally helped my father draft the budget speech - that inflation had risen to 3.2% in 1972.

"I regarded that figure as catastrophic, because for the previous 20 years, our cost of living index rose by less than 1% per annum but this did not prevent our economy from growing rapidly.''

One particular economic statistic gave my father tremendous satisfaction: during a five-year period, car ownership doubled while motorcycle ownership increased five times. The stunning growth in motorcycle ownership was significant, my father said, because this indicated economic growth had filtered down to the lower middle-income group.

Another source of pride was the premium the ringgit commanded against the Singapore dollar. In June 1973, both the Singapore dollar and the ringgit were floated. Previously, both currencies were traded on an equal basis: one ringgit for one Singapore dollar. By the end of 1973, the Singapore dollar was worth just 98.67 sen.

On the political front, during my father's tenure as MCA president, the party enjoyed unprecedented influence in government with Cabinet portfolios in Finance, and the then Commerce and Industry, Housing, and Health ministries.

Yet another tangible achievement, one that influenced a new generation of potential leaders, was the establishment of the Tunku Abdul Rahman (TAR) College. Installed as the first president of TAR college in 1972, my father said the college gave "new hope to those who would otherwise not be able to further their studies.'' Equally noteworthy was the fact that the college came into being within nine months, a feat achieved, my father said, through the hard work of MCA's Deputy President, the late Tan Sri Khaw Kai Boh and his team.

Life was not entirely smooth sailing, of course. Both in politics and economics, my father experienced several crises. Politically, this included Singapore's Separation in 1965, the loss of Penang (to then Opposition party Parti Gerakan Rakyat) in the May 1969 elections and the ensuing racial riots. Economically, a major challenge was the 14.3% devaluation of the sterling-linked ringgit in November 1967.

As an individual, my father was strongly influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism. One of his favourite maxims was: "If you hurt others, you hurt yourself; if you help others, you help yourself.''

Work or political commitments were seldom, if ever, allowed to interfere with the Confucianist practice of ancestral worship, an observance he observed unfailingly even though it required visiting the ancestral graves and altar in Malacca.

To enhance our appreciation of ancestral worship, my father used to tell my sisters and I about our ancestors. He took special pride in his great grandfather, Tan Choon Bock's refusal to tender for the running of gambling and opium dens in the late 18th century, a refusal that stemmed from his belief that money made from the misery of others would harm his descendants. Instead, Tan Choon Bock chose to make money the cleaner but harder way - by operating one of the earliest steamship services in this region at that time.

As a religion, Buddhism appealed to my father's intellect. He admired its anti-materialistic philosophy as well as its emphasis on tolerance and compassion for the less fortunate.

All these beliefs were reflected in his policies and the manner in which he steered the Finance Ministry and Malaysia's economy.

Thirteen years after my father's death, there are no roads named after him, no mementoes of his tenure in government or in the MCA. However, his name will live on in history as the man who set a benchmark for integrity in his stewardship of the economy and of the MCA.

Next week: Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, architect of the National Economic Policy

* 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; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF - : This week's Millennium Markers article continues the series on people involved in events and in formulating policies that had a significant effect on the founding and development of Malaysia. TAN SIOK CHOO, granddaughter of Malayan Chinese Association leader Tun Tan Cheng Lock, writes about her father, Tun Tan Siew Sin, and how his strong belief in honesty shaped Malaysia's Finance Ministry during his long tenure as minister there.

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