SEATED comfortably in the living room in his house at Persiaran Duta, Kuala Lumpur, Tun Omar Yoke Lin Ong recalls with great precision the important events that Malaya's first Cabinet was involved in during its pursuit of independence; the 84-year-old has no problem remembering the challenges he and his fellow ministers faced in forming a stable government.
The first tentative steps towards that objective were taken in 1952. Omar (then Ong Yoke Lin) was chairman of the MCA liaison committee of Selangor then. Umno in Kuala Lumpur was led at the time by Datuk Yahya Razak, a classmate of Omar's at Victoria Institution.
During the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Elections that year, Omar and Yahya proposed an alliance between Umno and MCA to face the challenge from Datuk Onn Jaafar's Independence of Malaya Party (IMP).
"The Tunku (Abdul Rahman Putra), then Umno president, gave us his wholehearted support,'' explains Omar.
Tun Tan Cheng Lock's position, however, was less clear. Tan, who was MCA national president, was also a member of the IMP. "His son, (Tun Tan) Siew Sin,'' Omar recollects, "came to one of our rallies and asked to use the microphone. He proceeded to warn us not to use his father's name in vain.''
Tan Cheng Lock, like many MCA members, was attracted to the IMP's open, multi-racial membership.
History books mostly credit Tun Sir H.S. Lee as the architect of the "Kuala Lumpur Alliance'' as he was then Selangor MCA chairman. However, it is clear that there were many individuals responsible for the founding of the historic Umno-MCA alliance for the KL election.
Perhaps those most responsible are the voters in Kuala Lumpur. They settled all doubts when they gave the alliance nine of the 12 seats in the council.
The formula stood the test of the 1952 Municipal Election and became the model for a national-level alliance. That year, the MIC, under the leadership of the late Tun V.T. Sambanthan joined the alliance, further strengthening it.
The founding of the Alliance Party based on the formula of multi-racial cooperation demonstrated by the earlier alliance in KL was an instant hit with the people. The IMP's defeat revealed that Datuk Onn's vision of a multiracial party was ahead of its time. Voting patterns were still very much determined along racial lines at this time. Thus, racial cohabitation under the Alliance Party umbrella gave each race confidence and opportunity for participation in government.
Omar, however, felt that Onn's departure from Umno was a loss to that party even though "many members of the executive committee of Umno opposed his proposal to open Umno to the non-Malays.''
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, with support from Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, then approached the Tunku to lead Umno.
The Tunku really knew what the people wanted then, said Omar, because, once at
Umno's helm, the Tunku changed the party's slogan from "Hidup Melayu (Long Live the Malays)'' to "Merdeka (Independence)''.
"Merdeka was such a powerful force. It galvanised the people and transcended race.''
The ultimate test, however, was the first national election in 1955. According to Omar, the British never thought the Alliance Party would win with such an overwhelming majority.
"They had hoped for a divided victory and, thus, a weak government. When the Alliance won 51 out of 52 seats, Merdeka was in our hands,'' Omar related with relish. "We then proceeded to form the first Cabinet.''
Dealing with the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and its armed insurrection was the second most important matter on the agenda of the first Cabinet, preceded only by the effort to gain Malaya's independence.
By 1955, the communists had been sufficiently weakened and requested for a meeting with the Malayan government. The Tunku, representing the voice of the people, attended the famous Baling talks with the MCP's leader Chin Peng.
"By then, we were quite sure that we would win the 'shooting war', especially after so many communists surrendered because we offered them amnesty,'' said Omar.
"We even took the risk of declaring certain 'black areas' white as we saw the reaction was good from the people,'' he recalled. However, he added that Chin Peng's motto was, "once a communist always a communist''. That, perhaps, explains the first Cabinet's uncompromising stance on the CPM's conditions for surrender.
The first Cabinet had also promised Malayans that independence would be achieved by Aug 31, 1957. It had much to do to achieve that, not the least of which was dealing with British reluctance.
Omar explained that, "the British never thought we would be able to form a stable government so quickly and were, thus, caught unprepared.''
In fact, Omar said that many cabinet meetings were held in the Tunku's residence. "We were not provided with proper offices. The Tunku's bungalow was in such bad condition that it hardened his resolve to achieve Merdeka,'' Omar recalled with a smile.
Meetings were held to discuss the creation of a Constitution suitable for all Malayans and preparations were made to take over from the British.
Omar noted that although these were important times with urgent issues, working under the Tunku was very relaxed.
In April 1957, Omar was among four Cabinet ministers selected to represent the Alliance Party in London to finalise the Constitution. "The British were cooperative,'' Omar recalled "and the Tunku performed very well.''
As a team, the first Cabinet worked very well together, said Omar. The Tunku's cabinet meetings almost always came to unanimous decisions because, "everyone shared the same vision of creating a happy nation''.
On a personal note, Omar explained that although the Tunku was perceived as being pro-Chinese by Malay nationalists, he was "equally as pro-Malay and as pro-Indian. He was a true Malayan.
"Under the statesmanship of the Tunku,'' Omar stressed, "the nation came together and with that unity, Malaya won its independence.''
Omar's relationship with the Tunku was very close; Tunku even visited Omar's house to cook his famous Yorkshire pudding for Omar!
Omar is not one to dwell on personal matters, though, and, after taking a sip of his tea, he proceeded to describe the euphoria of Merdeka and the sober challenges facing the 1957 Independence Cabinet.
"The task of running the country was now the sole responsibility of the new government,'' Omar explained.
Fortunately, although the 1957 Cabinet was no longer transitional - previously, key portfolios like Defence and Finance were under British control - it still had the support of the British-led Civil Service and Army.
Commenting on the working relationship of the Independence Cabinet, Omar explained that it was Tun Abdul Razak who was the technocrat.
"He worked in the rural areas bringing development there and he planned for the country.''
On his third portfolio as Labour and Social Welfare Minister, Omar smilingly reported that, "the bus system was a problem.'' He also recalled that Penang's port had silted up and that unemployment in that state reached a 20% high at one point, thus causing much unrest.
"Penang was volatile and there were many demonstrations. Priority was given to Penang when it came to foreign investments. The Federal government helped develop Penang.''
Omar also agreed with Tun Razak that a Penang bridge should be built instead of an underwater tunnel because the former would be more visible.
The biggest task of the 1957 Cabinet was to bring development to the people. Omar feels that, in many ways, Malaysia was a success as it never incurred huge foreign debts and kept up to world standards its civil service, its judiciary and its institutions of higher education.
But above all other objectives, it was the first Cabinet's vision that all Malaysians should unite for peace and progress. A vision to be revisited, perhaps, in these trying times?
Members of the first Cabinet
Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra - Chief Minister
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein - Education
Tun Dr Ismail Datuk Abdul Rahman - Natural Resources
Tun Henry Lee Hau Shik - Transport
Tun Leong Yew Koh - Health and Social Welfare
Tun Omar Yoke Lin Ong - Posts and Telecoms
Tun V.T. Sambanthan - Labour
Tan Sri Haji Sardon Jubir - Works
Datuk Suleiman Abdul Rahman - Housing, Local Government and Town Planning
Abdul Aziz Ishak - Agriculture and Cooperative
Members of the Independence Cabinet
Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra - Prime Minister, Defence, Foreign Affairs
Tun Abdul Razak Hussein - Deputy Prime Minister, Defence (1958)
Abdul Aziz Ishak - Agriculture and Cooperative
Tun Dr Ismail Datuk Abdul Rahman - Trade and Security
Tun Henry Lee Hau Shik - Finance
Tun Omar Yoke Lin Ong - Labour and Social Welfare
Tun V.T. Sambanthan - Health
Tan Sri Haji Sardon Jubir - Works, Posts and Telecoms
Datuk Suleiman Datuk Abdul Rahman - Natural Resources and Local Government
Abdul Rahman Talib - Transport (1958)
Tun Leong Yew Koh - Justice (1960)
Tan Sri Mohamad Khir Johari - Education (1958)
Tun Tan Siew Sin - Trade and Industry (1958), Finance (1960)
Notes: STF - : In history, there are few turning points that mark clearly the end of one era and the beginning of another. The establishment of Malaya's first Cabinet in 1955, however, marks decisively a break from Malaya's colonial past. As part of the Millennium Markers series on people and policies that influenced Malaysia's development, NEIL KHOR JIN KEONG speaks exclusively to Tun Omar Yoke Lin Ong, a member of that Cabinet, and revisits this watershed in Malaysian history.