Commemorating transformative bilateral ties — Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin
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APRIL 21 — Three weeks ago I mentioned the Tugu Negara, in relation to it being one of our national symbols of freedom, damaged by a communist terrorist bomb attack in 1975. These days it is primarily a tourist attraction, with buses choking the little road that many use as an inside route to the Lake Gardens: The future heart of the Taman Tugu project spearheaded by Khazanah.
The annual Warriors’ Day celebration used to happen at Tugu Negara, but was relocated for supposedly religious reasons in 2010, despite the fact that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong had laid wreaths there since its unveiling by Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah in 1966.
Although the Tugu Negara was not yet built during the reign of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong (on the site stood the old Istana Negeri Sembilan), my great-grandfather participated in remembrance events both at the cenotaph in Seremban and in London.
I was therefore honoured to participate in the Remembrance Sunday event last year led by the British High Commission, centred on the relocated cenotaph built after World War I (the original site was along what is still Jalan Tugu), rather than Tan Sri Felix de Weldon’s sculpture “dedicated to the heroic fighters in the cause of peace and freedom.”
The practice of remembrance events featuring wreath-laying and the playing of the Last Post is strongly associated with Britain (and the Old Commonwealth), but there is a similarly strong tradition in the United States.
The Tugu Negara was visited by the Duke of York last year, and by US President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1966 (but not President Barack Obama on either of his visits).
Last week the Tugu Negara saw the visit, for the first time since 1991, of a Crown Prince of Japan, when Prince Naruhito followed his father’s footsteps in laying a wreath at the base of the sculpture. For young Malaysians this ought to have been a powerful image, given what they ought to have been taught about the 20th century history of the Japanese in Malaya and Borneo.
The idea that the relationship between countries can transform from one of conflict to one of friendship is ever more important in an age of geopolitical uncertainty today.
I had the privilege of sharing my views with the Crown Prince in person when the Japanese Ambassador invited me to accompany His Imperial Highness at Muzium Negara. It is clear that the Crown Prince has a keen interest in history, as he often sought details from the guide (a Japanese volunteer at the museum) on many artefacts.
We observed that the keris and katana came into prominence at about the same period of history, and I learnt that it was the Japanese government that sponsored the fireworks show at the Lake Gardens on the night of Merdeka day.
The most poignant moment was when we passed a bicycle used by a Japanese soldier in Malaya during World War II, followed by a piece of rubble from the aftermath of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, engraved with a message of peace.
Malaysians of my generation should remember well Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Look East policy (complemented with the Buy British Last policy), but no irony will be felt by younger urbanites who might as likely be influenced by Britpop as J-Pop and eat roast beef and sashimi.
In terms of cultural products and consumer goods, both Britain and Japan today enjoy a prominent place in Malaysian society.
However, as we commemorate our 60th anniversary of ties with countries that recognised the Federation of Malaya in its year of independence, it is important to remember that foreign policy, like domestic policy, ought to be motivated by values, and not just purely economic or security concerns.
A leadership that does not care about human rights and democracy at home is hardly going to take such things into consideration when forging links with other leaders.
Even for countries that pride themselves in being healthy democracies, I have found that their embassies often exhibit conflicts between their economic and political sections, since their Key Performance Indicators are motivated by different diplomatic objectives.
Two days after I met the Crown Prince of Japan, I met the Director General for Political Affairs at the German Foreign Office. Also in that conversation was a reference to how the experience of a country’s own internal transformation in terms of values not only informs their foreign policy, but can help other countries’ domestic policies too, if they are willing to listen and learn from their experiences of internal division and conflict.
* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of IDEAS
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.