History books are not just filled the stories of wars, economic development, or successful and failed policies. History books are also filled with names, and history is just as a much a study of people and their choices as anything else. Humanity has separated itself from the rest of the animal kingdom because we are the one species that can use rationality to shape societies and change the world. During the Malaysia 2010 study abroad we read a lot about the political and economic history of Malaysia. And like most books about history, ours were filled with names. Sometimes, however, those names come alive and you are given an opportunity to meet with and come to know the people behind the names. We were given that opportunity when we meet Tun Musa bin Hitam, one of the most influential people in Malaysia, the current chairman of the large conglomerate Sime Darby and a former Deputy Prime Minister. At one point Tun Musa was next in line to be the Prime Minister of Malaysia, before his differences of opinion with Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamid, pushed him to leave the government. Mahathir is viewed by some as the man who pushed Malaysia into middle income status, while others will argue that he used Malaysia's natural wealth (oil, palm oil, etc.) to enrich both himself and his cronies at the expense of economic development. Either way his years as Prime Minister were marked with controversy, and Tun Musa was one of few people within the government to really challenge him. We were given the chance to meet Tun Musa when we meet with him, at his house, for a cup of tea to discuss politics in Malaysia. Given his long and industrious career there are likely few who could have offered us a better inside look into the inner workings of Malaysian politics.
Driving through the neighborhood, I could tell we were entering a different world. Gone where the sky rises and cramp row-houses as the city melded into a lush oasis of jungle punctuated by large villas. Twisting beneath the overarching trees and high white walls marking off each yard we came to a stop at a guard house, and peering through the driveway gate I could only wonder how a public official in Malaysia could afford such a house. We were shown in through the first guard gate before being meet halfway up the driveway by a large man in a black suit. He had the distinct air of a secret service agent, as if straight out a movie. He introduced himself quickly, scouting us with his eyes before ushering us into the house.
We waited on the plush couches as I examined a lush tropical pool, longing for a swim in its crystal clear waters. After a few minutes Tun Musa entered, perhaps a bit rushed but cheerful and with surprising energy for someone who was already the second most powerful man in Malaysia before I was even born. After shaking each of our hands and introducing himself, he sat down and went around the room inquiring into the details of our lives. Having grown used to the often cold and hurried attitude of the many government workers who scurry about D.C. I sometimes feel that those who have received any dose of power have forgotten their humanity, but right away Tun Musa showed interest in us. When he could, he related our personal experiences and interests to his, informing us that like us he was interested in the world, and had studied International Relations. As many politicians current and former claim, Tun Musa said that he did set out to go into politics, instead the hands of fate eventually guided him there. During the 1960's Tun Musa had risen high the ranks of Malaysia's sole ruling party, UMNO, achieving the position of Secretary-General before being expelled for subordination. A few years later he would be readmitted into UMNO and would again rise quickly, becoming the deputy whip of the coalition headed by UMNO. He was quickly elected to UMNO leadership, joining the Supreme Council, and by 1978 he had become the UMNO Vice President. When Mahathir bin Mohamad become in 1981, Tun Musa was nominated by the UMNO party to be the Deputy Prime Minister. Over the next several years however, Tun Musa grew disenchanted with government corruption and Mahathir's refusal to listen to anyone but himself. In 1987 Tun Musa resigned from the Mahathir's government and after a brief inner-party battle, he resigned from government service. Over the next couple of decades he would work in the private sector, eventually working his way up to the post of Chairman of Sime Darby, one of the largest and most influential companies in South East Asia. Unlike many UMNO officials he earned his money on the books, not through back room dealings and bribes. Perhaps what I respect Tun Musa the most for is the fact that he is man of principle, having fought and clashed with two different Prime Ministers with little concern for what it might cost him politically, or worse.
Eventually the tea was ready and we would continue our discussion about Malayia's past present and future in a nearby sitting room, enjoying a spectacular view of Kuala Lumpur's skyline, lit up beneath darkening rain clouds. Sitting at the tea table room we talked while a small entourage of maids moved up, tidying up a few last things. They walked smoothly, with their shoulders raised and flashing the occasional smile. A small detail, but confidence often missing from the working class in Malaysia who often have suffer long hours and harsh treatment at the hands of their employers. Domestic workers suffer worse then probably any, save undocumented workers. Many of the rights and privileges granted to other workers are denied to domestic household workers. Long hours without overtime pay, confiscated passports, poor living standards, and few (if any) days off are the norm. Still, the maids in Tun Musa's house did not seem mistreated or repressed. At one point a maid more or less commanded a fellow student to try a dessert, and against his will but to his later delight he followed her command. Her confidence made me smile, I had yet to see a server be so blunt. All small details to be sure, but I couldn't help but believe Tun Musa treated his household help with a comparatively high level of respect.
Throughout the whole discussion Tun Musa presented a view that seemed far more objective then any of the other political party members, or even U.S. Embassy staff. He admitted that Malaysia was not perfect, that certain things could be better, but at the same time he was proud of what is country had done so far. While many countries suffer from the “resource curse,” Malaysia has been able to direct a considerable amount of its natural resources towards development, even with the accompanying corrupt party politics. It is easy for Westerners to overlook exactly how difficult it is for a country to develop. Having been granted a high developed status for decades, we often take what we have for granted. The United States, for example, paid a high price for development, including the blood, sweat, and tears of many repressed peoples, such as Native Americans, Africans, and Chinese railroad workers. Country developing now often pay high prices, and while no prize can justify slavery or genocide, we need to be more understanding of other nations' needs.
The night at Tun Musa's ended with a few of us students waiting for a car ride back into the side. A gentle rain landing on a roof overhead, accompanied by a spectacular hilltop view from hilltop peering out over one of the most beautiful mosques I have ever seen and the Petronas Towers brighting lit in the distance.