by Jack Newby
The Minister who has the difficult and vital task of presenting the image of Malaysia to the world is himself no publicity seeker. When he learned that I proposed making his the first in this series of political profiles, he said: Why me? There are others more important than I.
Convincing him that in fact people did wish to know about him was the only difficulty I experienced in the interview.
When he began to talk of his political beliefs and to reminisce about the struggles of his youth, it became immediately apparent why in the early days of Malayan politics the Tengku referred to him as Api (Fire).
It was bulan puasa and in deference to his beliefs as a devout muslim, we neither smoked nor drank during the three hour interview, but I was unaware of the passage of time.
Senu bin Abdul Rahman is only 45, an early age for a top-ranking politician. He was born in Kedah on October 10, 1919. His parents were poor, living on the precarious revenue from his father's small shop, but his scholastic ability earned him a place at the Sultan Idris Training College at Tanjong Malim.
Teaching was the only real avenue then open to the poorer Malay Intellectuals, and it was here for the first time that Inche Senu came into contact with the political and nationalist ideals that were to influence him so greatly.
Like all young intellectuals these students were rebels and the target of their rebellion was the ruling British.'I found', Senu said, 'that I had the gift of oratory. I determined to use it in my country's cause.
Many of the students of those days were socialist, but of his political faith he now says:I have never been any sort of 'ist' other than perhaps nationalist. Malaysia is unique.We have to work out our own approach to political problems and find an ideology suited to our peculiar conditions.We must be prepared to accept ideas for their value to our society no matter what their ideological source.
Returning to Kedah to teach in the top grade of a Malay School, he found that his three years at Teaching College earned him $17 a month just $3 more than an untrained apprentice teacher.
He felt an angry resentment at this miserly award but in any case the dull chore of teaching was not for a man of Senu's restless spirit. Shortly after the Japanese occupation in 1941, he resigned and for a year did any odd job to keep him from starvation.
But when Kedah was ceded to Thailand, he found employment as Personal Assistant to the Superintendant for Education. The superintendant, a man destined to have a tremendous influence on Senu, was Tengku Abdul Rahman.
Now started a period of great political activity. With Mohamed Khir Johari (now Minister of Agriculture) and other progressive young people he formed a drama group in Alor Setar.
Their productions were propaganda plays aimed at making the youth of the State politically and nationalistically conscious, Senu wrote plays for the group and he recalls the titles of two: 'Misguided' and 'I am a Sinner'.
It was during this period that Seberkas was formed. Ostensibly a farmers co-operative movement, Seberkas was in reality a political front organisation for the dissemination of nationalist ideas and in 1946, when Senu was its Secretary General, it affiliated with Dato Onn's newly formed UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).
This group of young men did not confine their activities solely to politics. They founded, at the end of the war, under Tengku Abdul Rahman's leadership destitute homes to care for the human flotsam left behind by the tide of war.
By this time UMNO was conducting nation wide campaigns against the Malayan Union that the British had imposed on the cessation of military government. Senu was in much demand at all political meetings and conference for his fire and enthusiasm. But he was dissatisfied with what he could contribute to the cause.
To these meetings I could only bring my spirit,he told me,'my knowledge was small; my experience so limited.'
One of the Alor Setar drama group member,a young man named Monte Zain who had played the hero in their productions, had gone to the United States.In his letters he told Senu of the educational opportunities that existed there.
Emigration was out of the question.His heart and soul was with Malaya.He only wanted knowledge to aid his country's struggle for independence. He had no money for the fare or for the training.He determined to work his passage either to America or to England, to jump ship when he arrived, and to leave the rest to fate.
Late in 1947 he left his wife and three daughters, the eldest of whom was only six years old,
and traveled to Singapore. There he shipped as deck hand on an Australian sheep boat.
He was frequently seasick, and worst of all, he seemed to be no nearer the education his heart was set on. He kept up a correspondence with his friend Johari and in one letter, written from Singapore, he spoke of his despondency and his half-formed intention to give it all up. Johari replied that having set his hand to plough he must not look back.
A ship bound for America had a berth for a deck hand. Senu took it. The door to higher education,he said,was open.
On February 28 1948, Senu sailed for the United States. It was the day that the Federation of Malaya came into being to replace the Malayan Union against which he and his friends had fought.
There were tears in my eyes, he said, as I left my wife, my family and my native land on this day of all days. I did not know how I should fare; what the future held for me when I would see Malaya again.
Senu was in the United States in Los Angeles. Thousands of miles separated him from his family and his native land. His English was meagre. He had deserted his ship. He was an illegal immigrant without passport or papers of any kind.
He had one friend among the teeming two and a half million in this sprawling city: the young man from the Alor Setar drama group who had first given him the idea of travelling to America.
Senu sought him out to ask his help in finding the lodgings and employment. Going by the name of Ramon Senu,the work he found was in a restaurant (Saint Germain Restaurant on Third and Vermont Streets) washing dishes. He was to stay in this restaurant the whole time he was in Los Angeles. Owners, Roger and Louise Simoncelli were Italians and they treated him with extreme kindness as though he were one of the family. He said, "I still write to them and on subsequent official trips to the United States of America, I have always visited them".
With work and a home found he could turn his thoughts to the purpose of his journey the attainment of a higher education. The first obstacle was the English language.Without mastery of English he would get nowhere.
He joined an Americanisation school and in six months had acquired sufficient knowledge of English to embark on a course at a Polytechnic Evening High School.
This was one of four years duration aiming at graduation to a university. Senu completed the course in eighteen months and obtained a grade B average the necessary standard for university entrance.
Of this achievement he said:This does not show brain.I knew a great deal of the subjects taught already.I used the books and lectures to perfect my knowledge of English.
He was accepted by the University of California at Los Angeles, majoring in Political Science with Economics as minor.In four years he had graduated as Bachelor of Arts (Political Science).
Of this period of his life he said:I took a great risk in going to University. But during the whole of my stay in America, I never brushed against authority in any way. Had I been knocked down in the street, involved in trouble with the police, even taken sufficiently ill to be admitted to hospital, I would have been found out and the entire project wrecked.
But I was not a criminal.What I was doing was not for personal gain but to serve my country. Every night I prayed for help and guidance and I believe that because my intentions were good, God's divine protection shielded me throughout my years in America.
But the going was hard. Days of concentrated study alternated with nights of work in the kitchen and serving in the restaurant.
Much of what little money he earned had to be sent to his family in Malaya, as had the extra money he managed to earn during the long summer vacations.
At home in Malaya, many rumours were circulating as to his wherabouts a much canvassed belief was that he had gone to Moscow. Few knew that Senu was washing dishes in an Italian restaurant and working his way through an American university.
After graduation, he went to New York on the first stage of his journey back to Malaya. There he worked for two months in a toy factory until he met Dr Sudjarwo, then Head of the Indonesian Delegation to the United Nations, whom he had met two years earlier in Los Angeles. Dr Sudjarwo offered him a temporary clerical job in the Indonesian mission.
He worked there for four months and then applied to the British Consulate in New York for a passport. The Consul General was staggered to learn that Senu had been seven years in America without papers but he issued him with a British passport and he was now able to leave for London.
By the time he reached England, he was completely broke and was force once more to work in a restaurant. In London he met Enche Osman, the Malayan Commissioner, who told him that he could obtain a post as lecturer in the School of Oriental Studies.
But Senu had heard from Khir Johari, who was then the Secretary General of UMNO, that elections in Malaya were imminent and that he should return to help with the campaign. He managed to get a one way job as assistant purser on a Blue Funnel boat and arrived in Malaya in May 1955. He had been away exactly seven years, seven months and seven days
Senu was appointed Joint Secretary of the Alliance (UMNO-MCA-MIC) immediately on his return. The election that followed was an historic one in Malaya's history.
For the first time the unofficial members of the legislature outnumbered the appointed ones. To have a majority over the official members the Alliance needed to win all fifty-two elective seats. In the event they won fifty-one and gained a majority of four.
With this majority the Alliance set about paving the way to Independence.They were helped by the British Government's change of mind and in 1957, the Federation of Malaya was granted Independence.
Senu served for a time as member for Rural Industrial Development and on the Executive Committee of the Federal Land Development Authority. Then in 1957, he was appointed Malaya's first Ambassador to Indonesia and in 1962 he became Malaysia's first Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany.
He returned to Malaya from Europe in 1964 to direct the Alliance election campaign. He himself was elected as member for the Kubang Pasu Barat constituency and was appointed Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the new Malaysian Cabinet. He is now the President of UMNO Youth by virtue of which he is also the Vice President of UMNO.
Senu regards his Cabinet job as being in the front line of Malaysia's chief crusade: the moulding of its multi racial society into one nation. In the United States he saw people of all races losing their nationalities in American citizenship.
Malaysians, he said,must forget their allegiance to other countries and learn to become truly Malaysian. We are surrounded by three large nations China, India and Indonesia: it is essential that we establish our national identity.
Scholar, orator, diplomat, politician, Senu Abdul Rahman is all of these. But above all, he leaves you with the impression of a sincere and modest man working whole-heartedly for a cause in which he has an implicit faith, a democratic and united Malaysia.