Thursday, August 28, 2008

Merdeka '09 - The Aziz Ishak I knew


I really do not have the time anymore to blog, and I guess I need to make sure I move all my materials from my 360 blog to this one and I thought it is time I move this entry which I posted in conjunction with the 50th Merdeka Anniversary last year - posted on Aug 27, 2007.

I believe we chemical engineers do owe in many ways to this man and his vision, for without him, there might not be a dynamic industry that we can all prosper in.

The Aziz Ishak I knew

He remains an enigma even to me.

When I first met him I was just a little kid. He had driven all the way from KL to visit us in Lenggong in the days when there was no North-South highway (or may be he dropped by while on the way to KL from Penang, who knows). Of course it helped that he has his chauffeur with him. For us kids in the late 60s/early 70s, with bapak having just an old Morris Minor, we looked at him in awe (especially for having a driver) and the fact that mom told us that he used to be a minister.

I don’t recall much of that encounter, beyond the fact that bapak asked the driver if he would like to have lunch together with us on the main table and the answer was a polite no. Oh, and I remember him complimenting mom's dishes during one lunch with mom cooking gulai tempoyak. Mom's gulai tempoyak is very different from typical tempoyak dishes as it is cooked with coconut milk.

The Hariris on the veranda of Tok Jed's bungalow
in Batu Maung in 1967. There is another shot a few mins
later with the ship moving to the right side of the frame.
Of course before that encounter we had been many times to his house. We had attended his daughter’s wedding at his sea-side bungalow in Batu Maung Penang. It is located on top of a hill and from the veranda, you can see the open sea, with ships passing by in the horizon (batu Maung was at the southern entrance to Penang Port). 
Us kids in our cowboy shirts and the kolam ikan
in Tok Jed's house in Penang
We kids used to enjoy the the kolam ikan inside his house. And when you are tired with the fish pond, you can practically walk down hill from the house and within 5 minutes you would be at the lovely Batu Maung beach. When you are hungry, there are many stalls selling laksa Penang, perhaps for a few cents.

Laksa after a dip in the sea at Batu Maung. It is must have
been to hot (as in temperature) for Mak, while the three of us
enjoying our meals.
The wedding that we were attending at his house.
Yes, I do remember the details, as they were quite well documented by a series of photos taken by bapak and the subsequent holiday the family took in Penang that year. Unfortunately, the pictures were stolen from our family home in Taiping. (Fortunately the thief had returned some of the pics, and hence I am able to update this entry in Aug 2011.)

That was perhaps in 1967, a couple of years after he was incarcerated under ISA (arrested during the month of Ramadhan 1965, released more than a year later in 1966). He was under house restriction until 1971.

Fast forward to 1986. I had just returned from Melbourne and armed with an engineering degree and still looking for a job, my sister and I paid him a visit at his house in Taman TAR in Ampang Jaya. We had our small chat with him and his wife Tok Chah over some tit-bits.

“So, you just came back from Australia? Which university did you go to?” he asked me.

“Monash,” I replied proudly. He didn't bat an eye lid. “What’s your degree in?” he asked back.

“Chemical Engineering, Tok Jed,” I replied, hoping to impress him with big technological words.

“Oh really?” he sounded very surprised. Now I got his attention.

All of the sudden, he stood up, and left the table. We were puzzled, but continued our conversation with Tok Chah.

He came down a minute later with a book. While browsing the book looking for the right page, he said something that will always etch in my mind.

“Tok is the first one to advocate University Malaya to set up a chemical engineering department, and now I am proud to have a ‘grandson’ who is a qualified chemical engineer!” he announced.

He showed me the content in the book to emphasize on his point.

I was of course overwhelmed by the fact that, after his many years of fighting to improve the education level of the Malayan to take over all aspect of the British administration, and getting sack for it, I have been a fruit of, no matter how small, his struggle for the nation. Sure, since his time, Chem E department had been set up at UM, and I guess many graduates would have walked passed the door by the time I graduated from Monash in 1985.

He was the nation’s first agriculture minister under the Tunku cabinet of 1955. He loved it so much that he rejected a move to the Health Ministry. He knew he can contribute a lot in this low-key but critical portfolio – unlike many today who would think that the agriculture ministry spells the death to their political ambition, when many of the Malays were peasants and farmers. He wanted Malayans to take over running the fertilizer plant, which was so crucial to the nation economy.

He autographed the book for my sister and I, and gave us a copy that night. I of course had read the book inside out and knew what he went through in his struggle for the betterment of this country. (However, I have lost that copy, which according to the The Star is still banned in this country.)

While we celebrate the nation’s 50th birthday with many singing praises of our political forefathers - the Onns and the Tunkus, and very little of our warriors who literally sacrificed their lives, there are many whose names were not even mentioned in the mainstream publications, and their contributions are certainly no less than many we had been singing praise of.

Aziz Ishak, or better known as Tok Jed (pronounced as Jade) to us, is one of them. He was just too far ahead than many of his contemporaries. While I was too young then to really know what he went through, I am glad that he had left us a memoir for us to live by. A memoir of a true patriot and nationalist, who was in the game not to plunder the wealth of the nation for his own family, but to fight for the betterment of the people. He declined all state and federal awards, and would not even use the title "haji".

He died in June 1999, and I am glad I was around to pay him my last respect.

Alfatihah for Tok Jed.


The book is titled Special Guest – The Detention in Malaysia of an Ex-Cabinet Minister by Aziz Ishak. In his book he describes in detail the irreconcilable differences with the Tunku and the events that led to his resignation, subsequent detention and release. According to a recent article on him in the The Star, the book was banned and only allowed restricted access in university libraries.

I am taking excerpt of it on his suggestion for the setting up a chemical engineering department at UM, on page 40.


In early 1962, I wrote a letter to Tunku Abdul Rahman, as the new chancellor of the University of Malaya, after a discussion with him on the need to place greater emphasis on technical education not only at Trade and Technical School level, but at Polytechnics and University level
What I had in mind, of course, were the technicians to service the industries, such as the fertilizer plant, the paper mills and those in the private sector.

I recalled in the letter that no newly independent country could progress satisfactorily unless and until its national had attained a certain degree of technological and scientific competence. I pointed out that there was a conspicuous absence of a Department of Industrial and Chemical Engineering at the University of Malaya. The continued denial of training facilities in these fields meant that the country had to import high level technician for our growing industries, which for many years to come, would be at the mercy of foreign technologists. I further recalled in the letter that I had met Sir Alexander Oppenheim, the vice chancellor of the UM earlier and emphasized that very same point.

In the letter I then stressed the fact that it was not the policy of the metropolitan powers to introduce such subjects for the simple reasons that the former colonies and emerging countries were meant to be suppliers of raw materials and therefore not to take part in the industrial development. In this case, I quoted cases of universities in India, Ceylon, Singapore and those in African territories, but in contrast to the universities of white commonwealth, courses in chemistry were provided.

To stress in my point further the reason for this was because the UM had its development controlled by expatriate officers, so that our country would continue to be merely supplier of raw materials. My letter to the Tunku closed with the suggestion that “since we are already behind time and our industrial programe has gone forward without the necessary bases in the form of university courses in industrial chemistry and chemical engineering, the following line of actions need to be taken:

o As many Colombo Plan scholarship in Industrial Chemistry, Chemical Technology to be asked from friendly countries. Training should be requested US, France, Germany, Italy and Belgium

o That the University to be asked without delay to look into the possibility of starting courses in Industrial Chemistry, Chemical Technology and Chemical Engineering at an early date

o That steps be taken to set up a Polytechnic to provide courses not now available at the Technical Colleges.

The Tunku however merely passed on my letter to the Vice Chancellor, whose reply sounded to me very much like an apology for things not done than a full realization of the urgency of the matter. It contained no indication of positive action to correct the deficiency. My comment on Sir Alexander’s letter was also sent to the Tunku.

So far I know, not even today (1976) has a full department of Chemical Technology and Chemical Engineering been established.

End of quote

I got this from a website which I believe reinforced Tok Jed’s story.

From RPK

Cancer Man also told me that Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman sacked the late Agriculture Minister, Aziz Ishak, because he had wanted the government to take away the monopoly on fertilizers held by a big British multi-national corporation. Aziz Ishak asked why the country should allow foreigners to control a commodity produced in the country that is essential to the farmers, who were mainly Malays. He was sacked and discredited.

Aziz Ishak died last year. The younger generation was not told of his noble intentions until the day he died. There was not even a footnote anywhere to register his contribution towards the well being of the downtrodden Malays.

Yes! The truth is out there, but can you ever find it? The X-Files do exist in any country, including ours.Yes! The truth is out there, but can you ever find it? The X-Files do exist in any country, including ours.


  1. Thank you, Tok Jed. May Allah Bless His Soul

  2. I was a young lad in germany when I was mysteriously "given" the book. It was signed… location Berlin '87. May he rest in peace.

  3. Assalamualaikum Rahman,
    Allahyarham meninggal dunia pd 24 Jun 1999.Nak tanya allahyarham dikebumikan di tanah perkuburan mana?Saya nak kesan pusaranya untuk Keluarga Datuk Jannaton.
    Haji Zul Tiger