Fond memory: Mandela (left) had a special admiration for Malaysia, says Abdul Kadir, seen here with his late wife Dr Sara Ibrahim. He is now married to Tengku Rasilah.
For G25 founding member Datuk Abdul Kadir Mohd Deen, the grouping prides itself as a catalyst for change and open discussion.
AT Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, the new South African president proclaimed a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.
When Datuk Abdul Kadir Mohd Deen served as Malaysia’s High Commissioner to Pretoria from 1997 through 1999, he found that Mandela had a special admiration for Malaysia and saw it as a very inclusive country.
“To him, Malaysia was a rainbow nation,” Kadir says.
Malaysia is big enough to be a rainbow nation, agrees the former diplomat with 33 years in the foreign service.
“I hope it still is. But how do you explain claims like ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy)?” he says.
Kadir is a founder member of the group of prominent Malays now known as G25, who published an open letter on Dec 8, 2014, calling for a review of syariah and civil law and recognition of the supremacy of the Federal Constitution.
After his retirement, he says, “I was tired of listening to complaints at the golf club. When the idea of G25 came up through our WhatsApp group, I said, ‘Why not? Let’s stand up and be counted.’”
Kadir’s secondment to the Task Force for Vietnamese Illegal Immigrants (Task Force VII) under the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1979 also shaped his perception of refugees so that, in addition to his involvement with G25, he now follows the more recent plight of migrants from Myanmar and tries to do what he can.
Good old days: Kadir remembers working in the civil service to build a new Malaysia after 1969.
When he joined the Administrative and Diplomatic Service in 1971, he recalls, “It was a different mindset and era, all about a new Malaysia after the race riots of 1969.”
He had some of the best bosses and teachers, he says: Tun Abdul Razak Hussein who was Prime Minister and Foreign Minister when Kadir started out at Wisma Putra, Tun Ghazali Shafie (Minister of Home Affairs from 1973 to 1981 and Foreign Minister from 1981 to 1984) exemplary secretaries-general such as Tan Sri Zaiton Ibrahim Ahmad, Tan Sri Zakaria Ali, Tan Sri Zainal Sulong and Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, and bosses such as Datuk Albert Talalla and Tan Sri Zain Azraai.
“They provided inspiring leadership,” Kadir says. “We were trying to reconstruct Malaysia, irrespective of ethnic background. It was a very dedicated, respected civil service. That’s why I relate to G25 now. There has to be some debate about where we’re going.”
Today, G25 is “a bunch of retired people with less energy”, he admits. “We are not movers and shakers but we can be a catalyst for change and open discussion – for people, especially young people, to speak up.”
The group isn’t breaking any new ground when it talks about moderation, he says.
“That is one of the aims of the Constitution, Rukun Negara and Vision 2020. Why are some implying that it is a sin to be a liberal and pluralist?” he says.
Kadir, who served as Malaysia’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the United Nations from 1986 through 1988, recalls the country’s active role as one of the original members of the UN’s Special Committee against Apartheid set up in 1962.
“Tunku Abdul Rahman spoke out strongly against apartheid and invited the Cape Malays in South Africa to come to Malaysia if they wanted,” he remembers. “The Malaysian Government chartered a ship for them and they came here but unfortunately, most went back later.”
As High Commissioner to South Africa later, he got to know the Cape Malay leaders.
“One of them said they had been there for 250 years and were part of Cape Town,” he notes. “Their lingua franca was Afrikaans. Another Cape Malay leader said they are a sub-tribe of Cape Town because they have been there so long, are part of the country and have contributed to its economy and its greatness.”
Back home, points out Kadir, who has a degree in modern history and political science from Britain’s University of Lancaster: “We are on the greatest trading route, open to all kinds of influences for thousands of years including Ashoka’s Mauryan empire from 268 to 232 BC.”
And after a visit by Admiral Cheng Ho, Malacca Sultan Mansur Shah visited China with tribute and asked to marry a princess. In 1459, Hang Li Po and her entourage came to Malacca and they eventually settled in Bukit Cina.
So, he asks, “How can the Indians and the Chinese be referred to as pendatang? We all are citizens. This is the Malay World but we all have a place here. We have all played a role in making Malaysia the country it is.”
Kadir also remembers his time with Task Force VII at the height of the influx of “boat people”, when there were 70,000 Vietnamese on Pulau Bidong, the biggest of the refugee camps. (Others were at Pulau Besar, Pulau Tengah, and in camps such as those at Mersing, Cherating and Kuantan.) He was in charge of liaising with the embassies – of Britain, Australia, Canada, Norway, America, among others – about resettlement.
“We agreed to give them temporary refuge on Bidong, when there was the promise of third country resettlement,” he explains.
“There was accounting of their personal possessions, which were kept safe and returned to them when they were resettled,” he stresses. Groups from the embassies interviewed them on the island. When there was definite offer of resettlement, the refugees were brought to the Cheras transit camp where their valuables were returned to them.
“It was all recorded properly,” he says.
More recently, Kadir has read about the trials of the Rohingya, who “were allowed to leave Myanmar, at a great price, in rickety, unseaworthy vessels with young children, women and the elderly”.
Initially, Malaysia was able to absorb migrants from Myanmar. Kadir recalls that at the beginning of the 1980s, some Muslim refugees from Myanmar’s Tenasserim Coast were resettled in Langkawi.
“These people were actually of Malay origin, taken there as forced labour by the Japaanese during World War II, and some even had living relatives in Langkawi,” he adds. “The Rohingya refugees who came later are a distinctly different group.”
But Kadir was shocked to learn about the mass graves, with remains believed to be of the Rohinyga, on both sides of the Malaysian-Thai border. In Thailand, a major human-trafficking trial is ongoing with 92 defendants.
In Malaysia, 12 police officers have been arrested for alleged links to the mass graves, as well as 43 people suspected to be involved in human-trafficking syndicates. In February this year, two Myanmar men believed to have been sentries at the Wang Kelian grave were detained while police are looking for another six suspects, including Myanmar and Thai nationals. There have been no reports of any charges in Malaysia yet.
“We have to get to the bottom of this, especially if our own people are involved,” urges Kadir, who has been writing to the newspapers and attended a fund-raiser for the Rohingya.
The mass graves were discovered in Perlis, he points out.
“The public has the right to know,” he says, adding that G25 has no position on the issue.
He is speaking up “as an individual, concerned about transgressions against our laws”.