Once upon a time, not so long ago, a handsome 26 year old man married a 17 year old girl. 4 years later, the man’s friend (younger by just a month and now 30), marries the girl’s younger sister (who’s now 19).
Both men enter their soon to be independent nation’s politics and rise steadily through the ranks.
In 1957, the younger man ascends to the second highest public office in the land, five months shy of his 35th birthday. The other having quit politics some five years earlier, is a successful practising lawyer. Both have growing families closely intertwined by the matriarch sisters.
Fast forward a decade or so later, the younger man becomes Prime Minister. The year is 1970 and he’s 48. A year or two prior he asks his brother-in-law to quit the law and rejoin full time politics. The elder man acquiesces and the younger man appoints the former into his very first Cabinet as Education Minister. Together the two begin to shape the new face of the country post a traumatic and bloody breakdown in race relations.
Three years later, the elder man is elevated again alongside the younger man, this time as Deputy Prime Minister (when the incumbent dies suddenly in office), and now assumes the Trade & Industry portfolio. A year on he then assumes the key Finance portfolio from a man who previously held it for 15 years. There is a certain urgency in the air.
As fate has it, 21 months later on 14 January 1976, the country’s 2nd Prime Minister, the younger of the two men, dies of a terminal illness and his brother-in-law, the Deputy Prime Minister, succeeds him as the 3rd Prime Minister. The younger man’s eldest son stands in his late father’s Parliamentary constituency and wins uncontested given the grief of the nation. His uncle the new Prime Minister, goes on to appoint his 24 year old nephew a Deputy Minister two years later, and leads the country for 5 years before stepping down in 1981. (The nephew becomes Prime Minister himself 31 years later, but that’s a story for another time).
The younger man is Tun Abdul Razak. The elder man Tun Hussein Onn. The country is Malaysia.
By historical accounts the decade between 1970-81 where both men, brothers-in-law, held the highest public office in turn, has been characterised as a time of peaceful recovery in race relations, brimming with furious nation building endeavours, the thrusting of young upcoming talent of all races to the fore, a respect for the rule of law and zero tolerance for corruption and conniving behaviour. Malaysia was a hopeful place.
And yet by any textbook definition, nepotism was clearly present at the very top of the country. Practised by Prime Ministers who were Presidents of UMNO, the grand old party of the nation.
There are many who today argue that nepotism in whatever shape, form or circumstance, has no place at all in society and public office. That it is by definition a corrupt, self serving act that inevitably corrodes trust and good will in society. I am not one of them and if it is not already obvious, more sanguine in my view.
But I would very much like to hear how those who subscribe to such an unequivocal belief, would characterise the moral and ethical positions of Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn during their time in public office.
I am also certain there are those who honestly and sincerely believe nepotism has no place in society and I would like to understand your perspective as it applies present day to the 10th Prime Minister, his party as well as to the DAP, PAS and other Sarawak & Sabah based parties, where such practices are alive and well.
Is nepotism by sheer virtue of its presence, a death knell for public trust and good governance?
Or can it also be a benign force in a period of great personal mistrust, misunderstanding and Machiavellian machinations among the great, the good, the bad and downright ugly who lead in our name?
As in most things in life, the answer may well be less than black or white.