A Civil Life: Tunku Tan Sri Shahriman Offers A Glimpse Into Malaysia’s Past

The former PERNAS Chairman and CEO speaks about witnessing some of the most pivotal moments in Malaysian history in his new book.

Tunku Shahriman

When Tunku Tan Sri Shahriman bin Tunku Sulaiman started his career in the civil service as an Assistant District Officer in Temerloh, Pahang, Malaysia was only two years into its Independence. It was at this critical juncture in time during Malaysia’s post-Independent era when some of the most pivotal moments of the country’s history took place. 

The sprightly 92-year-old was there to live through that fascinating period in Malaysian history and he has penned a first-hand account of his long and varied career in A Civil Life. The book recounts the events and personalities he met along the way during his time in the civil service, offering a fascinating glimpse into Malaysia’s past and what it was like to work side by side with the nation’s founding fathers. We sat down with Tunku Shahriman to talk about his book and how the stories can offer a new perspective for the younger generation of Malaysians. 

What made you write this book? Why do you feel this story needs to be told today? 

There are several reasons why I decided to write A Civil Life. Firstly, I wrote it for myself and my family as I wanted to reflect on my experiences and tell the stories of my life before they fade away forever. Secondly, I wanted to leave behind a keepsake for young Malaysians, so that they can have a deeper understanding of our country and history from the perspective of the past to the present. I think with the current social and political situation, this understanding is more relevant than ever.

Tunku Shahriman

A Civil Life by Tunku Tan Sri Shahriman. Image credit: Instagram @acivillife

What have you discovered about yourself while writing A Civil Life?

I discovered that I have lived a very interesting life, something I perhaps didn’t appreciate enough when I was living it day to day. It is interesting not just because of the momentous political and historical events that I witnessed or participated in (which included British colonialism, World War II, the struggle for Independence, the establishment of diplomatic ties with China and so on) but also because of the people I met from leaders such as Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak Hussein who made tremendous sacrifices for our country and to my fellow kampung neighbours with their little quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Perseverance seems to come naturally to you. How did you continue to persevere throughout your career? 

It is true sometimes in life, however hard you work, you just do not seem to get the results you want. It is easy during those times to lose hope and give up. When faced with those tough situations you must have confidence in your abilities and trust that you will find your way through if you just take one step forward at a time and remain patient. I am hugely inspired by my great-grandmother and mother who stayed strong no matter the adversities they faced.

You were still in university when Merdeka took place. Did you sense a transition in the country at this time? What was it like? 

I was not and still am not a political person but the years just before Independence were an invigorating time to be a student, especially at a premier university like University Malaya in Singapore. I remember there were frequent political rallies, marches and protests throughout the city which, while exciting, occasionally got out of hand like the Hock Lee Bus riots which broke out in May 1955. 

Many of us students were also inspired by young, patriotic Malay leaders such as Tunku Abdul Rahman who was the first Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya and Dato’ Sir Onn Jaafar, founder and President of UMNO. A few of my fellow university students eventually became well-known political leaders themselves because of these men.

Tunku Shahriman

Tunku Tan Sri Shahriman in London.

What are some of the lessons the younger generation today can learn from the past? 

 I feel that in the past our country had a culture of tolerance which has been eroded in recent years. I have witnessed this incremental breakdown as our country continues to adopt a narrower and narrower interpretation of the Muslim religion and Malay identity while rejecting national unity based on cultural diversity. I feel steps must be taken soon to protect our tradition of tolerance as Malaysia is now very close to the tipping point. 

You have always spoken fondly of Tun Abdul Razak. What are some of the traits that you admire the most about him? 

I have met many leaders in my lifetime, from rulers to prime ministers to heads of huge corporations. However, Tun Razak stood out because he showed total confidence in his work and believed in the benefits it could bring to his fellow Malaysians over his own personal motives. He also had the ability to build a team, present ideas fluently and made quick decisions in a crisis. I also admired how he had absolutely no ego, was very humble and incredibly hard-working. 

What is the biggest risk you took in your career? 

The biggest career risk I faced was on the death of Tun Razak. I was not sure that the new Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn would keep me as Group Chairman of Perbadanan Nasional Berhad (PERNAS), but he later told me he trusted Tun Razak’s decisions and I kept my position. 

But I suppose the biggest risk I took was when I decided to become a palm oil plantation owner at a rather late age. Having a plantation was a huge financial commitment but alhamdullilah, through hard work and perseverance it is a success and now a great joy to me. 

What would you say is your proudest moment?

I have had a long and varied career. Some highlights include becoming the second youngest State Secretary of Pahang after Tun Abdul Razak and the first Group Chairman of PERNAS. However, my proudest moment, being the first Director-General of the Implementation, Coordination and Development Administration Unit of the Prime Minister Department as I felt my role there really had a positive impact on the civil service.

Tunku Shahriman

Tunku Tan Sri Shahriman on his morning walk.

What are your hopes for the future? 

As a father, grandfather and now great-grandfather, I hope for all Malaysians to have more compassion and care for each other. My wish is for all of us to put the common good ahead of individual interests.

What are your priorities these days? 

Just two things really. I would like to spend as much time as possible with my family and pay special attention to my health which you appreciate more and more as you get older. Sometimes the two collide as when I go for my morning walks with my loved ones and we later have breakfast and chatthis really makes my day.

A Civil Life is available here. 


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