Looking back on Malaya’s first year at the United Nations

Opinion  |  S Thayaparan
Published:  |  Modified:

"Ours is what is known as a plural society, in which three major races with different outlooks on life live side by side, and which nationalism has brought close together in brotherhood and unity towards a common goal."
– Ismail Abdul Rahman’s inaugural speech at the UN General Assembly, 1957

BOOK REVIEW | Mohamed Tawfik Ismail and Ooi Kee Beng’s book about Malaya’s first year in the United Nations – specifically Malaya’s first permanent representative to the UN and first ambassador to the United States, Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman – is a more than just a compilation of notes from a bygone era.

Malaya's First Year at the United Nations: As Reflected in Dr Ismail's Reports Home to Tunku Abdul Rahman is, without doubt, a useful rejoinder of what actual nation-building is, at a time when political operatives were playing for stakes higher than just political survival – the creation of a nation. Attempting to forge a country from the embers of a once great empire is one thing; drafting a coherent foreign policy for a newborn nation quite another.

The authors do more than just compile notes from Ismail – Tawfik’s father – to then-prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. What they manage to do is construct a convincing narrative of the nascent foreign policy of this country.

Ismail considered his notes as something made “on a personal basis,” and would stop if they were not found to be useful. The book is a basic guide to the international political scene of the time and Malaya’s tentative steps in this arena, informed by the work of Ismail and others.

Meticulously researched, the side notes, appendices and bibliography of Malaya's First Year at the United Nations fills in the blanks to Ismail's sometimes mundane notes on the grind of networking and establishing a presence among international powers and the slowly fading colonialists of the era.

From the start, the authors make it clear that Ismail’s basis of foreign policy – supported by numerous sources – was that of an independent line. Malaya’s “stand on international problems should not be influenced by the policies of other countries big or small” – a policy which made sense, but would be difficult to maintain in the treacherous world of Cold War politics.

Treading carefully

Which is why when Ismail condemned China’s occupation of Tibet, for instance, he also had to defend this country against accusations that it was a stooge...

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