There aren’t enough stones for the number of adulterers we have. – Tunku Abdul Rahman, on Islamic law and its prescription of stoning for adulterers.

The older you get, the better  you realise you were. 

I wish I’d come up with that but it was a George Carlin original. Carlin himself was one of the most original comedic brains of the 20th Century, frequently coming up  with superb bon mots not only witty but undeniably true.

It reminds me of the first time I met the late, great Tan Siew Sin, Malaysia’s longest serving finance minister (1959-74). He was then chairman of Sime Darby and must have been 70 but looked older and appeared frail.  

He was a Tun – the nation’s highest civilian honour – at the time so I avoided the tongue twister (Tun Tan) by sticking to Tun. I was in awe of him and attempted to defuse the tension by bringing up the story of  Tunku Abdul Rahman and Siew Sin’s leave. 

Apparently, when Siew Sin was Finance Minister, he asked the Tunku – than Prime Minister  and his boss – for leave to go on holiday. It was duly granted. Just as he was about to leave, he was struck by a sudden thought and asked the Tunku who would be his substitute. When the Premier cheerfully replied he  would do it,  Siew Sin immediately  retracted his application.

The Tun confirmed the story without a smile and remarked the Tunku was too “generous” by way of explanation.   He was quite serious about it too. 

He was equally  straight-faced when he  mentioned that when he was finance minister “inflation was zero.”

Which just underscores the point of the Carlin truism. 

It says much about the Tunku’s character that he used the story in his weekly newspaper column to illustrate the humour of the situation. Do you think Dr M, for example,  would have found it equally funny? 

I was in Form Four when the Tunku retired from public service so you might say he loomed large in my life. Indeed, I remember devouring a Readers’ Digest feature on the man entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Tunku Abdul Rahman, under a picture of a beaming,songkok-hatted Tunku.

I still remember some of its  vignettes. 

Western journalists liked the Tunku because he could be relied upon to come up with the breezy, unexpected quip. 

During Indonesia’s “confrontation” with  Malaysia (1963-66) which stemmed from Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of Malaysia, Indonesian jets repeatedly, and deliberately, strayed into Malaysian airspace. It was an obvious show of strength.  

When journalists asked the Tunku what he intended to do about it, he shrugged and said: “Nothing. By the time we’ve scrambled those boys will be back in Jakarta. Let them waste fuel, we’ve better things to do.”

He was candid and disarmingly truthful. During a state visit to the United Kingdom, he was interviewed by a young  David Frost on the BBC. At the time, Southeast Asia was in ferment, against a backdrop of the Vietnam War and McNamara’s warnings of the “Domino theory” which predicted that the region’s countries  would fall “like dominoes” to communism once South Vietnam fell.

Frost (without preamble): “Tunku, what would you do if China were to invade Malaysia?”

Tunku (incredulous): “I must have heard you wrong, David.”

Frost (implacable): “You didn’t hear me wrong, Sir. My question is, what if China invades Malaysia?”

Tunku: “Why then, we shall simply surrender.” 

At a time when Malaysia’s lunatic fringe is baying for “Malay Proclamations” amid increasingly divisive rhetoric, it might be timely to reflect on the Tunku’s notion of unity.

“We are all Malaysians. This is the bond that unites us. Let us always remember that unity is our fundamental strength, as a people and as a nation.”