29 Jan 2015: Unsung Patriot

Leaders must be capable of bringing a clear-sighted and intelligent approach to life’s problems, of making just decisions based on available data, of approaching people sympathetically and in a friendly fashion, and of integrity, honesty and uprightness in their own personal lives. – Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee

Unsung PatriotThe truism that history is written from the standpoint of the victors often results in heroes being pushed to the sidelines. Their personalities and contributions become increasingly reduced to mere footnotes over time, and eventually fade from people’s memories.

Unsung Patriot is one such story of an iconic yet forgotten man – Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee. Co-written by Wong’s seventh son Peter Wong Tet Phin and Penang Institute researcher Koay Su Lynn in a straightforward and unpretentious style, the 336-page memoir is a run-through of his father’s early life and his tenure of 12 years as Penang’s chief minister from 1957 to 1969, up to his death 13 years ago. The biography features some of his speeches and never-before-published photos from his personal collection.

Malaysia's first consul to Italy Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee (second from right)  presents his credentials to the Italian President Giuseppe Saragat

Malaysia’s first consul to Italy Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee (second from right) presents his credentials to the Italian President Giuseppe Saragat

Wong Pow Nee rose from humble beginnings to lofty heights during a brilliant career in politics and state affairs. These include his involvement with the Cobbold Commission of Enquiry, which paved the way towards the birth of Malaysia. He was rightfully accorded the honor to read the Declaration of Independence in Penang. Wong was the pioneer of low-cost housing in the state, launching a range of affordable accommodation for lower income groups to enable slum clearance and resettlement within urbanized areas. He helped kick start Penang’s successful entry towards industrialization – the pilot project at Mak Mandin marked the establishment of various factories on the mainland: textiles, clothes, wires, steel mill and sugar factory, turning a once sleepy enclave into a major, thriving industry. Wong’s tenure as chief minister came to an end when he failed to retain his Bukit Mertajam state seat in 1969. His final public service was as Malaysia’s first ambassador to Italy and the Vatican from 1970 to 1975.

A little known contribution from Wong to the nation, according to politician Lim Kit Siang, was the role he played as “architect for a secular Malaysia”. During the aforesaid Cobbold affair, Wong and Ghazalie Shafie (then the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) insisted that the Malaysian Constitution be based on the 1957 Merdeka Constitution, declaring that the position of Islam being the religion of the Federation in no way jeopardizes freedom of religion in the Federation which in effect would be secular.

In memory of his late father, who died in 2002 at the ripe old age of 92, Peter has set up a gallery in Jalan Bawasah to showcase hundreds of photographs from his father’s personal collection accumulated over the many years he was in office. With the fanfare generated from the successful book launch in January, perhaps Wong’s collective efforts and achievements for Penang will no longer be consigned to the back pages of the country’s history.