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A Tribute to Tun Abdullah Salleh (1926-2006)

Abdullah Salleh (1926-2006)
June 22, 2006 21:23 PM KUALA LUMPUR, June 22 (Bernama)

Former Chief Secretary to the Government Tun Abdullah Salleh who died Thursday was Malaysia's most illustrious civil servant who served under four prime ministers and had the distinction of once being the boss of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the ex-civil servant who is now prime minister. After being intermittently hospitalised for the last three months, the wheel-chair bound Abdullah succumbed to lymphoma, a cancer of the blood cells, at the Universiti Kebangsaan Hospital here at about 3.30pm. To say that Abdullah came up the hard way in life to become the country's top civil servant in 1976 and two years later as chairman and chief executive of the newly-formed Petronas, the national oil corporation, was an understatement.

Born on June 24, 1926 at Kampung Padang Sebang, Alor Gajah in Melaka, against the backdrop of a country under colonial rule and when poverty and deprivation were the order of the day, Abdullah survived extremely severe circumstances, seemingly against all odds. Seven of his younger siblings had died of diphtheria, his mother died during a typhoid epidemic when he was only in Standard 5, but nothing was to deter him from pursuing his ambition to go for higher studies to obtain a then rare university degree, not even a world war which came to the country's shores from 1941-1945. He enrolled in an English school run by the British in Melaka town -- he was the only Malay at the school -- commuting daily by train from Gadek and then walking part of the way. He was made to pay school fees of $2.50 a month when his father was earning only $26 a month but because he excelled in his studies in the first year, he secured a free place. In the second year, he topped the class and was given a scholarship of $9 a month.

Abdullah continued with his schooling at the Melaka High School, which he once described as "one of the best schools in the country" and was in Standard 7 waiting to be promoted to Standard 8 when the Second World War broke out. He witnessed the arrival of the Japanese army and the fall of Singapore. In August 1945 when the war ended with the Japanese surrender, he resumed his interrupted schooling. Then over 18 years old, he by-passed Standard 8 to gain a direct entry into Standard 9 to sit for the School Certificate examination in 1946. But that year, disaster struck. "I found out I had tuberculosis," he once told Khidmat, the quarterly magazine of the Malaysian civil service. He was hospitalised for three months and although his sputum test proved negative, the side-effects appeared a few months later when water began to develop in his lungs. "I thought I would die, it was that bad. The water had to be pumped out twice a week," he recalled. Abdullah was hospitalised for a massive two-and-a-half years and after being discharged, he went back to school after missing the 1946 examination. But he told the magazine that the headmaster refused to admit him because he was over-aged and only relented after persuasion by a teacher who had once taught him. So he joined Standard 9 at an old age of 22 in a class among 17 and 18 year old boys. Again, he excelled by scoring six distinctions in the School Certificate examination. He joined the prestigious Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) for Form 6 and later the University of Malaya while still in poor health, and in fact suffered a relapse while at the university. Although Abdullah was hospitalised for a further two-and-a-half months and later was confined to the students' sick bay and had to miss his lectures for five months, he still managed to graduate from the university with a BA (Hons) in Geography. He started his career in the Johor civil service because he had to serve out his Johor scholarship bond, his first job being the secretary of the organising committee for the 50th anniversary of the reign of the ruler of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim.

This was followed by a string of civil service appointments in Johor and then Perak and from 1959 to 1961, he was private secretary to the first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. "My greatest regret was that when the Tunku passed away (in 1989), I was not there to see his face for the last time. I was then in London. I regretted that very much", he told the magazine. Then came his posting to the Public Service Commission with a directive to ensure fair apportionment of scholarships and Division One appointments to Malay candidates. This was followed by his appointment as Under-Secretary to the Cabinet. Abdullah, together with Justice Hashim Sani drew up the National Language Act 1967,which provided for Bahasa Malaysia to be the main medium of instruction in schools.

Next he was assigned to set up Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia which was to use Bahasa Malaysia as medium of instruction and was appointed by then prime minister Tun Abdul Razak as its first Registrar, a fairly junior appointment given his seniority but which he said he dared not refuse. This was because he had declined Tun Razak's offers on two previous occasions, the first in 1963 to go to Sabah as Economic Adviser of then Chief Minister Tun Datu Mustapha and the second, to persuade him to stand as a candidate in Melaka in the 1969 general election and be its Chief Minister. "Evidently, Tun Razak was not going to accept 'no' for an answer for the third time," he told Khidmat. The setting up of UKM using Malay as the medium of instruction proved to be a monumental task indeed at a time when there was a scarcity of Malays with doctorates and Master's degrees to serve as lecturers but the problem was overcome with the recruitment of lecturers from Indonesia.

After the 1974 general election, Abdullah was made Director-General of the Public Services Department (PSD) and in May 1976 after Tun Razak died, he succeeded Tan Sri Kadir Shamsuddin was Chief Secretary to the Government. Kadir had gone to Petronas as its first chairman. At end-1978 upon retiring from the civil service, then prime minister Tun Hussein Onn made him chairman and chief executive of Petronas following the death of Kadir. It was an irony of sorts because Abdullah had earlier submitted various other names to the prime minister as Kadir's successor. But Hussein wanted him for the job which he took up at the age of 53. Much of the developments of Petronas, then with a staff of 600-700, was still in the planning stage and Abdullah's first job was to set up the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant in Bintulu and to get Japanese power and utility companies to take up the LNG production. Abdullah also set up the Petronas refinery in Kerteh in Terengganu and followed by another refinery in Melaka and gave priority to the training of Malaysians who in later years were to take over the running of the refineries from foreign management teams.

Today, Petronas has a presence in over 30 countries and is one of the world's most profitable oil companies and the only Malaysian company listed in the Fortune 500. Age and ill health kept Abdullah away from the spotlight but from 1989 to last year, he was chairman of the Tun Razak Foundation, named after the second prime minister. In 2003, Abdullah was bestowed the Seri Setia Mahkota (SSM) which carries the title "Tun", the highest federal award, and became the first and only former Chief Secretary to the Government to receive the title.

Webmaster: Tun Abdullah Salleh studied in Malacca High School before the 2nd. World War. He was my father's classmate in Malacca High.