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Ramon Navaratnam: “Malaysia first”

AT 77, there are many things Tan Sri Ramon V Navaratnam is thankful for. Topmost is the fact that all three of his sons and their families, including his four grandchildren, remain in Malaysia. “Thank God! I think there are not many left of my age [whose] children are all here. I think I did my best to imbue in them a sense of belonging – your country first.”

The distinguished former civil servant and corporate personality speaks with conviction when he talks about “country first”. Navaratnam spent nearly 30 years in the civil service. An economist by training, he rose to become the Treasury’s deputy secretary-general, and also served at the World Bank as representative of Malaysia and 12 other Southeast Asian countries. He was one of the drafters of the New Economic Policy (NEP) following the race riots of 1969, and today is one of its most open critics over the policy’s failure to deliver due to poor implementation.

(All pics below courtesy of Ramon Navaratnam)

(All pics below courtesy of Ramon Navaratnam)

Navaratnam retired from the civil service in 1989 as the Transport Ministry secretary-general. Even so, he continues to serve the government and the country in various capacities in the fields of education, public policy, business, development and economic planning.

In an interview on 30 March 2012 at his office in Menara Sunway, where he is group corporate adviser and Sunway University deputy chancellor, Navaratnam bemoans the fact that too few young Malaysians are committed towards staying and working for a better Malaysia. At the same time, he questions why we are losing so much of our talent. In this interview with The Nut Graph, he remembers growing up and working in a Malaysia that was different and yet proved to be a precursor of things to come.

TNG: When and where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Kuala Lumpur on 6 Jan 1935 at the General Hospital, those days in Bangsar.

Did you grow up in KL?

Ramon at age one, with his father in Sungai Buloh in 1936.

Ramon at age one, with his father in Sungai Buloh in 1936

I grew up in Sungai Buloh outside KL until the war. We left in 1941 for Ipoh and then during the Japanese invasion, we were all over the place. First, we were in Teluk Anson, and then we went to a kampung called Langkap, and then we went back to Ipoh and after the war, I started school there. And then we moved to Taiping and to Kampar because my father was in the government service as a senior officer in the clerical service.

We came back to KL in 1947, where I finished my secondary education in Victoria Institution (VI), and then I went to University of Malaya. Those days we only had one university for Malaya and Singapore, and it was in Singapore. We had to sit for entrance exams and they chose the best.

Can you trace your ancestry?

Yes. I have Sri Lankan origins. My grandfathers on both my mother and father’s side migrated to this country. My maternal grandfather, Foster Lee, was [school head] of King Edward VII in Taiping, and mum became a teacher, too.

On my father’s side, my grandfather, whose name was Kunaratnam, was a very senior clerical officer to the chief secretary to the government, who was British then. That’s where I got my inspiration to serve in the public service.

During the Japanese regime, I sold curry puffs my mother made, and that’s when I built up resentment against working in the private sector. Because my mother laboured hard in making the curry puffs and I would cycle around to sell them. And people would say, “What kind of curry puff is this? Not good enough! Not enough meat! How much is it?” Some wouldn’t even pay. And I said, “Why are people so unfair, unreasonable, selfish and greedy?” So, I said, I cannot enter this world.

And because of my father and grandfather, I chose the civil service. In those days, the civil servants were the best-paid and the most prestigious.

Your grandparents from both sides came from Sri Lanka. Which means you are second-generation Malaysian?

Third-generation. My grandfather, my father and then myself. I always say I’m third-generation Malaysian because they lived here [before I was born]. Not many bumiputera can say they are third-generation!

What kind of stories do you hold on to the most from your family, and how do you connect with them as a Malaysian?

Ramon's parents on their wedding day in 1934

Ramon's parents on their wedding day in 1934

My father and my mother were both very committed Malaysians. They did not think at all of their old country. One was a teacher and the other one in the civil service. They were committed to serve and work with all races.

[In those days], it was a natural thing to go to your neighbour’s house. We had a Chinese neighbour on our right, and a Singhalese neighbour on our left and a Malay neighbour further down, all in the same row of government quarters on Jalan Padang in Taiping. We used to play together, drop in anytime, and eat in each other’s house. If they came to our house, we didn’t serve pork. If we went to their house, they didn’t serve beef, although we’re Christian.

Are there any stories that your grandparents or parents told you that really encapsulate the kind of struggle and commitment they felt for Malaysia?

My own father at the time of Independence expressed the concern that Independence was going to cause problems. In fact, at that time, he did not even allow me to go to Merdeka Stadium, and we were living in the government houses on Hose Road near the old Wisma Putra. It was a five-minute walk to Merdeka Stadium. I was a university student then, and it was vacation time. I wanted so much to go to the stadium and witness the Merdeka ceremony, and my father said, “No.” But then my mother appealed to him and they let me go.

And what do you remember?

Whenever I hear Tunku Abdul Rahman shouting “Merdeka!” as he did seven times on that historic day, tears well in my eyes. Because that encapsulated for me the whole ethos and quintessence of merdeka, of freedom, and what it really meant to me at that time, and the prospects it held out for me as a young man of 22.

Could you see?

Ya, of course, the whole lineup with Tunku Abdul Rahman. It was a great moment in my life. It was the beginning of our independence. I always say, “Then and now. What has happened?”

I was one of those who drafted the NEP because I was the economics officer in the Treasury. Till this day, I’ll say I don’t think there is anything wrong with the NEP, if it was followed properly.

Two things I can remember very clearly about the NEP. One was eradication of poverty regardless of race. Can anybody quarrel with that? And two, the removal of the identification of race with occupation.

But then, they went on this policy of favouritism, of rejecting meritocracy, of wanting to give to those who [weren’t] deserving and [it made] them greedy. It spoilt the whole foundation and the essentials of the policy.

In his school uniform in Taiping, 1947

You have been critical that the NEP, which you helped draft in 1970 under the Tun Abdul Razak administration, has been distorted so that it no longer is what it was meant to be. What do you think it will take for the government to remove race as the basis for the country’s economic planning and implementation?

Just go back to Tun Razak’s days and his thinking and ethos at that time, which is to treat everybody fairly and to ensure that you give everybody equal opportunities to develop themselves to their full potential, regardless of race. I don’t believe that any race is superior to the other. It’s just that some races perform better because they are encouraged to compete rather than to become complacent.

If you indulge a kid, that kid is ruined. Many politicians chose to ignore this basic common-sense approach in order to protect, preserve and perpetuate their own selfishness, greed and prosperity, at the expense of future generations.

When you were in the civil service, were you already experiencing that the civil service was no longer representative of the different racial groups in Malaysia?

Yes. When I joined, the understanding was, according to the constitution, that recruitment into the PTD – which was the premium service or the top echelon of the civil service – was 4:1 Malays to non-Malays. And that was reasonably strictly adhered to when I joined in 1959 – before you were born (chuckles).

For example, I was chosen to represent Malaysia at the World Bank. I was in Washington, DC for two years. I don’t think it can happen today. And the non-Malays participated actively in all fora even after 1969 without fear or favour until we found that we were becoming isolated.

By whom?

By Malay officials and government leaders who were becoming sensitive to our participation at the highest levels of policymaking. That’s why some senior civil servants in the late 1970s retired prematurely and went abroad to work. They saw the writing on the wall.

You lived through 13 May 1969.

No, I was not here. I was in Boston doing my Masters at Harvard, and I read about it in The Boston Globe and saw it on TV.

Ramon’s first international conference with Trade Minister Dr Lim Swee Aun at the Escap Meeting in Manila in 1963

Ramon’s first international conference with Trade Minister Dr Lim Swee Aun at the Escap Meeting in Manila in 1963

How did it make you feel?

Shattered. One, you’re shocked that it has happened to your beloved country. What happened that it got to that stage? We never expected it. Two, we wanted desperately to know how are our family was doing. What do I do? Do I rush back and see what I can do for my country?

What did you do?

I carried on studying at Harvard because after some time, things subsided. And when I came back, that gave me an advantage. Because when I came back, we were in the midst of preparing the NEP. And this is where, for the first time in my life, I found some cold stares and discomfort at meetings to discuss the NEP’s formulation. Because at that time, there were some very extreme views against non-Malays that were to be included in the NEP.

In my book (My Life and Times: A Memoir), I do say that (then Finance Minister) Tun Tan Siew Sin was not aware of the NEP until I told him. I was a junior officer. But I was attending the meetings at the EPU. I was too junior to approach him.

So I spoke to his private secretary, Tan Chye Mian. I said, “Look, this NEP, do you know anything about it?” Because he dealt with all the secret cabinet and ministry files. “No,” he said. I said, “Look, it can be very serious because if it goes the wrong way, they would be doing everything for the Malays and really shunting the Indians and Chinese.” Because those were my initial thoughts. “You better ask the minister. Maybe he’s aware, you’re not aware.”

So, he asked the minister. The minister got upset. Tan Siew Sin was a very strong and independent man of high integrity. He called me up. I was nervous because you don’t get to see the minister as a relatively junior officer. The minister asked sternly, “What is all this NEP?” So, I said, “Sir, it is real. I can give you the documents.” “You bring the documents.” So, I brought the documents. He got a shock. He was genuinely not aware of the NEP at that time.

Ramon (far left) with Malaysian High Commissioner Datuk Abdullah Ali, Tan Sri Thong Yaw Hong and Inder Singh in London in 1965

Ramon (far left) with Malaysian High Commissioner Datuk Abdullah Ali, Tan Sri Thong Yaw Hong and Inder Singh in London in 1965

How did he get left out of the process …

A good question.

… while you, a junior officer, knew about it?

I was working at the technical level. It had not been formulated enough to be sent up for policy decision-making. That’s the way the civil service works. We were in the stage of discussion, debate, study and research before finalising the recommendations.

The point is that the 1969 riots happened because of Malay disenchantment or resentment that they were not, from their point of view, getting a fair share of the cake, although they regarded this as their country and we as pendatang. They didn’t say it then, but it was part of the psyche.

So that was why, at these meetings, you were being given cold stares?

Because, as I said, I was not traumatised by May 13. So I spoke frankly and openly about my professional concerns. I felt free to do so because I was not here during the riots … I [could speak] independently and honestly and without the sensitivity of the trauma.

Whereas many of my non-Malay friends were hesitant and reluctant to speak up because they were traumatised. So I kept speaking purely in terms of what is right, what is wrong until I got these cold stares because people didn’t expect me to talk like that. Then, I felt very insecure and for the first time in my life, I got asthma.

With Bill Clinton in Kuala Lumpur in 2008 when the former US president visited to deliver the inaugural BC Sekhar memorial lecture in December that year

With Bill Clinton in Kuala Lumpur in 2008 when the former US president visited to deliver the inaugural BC Sekhar memorial lecture in December

What did Tan Siew Sin do?

When I told him, he rang, in front of me, Tun Razak straightaway. I couldn’t hear what Tun Razak said, but I could surmise from Tan Siew Sin’s replies. Tan Siew Sin said, “What’s this I hear from my officials, this NEP?” Then I heard him say, “No, I should know. I’m the minister of finance … OK, you better tell me what it’s all about … OK, thank you very much. Keep me informed.” And then he told me to keep him posted every time I attended a meeting.

So, the earlier version of the NEP tried to shunt the non-Malays?

I remember very clearly. They were dealing with employment. And the policy that they were to introduce would cause employment for Malays to rise and unemployment for the Chinese and Indians to increase. In other words, almost any new job would be given to Malays first.

You know who the person was behind all that? A Norwegian, Dr Just Faaland. He was the head of the Harvard Advisory Group positioned at the EPU (Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department)[1]. They worked with some of the ultra Malays, and were trying to change and distort the Malaysian economy and the future. You have some little Napoleons like that even today.

Do you think race relations today are worse than in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

Definitely.

What do you think has contributed towards worsening race relations in Malaysia?

Bad politics and politicians who want to perpetuate themselves. And the breakdown of institutions.

When do you feel most Malaysian?

When I see acts and deeds that reflect fairness to all. When I see people celebrate, say for example, (Datuk) Lee Chong Wei’s or (Datuk) Nicole David’s or (Datuk) Misbun Sidek’s victories, you know, regardless of race. When Malaysians together cheer for them as Malaysians first, and not as Malays, Chinese or Indians.

When I see younger people extol the values of Malaysia and its uniqueness of being a very complicated, multiracial society, and yet live together peacefully.

Family portrait: Ramon, his wife Samaladevi Dharmalingham and their three sons, from left, Dharmendran, Nahendran and Ravindran

Family portrait: Ramon, his wife Samaladevi Dharmalingham and their three sons (from left) Dharmendran, Nahendran and Ravindran

What is your greatest hope for this country and for future generations?

That we will be true to the spirit and values of our constitution, which really aims to create a unified country where the talents of all its citizens will be utilised to the full in the best interest of the welfare of all.

Where there will be love and understanding of our differences. Where our multiculturalism will be regarded as an asset and not a liability. Hopefully, this evolution of Malaysian culture and society can be a shining example, a prototype, to a very divided world.

We have the potential and it’s not difficult because we are a blessed country. The only problem is whether our political leaders understand the great potential that we have, and will have the courage and ideals to develop this country to be a united, progressive, happy nation, where everybody will have a rightful place under the Malaysian sun.

[1] For more on the history of the NEP’s formulation and Dr Faaland’s involvement, refer to Navaratnam, Ramon V., My Life and Times: A Memoir, Pelanduk Publications, Selangor, 2005, p. 95–104.


The book Found in Malaysia Volume 2, which was launched on Malaysia Day 2011, is now available in bookstores for RM50. It features previously unpublished interviews with Asha Gill, Lillian Too, Khairy Jamaluddin and Baru Bian. Volume 1 of Found in Malaysia, featuring 54 earlier interviews, is currently in its second print run and retailing at RM45.

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4 Responses to “Ramon Navaratnam: “Malaysia first””

  1. Alizea says:

    Truly inspiring.

  2. Greg Lopez says:

    The good Tan Sri was the Chairman of Transparency International Malaysia. The good Tan Sri was part and parcel of the Malaysian government, rising to its highest ranks in the public sector. The good Tan Sri is now chairman of a construction company.

    I understand that Malaysia is a very corrupt country with the Ministry of Transport and the construction sector identified among the most corrupt (can cite sources if needed).

    Could the good Tan Sri explain how this has happened under his watch?

  3. repoman says:

    Used by a corrupt government to lend an incorruptible facade to the gullible rakyat. Nothing great. The really great ones are Kit Siang, Ambiga, Sivarasa, Karpal etc who dare to bring up issues where it involves abuse by the government.

  4. To remain in Malaysia is not a virtue nor is it a vice. The continued pretence that there is great concern for those migrating being continually and falsely referred to as a great talent drain is disingenuous and above all, a distraction.

    Singapore has lost up to 38% of its population [and that is] now replaced by the 38% of its residents who are foreigners. Malaysians are by and large made up of migrants. People of migrant stock especially those of Chinese and Indian descent. It is in their DNA to move to wherever the pastures appear greener. Nothing unusual about that. What’s telling though is this. It is not as if the vast majority of Malaysians abroad are hugely successful people. Maybe some as business [people], but that is no great achievement. Academically and otherwise their contributions are that of every other tax payer. Nothing great. If ever there were great achievers amongst these, they are far and few.

    [...]

    [Ramon Navaratnam's] analysis of government and his claims to widespread corruption in government should be investigated. Unfortunately it can’t be because [...] [there is not] an iota of evidence sufficient to support [the] assertions. He ought to give up his Tan Sri-ship if he continues to condemn the government and its institutions that gave him that honour. If not, he remains an unmitigated hypocrite, enjoying the benefits of a “corrupt” government which he has no right to.


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