Tun Omar Yoke-Lin Ong
The Last Independence Fighter
hat would be the political scene in Malaysia today if Ong Yoke Lin hadn't
taken a wrong turning one Sunday morning early in 1952 while driving to his
office in Ampang Road? As it happened he found himself driving instead past the Cold
Storage in Rodger Street (Jalan Hang Kasturi today). He noticed his former
V.I. schoolmate Yahya bin Abdul Razak, a Selangor territorial chief and chairman
of the UMNO election subcommittee standing outside. He motioned to Yahya to jump
into his car and the two of them drove to Yoke Lin's office. There after a half-hour
discussion, a momentous decision was made in the political history of Malaysia that
resounds to this day.
To understand what happened one must rewind the clock back to
1951 when there was the Member system under the British. Dato Onn bin Jaffar was
the "Member" for Home Affairs, Dato Thuraisingam was the "Member" for Education, Nik
Kamil (former Mentri Besar for Kelantan} was the "Member" for Lands and Mines.
Despite the on-going Emergency, the British High Commissioner had promised the Malayan
people local council level elections for town councils and municipal councils. If
things went well at the local level, then elections would be held at state level and,
after that, at federal level.
A few political parties including UMNO and Yoke Lin's MCA began to gird
themselves for the elections. Dato Onn was then the president of Umno. He wanted to open
Umno to all races but the other Umno leaders at that time did not support that idea. So Onn
resigned and founded the multiracial Independence of Malaya Party (IMP). It attracted
many supporters and, as 1952 began, the IMP had selected its candidates and was confident
of winning the majority, if not all, of the twelve seats for the Kuala Lumpur
Ong Yoke Lin who was at that time Chairman of the Selangor liaison committee
was perplexed when even MCA bigwigs like its President Cheng-Lock Tan, Leong Yew Koh, and Tan
Siew Sin were falling over themselves to join the IMP. He confronted Cheng-Lok Tan (later
Tun) to ask what it was all about. "No, no, no", Cheng-Lock explained, "I am
joining in my personal capacity. I am still national president of the MCA!" Then UMNO,
under its new President Tunku Abdul Rahman, announced that it was fielding six candidates
for the elections. In response the MCA made a call for a multiracial slate of candidates.
It was in this atmosphere of political maneuvering and posturing that
Yoke Lin had that chance meeting with UMNO's Yahya Abdul Razak. It was only possible because
Yoke Lin was the only MCA official that Yahya - vested with the authority to do whatever he
could to win for UMNO - knew and trusted personally, thanks to their V.I. roots. So in the
registered office of Ong Yoke Lin & Company overlooking the Klang River was hatched the
concept of an UMNO-MCA Alliance to contest the coming Municipal elections.
Born on July 23, 1917, Yoke Lin began schooling at the Pudu Girls' English
School, which was a mere shop house then. He then continued at the High Street V.I. and tranferred
to the new VI in 1929 for his Standard Six. He finished his School Certificate in 1932 at
the age of 15. The headmaster at time was Mr F.L. Shaw, a classics scholar from Cambridge.
He taught Yoke Lin Latin, so interestingly and so well that he was the only V.I. boy to get
honours in that subject. Mr Leong Fook Yen was his geography teacher, while Mr Ganga Singh
taught him mathematics.
In Yoke Lin's time, the V.I. was one of those exclusive schools like the
Penang Free School, with three feeder primary schools - Pasar Road School, Batu Road
School and Maxwell School. Only the best from these schools went to the V.I. His classmates
included Yahya Razak, School Captain Bahauddin bin Yaacob and Jeswant Singh Sodhi. A member of
Shaw House, he was involved in football and played badminton for the school. He joined informal
badminton clubs like the Evergreen Club, Jolly Ones Club that met after school and under their
auspices played against future Thomas Cuppers like Wong Peng Soon and Chan Kon Leong. He even
had a few matches with Mr Shaw in the School Hall. Yoke Lin also dabbled in drama and once,
as a thirteen year old under the direction of the Art teacher, Mr Chan Hung Chin, he had to
put on a wig and a dress to act as a girl.
The secret of the V.I. was that it had good teachers, who were either Cambridge,
Oxford or London graduates. They were all very dedicated. And the local teachers were good too.
There was a spirit of competitiveness and a sense of pride in the school that made the Victorians
want to compete against other schools for better results and for the glory of the school. There
were all sorts of extramural activities that allowed for the easy mixing of boys of various races
- hence the bonding between Yoke Lin and Yahya Razak. Yoke Lin was in the cadet corps and the
scouts as well. In the former he was promoted to sergeant-major, training other recruits. He was
very active in the geographical society and in the debating society where, after overcoming his
initial nervousness, he honed his debating skills, skills no doubt useful later in the K.L. municipal
chambers and, much later, in the Malayan Parliament and, beyond that, the United Nations.
He was made a school prefect; one of his fellow prefects was Lee Siew Choh
who would later carve his name in politics as well, except it would be in Singapore and of a
different, more fiery brand. Another colleague was Yaacob bin Latiff, destined like Yoke Lin to
serve as an ambassador for the country and who would later be appointed mayor of Kuala Lumpur. Yet
another was Mahmud bin Ambak, the late father-in-law of the present Malaysian Prime Minister. As
prefects, the job of Yoke Lin, Siew Choh, Yaacob, Mahmud and others was to apprehend the boys who
came late to school. They would lock the school gates after lessons began and apprehend latecomers
to be caned on the buttocks by Mr Shaw to inculcate into them that punctuality was a very important
part of life. All in all, Yoke Lin thoroughly enjoyed his time at the V.I., and came away with many
happy memories, good friends as well as lifelong friends.
On finishing his School Certificate, Yoke Lin was offered a Loke Yew Scholarship
to Hong Kong University to read either medicine, engineering or the arts. But he was keen to go
to England for Mr Shaw had called him in and said he wanted him to win a Queen's scholarship
for the glory of the V.I. Yoke Lin tried for two years but lost out to some Taiping boys who
were offering mathematics as a subject. Of course, in mathematics - a subject not offered
in V.I.'s matriculation class - one could score 100% while in Latin or History one could not.
In 1935, Yoke Lin finally sat for the London matriculation - a very difficult exam - in
Singapore and passed in all his five subjects. In 1936 he joined the work force selling
air-conditioners, while training as a chartered accountant at a firm called Gibson, Anderson,
Butler, whose partners treated him very well.
When he first started selling air conditioners before the war Yoke Lin could
not get enough electricity to run his products. Electricity was reserved mainly for the use of
the tin dredges and one large British manufacturing facility, United Engineers. There were few
factories, and the big businesses were all British owned. One could see that the best roads were
all built for tin mines and rubber plantations. There was little hope for good jobs, recalls Yoke
Lin. Malaya's two main commodities, rubber and tin, depended on the vagaries of the market. Malayans
were producers of only raw materials with no value added for what they produced. Apart from that,
they were just distributors, wholesalers and retailers. It was sheer colonial exploitation in
the classic sense, says Yoke Lin.
He had been hoping to read law but then the war intervened. After the war he
founded his air-conditioning firm, Ong Yoke Lin & Company, in 1948 which is still going strong today.
Not surprisingly he plunged into politics and joined the MCA in 1949. He had risen to be an executive
committee member of its Selangor branch (under Colonel H.S. Lee) by the time he met with Yahya Razak
that fateful Sunday morning.
When Yoke Lin broached the UMNO-MCA Alliance idea with Cheng-Lock Tan, the latter
said "Yes, yes, I support it. Anything that brings the races together is good." The inauguration
of the UMNO-MCA Alliance in KL planned for another Sunday morning was another thing though. Tunku Abdul
Rahman promised to attend, as did Cheng-Lock. When the Tunku turned up, there was no Cheng-Lock
anywhere. As the MCA President usually stayed at the Majestic Hotel whenever he came up from
Malacca, Yoke Lin sent his boys to the hotel to fetch him. The hotel said yes, Cheng-Lock had
arrived at 9 o'clock that morning but, no, he had left at half past nine. What happened was that
Cheng-Lock had been "kidnapped" by the IMP people and so never turned up for that historic
Nevertheless the upshot was that the Alliance won a big victory in the
Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council election, forming the majority. Yoke Lin was chosen as Alliance
leader in the Municipal Council. The UMNO-MCA Alliance juggernaut now spread like wild fire
all over the country from Johor Baru to Kangar. Every weekend they had elections in some
town in Malaya and the Alliance would win 90% to 100% of the seats. Meantime the IMP had
suffered so many defeats in the local elections that Dato Onn dissolved it and formed Party
Negara in its place. When the local elections were all over, Yoke Lin invited the Tunku and
Cheng-Lock Tan to sit down and talk, saying, "The Malays and Chinese are now comfortable
working together. We should now discuss all the various big issues for independence." And
so they had round table conferences and after many meetings agreed on a strategy to fight for
the next goal - independence.
The Federal Legislative Council at that time consisted of 100% appointed
members, including Yoke Lin himself. He also wore two other hats, as an appointee to the
Selangor State Legislative Assembly as well as an elected member of the KL Municipal Council.
Now he and others in the Alliance began to pressure the colonial government to hold national
elections to elect two thirds of the legislative seats. The British agreed to only one third
and things reached a stage where the talks broke down and the Malayans members simply resigned
and called for a non-cooperation campaign.
The communist insurgency was then at its height, with more Commonwealth
troops having to be brought in and more special police recruited. The British press now
joined in the fray and criticised the ruling Conservative government's stand, while the
opposition Labour Party was saying, "You are now fighting on two fronts. You are fighting
the communistis and you are not achieving any significant victory yet. And now you are taking
on the nationalists!" In the end the British came up with a compromise: 52 seats with the
majority party appointing seven more making up a possible 59. Yoke Lin and the rest accepted
the compromise and the Alliance, which by this time included the MIC, participated in the
landmark 1955 national election. It won 51 out of 52 seats, appointed seven more members, and
so had an overwhelming majority in the house. The Tunku became Chief Minister; Yoke Lin was
made Minister for Post and Telecoms in the first cabinet and, after a few months, moved to
And now it was on to the final lap - negotiating for complete independence
from Britain. An Alliance delegation led by Tunku Abdul Rahman flew to London and inked an
agreement in January 1956 for Merdeka to be granted in an unexpectedly short period
of nineteen months. With independence assured, new issues were now raised, in particular,
the creation of a formula for a common nationality for all the races. Yoke Lin was in the
committee to draft proposals to submit to the Reid Commission which toured Malaya in 1956
receiving memoranda and hearing evidence in camera. There was substantial agreement to the
Alliance's draft document and the final points were to be agreed in London in 1957. The Alliance
delegation in this particular round comprised the Tunku, Abdul Razak, Sambanthan, Yoke Lin
together with representatives of the Malay rulers. The tripartite talks went quite smoothly,
presided over by the Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The Malayan delegation even talked
to the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and the Foreign Secretary. All that remained
now was to prepare for Malayanization and Merdeka.
When Malaya proclaimed its independence on August 31st 1957, it was at the
brand new Merdeka Stadium in the back yard of Yoke Lin's old school. With the V.I. tower peering
over the stadium in front of him, he sat with other ministers, resplendent in the colonial-style
white uniform with ostrich-plumed helmet of that era. It was, Yoke Lin recalls, the
happiest moment of his life. His struggle was over; tears of joy streamed down his cheeks.
On that day, too, he became Minister for Labour and Social Welfare of a brand new country
under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Two years later, he was switched to head Health
and Social Welfare.
Having fought for Malaya's independence Yoke Lin was soon roped in to
help with the difficult birth of Malaysia. By 1961 the Tunku's idea of forming Malaysia
from Malaya and the disparate pieces of Britain's southeast Asian empire was gathering
momentum. Yoke Lin led a delegation from Malaya as part of the Solidarity Consultative
Committee comprising delegations from Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and British North Borneo,
with Brunei as an observer. As agreement was reached to form Malaysia, Indonesia led by
Sukarno fell under the influence of the PKI and instituted its Konfrontasi against
Malaysia. With a serious potential for war in Southeast Asia, Yoke Lin was dispatched as
ambassador to the United Nations and the U.S. in New York. Now on the world stage, he was
in a different struggle, to defend Malaya's interests, lobbying endlessly with the Kennedy
administration and other governments to seek support for the Malaysian concept. Finally, U
Thant, the U.N. Secretary-General, sent an independent mission to ascertain the wishes of
the people of Sarawak and British North Borneo as to whether they were wanted to join
Malaysia. The report was positive and he was one of the signatories of the London agreement
in September 1963 establishing Malaysia. Yoke Lin could claim, which few could do, to have
helped launch two new nations.
He continued his stewardship as Minister without Portfolio to the new
nation. Yoke Lin was appointed concurrently as Malaysia's first High Commissioner to Canada
in 1966 and as Malaysian Ambassador to Brazil the following year. He relinquished his
diplomatic appointments in November 1972 and resumed his Ministerial post until February
1973 when he was unanimously elected President of the Senate. He served in this position
until December 31, 1980.
Today, Yoke Lin, or Tun Omar Ong - he has since embraced Islam and been
awarded a Tunship for his services to the nation - enjoys a busy life with interests in several
companies and as patron of the National Heart Foundation. With his wife, Toh Puan Aisyah Ong at
his side, he works the social circuit. His recent 87th birthday was celebrated with the top brass
of his old MCA which included V.I. Old Girl politician Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen. The MCA of his time
is still around but the Alliance party has since morphed into the ruling multi-party Barisan
Nasional. It must have given Tun Omar great pride to recall how his life's mission had come
to fruition, 52 years after he and another Old Victorian first got together one Sunday morning
to talk politics.
Dedication in Tunku Abdul Rahman's 1977 memoirs
The V.I. Web Page
Interviewed in 1999 by: Chung Chee Min
Created: August 15, 2004.
Last updated: October 17, 2004.
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