Datuk Ahmad Zainal Abidin
bin Muhammad Yusof

A Victorian (1946-1949)

Datuk Ahmad Zainal Abidin bin Muhammad Yusof, was a career diplomat in the 60s and 70s. In the later part of his life, he was Malaysia’s Keeper of the Rulers Seal, before his premature death in 1992 at the age of 66. He was born on 14 September 1925 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and was the second child and eldest son of Muhammad Yusof bin Ahmad and Che Wan binti Zainal. He was a direct descendant of Dato’ Awaluddin, a Bugis aristocrat from Riau in Indonesia, who in 1783 had given up his princely life to settle down in Linggi, a village where a small Bugis community in Negeri Sembilan still exists until today. Ahmad Zainal grew up mostly in Kuala Lumpur and went to Batu Road School instead. His mother originated from Gujarat, India.

The Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, was the secondary school that Ahmad Zainal went to from 1939 to 1941, prior to World War 2. After his mother’s demise in 1942, his father, an educationist and expert in the Malay language, was deployed to Tenri in Japan, to be a Malay Language lecturer at Tenri University. Together with his elder sister and two younger brothers, Ahmad Zainal went through very hard times in a country engulfed by war.

After Japan surrendered in 1945, the family returned to Malaya, and Ahmad Zainal enrolled in the Victoria Institution in 1946, to resume his education at the age of 20. At this time the V.I. premises, left in a deplorable condition after Japanese occupation, were undergoing reconstruction. Ahmad Zainal made full use of this opportunity to excel as a student in a short period of time and developed into a well-rounded person. Together with other students, he would make himself available to help out in any way possible so that the V.I., under the able leadership and tutelage of its Headmaster, Mr Frederick Daniel (1946-1949), could recover quickly from the ravages of war. In 1947 Ahmad Zainal was appointed as a member of the newly reconstituted Prefects Board. He was also selected as a member of the strong V.I. Hockey Eleven that same year. He was the Hockey Captain of Shaw House. After sitting for his School Certificate exams in late 1947, he was appointed a temporary teacher at the V.I. in 1948. He remained on the V.I. staff until his admission in September 1949 to the University of Malaya, which was then located in Singapore.

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Ahmad Zainal (second from right) at the V.I. - 1946

Standard 8A (Form 4 today) - 1946. Ahmad Zainal is seated at extreme left

The 1947 School Hockey XI

The 1947 Prefects Board (Ahmad Zainal standing at extreme left); on duty in the Refectory.

Ahmad Zainal (right) off-duty in the Prefects Room, 1947.

Form Master of Standard 5A (Form 1 today), 1948.

Ahmad Zainal taking a P E Class, 1949.

Ahmad Zainal pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Malaya, Singapore, and graduated in 1953. Together with the late Abdullah Salleh (Tun) who would one day became the Chairman of Petronas, he spent three months conducting field work in Sarawak, a university pre-requisite thesis for him to complete his honours degree in geography. It was Abdullah’s second year at the same university. By the end of their work, he and Abdullah had become close friends. The work in Sarawak was a progression of their friendship, but little did they know that their joint effort would one day form part of the Malay Socio-Economic Survey undertaken by the Sarawak Museum and financed by the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund. Later, their report, a monograph in its original format, was compiled into a book entitled Life in the Malay Kampongs of Kuching 50 years ago by A. Zainal Abidin & Abdullah Salleh. The research and geographical study contained in the book gives a rich account of changes that have taken place in the subsequent 50 years and a picture of the daily life of the people who live in Malay kampongs. Ahmad Zainal received his Bachelor of Arts Degree with Honours in 1954. Incidentally, it was during his time at the University of Malaya, that he met Sharifah Attiah binti Dato’ Syed Abdul Kadir (Datin). They were married in Malacca in 1955.

Upon graduation, Ahmad Zainal joined the Malayan Civil Service. He was appointed briefly as State Development Officer in Perlis in 1956. He then moved to Penang where his eldest son Ahmad Hisham (Dato’) was born. 1957, the year of Malaya’s independence, was the year he joined the Malaysian Foreign Service. He subsequently went for further studies in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science at Kingsway, London. He was posted to the Malaysian High Commission, UK, in 1958, the year his second son, Ahmad Husni, was born in Linggi.

This was the beginning of an illustrious career and life in the diplomatic service. With his good command of the French language, he served in France as First Secretary in 1959, and as Chargé d'affaires in such French-speaking countries as Vietnam (1962-1963), Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (1964-1966). He was then appointed as Deputy Secretary General (General Affairs) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1967-1968). After an important one-year assignment in the Soviet Union (1968-1969), Ahmad Zainal became Malaysia’s Ambassador to Iran, accredited to Afghanistan and Turkey (1969-1971).

In 1972, He was conferred the “Darjah Yang Amat Di-Hormati Setia Di-Raja” by the Federal Government of Malaysia prior to his posting to the Philippines as Ambassador. The award carried the title of Datuk. In 1974, Ahmad Zainal was awarded by the Philippines Government the “Datu of the Ancient Order of Sikatuna” for helping its government in the campaign to foster unity among the socio-religious elements of the Muslim region. He returned to Malaysia in 1975 to take up the post of Deputy Secretary General (Economics). He was also the Secretary-General of ASEAN, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, until 1977. Ahmad Zainal's final posting, as Malaysia’s High Commissioner in Canada, was from 1978 to 1980.

He was appointed as Malaysia’s Keeper of the Rulers Seal in 1980. It was during this final phase of his career, that Ahmad Zainal would bring his skills, knowledge and years of experience as a diplomat to a culmination.

This was during Malaysia’s Constitutional Crisis of 1983, involving the Monarchy and the Federal Government. An abstract from Princes and Politicians: The Constitutional Crisis in Malaysia, 1983–4 by A. J. Stockwell, describes it as follows: “In late July 1983 the government of Datuk Seri Mahathir Mohamad tabled in the Malaysian parliament a bill to amend the constitution. Among its 22 provisions were three curtailing the authority of the King (Yang di-Pertuan Agung) and Their Highnesses the State Rulers. The Barisan National (National Front), a coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), had no difficulty securing the necessary two-thirds majority. Although the public were not made aware of the issue at the time, it became a cause célčbre because the Yang di-Pertuan Agung, backed by the rulers, withheld his assent.”

That year and into 1984 saw the Prime Minister pushing the amendment of Article 66 of the Federal Constitution to set a time limit for the Malaysian Monarch to veto a law within thirty days. The proposals generated a great deal of controversy between the government and the monarchy, during which the former launched a public campaign to pressure the monarchy to assent to the amendments. Ahmad Zainal, as Keeper of the Rulers Seal, was able to successfully manage this most delicate matter between the two parties. In doing so, he helped defuse a constitutional crisis that could easily escalated out of hand to the detriment of the nation.

For his services to the nation, Ahmad Zainal was conferred with the “Dato' Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah” (DSSA) award by the State Government of Selangor in 1985, and received the Dato’ Paduka award from the State Government of Kedah in 1988. He retired in 1988 following a stroke and passed away in 1992.

May his soul rest in peace and always be with the blessings of Allah SWT.

Ahmad Husni
19 June, 2016

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