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Tunku Abdul Rahman, Charisma, and the Nationalist Movement in Malaya, 1952–1957


  • Joseph M. Fernando

    1. University of Malaya
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    • Joseph M. Fernando is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. He obtained his Ph.D. in history from Royal Holloway College, University of London. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 20th Annual ASEN Conference, ‘Nation and Charisma’, 13–15 April 2010 at the London School of Economics.


This article examines the role and importance of charisma in Tunku Abdul Rahman's leadership of the nationalist movement in Malaya in the 1950s. A Cambridge University-educated prince from the northern state of Kedah, the Tunku turned a disparate group of communal political parties into a potent nationalist movement, the Alliance Party, which secured independence from Britain within five years of its formation. Previous studies have focused largely on his political leadership of the movement and have not examined the element of the Tunku's charisma in the nationalists' campaign. This article examines the political charisma of this leader in the context of recent theories of charisma. Historical evidence indicates that his personal appeal or charisma significantly influenced support for the Tunku's leadership of the nationalist movement, and, at a certain stage, he had almost a cult following. Some of the Tunku's strategies and actions were highly risky and even bordered on the irrational; yet, they were fully embraced by his supporters. The phenomenon of charisma is useful in attempting to understand political galvanisation, such as that instigated by the Tunku, in a way that other theories of political mobilisation (such as legal-rational or traditional leadership) cannot. Drawing on a wide range of primary sources such as the Alliance Party documents and records of the Colonial Office, this article explores the Tunku's charisma as an explanatory factor in the rise of the nationalist movement in Malaya in the 1950s.