The Rockefellers Come to Call:
Close Calls on Protocol in Malaysia
By Francis T. Underhill
My picture appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times on March 26, 1976. Such prominent exposure for a mere ambassador is unusual. It might have occurred if I had been either kidnapped or assassinated by a terrorist group on a Saturday. Happily, this was not the case. I was standing behind Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in an Associated Press photo as he scattered flower petals on the tomb of a former prime minister in the national mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was a quiet weekend for news around the world.
This was the year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and the VP had been sent by President Ford on a round-the-world trip to represent the United States in commemorative ceremonies in Iran and Australia. The air route between Teheran and Canberra took him over Malaysia and Singapore, and someone in Washington decided that brief official visits to these countries would be appropriate.
Kuala Lumpur was off the beaten track for senior American officials. Malaysia was not an ally. Our relations were friendly but not close. There were no economic or military assistance programs for members of Congress to inspect. Kuala Lumpur is a pleasant city, but has no major tourist attractions. Singapore, only 200 miles to the south, is a major transit hub and has superlative shipping, rivaled only by Hong Kong. Almost all VIPs chose Singapore as their stopover point.
American dignitaries had therefore not worn out their welcome. The Malaysian government was happy to go all out for the Vice President. The Rockefeller name also added interest and glamor. The Rockefellers were as close as we came to a royal family, and the Malaysians were aware of the VP’s long and distinguished career of public service.
For Nelson Rockefeller himself, the trip was a last hurrah. President Ford had announced he would pick another running mate in the fall presidential election. Rockefeller was therefore a lame duck vice president; for the media, this made the trip a non-event. There were no TV people and only an AP reporter and a photographer in the vice presidential party.
Air Force Two was nonetheless full. Nature abhors an empty seat on a Special Mission aircraft. There were the principals — the VP, his wife Happy and Happy’s teenage daughter, the Secret Service, and the VP’s office staff. Since he was no longer running for office, there was no need to bring along political supporters. The remaining seats went to the Rockefellers’ large personal staff.
Air Force Two arrived on a Thursday evening and left for Singapore on Sunday morning. In their two full days in Kuala Lumpur, the VP made formal calls on Malaysian officials and put flower petals on the grave of a former prime minister. Happy visited a children’s home and bought batiks and thirty wastebaskets for one of the Rockefeller estates. Together the Rockefellers toured the city and came to a garden party at our residence to meet the American community.
The VP’s schedule included a call on the king, the ceremonial head of state comparable to the Queen of England. The Malaysian king is selected from among the rulers of the nine princely states in the federation and serves for five years. At the time of the visit, the king was the Sultan of Perak, a young, intelligent man with a pretty wife.
The party was well briefed in Washington. They were told that in Malaysia yellow was a royal color and should not be worn in the presence of royalty. Interpreting this injunction strictly, the party brought with them no garments showing any yellow; one man left on the plane a necktie with small yellow dots. They were also told that when seated in the royal presence, they should keep their feet flat on the floor. It was not polite to expose the sole of a shoe.
The chairs in the palace reception room were arranged in an inverted U. On the king’s right sat the VP, me, and the remainder of the VP party. On the queen’s left were Happy, Best Friend [Helen S. Underhill, the Ambassador’s wife ~ Ed.], and the grand chamberlain and other members of the palace staff.
The king and the VP were quickly in animated conversation. The king asked good questions about American politics, and Rocky was eager to explain its mysteries. As he warmed to his subject, their conversation became more animated and informal. The VP leaned forward to make a point and suddenly his legs were crossed, with the sole of his right shoe squarely under the royal gaze. The king was unperturbed, but there were audible horrified intakes of breath from the chamberlain and the palace retainers. In a few minutes the foot came down to sighs of relief, but it came up twice more before they adjourned for tea.
The program ended with a formal state dinner in the VP’s honor to which the diplomatic corps, cabinet members, members of parliament, and senior Malaysian officials were invited. The dinner ended with two speeches. The prime minister expressed his pleasure in welcoming the distinguished visitor and his hopes that the visit was pleasant and informative, and he ended by asking the guests to rise and join him in a toast to the health of the President of the United States.
Rockefeller responded with a warm and gracious reply, but had a memory lapse in closing and proposed a toast to “His Excellency, the President of Malaysia.”
On the way home, Best Friend asked, “Do you think the VP might hug Suhela at the airport tomorrow?”
Datin Suhela was the prime minister’s wife, a pretty and vivacious woman. The two couples had hit it off famously, and the VP was obviously charmed by Suhela.
Rockefeller had shown all the traits of a typical American politician — gregarious warmth, enthusiastic interest in people, republican indifference to the niceties of royal protocol. Hugging would come naturally, but in in Malaysia it wasn’t done — not the PM’s wife, and not at the airport.
Early Sunday morning I got on the phone to the VP’s personal aide.
“Joe, do you think your boss will kiss Suhela in the airport farewells this morning?”
“No problem,” said Joe. “I’ll remind him to do it.”
“No, Joe,” I said. “I want you to tell him not to do it. It’s important. It’s not done here.”
“OK, OK,” said Joe. “He’s dressing. I’ll go in and tell him now.”
My place at the departure ceremonies was some distance from the plane. The prime minister and his wife walked with the Rockefellers to the foot of the ramp. There were warm handshakes, and I thought I saw the VP move to embrace Suhela, then catch himself at the last minute. I sighed with relief when the door to Air Force Two closed and the engines roared for the short hop to Singapore.
Amb. Underhill’s column previously appeared in the Henderson, NC, Times-News of November 20, 1994. Reprinted by permission of the author.