By Ding Jo-Ann
VISITING Tun Ahmad Sarji’s office feels like taking a walk through Malaysian history. Photographs of national icons such as Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tan Sri P Ramlee line the walls, alongside old family portraits and pictures of Ahmad Sarji in the many roles he has played over the years.
Ahmad Sarji has been Permodalan Nasional Bhd chairperson since 1996, after retiring from the highest position in the civil service. He was chief secretary to the government from 1990 to 1996. Aside from his PNB duties and other corporate appointments, Ahmad Sarji is also Badan Warisan Malaysia president, pro-chancellor of Universiti Tun Abdul Razak and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and Malaysia Lawn Bowls Federation president. He is also an avid fan of P Ramlee and has authored and co-authored books on him.
Despite his hectic schedule, Ahmad Sarji meticulously prepared answers to The Nut Graph’s questions, complete with handwritten notes, prior to his 2 Feb 2010 interview at his office in Kuala Lumpur.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in my maternal grandmother’s house at Kampung Batu Tiga, Jalan Temoh, Tapah in 1938.
I grew up mainly in Tapah and Ipoh. I went to Sekolah Melayu Pasir Puteh in Ipoh in 1946 but moved back to Tapah in 1947. I attended a co-educational school in Tapah, the Government English School. In 1956, I went back to Ipoh to complete my Higher School Certificate at the Anderson School.
Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents/grandparents from?
My father is from Perak, he was born in Kampar. His ancestors were orang Perak. [My cousin has traced our family lineage up to the 1700s.] One of our ancestors was the Datuk Panglima Teja di Bandar, one of the 16 Perak chiefs. His father was Datuk Panglima Kukut, better known in Kota Baru as the Keramat Panglima. His mother was Andak Ulum, of Bugis descent, one of the original Bugis migrants to Perak in 1743.
My mother was born three miles from Tapah in Kampung Batu Tiga. Her ancestry can be traced back to Rao, Sumatera in Indonesia. The Rawanese came to Malaya in the 19th century to trade. I was named by my maternal grandfather, Haji Mohd Sidek Zainal Abidin, who was of Rawanese origin.
My father was a civil servant, my mother a housewife. My father always encouraged me to speak English … I spoke to him in English and to my mother, who didn’t speak a word of English, in Malay. My parents really complemented each other. My father encouraged us to study hard and my mother taught us to be religious. To read the Quran, not to miss prayers, not to have jealousy among siblings and cousins, and to visit our relatives.
They had eight children, four boys and four girls. I’m the eldest.
What do you remember of school?
I had classmates of all races — Malay, Indian, Chinese, Eurasians, and even one or two [Orang Asli]. The atmosphere in class was very cordial and harmonious. We always had a mixed composition in our activities. We were friends. We respected each other’s cultures.
It was quite normal to be presented with mandarin oranges by our Chinese friends. We looked forward to Deepavali, occasions when we savoured curry. Likewise, my Chinese and Indian friends would come to my grandmother’s house to savour lemang and ketupat.
When we had hockey trials or soccer trials, selection was based purely on merit, not race. We never had thoughts like, “He’ll win the elocution contest because he’s Malay”, or “He’s better in maths because he’s Chinese.”
Being in a co-ed school, we mixed freely between boys and girls. However, there were only [a] few romantic relationships. We were so close we felt like we were brothers and sisters. You can’t possibly marry your own brother or sister.
What is your strongest memory of the place in which you grew up?
My father built our family’s wooden house in 1945. It was along the Batang Padang river, a two-minute walk from Tapah town. There were lots of fruit trees, and we didn’t have electricity and water until 1959. I had to fill pails of water from my school nearby and carry them home.
We used kerosene lamps at night. The sparkling water of the river provided good baths for us. Sometimes, there was severe flooding during the rainy season which could even reach the floor of our home, which was raised nearly seven feet off the ground.
Tapah town had several rows of shophouses in the centre. The district office building, where my father worked, was very imposing. He played many football and cricket matches in the large padang surrounding the office.
Tapah also had a cinema, rest house and police station built in 1936. In another part of town were the hospital and Government English School. I was disappointed when the school padang was partially taken over to build an outpatient department. It was the training and breeding ground of national hockey and cricket stars such as my father Abdul Hamid Aroop, Aladad Khan, Aminulah Karim, R Yogeswaran and Ahmad Harun.
What are some stories you hold on to from your parents/grandparents?
A family story that’s always repeated is how my paternal grandfather was murdered by his own men. He was a mining assistant in Bidor, and he owned a car and a motorbike. One night, a group of his men came to his house in the middle of the night with torches demanding for jewellery from him and my step-grandmother.
My uncle, who was then in his teens, was also in the house. My grandfather stubbornly refused, and the men killed him. I was told he was slashed. They spared my step-grandmother, and my uncle jumped into a well nearby to escape.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
We were driven with a lot of ambition in school. Teachers would tell us, “We are under the British. Tunku Abdul Rahman is fighting for independence. You should study hard and get positions in the civil service so you can really own and manage this country.”
We had a lot of zeal to serve the country. In my case, I wanted to be a district officer, which in those days was the representative of the British and state government.
Now, times are different. I do not know whether the young generation are fired up with zeal to manage the country … Times are changing, values change also. Now we find issues such as communal issues creeping up; people are becoming conscious of their identity as Malays, Chinese and all that. Not that we were not conscious before, but we did not allow the consciousness to create rifts in our friendships or to cause animosity, grudges or envy. Those years were honestly quite different.
The younger generation need to know this country’s history, icons and national heroes. There needs to be serious rethinking of the critical values that Malaysians should adhere and subscribe to for the country’s future.
We’ve seen many problems in the recent past due to ugly Malaysians betraying the trust and duty entrusted to them. Projects not completed in time, buildings built not according to specifications, poor services, lawyers absconding with clients’ monies, and corruption by all classes of people. People have forgotten basic values of trust, honesty, truth, responsibility and justice.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
I am very comfortable with my identity and my skin. I speak Malay and also English. I have friends and make friends with everybody regardless of their ethnicity or creed.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
I hope to see a prosperous and developed Malaysia where [its] people are religious, morally upright, skillful, compassionate, corruption-free and intensely patriotic.
We need to be proud of our country. We need to know our origins — how we fought for independence, beat the communists … how we solved the confrontation with Indonesia, our model of economic development. We need to know our heroes, who include civil servants, religious leaders, literary giants, sports[persons], top generals, police officers, community leaders, and now scientists who have developed the country. There are other heroes who fought for independence, the professionals who developed the economy, our diplomats who fostered good international relationships.
Every American knows Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Every British student knows their literary giants like Shakespeare. I don’t know whether our students know Samad Said, Tongkat Waran, Za’ba and others.
Any country’s future lies with the younger generations. The education system is the way forward. The study of hard sciences and soft subjects should be reviewed. There should be a balance.
We need scientists to know history, to know about Datuk Onn Jaafar, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Tun (V) Sambanthan. Everybody must know this. Now, I don’t even see the Father of Independence (Tunku Abdul Rahman)’s picture hung in government officers prominently. He is one among the prime ministers. He should be given a special place so people know him and the values he conveyed: racial harmony and religious tolerance.
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