Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lessons from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Strict Disiplinarian

“My father, Mohamad bin Iskandar, was a man of unusual character when it came to education. He ran ultimately taught me to revere learning and knowledge”.

“My father was a strict disciplinarian and was not much liked by his students, including the future first Prime Minister. This was probably because the Sultan had given my father permission to punish students for not studying, even if they were from royal families. He had no hesitation about doing this, sometimes even resorting to the use of a thin rattan cane”.

Study Hard

“He was equally strict at home. Because he demanded that we study hard, our relatives sent their children to stay with us so they too would be infused with the same values. Among them was the late Tun Syed Ahmad Shahbuddin who, among other things, served as Governor of Malacca from 1984 to 2004. We children lived in awe of my father, even though he never laid a hand on us. He did’nt have to – the sound of his cough when he came home was enough to send us scurrying back to our books and homework. We all studied together at the big table in the front room, stopping only for dinner”.

“Being good at Mathematics, he then joined the Kedah Audit Department as Senior Auditor. He used to tutor my brother Mashahor, who was two years ahead of me in school, about HCF or highest common factors and LCM or lowest common multiples. These lessons took place at the big table where I was studying and I listed in keenly, becoming quite good at Mental Arithmetic as a result.”

Anyone can do well in this country if he tries hard enough

“A number of local characters frequently passed our house – the transvestite Che Din Ponen; a soya bean cake and bean sprout seller; Encik Sutan Adam, a well-to-do neighbor; and a woman cakeseller who regularly carried four baskets of varied Malay cucur or cakes on her arms. On some nights, Pa’ Awang ladeh, known as such because he sold ladeh, or curdled milk, would pass by. His son Abdul Rahman Awang later studied dentistry and was in the 1947 batch of medical students with me. After graduating, he joined government service and rose to become Director of the Department of Dentistry in Malaysia. His story proves that anyone can do well in this country if he tries hard enough”.

Behave and carry ourselves as good, well-bred Malays

“My mother was very wellbred and understood the adat, or traditions and codes, of Malay etiquette. Accordingly, she brought us up to behave and carry ourselves as good, well-bred Malays”.

Gave all his children the education they needed to make their way in life

“My father gave all his children the education they needed to make their way in life. But I have always felt that, I was the luckiest because my father gave me the highest level of education. That is why I was better off than all my siblings”.

Emphasis on general education and the teachings of Islam, enthusiastic about acquiring knowledge and reading all kinds of books

“While my father stressed general education, my mother insisted that her children learn the teachings of Islam early in life. She was good at reading the Quran and she taught us herself. My eldest sister, Rafeah, whose nickname was Putih, was known for her good voice when reciting the Quran. At the Malay school we were taught basic elements of the religion, and we memorized selected verse of the Quran without being given any explanation of their meaning. Later we had a tutor from an Arabic school, Encik Zakaria Mohamad Noor, who taught us to memorize more verses and gave us the translations in Malay. Even now, I can recite these verses form memory. Between my father’s emphasis on education and my mother’s insistence on knowing my religion, I became enthusiastic about acquiring knowledge and reading all kinds of books”.

Values- to be modest and not boastful

“I was closer to my mother than to my father and as result, she shaped my personality more. She taught me that the values that I have upheld throughout my life, especially to be modest and not boastful about what I have done. When I did speak about myself – perhaps in a bragging tone – she downplayed my achievements. She believed that I should always give way in any dispute or quarrel. I used to find this very hard to do because I usually believed I was right. But as far as my memory stretches, she never took my side in a dispute”.

Work for something

“She also taught me very clearly that if I wanted something, I had to work for it. When I wanted to buy a pen, she told me to carry buckets of water for her jasmine plants for one sen a day to earn the money. From her, I learnt that this was the honorable way. So when my pocket money was reduced form four sen to two sen after my father retired, I did not complain. Instead, I tried to earn extra money by selling balloons to my friends. I would buy three balloons for two sen from a shop near my house, usually on Fridays when I had time, and then sell them for one sen each. You could buy a lot with a one-sen profit at that time, like a full plate of rice with curry. But I did not always get to spend it on myself. Sometimes the class bully, who lived near where I did, would take me to the tuckshop and force me to spend the money on him. If I refused, he would punch me and force me to spend the money on him. If I refused, he would punch me and I certainly did not want to get into a scuffle with him. He was one of the tough guys and his father was an ex-police officer. I also made some money by doing more chores at home. My mother kept chickens and ducks under the house, and I helped her to feed them and get them into the coop in the evenings. I also chopped bakau logs, a mangrove wood, for the cooking fire. For doing these chores I would get one sen as upah or wages”.

“My mother had a small plot of land on which she grew mostly jasmine and roses. We collected the jasmine roses. We collected the jasmine flowers and strung them on finely-split, dried long grass stems called menerong. An Indian flowerseller would then come to collect the strings of flowers and sell them to women who wore them around their hair buns. In our neighbourhood, my mother was also well-known as for the celak, or kohl which she made. It was tedious work-she used a porcelain mortar and pestle to crush the kohl to a very fine powder. In addition, she made bedak sejuk by dropping liquid rice flour through a banana leaf cone onto piece of white muslin. When dried it would be stored in bottles in pellet form. In those days women dissolved the solidified paste in water and applied it to their faces to help cool the skin. My mother also made minyak angin, a kind of coconut-oil-based liniment that helped to relieve muscle aches and sprained ankles”.

To be good and upright man

“I suppose we would have been considered lower-middle class, but my parents were in no way stingy. If my school pocket money was reduced from four sen to two sen it was because my father’s pension was now a third of his last-drawn salary of RM270. I knew they loved me, though my father was distant and was not good at showing his affection. I knew that, more than anything, my mother wanted me to be a good and upright man. As a career, there were only two things she didn’t want me to become: a police inspector or, ironically, a doctor. Either, she said, would mean that I would never get any sleep. But when I did go on to study medicine, she didn’t object”.

Great Emphasis on Manners

“Manners were given great emphasis in our home. Malays eat with their fingers but they do not grab and soil the palm. Food is to be handled with right hand only. Serving spoons are managed with the left hand so that the handle remains clean. It may sound difficult but I became very skilled, even at getting the meat out of prawns and crabs with my right hand only. Today I wince when I see Malay children using both hands to eat. In my family, which I would call orthodox Malay Muslim, all the women, except for my mother, used to eat after the men had eaten. We had our meals sitting on the floor and did not talk while eating”.

Table manners is a measure of one’s upbringing

“It was my father who taught me to sit at the tables and use a fork and spoon to eat. Since we usually sat on the floor for meals, he bought a small wooden table to teach me. But I was not inclined to use forks and spoons until I injured my right hand when I was about eight. I was trying to stop a bench from falling over, but it landed on the middle finger of my right hand, splitting the tip. After that I had to use a fork and spoon most of the time. Now I hardly ever eat with my hands. Indeed, I am now more adept at getting the meat out of prawns and crabs using the fork and spoon than most people are with their fingers. I often shell crabs for Hasmah, and taught my children the best way to get the meat out. I regard table manners, whether Malay or English, as a measure of one’s upbringing, so I am horrified when I see Malaysians – even diplomats – holding forks in their fists as if wanting to stab someone”.

Manners’ correction, proper deference

“My sisters and brothers also played a role in my upbringing. I was the youngest of six children in my mother’s family and naturally I was pampered. My three sisters, Rafeah, Habsah and Johara corrected my manners – they would smack my hand if I handled food wrongly – and instructed me about proper deference to the elderly and to family friends who were senior members of the Kedah government service”.

Tolerance and Respect

“Through teaching me to be modest, my mother also handed down the values of tolerance and respect. When I became Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister I never transferred any member of my staff for bad work, as was usually the practice. Instead, I tried to get them to do what I expected of them by gaining their loyalty. They were usually able to improve and raise their performance to a satisfactory level. Many members of my staff are still with me, after decades of service. I strongly believe that it is the boss’ responsibility to get on with the staff and get the best out of them. Faults will always be there. Changing staff does not guarantee that the new employees will be any better. I am keenly aware that perfect people simply do not exist. As much as I might have been annoyed with staff members, they must have also been irritated with me quite often. All this early guidance from my family served me well during my tenure as Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister. Though I did not agree with some of Tun Hussien’s policies and ideas, for example, he was the boss and I respected him”.

Value the concept of the family, husband and wife become good companions

“Observing my parents as I was growing up also taught me to value the concept of the family. My parents were very close. At night my father would sit on the floor, stretch his legs and lean against the main pillar of the house to talk to my mother. The pillar was his favourite spot and it was worn smooth over the years because he leaned against it so often. He would smoke cheroot cigars and she would chew betel leaves. I do not know what they discussed but they were good companions and seemed to have something to talk about all the time. They did not demonstrate their affection for each other as it was unbecoming to do so, but I know they loved each other very much”.

“As he grew old and his heart began to fail him, my father refused to go anywhere. I think he feared dying away form home. I was already a medical officer by then and was staying in government quarters, but I visited my parents every day. Eventually the time came when he refused to take the medicine prescribed for him, and he began to fade away. He passed away quietly in 1962. After my father died, my mother no longer had the desire to live. She withdrew from all of us. She did not eat well or talk much. After some time, she just lay down listlessly on a mattress on the floor. She pulled up her legs and did not seem to want to get up. Eventually, her legs froze in that position. When she died, we could not straighten them. I already had a private medical practice at the time and every day, after treating my last patient, I would go home to see her. I would try to cheer her up but it was difficult and frustrating. Three years after my father’s death, she too passed away”.

Polygamous eats the heart of the household

“I cannot imagine what growing up in a polygamous family would have been like. Surely in such a situation, bitterness would eat at the heart of the household. Life could not be peaceful for the husband. Among my brothers, only the eldest, Murad, form my father’s first marriage, had two wives. Being brought up in a family that was largely monogamous has helped me keep to the straight and narrow. My father-in-law Haji Mohd Ali also had only one wife. Hasmah and I feel blessed that we come from such a family background”.

Quran advocates one wife, not four

“People often fall back on the argument that Islam allows a man to have four wives at one time, but there is a clause that is always ignored. The Quran says that you may marry two, three or even four women, but if you cannot be just to them all, then marry just one. And later in the same chapter, it says that you will never be able to achieve this level of fairness to women. The implication is clear: the Quran advocates one wife, not four”.

“Undoubtedly, there are sometimes unusual circumstances – such as war – in which the number of woman exceeds the number of men. To ensure that someone takes care of war windows, Muslim men are allowed to marry more than one wife. Islam is not merely a system of beliefs and rituals. It guides the community in all the daily activities of life, even in areas such as punctuality, personal cleanliness and protecting the environment”.

Islam maintains balance and a well-ordered society

“By shaping our way of life, Islam maintains balance and a well-ordered society. Yet, ironically, it is those who claim to be religiously educated who tend to marry more than one woman. Generally communities are made up of roughly equal numbers of men and woman. I have often argued that if a man takes more than one wife, then it would presumably deprive others of spouses. It hits at the heart of society’s equilibrium”.

Disagreements cannot be avoided but should not cause break-up in marriage, accommodate, mutual regard, good humour, compromise

“By no means am I saying that monogamous marriages are perfect. In practice, disagreements cannot be avoided but they should not cause any break-up in husband-wife relations. For example, I am a stickler for time. In the stories I read as a boy, punctuality seemed a good quality to have, so I develop it. Hasmah, however, is always late, inevitably having something to sort out just before we have to leave. At first this difference caused a lot of friction. But over the years I learnt to accommodate this habit, as she has had to do with many of mine. Now I make jokes about her tardiness and make exaggerated efforts at helping to fing what she is looking for. I irritate her by following her around the room. I lie and I say we have to leave at 8pm when we actually have to leave later. Still, she is incorrigible. Now I stay in the dressing room until she is finished. I have learnt the hard way that if I were to go downstairs first, she will never emerge. Mutual regard and good humour, as this small example shows, can preserve a marriage. I would never dream of taking another wife and causing Hasmah and my children anguish and pain. To be happy, one must learn to make compromises with grace”.

The importance of the extended family

“From my mother I also learnt the importance of the extended family. We were very attached to ours, even our relatives by marriage. My maternal grandmother lived with us until she died. Her name was Hawa, and by the time I was born she was already grey-haired. What I remember most about her is that she kept her money in a round cigarette tin, and at night she would sleep using the tin as a pillow. Recently, I watched a television show in which a Malay couple decided to send their aged father, who had had a stroke, to an old folks home. It is an idea that is alien to me. In Malay culture, you cherish and revere your elderly relatives. You do not send them to die alone among strangers. I am horrified at the change in the Malay value system and I mourn the passage of good values of the sort handed down by my parents”.

Not to abuse the position

“Just as I drew moral instruction from my father and mother, my children have also drawn moral guidance from me. Or so I hope. Of all the lessons I hope they have learnt, the most important is not to abuse their position. In the case of my own family most of the public focus is on Mirzan because he sold his company to MISC, which belongs to PETRONAS, which in turn is under the Government’s control. But my children did not rely on me to solve their problems. Mirzan handled his himself, as I will relate in a later chapter”.

Give the children good education, a chance to develop and make something of themselves in life

“My vision for Malaysia and the policies my administration created were for everybody, not just for a politically-connected elite or a small circle of my own family and friends. I never even gave my children one cent of capital – all I gave them was a good education, a chance to develop and make something of themselves in life. They never asked me for anything and didn’t even tell me about the business that they did. We did not discuss business or politics with each other. Politics and public policy was not for them to know. It was always clearly understood among us all: that I was busy with the country and their troubles were their own”.

“The truth was that, from the moment I became Prime Minister, I ceased to belong to my family. They accepted that as Prime Minister I could not spend time with them or be overly occupied with their problems. It was the same for their mother too. Hasmah never complained if I didn’t come home, or was late, or was not paying sufficient attention to the family or the house, both of which she managed. She and the children understood that if they had problems, they might go to her for help, but not to me”.

“I would not abuse the power that I had, nor did I want them to abuse their connection to me. I often said that they knew what I meant. They grew up and matured during the time I was Prime Minister. Even when they went to university I never asked the Government for scholarships. Earlier Mirzan received a scholarship when I was not in the government, when I was expelled from UMNO and well before I became a Minister. He got a MARA scholarship on his own merit. He was one of a handful of Malay students who were selected to study in private schools in the UK to expose them to a different culture”.

Consistency, punctuality and reliability

“As for other values like consistency, punctuality and reliability, I would tell them they should not behave like children of wealthy parents. When I talked about my school days, about walking to school and the like, they would get bored. Perhaps they will read these pages, especially my recollection of my parents and my own childhood, and find something of interest to them. Perhaps they will learn something that will help explain their father, or some aspects of his character, a little more clearly to them, or perhaps an insight that they in turn may pass on to their own children. There are always lessons to be learnt, if only we have the wisdom to see them”.

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