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Monday October 28, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday October 28, 2013 MYT 8:55:21 AM
by hasnah hariri
Tied to his roots: The well-travelled Datuk Salman Ahmad seems destined to live and work among strangers all his life, a journey he has embraced wholeheartedly.
Salman Ahmad embraced the long and enriching journey of his life from a very young age with an eager heart. At one point, he even had to do so with a stranger’s heart.
BEFORE he turned seven, Datuk Salman Ahmad was given the choice to go and stay with one of two teachers in Kangar, far from the village where his family lived.
The objective was for him to be educated in an English-medium school.
He did not hesitate. Staying back was not an option, and so he was schooled in English.
From that tender age, he began the life of one who never shied from an uncertain future; in this case, what it would be like going to live with strangers. This very moment of decisiveness may not have seemed like it then, but it was early training for Salman’s long and productive stint in the foreign service. It has been a career that saw him live and work in numerous cities abroad, and culminated in his recently-ended tour of duty as Malaysian High Commissioner to Australia.
If there is one word to describe him, it is “grounded”. He is often busy cleaning up, as he juggles hosting and ensuring his many hundreds of guests are comfortable and helping themselves to the food that he and his wife, Datin Tengku Karina Yusoff, have prepared at the many Hari Raya functions that they hosted.
Discussing his childhood and career highlights on a quiet afternoon in his office in the parliamentary triangle in Canberra provides a vivid picture of a consummate diplomate with an inspirational capacity for humility.
Of his parents, he said: “Mak I orang kampong di Pergheleh la. ... ayah I pun kerja kampong buat bendang sambe mengajar ugama kampong dan sekolah dewasa - la tak dak dah. (“My mother is from a village in Perlis; my father tended the rice fields and was teaching Islamic studies in the village and at the adult school as well – he has passed away.)
“Ayah I pula asal dari Sumatra and accent dia dok pelek sana sampai dia meninggai in 1986. Mak I ada lagi di kampung. pasai dia kahwin muda. akan masuk 80 tahun ujung tahun ni.” (“My father was from Sumatra and he had a foreign accent until he died in 1986. My mother remained in the village, she married young and will be 80 this year.”)
There is no doubt where this man is from, and his resolve to maintain a thick Perlis accent is obvious: “Pergheleh accent ni ... cukup sedap bercakap. In fact semua northern accent sedap ... dia punya description satu-satu benda tu bukan saja tepat tapi bunyi dia I cukup syok ... tu yang tak mau tukag tu.” (“The Perlis accent is really nice to use, in fact all northern accents are nice to hear. Their descriptiveness of a particular thing is not only precise, but I really appreciate the sound of it, that is why I don’t want to change my accent.”)
He remembered that from a young age, he had a habit of never finishing what was served on the table. “I must have known at an early age that I lived with another family and that I must remember to leave something behind,” he said.
Always gentle, Salman has retained a child-like curiosity and a capacity to allow strangers into his life. His astute observations about cultural identity and confidence in Malaysian students’ capacity to reach great heights have endeared him to the diaspora.
He would mix freely with the Malaysian students and often touch them gently on the shoulder or arm. “When they have reached greatness, I want to know that I have actually touched them,” he explained.
It is such thoughtfulness and his habit of always being there for his people that prompted me to ask for this interview. I have lived in Australia for nearly 20 years, but had never before been contacted personally by the High Commissioner until Salman called.
One of his “tribe”, a young Malaysian, was ill and he was genuinely worried.
I told him to call me when he arrived at the hospital I worked at, which is where the youth was warded, so that I could accord him a proper welcome and escort him to the ward, but he called after the visit because he did not want any fuss. He was more concerned about resolving the situation, in this case seeing to the youth’s wellbeing.
This is also the same High Commissioner who actually peels onions (kilogrammes of them, for the festive dishes) himself and cooks the serunding, mee rebus, ayam percik and nasi ulam with his wife and children to entertain his many homesick countrymen at Hari Raya.
The cooking skills he and his wife would frequently display are part of a repertoire developed from his deep commitment to represent Malaysia. During his tenure, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak visited Australia twice and signed the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2012 after gruelling negotiations (and a pause to allow the Asean FTA to be completed), demonstrating the strength of the two country’s bilateral relations.
Among his many acts and achievements are providing input on a proposed restriction of timber-based products into Australia, and heading the Malaysian delegation to the Australian Parliamentary Committee Inquiry into the Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling – Palm Oil Bill 2011) to defeat the Bill.
The Bill sought to enforce labelling in Australia of all food products that use palm oil. Salman declines to reveal his assessment of the motivation behind the Bill, but noted that Australia and Malaysia have a long history of bilateral trade and education and the relationship between the countries is now at its best.
“Palm oil is produced by smallholders in Malaysia. The Bill would have paralysed our small producers,” he said. There are about one million Malaysians who rely on the palm oil industry directly as their source of income and the sector accounts for more than RM50bil of Malaysia’s Gross National Income.
“The accusation that we clear virgin forest to cultivate oil palm is not true – we have designated areas for plantations,” he said, adding that the co-existence of oil palm plantations and orang utan that would come to the fringes of the plantations has been documented.
There was also the “Malaysian solution” where he was instrumental in overseeing the negotiation between Australia and Malaysia on the management of boat people or irregular maritime arrivals into Australia. It is a highly contentious issue in Australia.
He stressed the importance of finding solutions to this issue. “In Malaysia, we have over 90,000 refugees, and half of those are from Rohingya. These people are not accepted anywhere.
“We allow them to work and move freely in Malaysia, and they are free to practise as Muslims.”
Although Malaysia is not a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, he said we treat refugees humanely nonetheless.
“We have never caned refugees,” he said referring to an online campaign claiming that Malaysian authorities caned refugees.
“These people are allowed freedom of movement, they go to the mosque and they do what is necessary to earn what they can,” he said, adding that Malaysia works very closely with the UN High Commission on Refugees to find the right solution to the refugee problem.
“Of course, if we can make (the) situation in their country of origin better, it would be ideal,” he said.
Salman’s first posting was in India, and he was mentored by Tan Sri Razali Ismail, who was then the High Commissioner to India.
“I learned many things from him. One, that I should remain modest. And another, to remain moderate,” he said.
After India, he went on to a posting in Thailand and subsequently was instrumental in setting up the consulate in Mindanao in the Philippines. Next came postings to Japan, the Czech Republic and Australia – and soon, Berlin.
This is the man who was spotted by the guru besar (headmaster) of a Malay school when he was not yet of schoolgoing age. “Why are you not in school?” the HM asked him.
“Belum cukup umur,” he replied. (“Not of schoolgoing age.”)
“The guru besar must have thought the ‘A’ that I wrote was neater than that of my peers,” he said. Understated to say the least. It was the same guru besar who presented Salman with the choice of going to live with one of two families so that he could attend English school.
Salman’s adventure in education continued into his teens when he went to Malay College where, he believed, he “became nakal (naughty)” and went fully into sport.
“In Malay College I found everyone was so much brighter than me, and dealing with growing up pains I found sport as my coping mechanism,” he said, adding almost in a wishful whisper, “perhaps I should not have gone to Malay College.”
He excelled at rugby and kept in contact with his schoolmates into his adulthood, sharing stories about the problems of their youth. “We were all facing the same issues”, he said, “but we could only confide as adults.”
In sport-crazy Australia, it is an “issue” not to love sport! Salman held on to his passion in Canberra, following the Wallabies’ somewhat lacklustre performance against the All Blacks and Canberra’s Brumbies.
When Salman was in the Czech Republic, he had a heart transplant. He has always joked about “running on a Skoda engine”.
“There is much to be done to educate our fellow Malaysians about the importance of organ donation,” he said. “They must know that organ donation saves lives.”
Salman remembered how, when he first arrived in Canberra, the sound of kookaburras and magpies could be quite scary, not to mention the sound of possums snoring close to the roof of his room. It was a time that is now fondly remembered by a man who seems destined to have his home in many countries, and an endless stream of strangers (initially) as his family.
His outlook on his travels is to always be gentle but never be afraid of tough decisions. And his journey as a diplomat does not end with Australia; his next posting is in Berlin.
At a recent farewell hosted by the Malaysian Muslim Families Association, of which he was the patron, Salman was in his element. Surrounded by his staff, students and expatriate Malaysians and their families, he issued an open invitation to everyone present to come and stay with him and his wife in his official residence if they were ever in Berlin.
“I am told that the house, which belongs to the Malaysian Government, has nine rooms,” he said, “I only need one, so eight of you can come at any one time,” he said without hesitation.
At 58 he is still daring the uncertain fate of inviting strangers into his life.
He was set on that path when his capacity to reach his highest potential was spotted early by that guru besar long ago. His eventful life journey has continued ever since, branching out to many lands – but the man himself always staying grounded and deeply tied to his roots by food, glorious Malaysian food!
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Lifestyle, Family & Community, People, Datuk Salman Ahmad, Malaysian High Commissioner, Australia, Pergheleh
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