Whether as our late second Prime Minister’s wife or our current Prime Minister’s mother, this Johorean beauty’s most important portfolio was her family. Tun Rahah Mohammad Noah’s youngest son Nazir gives her top marks this Mother’s Day.
Second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein’s widow was only 43 when he passed away, but Tun Rahah Mohammad Noah rose to the challenge of bringing up her five sons. Tun Rahah grounded her sons in values she believes are important and kept the brothers close-knit.
Whether as the wife of the then Prime Minister, and now the mother of our current Prime Minister, Tun Rahah has stayed largely out of the limelight. On Mother’s Day today, her youngest son, CIMB Group chief executive Datuk Seri Nazir Razak, pays tribute to his 81-year-old mother and how her pivotal role influenced their family.
He also writes of how her unconditional love remains his source of strength.
So much is known about your father but not so much about your mother. Tell us about Tun Rahah.
Tun Rahah or “Mummy” as I call her, was born in Muar, Johor in 1933 to a relatively well-off family. Her late father, Haji Noah (Tan Sri Haji Mohammad Noah bin Omar), was one of the founders of Umno and went on to become the first speaker of Dewan Rakyat.
The strict and domineering Haji Noah set his mind on his youngest of four (surviving) children, Rahah, marrying well and soonest. It was maybe because she was very good looking – tales of her beauty reached as far as Pahang where my father, Abdul Razak, was a rising star in the colonial government. He went all the way to Johor Baru to “spy” on her at school and then asked Haji Noah’s blessings to court her soon after.
My parents married in 1952 when Mummy was a tender 19 years of age. She did not get the chance to pursue higher education, and instead turned from schoolgirl to wife of a prominent government official overnight, and then became a mother as well within a year.
She went on to have five children over a span of 12 years. Her biggest lifetime disappointment is that she only had sons. In fact, she was so sure that her fifth (me) would finally be a daughter that I only had girls clothes to wear for the first few months of my life!
From independence in 1957 until Dad died in 1976, Mummy was the young and glamorous wife of the deputy Prime Minister and then Prime Minister. She was 10 years younger than her husband and became a widow when she was only 43.
When I look at old photos of them, Mummy always looks perfectly poised, radiant and beautiful by Dad’s side. Despite her limited education I am told that she held her own on whatever stage she was thrust upon – from visiting kampungs to attending a banquet at Buckingham Palace.
Despite the demands of public life and looking after Dad, Mummy was a wonderful mother to us. She had a lot of domestic helpers, of course, but she was always our primary caregiver.
When Dad died, she was a young widow with five young sons to bring up; the eldest, Najib, was only 23 while I was nine.
Once again, she was thrust into dramatically new circumstances. She adapted quickly, and became very focused on two things – her boys and religion.
The five of us owe her so much; in fact, sometimes I feel guilty that she had to be so consumed by our needs that she was not able to pursue much else.
She is a reluctant socialite; she attends the obligatory functions but is always happier with her family – she now has 15 grandchildren to dote on – and close friends, or at prayer.
Her favourite pastime, though, is shopping; thankfully she is also a typically frugal Johorean so she is quite careful with her spending.
She is wonderfully particular about seemingly small things that touch others – she has only forgotten one of my 47 birthdays, and the one that got away traumatised her for a long time! Even today she is meticulous about keeping a diary of birthdays and anniversaries of everyone close to her.
Your father was busy with public life, and your mother was the primary parent. What was your childhood like with your mother?
For me, she was the primary parent for the first nine years, then the only parent.
Her style was laissez faire but grounded on values which she subtly instilled in her children. She did not set many rules but expected us to know right, wrong, too little and too much.
Her support for us was unconditional and she always put our needs before her own, and that has always been an enormous source of strength for me when facing life’s challenges.
When I was 13, she sent me to Britain for boarding school. She wanted me to have the education I needed, it mattered not that it meant she would be lonely at home. At school, I would always look forward to her weekly letters and whatever advice she would volunteer. So, even while we were far apart she continued to influence me.
What were the challenges your mother faced raising a house full of boys, especially after the passing of your dad? Could you share some of your family memories/anecdotes?
It is to her credit that we remain a close-knit band of brothers. Maybe we all just feel we owe her so much that in the end we always want to please her, and her number one priority is that we remain close. Or maybe she has just subtly instilled a strong bond between her sons.
My most enduring memories of my childhood were of many evenings when my brothers and I would all lie on her king-sized bed together while she sat on the sofa, and we would banter about everything and nothing, and laugh so much.
We would tease each other about all sorts of things; for Mummy though it’s always about her shopping. The standard jokes were around holiday trips where she would shop for days, yet buy nothing for herself. She was always obsessed with getting presents for everyone else; family, friends and staff first, so the final few hours of the holiday were invariably a frantic scramble to buy her own things.
Being the youngest in the family, did you receive special treatment from your mother? Were you someone who would get away with mischief easily?
She has always been very determined to treat her sons equally. She had her rules about when we each would get what, like a first overseas trip or the right to buy a car. Due to inflation, by definition I got the worst financial deal!
Of course, because Dad passed away when he did, I had more time with her while growing up, but I don’t think any of my brothers ever thought I got special treatment. But you’ll have to ask them to be sure!
How has your mother influenced you as a parent?
I try to provide my kids the same sense of unconditional love and support. But these days the environment is very different: there is a much higher risk of negative and dangerous influences on kids, whether via the Internet or society at large. So, Azlina (Datin Seri Azlina Aziz) and I are a lot more hands on with our kids because we have to be.
How has your mother shaped your attitude towards women?
Like most women of her generation, Mummy is traditional in her views about the role of women. Growing up in a family of five boys and attending an all-boys boarding school kept me quite traditional too, or at least until I met my wife.
Azlina and I married at a fairly young age and went through young adulthood together, and I daresay her strong and progressive views on gender equality have tempered my attitude too. With a wife who studied feminist theory at Oxford, it is pretty difficult to be a chauvinist!
We have two children, a twin son and daughter, whom we are careful to treat absolutely equally.
At work, too, I am proud to say that CIMB is a Malaysian company at the forefront of promoting gender diversity.
What are the important life lessons you have learnt from your mother?
She is the most selfless person I know, to her family and to others. She has maintained a group of very close friends through the years, so now despite her sons being busy with work and their own families, she is never short of good company.
She has taught me the importance of personal honesty and integrity and service to the community by always being concerned about our reputation and the family name.
Without ever using the words themselves, she taught me that “perception is reality” so do the right thing and make sure people know that you are doing right.
What do you value most about your relationship with your mother?
Her unconditional love and support. Even when she is displeased with something I have done, I still know that she is there for me. I value this so much; it makes me a much stronger person knowing that I always have a safe emotional haven.