KUALA LUMPUR: It was to be a simple meal celebrating a man with simple tastes but guests at a lunch honouring Father of Independence Tunku Abdul Rahman came away with much more than enjoyment of the delicious dishes prepared by his former cook Salmiah Mat Isa.
It turned out to be a meaningful afternoon of shared reminiscences of a country enjoying its fledgling independence and glimpses of how it has grown.
Plus, the common belief that the only way forward is together.
Organised by Star Media Group, the lunch was held at company HQ Menara Star on Tuesday as part of the 45th anniversary celebrations of The Star and to celebrate Malaysia’s 59th National Day.
The bulk of the guest list was made up of 45 readers who won Star Media Group’s online giveaway A Taste of Nostalgia by sharing what they love about Malaysia. Among them were three winners who journied from Penang and one from Kedah.
Ride-sharing app Grab sponsored return trips to Menara Star for the winners. Also at the lunch was Grab’s country manager Jaygan Fu and communications manager Regina Robin.
Tunku Abdul Rahman was Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, serving the country until his retirement in 1970. He became chairman of The Star in 1977, as well as a prominent columnist.
The Star’s editor-in-chief Datuk Leanne Goh recalled the Tunku as a warm, fatherly figure. As a young reporter, she met his granddaughter, Sharifah Intan, at an assignment. “Before I knew it, she was my colleague at The Star!” said Goh.
Sharifah Intan retired as a deputy executive editor of the newspaper, and her daughter Sharyn Lisa Shufiyan became a columnist, carrying on her great-grandfather’s legacy.
As a special guest at the lunch, Sharyn, 31, echoed the fond memories of the man she knew simply as Tok Tam. She had the guests in stitches when she said she found out who her great-grandfather “really” was only when she saw a photo of Bapa Kemerdekaan in a Civics textbook in primary school.
Other guests of honour included two former group chief editors of The Star, Michael Aeria and Datuk Ng Poh Tip, who was the first woman in the country to hold the post.
The lunch spread was prepared by Tunku’s former cook, affectionately known as Makcik Salmiah.
Makcik Salmiah, 65, started working for the Tunku in 1968 as a nanny for his children when she was just 16. She took over the kitchen in 1971, and worked for him until his death in 1990.
During her tenure with the Tunku, she also cooked for the board of directors and management of The Star from 1993, when the company was renting Tunku’s Batu Ferringhi bungalow in Penang.
In 2007, when The Star took over Tunku’s bungalow in Bukit Tunku, Kuala Lumpur, Makcik Salmiah then became a fixture there. In 2011, she transferred over to Menara Star, where she is still employed till today, along with husband Razak Ahmad, 76.
Together, they prepared a spread including tamarind prawns, fried chicken, squid sambal and of course, fish curry.
“Tunku had to have a curry every day, and fish curry was his favourite – although I did try to give him different curries for variety!” she said.
Also prominent on the tables was her extra spicy sambal belacan, its heat levels taken way up to the point of Tunku’s preference.
Among the guests was Dr Heenie Lee Tart Heen, who brought along a copy of a photo of his grandfather Chong Kin Voon and the Tunku.
“My grandfather was a tin miner originally from China, and a friend of the Tunku. He used to come over to my grandfather’s house in KL for lunch. My grandfather’s Bahasa Malaysia was not very good, so he would get my mother to translate for him to English, and they communicated that way,” he recalled.
“I am here for sentimental reasons, and curious to see what would have been on the menu!” he said.
One of the winners came all the way from Penang just for the lunch, and returned in the evening.
“I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I took a train here this morning,” said Annie Khor Seow Keow, 55.
“It was definitely worth the trip!”
A post-lunch session saw many of the guests sharing their winning entries.
These included 18-year-old Cameron Tjoe, who spoke about how Malaysia has managed to hold true to its roots even as it has modernised.
Professional speaker and trainer Geoff Andrew also stood up to share his love for the country.
“I’ve lived here for so long that my friends call me a ‘bumiputih’!” he said, recounting the story of how he and five Malaysian friends of different races celebrated National Day in 2001 by scaling Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, conquering Independence Peak.
A quick tour of The Star’s Editorial Department brought the event to a close.
The lunch ended on a high note, with strangers becoming friends, bound by a sense of common national purpose. It turned out to be more than the sum of its dishes.
“Sitting here, listening to what everyone had to say, it has made me miss the Malaysia we used to have – the one that is very much due to that young lady’s great-grandfather. I think it is really worth trying to get that back,” said businessman K. Sivashankar, 56.
The Star celebrates its 45th birthday on Sept 9.
To get the recipes for Tunku’s favourite dishes, go to kuali.com