When his girlfriend at the time, Zainab Rahmat, was going to enrol in a teachers training college, Prof Hairi Abdullah urged her to apply to Universiti Malaya (where he was teaching) instead, to pursue her bachelor’s degree.
It was the 1960s and not as many women were enrolled in university but Hairi felt that a degree would offer her boundless opportunities.
As the only boy in his village in Johor to go secondary school, and later, university, Hairi was acutely aware of how important a good education is, regardless of gender. Learning strengthened his mind and character, and opened doors in his career.
After Hairi and Zainab married (she was then a second-year UM student) and started a family, it was this conviction that influenced the way they raised their children.
The couple has five children – four girls and one boy – and in their household, gender stereotypes didn’t exist. Dr Farizah, Dr Noran Naqiah, Eznurein Suraya, Ahmad Fairuz and Nur Azhana were all required to study hard and do chores at home. And they were all punished, in equal measure, whenever they were naughty.
“My role, as their father, was to give them the best education possible. What they do with that once they graduate is up to them, ” muses Hairi.
Zainab instilled discipline and values in her children from a very young age because, she believed, a solid foundation would set them up to be good people.
“Both our parents were very strict... with all of us, ” declares Dr Farizah. “We were not allowed to watch TV but we would peep through the keyhole from our room to try and catch what our parents were watching.”
Her father said he brought them the way his parents had brought him up.
“I grew up under strict military rule in the sense that I did as I was told by my parents, there was no room for negotiation. So that’s the way my wife and I brought up our children too. We just wanted to guide them to the right path and to us, that was through education.
“We didn’t treat the girls any differently from the boy because we don’t believe in that. We wanted all our children to become good people who would contribute to society, ” says Prof Hairi.
As they were both educators – Hairi is a retired professor with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Zainab, a retired headmistress – educating their children was their top priority.
They endeavoured to get their children into the best schools, even if that meant long commutes from their home in Petaling Jaya.
“The older girls studied in Convent Bukit Nenas in Kuala Lumpur, which was the top school at the time and later in Convent Kajang. The younger ones went to Assunta Secondary School. My son went to boarding school for some time and then to Victoria Institution, ” shares Zainab.
Even though he worked in Bangi, the devoted father sent all his children to school in the mornings and picked them up in the afternoons.
“I didn’t want them to waste time loitering around after school. As an academic, I was fortunate that my working hours were flexible and I could to do this, ” he says.
At home, Zainab steered the ship, making sure that all her children spent their time wisely.
“My mother made us draw up timetables (even during school holidays) so that we used our time properly.
“We all had to do chores. Mama would cook early in the morning and we would have to help her chop vegetables before we went to school.
“Whether it was up to my mother’s standards was another thing altogether, ” recalls Dr Noran.
“Time management and discipline are very important, ” declares Zainab. “These are skills which they will find useful throughout their lives, and it was important they learn it as children.”
These tasks weren’t always appreciated by the young ones.
“Whenever we went on trips during school breaks, mama would make me keep a journal.
“I hated doing it back then but I later realised how much of an impact it had in helping me articulate, focus and prioritise at work, ” shares Nur Azhana, an engineer based in Sabah.
Both Dr Farizah and Dr Noran are with Universiti Malaya’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine and they say that learning to manage their time and draw up schedules when they were children has helped them balance their work as doctors, lecturers and researchers.
“And I make my daughters do the same too, ” says Dr Noran.
Steering their own course
“Papa always had wise words for us and Mama showed us how to conduct ourselves by her actions. She was very strong and positive and that had a huge impact on our lives.
“I remember when I was doing my A-Levels overseas and had a tough time making some decisions, I called home for help. Instead of telling me what to do, papa told me that I was now the captain of my own ship. I had to ‘assess the weather and the wind and decide which direction to steer my ship’. Honestly, I didn’t appreciate that advice at the time but that was how both of them raised us to be independent, ” says Eznurein who is a chartered accountant based in Singapore.
Ahmad Fairuz reckons that he did get away with things more than his sisters... but only because he pushed the boundaries more than they did.
“My parents treated us fairly but I was rebellious and liked to question things. Of course, I got punished a lot. Dad would always tell me that whatever I did, I had to jaga maruah keluarga (don’t bring shame to the family) and be responsible. That has stuck with me till now, ” says the technology security consultant who lives in Singapore with his wife, Dr Fariz Sazadilla and their three daughters.
Dr Noran explains, “For all his exams, mama would literally sit next to him and do the work with him. He had a good memory but he just wouldn’t sit down to study.”
Hairi and Zainab, now grandparents to five girls, are immensely proud of their children because they have become “good human beings”.
“What else could we ask for, ” shares Hairi.