A heart of gold

  • Lifestyle
  • Friday, 23 Jul 2010

This Sunday marks the first anniversary of the death of Yasmin Ahmad. Few know that the acclaimed auteur was a philanthropist.

THERE is a story circulating among friends and fans of the late Yasmin Ahmad about how she had helped to pay for her Indonesian maid’s surgery. Most of them know about it, as much as they know about her charitable nature and the countless times she had helped others in need.

Her sister, Datin Orked Ahmad, confirmed the story. “It was our parents’ maid who had complained of a lump in her breast,” said Orked.

At the time, Yasmin was also around as the family always gathered to have dinner at their parents’ house. When Yasmin heard about it, she made up her mind to send the maid to a private hospital the next day. The maid then underwent surgery and stayed in the first-class ward for about three nights.

The maid cried because she thought she would have to bear the costs herself. But Yasmin told her: “No way. You are like family to us and I want you to be as comfortable as possible and to get well quickly.”

This is just one of many, many more stories about how selflessly Yasmin had given to others. Talk to anyone who knew her, and they are bound to have an anecdote or two about Yasmin’s giving ways. To the public, her work with Mercy Malaysia is well known; a Mercy Yasmin Ahmad Fund for Children was set up after her passing on July 25 last year.

When Israel attacked the Gaza strip in early 2009, she quickly held a charity screening of her then-unreleased film, Talentime, to raise funds for the victims. She had consistently donated equipment to the paediatric ward of Hospital Kuala Lumpur.

If it was a public fund-raising effort, it was inevitable that the public would know about it. But a large part of Yasmin’s philanthropic efforts were not publicised, and if friends knew about it, they also knew not to let the cat out of the bag. A big reason for this was that they respected Yasmin’s wish to keep her charitable efforts anonymous. She disliked being singled out for them as she believed that everyone should do the same for each other.

One incident, related by advertising agency Leo Burnett senior copywriter Jovian Lee, involved how a staff member got into a very serious road accident and was in critical condition.

“Only a few of us Leo Burnett staff know about this,” said Lee. “When Yasmin heard about the accident, she made a vow that should that staff member recover, she would pay for his trip to Mecca. And sure enough, he recovered.

“And whenever any of us won awards for our work, she would encourage us to donate our prize money to those in need.”

Leo Burnett chairman Ali Mohamed recalled how Yasmin had once given a sum of money to his wife as donation to an orphanage, and expressly told his wife not to let him know. Till today, Ali said, he still does not know which orphanage it was and the exact sum donated.

“She always believed that whether it is RM50 or RM100, we should just give, because we’re going to spend that money anyway,” said Ali.

Yasmin’s charitable nature was just another part of her approach to life, which also showed in her films and commercials. Well known for her pluralist films such as Sepet and Gubra, and also her famous Petronas commercials that focused on human values and racial harmony, the Muar, Johor, native was also not one to shy away from pushing boundaries and challenging taboos.

Her first Petronas commercial for Merdeka Day 1995 was Little Indian Boy which featured, for the first time in a TV ad, a minority race in lead roles. Sepet was a love story between a Chinese boy and a Malay girl, a film that bravely criticised prejudices and questioned our society’s perception of what is right and wrong.

Even though she received harsh criticisms for her films and was accused of being a “corruptor of culture”, she did not let that stop her from putting forward what was in her heart.

Gone too soon

Yasmin died after suffering a stroke and collapsing during a meeting at Sri Pentas TV3. She was 51. Gone too soon, her larger-than-life presence is still felt today by her friends, many of whom she had helped.

In the film industry, no one cherished her more than the independent filmmakers, many of whom she had helped in one way or another. She even bought a DV camera and lent it to anyone who needed to shoot a film, and never asked to be credited in any way.

Filmmaker Tan Chui Mui credited her career to Yasmin’s timely assistance. She first met Yasmin in 2004 when she had to run an errand for a friend. She brought some of her short works to Yasmin’s office. Yasmin liked her documentary Hometown and encouraged her to make more films. When Tan came up with the script for A Tree In Tanjung Malim, she needed RM2,000 to shoot the short film.

“Yasmin told me to go to her office to get the money from her. Just like that,” said Tan.

A Tree In Tanjung Malim went on to win the Principal Prize at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in Germany in 2005.

“That was life-changing for me, and it was what made me decide to make films full-time,” said Tan. “Yasmin’s help was very important for my career. She did a lot to help nurture new talents.”

Inspired by Yasmin’s charitable nature, Tan decided to “pay it forward” and used the prize money from Oberhausen to fund films by other filmmakers, most notably Liew Seng Tat’s award-winning Flower In The Pocket.

Said Liew: “That was the snowball effect of what Yasmin did. In that way, she also helped a lot of us indirectly.”

Filmmaker James Lee confirmed that Yasmin had contributed RM5,000 to the budget of his film Before We Fall In Love Again. He said she never even saw the film when it was completed because she was always so busy.

Hafiz Ibrahim, 30, a film director with Chilli Pepper Films, said that although it might look like she gave out money to everyone who approached her, Yasmin actually turned down a lot of people.

She gave only when she felt something was worthy or if someone showed great promise. And she never asked for anything in return, he added. “The only thing that she wanted was for the person she had helped to do the same for others.”

Hafiz himself credited Yasmin for getting him into the film and advertising industry.

“A friend went to Leo Burnett for an interview but I got the job instead,” he laughed. “I had directed the student showreel which my friend had brought to the interview, and Yasmin was impressed enough to offer me a job.”

Hafiz, who had a role in Yasmin’s first film Rabun, recalled how she would call him every weekend during his first months with Leo Burnett, knowing how broke he was at the time. And she would take him out for meals.

When he and Yasmin went to the East Coast to film a documentary for the East Coast Economic Corridor they met some elderly women there who sold lekor (fish paste) for a living.

“She spoke to this makcik who told Yasmin that if she only had a lekor-making machine, she would be able to expand her business,” said Hafiz. “The only help she ever got was from the Chinese man who had a shop next to hers. About a week later, when we went back there, Yasmin met the makcik again and gave her the money to buy the lekor machine.”

It was not only monetary assistance that Yasmin gave, but also her time, said Hafiz. She would call or spend time with friends who needed comforting, and always made sure her friends were well taken care of.

Sheikh Munasar Abdullah, 27, freelance producer and film director and also a former Leo Burnett staff, recalled a funny incident at Kuching airport where he and Yasmin were in transit on their way to a shoot in Miri. While waiting for their connecting flight, Yasmin went to a jewellery shop to try out some earrings. She already had on a pair of gold earrings and took them off while trying on those at the shop.

When she finally decided on the pair she wanted, she paid for and wore the new earrings and told the girl at the shop she could have the gold ones.

“The girl thought she was joking and said she would put the gold earrings in a box for Yasmin. But Yasmin was serious. The girl asked her: ‘You really so nice meh?’ And Yasmin replied: ‘Be nice also cannot ah?’ ” Sheikh Munasar recalled with a laugh.

* Carry on giving

THE Yasmin Ahmad Children Fund was set up in September last year in honour of the late film and commercial director and in memory of her humanitarian spirit. The fund was initiated by cosmetic brand Silkygirl in collaboration with Mercy Malaysia.

Proceeds from the fund are used to support Mercy Malaysia projects and programmes, such as Mercy’s outreach clinic at Rumah Nur Salam in Kuala Lumpur, where children receive primary healthcare and dental care; Mercy Little Caliph Centre in Afghanistan, where children five years and above attend pre-school and are provided food, drinks, books and stationery; and purchase of equipment for the Paediatric Unit of Hospital Kuala Lumpur.

“As a non-profit organisation, Mercy Malaysia relies solely on funding and donations from organisations and generous individuals,” said Mercy executive director Zairulshahfuddin Zainal Abidin. “We accept donations of any amount as every bit of help goes a long way.”

Those who wish to help can donate to the Yasmin Ahmad Children Fund through Maybank (account name: Mercy Humanitarian Fund, account number: 5621-7050-4126, ABA Swift Code: MBBEMYKLA) or CIMB Bank (account name: Mercy Malaysia, account number: 1424-000-6561053, ABA Swift Code: CIBBMYKL).

Donations can also be made via Internet banking at CIMBClicks, Maybank2u, AmOnline or Eon Bank.

(Kindly state “Yasmin Ahmad Children Fund” at the back of the cheque, on the bank-in slip or in the reference column if transaction is via Internet banking.)

Visit mercy.org.my for online donations.

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