Helping people stricken with cancer and promoting culture and the arts are just some of the things that Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood has set her heart on doing as First Lady, but she is aware of her limitations, writes JANE RITIKOS.
DATIN Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood was settling down for an interview at the Deputy Prime Minister's official residence in Putrajaya when her husband entered the room. He smiled and greeted everyone before telling his wife, who rose to greet him, that he was leaving for an appointment.
Touching his casual blue shirt, she remarked that the singlet he was wearing was showing through, and she suggested he wore one with a lower neckline.
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi replied that it was the only one he could find but the lady of the house pointed out that he had plenty more. Abdullah buttoned his shirt all the way up, making the singlet unnoticeable, and his wife told him he looked much better.
She asked where he was off to and he said Kepala Batas.
“Send my regards to mak,” she told him after he gave her a peck on her left cheek. He then went to the car and outriders waiting outside.
That sums up how much busier life has been for the loving couple and how their lives have changed since Abdullah became Prime Minister on Oct 31, said Endon.
She’s busier too as her role comes with a lot of expectations — everyone wants the First Lady at their events or to become their patron. Just fresh from successfully reviving the nyonya kebaya and the batik (which have become fashion must-haves) with her Yayasan Budi Penyayang, she is brimming with ideas on her next projects.
“It’s (life) busier. Pak Lah is so busy I hardly have time to talk to him,” she said, calling him by his moniker. “But he tries to make time for the family.”
“Like this morning,” she said, referring to their brief farewell, “I wanted to ask him something but he had to rush. “Most of what he is doing I read in the papers,” she added, and then laughed at how unbelievable that might sound.
“One thing people must know is that I don’t get involved. The past three and a half years he was Deputy Prime Minister I can count the times I called him and that was through his bodyguards. I don’t even know his direct line,” said Endon, who leaves Abdullah much space to do his job.
Endon, who never makes her indifference towards politics a secret, divulged that she did not even know who he had chosen as Deputy Prime Minister. “He never told me,” she said. And no, she would not bother asking him when the general election would be held.
Looking well and healthy, she spoke sincerely and candidly during the interview, often gesturing with her hands as she talked about her husband and herself, their new roles, her health and aspirations.
One noticed awe in her voice as she talked about Abdullah and recalled poignant moments in their lives, often saying “he's amazing”.
But while his love for politics did not rub off on her, their first date — witnessing a Quran reading competition — was what won her over.
Endon, who is one of 11 siblings, said her late father, Datuk Mahmood Ambak, was “too busy looking for money to feed us” and her mother was a “typical Japanese housewife”, so she learned about Islam from an aunt.
“I married him because of our first date. I always wanted a man who knows and could teach me about religion. And he could read and translate for me Arabic and Quranic verses. So I was taken up by him,” she said tenderly.
Those who knew them had thought it was an unlikely match.
“My father was very strict. He didn’t allow us to socialise or go to parties. He made sure he sent me to the office and I was only allowed to wear kebaya and batik to work,” said Endon, who naturally became a shy and quiet person.
Because of her quiet disposition she was even known as the “iceberg” in the office.
Endon met Abdullah “across the table” when working at the Public Services Department.
“He was always talking to people while I was very private, hardly talking to anyone. The rest of the officers used to ask him: ‘How did you manage to talk to the iceberg, we couldn’t get through her,’ “ she related with a laugh.
But Abdullah’s charms apparently melted the iceberg. “Because he was so friendly he didn't care if I responded. So that is Pak Lah,” said Endon, agreeing sportingly that theirs was an office romance.
While never dreaming of becoming a politician’s wife, she has, however, stepped into her new role gracefully and learned to interact with people, especially since being a public figure as her husband rose in politics and becoming the First Couple 100 days ago.
She noted that public reaction to her as First lady was different because people would now stop and point or go over to greet her. “Of course, you have to respond and smile and greet them,” she said.
“Pak Lah changed me a lot,” she said, revealing that it was only after she married Abdullah in 1965 that she started wearing “untraditional” clothes such as pants.
“He is sociable while I have few friends. They called my twin ‘sunshine' and me ‘moon glow'. People teased Pak Lah but he didn’t care. He is very noisy, very friendly. At home he is the loudest and Nori is like him while Kamal is more like me,” she said, referring to their two grown-up children.
She paused as if to think and then added: “He always has a happy look, always smiling. People always think nice things about him but say the wife not very good lah,” she grinned.
“But give me a chance to know you and you will know what type of person I am. Don’t judge the book by its cover.”
Endon said she is glad that Bakti members find it easy to talk and joke with her and that Women and Family Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil and Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen discuss women’s problems with her.
What she cannot tolerate is gossip, and Endon is aware that even when Abdullah has a cough, people would say he is ill.
“There is also a rumour going around that Abdullah will take a month off purportedly because I have only one month to live,” said Endon, referring to her breast cancer diagnosed in 2001.
On how she learnt of the rumours, she said: “People tell, people ask my friends.”
While shrugging off the gossip, she acknowledged that there are people who are genuinely concerned and many had approached her with well wishes and prayers.
She also shared her doctor’s latest report on her health, saying that her weekly blood tests had shown very good results. “My doctors said it is all up to me. He said my chances are good and there is nothing to worry about,” said Endon, who was preparing to go to Los Angeles for her follow-up treatment when the interview was conducted on Jan 17.
She had a remission, she explained, but got an infection after catching a cold. She is now undergoing “just a mild chemotherapy”, she said.
It is for her health’s sake that she sometimes has to decline invitations to functions and she hopes people would understand.
“It is important that I do not get an infection. I have to concentrate on my health,” she said, adding that this meant going at a slower pace and not neglecting her medication.
This is also why she is glad she went public with her cancer in 2002. “Realising that people understand is a good feeling.”
She chose to undergo treatment at St John's Hospital in Los Angeles, paid for by the family, so as not to distract Abdullah from his “more important job of taking care of the country”.
Endon, who maintains a positive attitude at all times to help her through her battle, said she considers cancer as no longer being a death sentence.
The trip to Los Angeles means not only being further apart from Abdullah, she also shudders at the thought of the cold and dry weather there at this time of the year.
“You just want to be home. And going off for too long I will miss him also,” she said with a tinge of sadness in her voice.
She does qi gong and prayer meditation, drinks vegetable and fruit juices and consumes herbal medicines. She also makes sure she only starts her activities after 11am and plays soothing music at home for therapy.
However, as First Lady she relishes her role as a homemaker which, since the children have left the coop, are focussed on Abdullah, his food and clothes.
She admitted to worrying about her husband’s health as well, and said she keeps a close watch on his diet especially since too much nasi kandar for lunch had affected his health last year.
She wished he had time to exercise or go to the gym. “But he goes for acupressure three to four times a week, which helps a lot,” she said, adding that one good thing that came out of the bad times when he was in the political wilderness was that he learned to play golf.
“I always tell him he has to look after his health if he wants to look after the country,” she quipped.
Recalling the time he was down politically, she said seeing how he was treated prompted her to ask him to quit politics “But Abdullah insisted on doing it his way.
“He was always politically strong even when down. During the fight for the Umno vice-presidency people would say ‘Don’t bother going to Pak Lah’s house, you won’t get any money from him’,” she said.
Because of her own experience, Endon has made cancer one of her causes and she wants to help improve patient care in the country.
Her plans with the Yayasan Budi Penyayang, which she founded, include setting up a halfway house or centre where outstation cancer patients can come to stay in between their treatment, providing free chemotherapy ports for needy patients and a place where breast cancer patients can buy items such as bras and wigs to help regain their confidence.
Her promotion of the arts is another favourite subject and she spoke excitedly about her plan to promote culture and the national heritage.
“My next project is culture, not just dances and the performing arts, but literature and culture, our values,” she said with sparkling eyes. To her it is a pity to see Mak Yong and Wayang Kulit in Kelantan “dying” and she wants to bring together the old experts to revive the country’s traditional cultures.
This effort will be a permanent one, she said, and Penyayang is in the middle of setting up a national heritage centre.
She admitted that her position helps in getting the corporate sector to support her projects. After all, she said, it is pointless if she does not use her position to help others.
“This makes me very happy,” she said, citing the case of the batik vendors who made RM3.5mil in sales during the batik promotion at shopping centres in December. The vendors, including those from Kelantan, came in a busload to thank her with a poem.
There is also a plan for a bank scheme to provide soft loans for the batik makers, she said.
But she can always bank on the support of the Prime Minister, who also chips in with his ideas. During a visit to a Felda scheme recently, he found the womenfolk there making beautiful handicraft and suggested she help promote their products.
“The problem is that the rural folk lack ideas. For example, the tudung saji they produce has not changed much over the years.
I want Bakti to explore how we can help these women promote their products,” said Endon.
She wants to go in a big way to see through her plans, but realises her limitations due to her health.
“I wish I had 10 hands and brains. I am no longer 40 but 63,” she said, her voice trailing off. “But I’ll try my best to do what I can.”
Indeed, the First Lady has come a long way from the shy, quiet office stenographer and has made an impact on many people in whatever she does.