A FEW weeks before Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was to be sworn in as Prime Minister on Oct 31, 2003, I contacted his wife Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood, who was in Los Angeles, for an interview.
Before this, she hardly gave interviews to the media because she did not feel it was right for her to be in the limelight.
So I was surprised when her loyal companion Leela Mohd Ali called me to say Endon would grant a phone interview and to call her back in a few minutes.
It was after midnight in Los Angeles but when Endon picked up my call we talked for almost an hour.
Before our conversation ended, Endon, who was undergoing follow-up treatment for breast cancer, suggested I meet with her when she returned. “So you will understand and know me better,” she said.
She had known that many people thought she was unapproachable.
“Give me a chance and you will know me better. Don’t judge the book by the cover,” she said.
A day before Abdullah’s swearing-in as Prime Minister, my colleague and I went to see her at the Deputy Prime Minister’s residence in Putrajaya.
She opened the door herself, immaculately attired in a cheongsam-style dress.
It was the fasting month but she, a charming host, served us Milo.
She was soft-spoken, even saying “tak apa, tak apa,” when my colleague turned up late. He had been held up by the strict security check at the guardhouse.
She struck me as a private yet warm person. She was candid when talking about gossip about her health, her husband and her relationship with other people.
Endon, who asked people to call her simply Kak Endon, was one of a pair of twin daughters born to businessman Datuk Mahmood Ambak and Datin Mariam Abdullah on Dec 24, 1940.
She had nine other siblings and she received her early education at St Mary’s Secondary Girl’s School in Kuala Lumpur.
Endon worked as a stenographer at the Public Services Department (then known as the Federal Establishment Office), retiring in 1965 to be a stay-at-home mother to her children Nori and Kamaluddin.
She met Abdullah “across the table”; they worked in the same office. Theirs was an office romance and in those days she only dressed in kebaya or batik at the insistence of her strict father.
“It was only after we got married (in 1965) that I started wearing modern clothes, like pants,” Endon said.
On their first date, Abdullah drove Endon in his Mini to a Quran recital. It was when he translated the Quran to her that she knew he was the one she would marry.
Her strict upbringing had made her a quiet person and she contrasted herself to her late twin, Noraini (who also died of breast cancer), who was more of an extrovert.
“They called my twin ‘Sunshine’ and me ‘Moon-glow’,” she said.
In the office, she did not talk to many people and was nicknamed “The Iceberg”.
“He (Abdullah) 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 had said.
But when she talked about her passion, her family, her husband and her friends, I could see her twin in her.
She took pride in her beautiful home, which she had painstakingly decorated with items she had collected over 20 years, and took time to show each one.
Her home reflected Endon herself and her appreciation of things beautiful. Instead of paying high prices at art galleries, she had bought many items in flea markets around the world for a song. She had then polished and framed them, turning them into beautiful expensive-looking items.
Endon said she liked being with good friends and family. At home, she played soothing music and practised qi gong. These and eating healthy food were part of her strategy to cope with her illness.
Leela, the CEO of Penyayang, of which Endon is the founder, has been her good friend for more than 35 years.
Leela described Endon as a “rock” for her strength and bravery in facing cancer.
Abdullah himself once told reporters, when asked about Endon’s health, that she was “very strong. She is stronger than me.”
“My children will never see a tear from me,” she had said of her determination to overcome cancer. “I have to be strong. I have to be strong for my husband, too.”
Endon loved to be with close friends and they used to hold dance sessions regularly.
“You must have good friends,” she said.
And she could also sing. Many people who heard her sing at charity events were struck by her superb voice.
She had planned to do more to help causes that she was passionate about, like promoting the kebaya, batik and songket and reviving the Mak Yong and wayang kulit.
“I want to do all I can, with my limitations,” she had said, adding that she hoped people would understand that she could not turn up for every event with her husband. Her doctors had advised her not to be in a crowd.
After she was diagnosed with the disease, she went public about her cancer and undertook many projects to help breast cancer patients, believing that they should be motivated to feel good about themselves.
She must have been disappointed when she wasn't able to show up for the “Walk With Pride” charity event in aid of cancer co-organised by Penyayang and attended by Cherie Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister, on July 31. By then, she was under treatment again.
Endon called herself her husband’s number one fan, but it is evident that the feeling is mutual.
The couple’s deep affection and love for one another is well known.
For example, during the interview at her residence, Abdullah came home briefly at about 5pm. I noticed the huge smile on her face when he called out “Yoohoo” to her. He then gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek.
As he left, she said this was their ritual when they met, whether it was after a day in the office or when she returned from her treatment overseas.
She said she would always check what Abdullah was wearing before he left the house for functions, as she felt that the way a politician dressed would reflect on the wife.
I had asked her then why they had not yet moved to the Prime Minister’s official residence.
Her reply was: “Don’t worry, I will tell you when I move to Sri Perdana. When I have moved and decorated Sri Perdana, you can come and see it.”
Sadly, we never got the chance to see how Endon would have put her personal touches on Sri Perdana.
After the interview, whenever I met her at her events, she would always say hello and give a genuine, warm smile when I greet her.
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