Tok Mat – the man behind the scene

  • Nation
  • Saturday, 02 Jan 2010

Tan Sri Mohamed Rahmat will be remembered as the propaganda man for Umno and the Barisan Nasional government but for many journalists, he was the ultimate source of news.

WITH Tan Sri Mohamed Rah-mat, there was no going halfway. You either liked him or hated him.

Such was Tok Mat, who died three days short of his 72nd birthday yesterday.

Many politicians despised him – several got suspended by Umno when he was party secretary-general and alleged he had abused his position – as did members of the public who disliked his propaganda over RTM.

However, for many journalists covering Umno politics, Tok Mat was the perfect source for news and for those who worked with him in Umno headquarters, this politician was a caring boss.

For those close to him, he was a good friend. He could understand their needs. For he was a poor boy who had made good.

He served five prime ministers in various capacities including as ambassador to Indonesia.

But he had his failings. One abuse he would later admit to was using the government machinery to get the rakyat to support Umno again.

When he was Information Minister from 1987 to 1999, Tok Mat used all the resources he had to promote the Barisan Nasional agenda.

He felt that he was just doing his job despite being then called Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir’s Moha-mad’s lackey.

For Umno, too, Mohamed’s contribution is nothing short of tremendous. Umno was split after the party was declared unlawful in 1987 by the High Court.

Mohamed and several other party leaders had to start a new Umno with just RM274 collected during a meeting at Seri Perdana, the official residence of the Prime Minister. The old Umno’s assets had been frozen by the court.

“I was called Mahathir’s barua (lackey). I had to use whatever position to promote the leadership and Government. People were saying Malaysia was no good; let’s go elsewhere.

“I wanted to build loyalty. I launched the Setia campaign and followed up with Semarak – getting Dr Mahathir to go round the country and strengthen people’s support for the government,” he had said during an interview with The Star.

For journalists, Tok Mat was much sought after because many a time, his information on Umno politics would guarantee the front pages of newspapers.

Once, former Utusan Malaysia journalist Hanafiah Man and I were frantically looking for Tok Mat and nobody wanted to tell us where he was.

Normally, you could find him at his office at Angkasapuri or Umno headquarters. But on that particular day, he was nowhere to be found.

Then came a tip-off. He was having lunch at the revolving restaurant at KL Tower.

He was incensed at being disturbed during lunch.

“Apa kau nak? Aku tak ada cerita nak bagi! (What do you want? I don’t have any news to give you),” he scowled.

But the two of us refused to budge.

Tok Mat was not a man who would ignore you for long. After a few minutes, his tone turned friendlier.

“Kau dah makan? Duduk sana dulu, nanti aku datang.” (Have you eaten? Sit over there and I’ll join you in a while.”

That was Tok Mat-speak for: “Thank you for coming, I will give you a story.”

Former journalist Nizam Isa credits Tok Mat with genuinely showing concern when journalists were carrying out their work.

“He meets us in a very Malay way, asking whether we have had our meals. Sometimes, we would sit down with him because to Tok Mat our feedback was important and he took them seriously,” he added.

During the Umno general assembly, Mohamed would allow journalists to mingle freely with Supreme Council members during their tea break. There was no restriction.

Sadly, that tradition died when he was no more party secretary-general.

Norlizatun Shaari, who worked for 16 years as Tok Mat’s personal assistant at Umno and Barisan Nasional headquarters broke down as she recounted the day Tok Mat started work as Umno secretary-general, a few months after the party was re-registered.

“He asked all of us if we had received our salaries. When we told him we have not received our pay for three months, Tok Mat made sure we got our money. I know it was from his own pocket,” Norlizatun said.

The last time I met Tok Mat was a few days after he quit as Barisan Nasional secretary-general, six years ago.

He had lost a little bit of weight. And the scowl was gone.

Instead, he was nostalgic about his Umno days and thanks to the presence of his wife, Puan Sri Salbiah Abdul Hamid, Tok Mat was able to control his emotions. And he talked about his childhood days.

This was a man who made it the hard way. Mohamed came from a family of 17 siblings in Kampung Mohd Amin, Johor Baru. His mother died when he was 12.

Later, he went on to hold the record of being the longest-serving Member of Parliament for Pulai between 1969 until 1999.

Not bad for a boy who had to sell kuih until he was in Form Three.

His parliamentary seat has since been taken over by his son, Nur Jaslan. But his memory will live on.

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