IT was just before noon when we saw the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, walking towards the Sri Maharaja Hall, one of the rooms at Istana Negara, where we were waiting to interview his His Majesty.
The King was a few minutes early. From afar, we could see how he kept a steady pace entering the room, with palace officials in tow.
Many of us had never met the King face to face. It was only natural that we felt nervous and knew fully well we needed to steady our nerves to conduct the interview.
Half an hour before the interview started, the head of Istana Negara’s communication unit, Muzli Md Zin, briefed us how to merafak sembah (greet) and introduce ourselves to Sultan Abdullah before the handshake.
As introductions were done, the King quickly made eye contact with media members. He had a grim look as he took his place and said, “I will try to answer all your questions as best as I can”.
Then he broke into a smile. Immediately we felt at ease and our nervousness somehow dissipated.
The interview went on for about one hour and during this time we saw the many expressions of Sultan Abdullah as His Majesty was asked about current issues – and how his face would soften when addressing less serious topics.
“I am a reserved person by nature but my involvement in sports sometimes makes me talk a lot, ” he said with a laugh.
“I can’t deny that my involvement in football built my character to what I am today. I thank the media for giving me the chance and opportunity to come forward and talk about sports, especially football.
“But sometimes, you guys also give me a hard time with all kinds of criticism. So this, in a way, has built my character, I should say. No matter what the criticisms are, good or bad, that is part of the process. Therefore, from a reserved person, I am now a talkative guy, ” he added, with an even bigger laugh.
Those remarks led us to tap his thoughts on sports.
But he was on point about this, saying since he is now the King he didn’t have to deal with sports-related questions.
Still, he was sporting enough to answer.
“My sincere opinion is this... for me, we don't need to dream too far. We should target to be successful in Asean or the Asian region. If we can become a giant in this region, it is already an achievement. If we can get there, we will command respect from our neighbours.
“In hockey, Alhamdulillah (All praise to Allah) there's progress. In football, we can maintain as one of top two countries in Asean but at the Asia level, we still need to work hard to get there. So this is where we should set our benchmark, ” said Sultan Abdullah.
We then asked if he is still active in any particular sport (Sultan Abdullah used to play football and polo).
“I do a lot of gym workouts. But not lately because of my injuries (to his ankle and knee, acquired during his football-playing years) so now I stop playing polo, football, and I was into squash for a while but I stopped after my leg injury.
“As the Yang di-Pertuan Agong I am under oath to fulfil certain duties. So if I keep on aggravating the injury, I am going to miss certain functions.
“That worries me. Maybe I should venture into other sports like fishing... ya, why not, ” he mused.
“Talking about fish, what is your favourite dish, Tuanku?” we asked.
“Oh, I am a very simple person when it comes to eating. I prefer taucu sotong, taucu ikan, tempoyak ikan patin, ayam masak kicap, ayam golek and ikan bawal.
“For Western food, I like to eat burgers and KFC.
“And I usually take plain water. I am not into gassy or sweet drinks. I would also like to advise all my rakyat to reduce their consumption of sweet drinks”.
Sultan Abdullah then talked about how the Raja Permaisuri Agong, Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah, also likes to cook, and was full of praise when he spoke about her cooking.
“That is one area that I truly regret not being able to master, but I have to admit that I always watch the cooking channel hoping it will inspire me to start cooking, but unfortunately that has not been fruitful.
“I like the way the food is prepared and I have to say, I feel jealous looking at those who have the ability to cook. This is where I have to admit that the Raja Permaisuri is blessed with this expertise.
“She is very passionate and thorough when it comes to cooking or when it comes to dishes.
“Secondly, I have to mention that she is a fast cook. That’s really amazing. I don’t need to wait that long for the dishes to be ready. She has been writing cookbooks and the sales from these books have been used to fund her fertility foundation.
“That is something worth mentioning because it gives a new lease of life to any family with the gift of a baby. That is something special, ” the King said in reference to the Tunku Azizah Fertility Foundation (TAFF) set up in 2004 to help Malaysian women who struggle to conceive.
In the last 15 years, as many as 115 children were born with TAFF's help. The Raja Permaisuri continues to support the foundation – proceeds from sales of her cookbooks are channelled to the foundation.
When the conversation became more open and frank, we gingerly asked Sultan Abdullah about his relationship with his children.
It went like this: “Tuanku, you can ignore this question, but out of curiosity, we would like to know what do your children call you?”
Sultan Abdullah simply replied, “Babah”.
And what about Tuanku Permaisuri?
“Mama, ” he smiled.
Naturally the next question was what is Tuanku's term of endearment for his Permaisuri?
“Ya, sometimes I do call her ‘Sayang’....”
Emboldened by this, we asked another candid question, again out of curiosity:
“Are you a romantic guy, Tuanku?”
“Romantic? Mmm... (laughing). To say that I am naturally a romantic person, I would say no, I am not that romantic per se, but maybe I can be romantic based on the occasion.
“But if you talk about love and fondness – yes, I have my own way and style, just like any other person in this world.
“You know, the first time I watched a movie many times was a Hindi movie, Sangam. If I am not mistaken, about four, five or six times. Then Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
“That movie I have to admit, I have watched more than four times. Can that be categorised as romantic?”
Sultan Abdullah also admitted he used to watch Combat, the gritty 1960s TV series depicting the lives of a US platoon fighting its way across Europe during World War II.
“Yes, I also watched the Iron Man series (of movies) but not The Avengers because I am not so much into science fiction”.
As for local films, it is Paskal: “I like the direction and the storyline... so impressive, ” Tuanku said.
The King also spoke about the importance of love and family bonding.
“Alhamdullilah, if the Permaisuri, my family and I can be a role model to all the rakyat, I thank God for that.
“I hope all of us, including my rakyat, can be a role model to others and one big family that we can be proud of. I will try in my whatever capacity to become the father or brother to all Malaysians. The same goes with the Permaisuri also, as mother and sister to all Malaysians.
“As much as we can, try to adopt positive values, good elements and respect each other, especially the old folk, show love and caring for each other, respect our neighbours, avoid disintegration – a barrier that is certainly not healthy.
“I like to be open about this. I like making friends and I like to listen to opinions. I do like to listen to criticism and, hopefully, it is constructive criticism for the good of all because we can’t run away from our own weaknesses.
“It is part of being human”.
Sultan Abdullah also has one important message for the rakyat: “No handphones please, during lunch or dinner....
“Yes, I am busy but I am not a busybody, ” he said with a laugh, and continued: “I know all of us are busy with our own things. When I have time I will tell my children. ‘Let's have lunch or dinner’ or ‘Let’s go to the gym together’ to my sons.
“So from there, we plan, we talk. No matter how busy you are please spare some time for your kids and family.
“I have one rule. When we are at the dining table, no handphones, please.
“I think this rule also should apply to all families because you want everybody to interact at least during lunch or dinner, not looking at and answering their phone in between, ” said the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
And coincidently, it was lunch time just as the interview ended, and His Majesty immediately asked his staff whether Istana Negara had prepared any for us.
“Yes, Tuanku, all is in order, ” said the palace's public relations officer Mohd Husni Yusop.
“Then let’s have lunch together, ” said the King.
That caught the Istana officers off-guard. The lunch that had been set was meant for the press only, as a very casual set-up. Any event involving the King would usually involve the necessary protocol. This was an unscheduled arrangement.
Sultan Abdullah then led us to the dining room a few metres away. He took a quick look around and pointed out a framed photo on the wall: “Look, I told you guys, Tuanku Permaisuri cannot run away from doing her cooking with the rakyat during the big flood in Pahang in 2012.”
Sultan Abdullah walked over to the buffet table. The server was clearly unsure what to do as the King took plates and handed them over to each of us, one by one. The staff could only smile nervously when His Majesty told them he would be eating with us.
And true to his word, Sultan Abdullah then joined us at the table. Sans phone, sans protocol. It was only the King and us having lunch.
Ampun Tuanku, Daulat Tuanku.