Remembering Khalid Ibrahim

“Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch, we are free.” – V for Vendetta, Alan Moore

ONE of the first few things I remember learning about Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim was that every Hari Raya, he would visit the grave of his former mentor, Tun Ismail Ali.

I heard that in particular, Tan Sri Khalid looked up to Tun Ismail’s adherence to strict integrity.

Looking at his life and career, it seems like Tan Sri Khalid aspired to living by these very same values.

As we mark his passing, I think it is safe to say now that he succeeded thoroughly, and that we now have the example of another great Malaysian statesman from whom we can learn about integrity, honesty, and service to the nation.

Working with Tan Sri Khalid, you were more likely to learn from example than from direct instruction.

He was not a man of many words. I worked with his team for a number of years, and I’m not sure if he spoke to me more than 10 or 20 times. Each time felt like he said a total of 10 words or less, half of which I often couldn’t make out because he would sometimes mumble.

He was instead a man who believed in work.

I remember the rather ridiculous incident in which someone tried to implicate Tan Sri Khalid in a “scandal” by revealing video recordings taken by what appeared to be a hidden camera in his office.

When videos of such nature are usually released, they often involve some salacious sex scene or other such nonsense.

In Tan Sri Khalid’s case, it literally just showed him working at his desk for what certainly felt like hours - he read papers, he signed papers, he read more papers.

It was far and away the most boring “video scandal” I had ever seen in my life.

It did however, give you a very good sense of what Tan Sri Khalid was like - he believed in work, not in words.

He is unlikely to be remembered as any kind of great orator, or someone with a natural talent for charming the socks off anyone. I sometimes feel like he preferred to avoid what he often felt was “play-acting” and preferred to focus on doing the real work that would actually improve lives.

Tan Sri Khalid’s real talent lay in understanding how big organisations work, how and why corporations and governments were going in the wrong direction, and most importantly, how to fix it.

His work in the corporate arena is near legendary. At 33, he was made chief executive of Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB), and in 1981, he famously led the legendary dawn raid which saw the repatriation of plantations firm Guthrie from British back to Malaysian hands.

He led Guthrie from 1995 to 2003, and in 2006, he joined Parti Keadilan Rakyat.

In 2008, he became the first non-Barisan Nasional Menteri Besar of Selangor.

Tan Sri Khalid was passionate about fighting corruption and plugging leakages. He took to the Selangor government the same way he took to the many companies he turned around and led to great heights.

He had a sharp eye for identifying where all the problems were, and more importantly, he had a very firm resolve to fix those problems.

A lot of the time, this attitude brought him into a head-on conflict with people who preferred the old way of doing things within government and politics - people who thrived in doing things that were at best grey in terms of integrity.

Tan Sri Khalid had no tolerance for that sort of thing. He had a crystal-clear vision of the kind of clean and honest government he wanted to forge, and he suffered no deviation whatsoever from this vision of integrity from any of his staff.

In this line of work, I’ve seen a lot of people be loyal to a politician because it meant getting high paying jobs, special contracts, prestigious titles, and so on.

Tan Sri Khalid adamantly refused his staff any of these things. Subordinates who so much as let slip any kind of letter or proposal with even the faintest whiff of corruption or impropriety would receive severe reprimands instead of fat contracts.

Thus, Tan Sri Khalid’s loyal staff and fan base tended to be considerably smaller than those of other politicians. But over the years, I noticed that that smaller group of people were full of fierce loyalty and genuine love that never faded. Being a leader of true principle tends to inspire that in people.

One of Tan Sri Khalid’s biggest dreams was to de-privatise the Selangor water industry, which he saw as raking in excessive profits at the expense of the rakyat. He had a five-stage plan, culminating with the dream of giving all water bill payers shares in state-owned water companies.

Unfortunately, he only succeeded in finishing stage one of the plan before he was ousted by his own party in the bizarre Kajang Move.

Some say he was ousted precisely because he threatened such big corporate profits, such as those in the water industry.

Some say he was ousted because he was a good administrator, but a bad politician.

This makes me wonder what exactly the definition of a “good politician” should be. Should it mean someone who is good at politicking? Or should it mean a politician who is a good person?

I’m sure some would say it should mean someone who is both. The only thing is, I personally have never met anyone who (in my imperfect opinion) fulfils both criteria at the same time. One might even wonder if the two were mutually exclusive.

In any case, I might not quibble with people who believed that Tan Sri Khalid was bad at politicking. I might quibble with people who believe that this was a bad thing.

I feel that Tan Sri Khalid is an excellent example of the very great things that can be achieved when you don’t spend your time and energy politicking.

I’m sure many would make the very reasonable point that our political ecosystem makes survival impossible for people like Tan Sri Khalid who disdained politicking.

I think that instead of trying to be less like Tan Sri Khalid in order to thrive in that swamp of a political ecosystem, we should work hard at changing our democratic ecosystem into one where honest, sincere, and capable figures like Tan Sri Khalid would have thrived.

This must be an extremely difficult time for a family that has lost a husband, father, and grandfather. I wish I could offer more than simple condolences.

I’m not sure what if any comfort it will bring, but please know that Tan Sri Khalid was an inspiration for so very many of us - in the way he believed in clean governance; in the way he would dote lovingly on his grandson Ariff; and in the way he would not budge when it came to doing what was right.

It is an honour to have known at least one man that we can point to as a vibrant example of quiet integrity, honesty, and service to the nation.

Thank you, Tan Sri Khalid, for your optimism and good cheer. Thank you for the excellent rojak and cendol every Hari Raya. And thank you for showing us what can be achieved while keeping our integrity intact.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant. He can be reached at

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