Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat’s simple image combined with his push for political Islam added up to a game-changing effect on Malay politics.
THE fear was that it was going to be the final goodbye when Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat was hospitalised and unconscious in the intensive care unit more than a week ago.
Top PAS leaders made a frantic rush to Kota Baru after family members confirmed that his condition was critical.
But the former Kelantan Mentri Besar is a tenacious old man and by the following night, his vital signs had stabilised and there was a big sigh of relief all round.
The next morning, he regained consciousness and his first feeble words were about prayer time. He is a stickler for performing his daily prayers and used to wake up in the middle of the night to perform tahajjud prayers. And now, even when stuck in a hospital bed, he insisted on performing subuh or dawn prayers before sipping some teh-O. Then he asked about the family, smiled and fell asleep.
Since then, he has managed to sit up for about half an hour or so. His lungs are not doing great and he still needs a respirator to help him breathe.
However, his son Nik Abduh, who is Pasir Mas MP and the family spokesman, said his father may be allowed home if his condition continues to stabilise.
The hospital staff had, a few days ago, gone to check out the house and make necessary adjustments in the event of his discharge. Some said it was a sign the Tok Guru is on the mend while others said it was because the doctors cannot do much more for him.
Nik Aziz’ prostate cancer was one of those open secrets when he was in power. He also has a history of stomach ailments and wears a pacemaker, which he once described as “a thing to help jumpstart an old car”.
The cancer is said to have spread and is causing him to feel unwell. But news of the devastating Kelantan floods could have also contributed to his state of health because that was when his condition started going downhill.
Nik Aziz had legions of admirers and more than his share of enemies when he was Mentri Besar. But it seems like even his enemies are praying for him.
His critics are able look at him a little more objectively now that he is no longer in power. They can see that he was not the greatest Mentri Besar and that Kelantan is not a very well-run state. But he is without doubt a pious man whose life closely mirrored the teachings of Islam.
He led PAS through five general elections and this will be his party’s 25th year as the state government. That is pretty awesome for a preacher who was largely unknown outside of Kelantan until he landed in the hot seat in 1990.
“He impressed us, the trust level was very high. People believed the government was in the hands of a pious man,” said Kelantanese Zaidi Hassan who is active in the “sekolah pondok” network.
Up till then, the national spotlight had been on the fiery Datuk Seri Hadi Awang, whose revolutionary fervour had captured hearts and minds in rural Malaysia. Hadi was then the young and handsome star whereas Nik Aziz was a shy, provincial man with a thick Kelantanese accent few outside the state could understand.
But the little man’s charisma bloomed to outshine those around him.
“He has always been very unassuming. When we realised we were about to win Kelantan in 1990, a few top leaders went to see him about the MB’s post. We had to press him because he didn’t want it, he only wanted to be the Speaker. He only agreed after we said that Hadi would be MB if we won in Terengganu,” recalled PAS secretary-general Datuk Mustafa Ali.
Making a preacher the Mentri Besar was a leap of faith. But Nik Aziz, armed with his iron-clad convictions about Islam but vague ideas about government, grew to become central to the party’s hold on Kelantan.
“His leadership in Kelantan helped build the PAS image of today,” said Roslan Shahir, Hadi’s former press secretary.
He was not the typical political leader. His pronouncements were often more about religion than policies and it took people time to get used to his trademark attire – white jubah, turban and soft canvas shoes.
Many people, especially non-Malays, did not know what to make of him. But it was the way he tried to marry Islam and government that shook up the establishment.
In his first term of office, he was constantly pressured by his Umno opponents to declare whether he was a preacher or a politician. It used to amuse him because, as far as he was concerned, Islam was inseparable from all aspects of his life.
His quaint views on society upset and tickled people at the same time, like his statement saying that unattractive women should get priority in jobs because it would be hard for them to find husbands.
Recently, he said those behind the pet-a-dog campaign had “worms in their head”.
He was the trailblazer in the notion of an Islamic administration. He did not exactly succeed but he tried his best.
Although he had studied in Egypt and India, it was the Mentri Besar’s job that exposed him to new things and, well, to the new world.
There was this constant tug-of-war between clinging to the comfort of the old world and adapting to the unfamiliar new world and, most of all, the challenge of applying ideas born during the Holy Prophet’s lifetime into the modern world.
Although diminutive and soft-spoken, he stood his ground against the mighty Barisan Nasional.
But the beauty of Nik Aziz is that he did not always oppose for the sake of opposing. When the federal government introduced Islamic banking in the form of Bank Islam, Nik Aziz immediately embraced it as the state government’s bank. He did not care that it was a federal government baby. It was Islamic and that was all that mattered.
His hold on the people’s loyalty was remarkable considering his party’s limited delivery. The shortcomings of the state government were glaring during the recent floods.
His political survival had a great deal to do with his personal integrity. He came in at a time when Kelantanese were thirsting for a Malay leader who was genuinely religious, honest and clean and whom they could respect. They did not mind that he was unsophisticated, could not use a computer and did not know much about the world economy.
Shortly after Nik Aziz came to power, the editor of the newspaper I was then working for sent me to interview him. My editor said he was not sending a Muslim reporter because they always came away infatuated with the Tok Guru.
When I arrived in Kota Baru, I begged my colleague to drive me to see Nik Aziz’s house. I remember my colleague saying: “It’s just a kampung house, like everyone else’s house.”
But that was precisely the point. Unlike other politicians who would build a lavish house when they came to power, his lifestyle was not vastly different from the common people.
The sight of the simple kampung house with fading green paint and his official Mercedes Benz parked in a rusted zinc shed made an indelible impression on me.
The house was so sparse inside – linoleum floors, cane furniture and the only picture on the wall was a tapestry of the holy Kaabah.
Interviewing him was a new experience. His press secretary had phoned with instructions to come in long clothes and a headscarf. I remember using the hotel sewing kit to stitch up the knee-high slit of my long skirt which resulted in me having to take ridiculously ladylike steps.
Like many ulama, Nik Aziz avoided looking directly at women and he sort of gazed at the floor as he spoke. It was a first for me, meeting a politician for whom everything centred around Islam, and the interview, at times, was like a religious class.
Finally, feeling restless, I asked: “Tok Guru, you have 10 children. Are they all from the same mother?”
I could see his press secretary’s eyes almost popping out. But the dear Tok Guru turned to look directly at me, his face creased in a broad smile and, holding up his index finger, he said, “only one wife”.
He then asked how I knew he had 10 children and it struck me that he was still quite unused to reporters. But it broke the ice. There was no more looking at the floor and he even commented on my headscarf.
About a month ago, Hadi and his political secretary Dr Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar visited the elderly man.
He looked tired and told his visitors that he was satisfied with what he had done in Kelantan and that “if Allah takes my life today, I am ready”. His visitors left with a heavy heart and the feeling that the time is near.
“He is always close to God. All his political ceramah start with some sort of religious lecture unlike other speakers who go straight to political issues,” said Dr Samsuri.
The last one year saw Nik Aziz lending his clout to the party’s push for hudud law. It was quite ironic given that he could have done it himself when he was up there.
But he had once told Dr Samsuri that Kelantan’s quest for hudud law was like a car stopping at the traffic lights. The engine is still running even though the light is red.
He said the light could soon change to green now that the federal side had hinted support, and the car, with the running engine, is ready to move forward.
Nik Aziz came along at a time when many Malays were becoming cynical about Malay politicians with their grand houses, posh cars and flashy lifestyles after just a few years in politics.
He bucked the trend with his folky outlook and simple lifestyle that have changed little from then till now. Kelantanese saw it as a mark of his honesty, sincerity and, most important of all, his religiosity.
For that, they were prepared to overlook the shortcomings of his administration.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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