A kampong boy made good

After 19 years as political secretary to the Prime Minister, Datuk Abdul Aziz Shamsudin was made Deputy Education Minister two years ago. But things did not come on a silver platter for this kampung boy. Shahanaaz Habib has the story 

Aziz 's biggest challenge in his years ofservice is being misunderstood or mis-construed.

Ask Aziz Shamsudin the question 'who is Aziz Shamsudin?' and the answer is quite endearing. 

“I am a kampong boy from Kampong Mesah Hilir in Perak who rose from a very poor family,'' he says. 

His father left when he was just a boy. So his mother tapped rubber to raise him 

“As a poor boy, I worked, knowing that my mother suffered to bring me up,” he says, speaking warmly of his mother. 

In primary school, he skipped lessons on alternate days to sell cakes in school as there was no canteen back then. 

“I always came back with a lot of money because everyday the cakes were sold out,” he says. 

In standard three, he 'graduated' to air batu seller because it was the most lucrative business he could think of. 

There was no fridge in the kampong and people wanted ice especially during the fasting month. 

“I bought each piece of airbatu for 3 sen and sold it for 10 sen. I made RM2.80 per day because I sold 40 pieces daily.” That was in the 1940s. 

In the 1950s, Aziz spent a brief three-month stint as a fishmonger. 

After completing Senior Cambridge (SPM) in 1957, jobs were hard to come by, so he cycled 50 miles each day to sell fish. 

His fish-mongering days came to an end when he was accepted into the Teachers College in Kota Baru. 

“My mother told me there is no compromise to education and that she would do anything for me ,” he says. 

Other than tapping rubber, his mother worked as an amah before becoming one of the country’s first women special constables. 

His love for his mother evident, Aziz found it traumatic when she was a constable looking after Chinese settlement areas in what is now known as Kampong Baru. 

That fear aside, the lad heeded his mother’s advice and went on to become a teacher.  

Just like his mother, Aziz's late wife too was a firm believer in education. 

He was teaching for over a decade when his late wife pleaded with him to continue his studies. 

“She got the forms, prepared them and paid the fees for the HSC exam,” he says. 

When he graduated from UM in 1975 with a degree in history, director of Youth Malaysia Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (whom he has known since 1972) recommended him to the then Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad for a job. 

With his educational credentials behind him, Aziz was appointed as special officer and his task included reporting to Dr Mahathir every fortnight on the development of education and progress of students. 

At that time, he recalls, the bumiputras were in a “very tight situation” and there were not many of them at institutions of higher learning.  

And when Tan Sri Musa Hitam took over the education portfolio in 1977, Aziz continued as special officer to the new Education Minister until 1981. 

For him, the years he spent as education special officer was “very satisfying” as he witnessed the growth of “new” universities - UKM, USM, UPM and ITM and an increase in the number of bumiputera students there. 

Despite all the progress, Aziz nevertheless feels a bit dejected at times to see Malay students not performing. 

“Although this number is very small, we feel it shouldn’t happen at all with all the assistance and aid they have been given. But I realise sometimes one’s background can pull a person down and they will not get out of their cocoon,” he adds.  

Coming from a deprived background himself, Aziz is not one to forget his humble beginnings. 

He remembers how it felt when his name was called out every morning at the hostel because he had not paid up his fees of RM8. 

“I never knew my mother was sick in the kampong and couldn’t go to work for six months. She didn’t tell me. It made me cry. I am very proud of her,” he says. 

The deputy Education Minister says he was almost moved to tears when delivering a winding up speech on the 2003 Budget, as he spoke on the Government trying to provide schoolchildren with free books, food and even transport. 

“I never had that in my life and today the young are enjoying this because of the economy,” he adds. 

After serving as special officer to the Education Minister from 1975 until 1981, when Dr Mahathir took over as Prime Minister, he invited Aziz, to become his political secretary. 

Being only 43 then, Aziz was given a “national interest” retirement from his education post. 

“This means you are not of retirement age yet but because you are asked to retire, the Government rewards you by giving you the pension,'' he says. 

He stayed on as Dr Mahathir's political secretary for 19 years until he was promoted to deputy Education Minister in 2000. 

Aziz does not even try to hide his admiration for his boss. 

“I love him. I adore him,” he states bluntly. 

Dr Mahathir, he declares, has given everything – life and soul - to the country. 

“The phrase Keranamu Malaysia is actually a philosophy Dr Mahathir adopts for himself. A man of this character would be difficult to find even for another 200 to 300 years.  

He describes the leader as being sincere, honest and “humanistic” in his approach. 

And as for working for the big boss, Aziz finds it “very easy”. 

“PM is a very simple and modest man. He does not harass you. And knowing that he is systematic, you have got to follow him and be systematic as well. 

“One great thing you should know about him is that he is a shy person. He is willing to listen but of course at the end he will decide what is good and sometimes people misunderstand this.” 

Another quality of Dr Mahathir, he adds, is that the leader is a “very forgiving person”. 

“For example, when he receives a recommendation to promote a particular person but also gets adverse comments about that person. 

“He will remind us that once a person steals a mango it does not mean that he's going to steal a mango forever”. 

Thus it pains Aziz that some people take advantage of this. 

“Sometimes because he is too nice and too sincere, people play him out which is very unfortunate. They abuse his trust and take it upon themselves to amass wealth in a very unfortunate way. 

“It is the right of people to find and create wealth but they should not cheat because millions in the country would suffer from these people's greed. 

“Business people now work on intelligence and nobody would want to come here when they see there are lots of thieves around,” he says forcefully. 

Life as a political secretary has not been a bed of roses for Aziz. 

In 1987, when Dr Mahathir was challenged by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah for the Umno presidency, Aziz faced one of his darkest moments when his boss too believed he was in the other camp. 

“People thought I was with Razaleigh's side and when (then Youth chief) Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was around, it was made easy for them to convince even the Prime Minister that I was for the other side. 

“It was a difficult time for me. In all honesty and sincerity, all my life I give my heart to Dr Mahathir. In the name of Allah, there was not even an iota of pengkhianatan (treachery) towards him because I love and adore him. 

“And this is not because he gave me a job but because I believe in what he does and upholds. I always believe if you do the right thing, you should never fear. And now, I’m still serving him as a loyal deputy minister of Education”. 

As for Anwar, it is no secret there is no love lost between the two.  

Aziz says while he is friendly with people, it is Anwar who never considered him a friend.  

During the Anwar trial, Aziz was named as one of the conspirators who planned to topple the former Deputy Prime Minister. 

Denying the claim, Aziz says: “There was no man more pampered in this country by Dr Mahathir than Anwar. The downfall was his own doing.  

“How can I conspire when I am just a political secretary to the Prime Minister? I have no ambition of becoming somebody higher than that.  

“Sometimes when a person creates his own mistakes, he does not want to be guilty of it and tries to pass this on to somebody else.  

“You can't fool the people all the time because the truth will always prevail so don't try to hide it,” he says 

He believes the Anwar group pointed fingers at him simply because “they don't like honest people”. 

“They know I will not spare anything that is detrimental to the country and I will report it to the PM. They can't buy me over. They can't make me disloyal to the Prime Minister,” he says. 

Aziz who has known Abdullah from 1972 believes the deputy Prime Minister is “very much in tangent” with the Prime Minister. 

He says it is no big deal that Abdullah has not named his deputy yet while Dr Mahathir had mentioned his preference for Datuk Seri Najib Razak. 

“Perhaps it is better for him to let other things settle first rather than make that announcement. I believe as future Prime Minister, he knows what is best for the country and as PM has mentioned Najib, that should be. 

“Pak Lah (Abdullah) does not have to say anything because that is what PM has said. As a good follower, why should he say anything when PM has already said it? Does he have to tell the people 'yes'? ,” he says. 

And when Dr Mahathir leaves office in October, Aziz believes his presence will still be felt. 

“Anybody who knows him will miss him. But we know he’ll be with us forever to tell us what is right and what is wrong. He is one person who dares to tell the truth about the world whether it is a superpower or a poor country. He dares to tell them this is the way.” 

Aziz who is a senator has his term renewed recently for another three years.  

The 64-year old says he will continue to work hard during this time but also toys with the idea of following his boss’ footsteps and retiring from politics. 

“I feel more confident now (about the country) and I feel other people can give their share to build up this country together,” he says. 

One of the biggest challenges in his years of service, he says, is being misunderstood or misconstrued. 

Aziz who will not hesitate to get advice from “even a trishaw puller or rubber tapper” says it is important to remain open.  

“We must not only listen to praises. We must also open our ears to criticism and take heed of those so that we can amend whatever mistakes we have created”. 

Wise words indeed from a kampong boy who has done his mother and the country proud.  

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