Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad returned to the village in Kedah where it had all begun for him as a politician. But it was not just a trip back to the past given the way the former Prime Minister articulated issues close to his heart, writes JOCELINE TAN who was in Kedah.
THE gleaming, black Proton Executive carrying Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad sped through the Kedah countryside, past green fields of padi framed by blue-tinged hills.
Kedah is at its most spectacular at this time of the year.
It was a gorgeous day with clear skies and a light breeze sweeping down from the hills, just the sort of weather for a journey back to the past.
And Dr Mahathir was visiting the place where it had all begun for him in politics 40 years ago – Charok Kudong.
A remote village located in Dr Mahathir's first electoral constituency Kota Star Selatan (or as the locals say it, Kotak Stak Slaktan), Charok Kudong is now named Pendang.
It was evident that his visit was a big thing for he had not been there in ages.
A huge crowd was waiting, many armed with instamatic cameras and every one of them wanting to greet him and his wife Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali.
Not far behind was Suraya Yaakob, the chirpy assemblywoman for Sungai Tiang, a state constituency in Pendang. Suraya is one of Puteri Umno's most energetic figures and this down-memory-lane event had been her brainchild.
“Knowledge is not only in books. Sometimes it's right before us, in the experiences of people and their memories,” she had said when explaining the visit.
The former Prime Minister is not a very demonstrative man but he was soon hugging his old friends, exchanging banter and looking as pleased as Punch. Needless to say, he looked years younger than all of them.
Squeezing his old buddy Yahaya Abu, 75, around the shoulders, Dr Mahathir teased: “Why didn't you give me lemang this year?”
Dr Mahathir joined Umno in the late 1940s, and signed up as a member of the Charok Kudong branch in the 1960s. This was to be the stepping-stone to his first general election in 1964.
He won easily but he was then what they call an angry young man in Umno. His remarks about race relations cost him the Kota Star Selatan seat in 1969, following which he was famously expelled from Umno.
After his readmission, he contested in Kubang Pasu where he remained MP until the last general election.
Yahaya and two other men had been among his staunchest supporters in Kota Star Selatan.
Daud Said, 76, one of the other two men, had also turned up to receive Dr Mahathir but the other, Abdul Manaf Abdullah, had as they say in these parts, “doh pi, lah” (passed away).
However, Manaf's son Abdul Malik was the master of ceremony that morning and the younger man was almost moved to tears when Dr Mahathir took his hand and said: “Terima kasih, anak Manaf.”
The three men used to escort Dr Mahathir around the constituency. They must have made a macho foursome, if Yahaya's nickname, Yahaya Kapak (Yahaya the Axe), is any indication.
“Kawan baik”, “best friend”, “member lama” – that was how the locals variously described the four friends.
It is hard to imagine how this cerebral, worldly and elegant politician could have clicked so well with these loquacious and jocular country chaps.
“He was a medical doctor, we were just farmers but he was always courteous and soft-spoken. He didn’t show off and treated us as his equals,” said Daud.
The villagers had rolled out the red carpet for the VIP couple, yet the atmosphere was informal and spontaneous.
People strolled up and down, snapping pictures of the Tuns. Dr Mahathir obliged them all, smiling in that quizzical way, eyebrows arched high on his forehead, a look that cartoonist Lat has captured so perfectly.
People do not affect airs here. This is old country, where men still roll their own cigarettes, punctuate their conversation with risqué jokes and greet each other by playfully grabbing at the other’s crotch.
“It used to be very rough here. If they didn’t like what you said at a ceramah, they would throw eggs at you, but chicken eggs, not human eggs,” said a local politician, laughing loudly at his own bawdy joke.
But the two Tuns looked relaxed, even somewhat at home in this folksy environment.
“He was very cun (charming) when he was young, like me,” whispered Yahaya with a wink, when it was Dr Mahathir’s turn to speak.
He began on a sentimental note, teasing his old friends about their “blonde hair”.
To his old buddy Daud who was still trim and sprightly, he said: “... badan tak besar, nampak dia jaga makan.”
He recalled how there were only earth roads back when he was starting out in politics. He remembered campaigning in an open jeep and when he stopped at a kampung, people gaped at him. He realised later that he was completely coated in dust and that when he removed his glasses, he resembled a “mawa” (gibbon).
“There are so many memories for him here – good, bad and funny ones,” said Suraya.
But Dr Mahathir being Dr Mahathir, his speech soon meandered into issues close to his heart.
The village, he said, had grown and produced doctors, engineers and other graduates, for which he was thankful.
But he said he was simply not satisfied with the way Malays approached their work especially when it came to business. He wanted them to be more serious and thorough, to plan and invest effort and capital instead of expecting the government to provide everything.
He asked why Malays were content with doing business in small measures, by the roadside on makeshift stalls with blue plastic sheets overhead. They opened for business if they felt like it. If they did not feel like it, they stayed home.
He pointed to their Chinese counterparts who kept their sundry shops or coffeeshops open from early in the morning till late at night, seven days a week.
The Malays, he said, seemed content to be “carriers of brown envelopes,” that is, middlemen conveying business proposals and requests from other businessmen and earning a commission from the effort. He said he used to receive these “brown envelopes” all the time when he was Prime Minister and even now that he is retired.
At the same time, he spoke of being invited into the cockpit of a Boeing 747 piloted by a young Malay from Kodiang, Kedah, and of how the Middle-East countries were now poaching Petronas engineers and Malaysian nurses.
He apologised for his “meletiaq” (Kedah slang for meleter or nagging) speech.
“I know not everyone likes to hear me talk like this but all I want is for Malays to be successful, do well in life, become real businessmen instead of just carriers of brown envelopes. The government can help, but we must first help ourselves,” he said.
The message was vintage Mahathir – straight-talking and constantly challenging his listeners. He has always insisted that Malays must believe in themselves, be disciplined and take pride in their effort.
Most important of all, he has always emphasised that Malays must be the masters of their own destiny.
He was to repeat the same message in a different form later in the afternoon when he visited another village not far away, Kampung Asam Jawa.
This was also Yahaya's kampung, hence, his territory, so to speak.
Kampung Asam Jawa enjoyed the dubious fame of being the sole supplier of lemang and ketupat to Dr Mahathir's Raya open house throughout the years when he was Prime Minister.
This was done gotong-royong style by the village committee headed by Yahaya, who would send the food in a lorry to Seri Perdana.
Each year, Yahaya would promise the villagers that, “the PM is coming to visit us.”
But the years went by and people would just roll their eyes or laugh out loud when Yahaya talked about Dr Mahathir visiting them.
Thus, it was a huge thrill for them to finally see Dr Mahathir in the flesh, except that he is now the former PM.
Just how long-time a friend Yahaya has been to the Tuns was evident from his familiarity with them.
First, he gave a rambling and inconsequential speech as the Tuns sat patiently in the oven-like heat. He droned on about the past, teased Dr Mahathir and occasionally lapsed into Thai, which he speaks fluently.
Then, the moment Dr Mahathir stood up to speak, he plonked himself in the VIP’s still warm seat and chatted animatedly with Dr Siti Hasmah, coaxing giggles out of her.
Meanwhile, Dr Mahathir was telling his audience: “Even if we have gold under our house, if we don’t work hard to excavate it, we will not grow wealthy. People asked me why I came back from Europe in the morning and went straight to the office. I could have gone home to sleep but I believe in working consistently.
“We must work harder, try harder, instead of always asking the government for this and that.”
Said farmer Md Ali Hassan Awang: “We don’t mind his nagging. He just wants to open our minds to hard work.”
The “toil and work” message continued right up to the final moments of his visit.
As he was about to mount the steps to the cornflower-blue Gulfstream to fly back to Kuala Lumpur, he turned to thank Suraya and said: “Work hard, Suraya, and you can do well. Work hard!”
As they say, that’s Dr Mahathir.
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