You know it’s Tan Sri Kadir Sheikh Fadzir when you see a distinguished-looking gentleman with a bow tie around his neck. These days, the former Tourism Minister is busy running boutique resorts.
BOW ties tend to be associated with clowns, waiters and classical musicians but for ex-minister Tan Sri Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, it has become a part of his identity – something he can’t leave home without.
The retired politician has been teased and jeered about his fetish but for the past 50 years, the bow tie has remained firmly around his neck when he is at work or attending functions.
“During my school days, I admired Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Hailsham, who both wore bow ties and were first class lawyers. That’s how I got interested in bow ties. I’m happy to say that, like them, I also became a barrister-at-law,” reveals Kadir.
And clip-ons or ready-made ones simply will not do. Every morning, Kadir painstakingly ties his own using a ribbon of fabric.
“I feel ugly when I wear regular ties. In fact, when I was sacked by Tun Dr Mahathir in 1987, Lat drew a cartoon of me setting up a bow-tie business,” recalls Kadir, chuckling. “But he portrayed my nose to be too big, which is unfair!”
It has been five years since his resignation as Information Minister but at 72, Kadir still works at the same pace he is used to. Fit and alert, he shows no signs of slowing down, much to the amazement of his younger staff. The father of four keeps himself in shape by working out every morning, taking steam baths and eating two meals a day.
“I’m conscious about my health and believe in keeping myself active to check the ageing process. In fact, I can’t remember when I last took a complete holiday! But when I go for a business trip, I do take a little time off to relax,” he says.
Sunday Star catches up with Kadir to find out what the retired politician turned businessman has been up to.
You have been very quiet since your departure from the government. What have you been doing?
Actually, I resigned from the Cabinet to go into business but it was not easy to do business with practically no money at all. I was determined to succeed and luckily, I enjoy hard work.
I am working harder these days than when I was a minister, except that I am not on TV any more. I report for work every day at 9am, go home late and work seven days a week. But this is all right as I really enjoy keeping myself busy.
Now I have some businesses of my own and property development and tourism is my forte. But it has been a long, hard struggle due to bureaucracy and red tape. I am lucky because people still recognise me everywhere and they bend backwards to help me.
But I shudder (to think of) those businessmen who do not know people. No wonder there is so much frustration all around in our business community and our national growth, too, is not as robust as it should be.
Why did you suddenly leave the government?
The last time I was re-elected and re-appointed into the Cabinet was in 2004. I had already decided then, secretly, that I would resign mid-term. Hence, I resigned in 2006. Except for short breaks, I have been a member of the administration for more than 30 years. When I first approached then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to offer my resignation, he was taken aback and asked me repeatedly the reason for it. He would not buy my excuse that I wanted to spend more time with my family. Since he was insistent, I finally told him I was leaving because I was broke. He asked me why I did not tell him earlier, I replied I never had financial problems because as a minister, the government pays for everything. But if anything happened to me, my family would be in trouble. Even my house then was charged to a bank. He asked me to think again and it was nine months later, during a Cabinet reshuffle that I finally left.
Are you still in any way active in politics?
I started holding a position in Umno in 1956 as the youth committee member at Kg Tawar branch in Baling, Kedah. For 30 years, I was the divisional head of Kulim/Bandar Baru, which I have now handed over to my younger brother Datuk Aziz Sheikh Fadzir. But they forced me to be the treasurer of the division.
Practically, my whole adult life has been in active politics. In a way, I have been lucky because I started politics under (first PM) Tunku Abdul Rahman. As such, I was able to observe closely the changing of values and the commitment to Umno’s struggles, not only among the ordinary members but also among the leadership at every level. Somehow, I feel it is no longer the Umno of Tunku Abdul Rahman and (his successor) Tun (Abdul) Razak.
Why do you say that?
During our time, we were there genuinely to serve. It was a joy to meet people and help them where possible. The people could see our sincerity and returned it with love, affection and genuine support. It was quite common for us to sell our properties or sacrifice our income to serve the people. Unfortunately, that spirit and values have since been severely eroded.
Then, will you be returning to active politics?
The urge and the itch are there. I do not know. Maybe I’ll create an NGO or something. Wherever I go, I hear stories about the endemic corruption, cronyism, favouritism, wastages and severe leakages everywhere. The income from Petronas should be invested for long-term stable and sustainable income for our country. But I am not sure whether this is being done.
Bureaucracy and red tape in our country are really bad and seriously hindering business and economic growth. The government seems to be making the right noise to correct all these things but the general observation is that it is not happening on the ground.
What do you consider as your greatest achievement and one that gives you a lot of satisfaction?
I am not quite sure. The public seems to think that the tourism industry as a whole did very well during my time as the Tourism Minister. Working as a tightly-knit team, we broke world records, pushing tourism arrivals from about 5.5 million in 1999 to almost 17 million in 2004. We chose “Colours of Malaysia” as our number one tourism product to reflect the collective cultures of all Malaysians. We decided to have festivals and carnivals throughout the year and throughout the country in a big way. In every one of these events, the cultures of Malaysia came together as one.
When we first launched our “Colours of Malaysia” parade (Perarakan Citrawarna Malaysia), the faces of our then Agong, the former Sultan of Selangor and also then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad were beaming with pride.
At that moment, nobody wanted to be alone, because we are bigger, stronger and more colourful when we act and rejoice as one – as “Bangsa Malaysia”. The government and the people are set to be Bangsa Malaysia. The way to speed that up is to speed up the evolution of budaya Malaysia because culture underpins race.
But because culture is something sensitive, we decided not to talk about it or make big announcements. We just did it. Hence, we held huge, never-ending Bangsa Malaysia festivals and carnivals throughout the country annually. In the process, we managed to desensitise culture.
Suddenly, everything became all right. We started competing “openly” for the best lion dance, the longest dragon dance, the biggest lantern parade, etc. We made all the six major festivals of Malaysia – Hari Raya Puasa, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, Christmas, Gawai Dayak and Tadau Kaamatan – national festivals.
I remember our first Christmas national-level open house in Kota Kinabalu where we had the tallest Christmas tree ever in Malaysia. I was worried whether the then King and Tun Dr Mahathir would light up the tree. They did it happily.
The next day, in many capitals in Europe, it was reported that the King of Malaysia, the head of Islam in his country, had lit up a tall Christmas tree.
But there were all sorts of attacks against me in a newspaper for putting the King in a difficult position where he had to light up Christmas trees, put dots on lion heads during Chinese New Year celebrations, etc.
There were also delegations advising the Agong at various times not to attend these functions. To their credit, I was told that both the former Sultan of Selangor and the present Raja of Perlis, when they were the Agong, had a simple answer to that, “I am the Agong of all Malaysians, not just the Malays. What is wrong if I celebrate the festivals together with my rakyat?” The open criticisms stopped.
By changing the Merdeka celebrations to one month instead of one day, we smuggled in “Perayaan 16 September” to celebrate Malaysia Day in a big way. I am happy that Malaysia Day is officially acknowledged as a public holiday now.
The Ramadan fasting month was the only period we were quiet in our tourism calendar. We introduced “Bazaar Ramadan” and encouraged people who sell and buy things at these bazaars to be all Malaysians. It was a joyous month for all Malaysians, and included the practice of “breaking fast” together at hotels and houses everywhere.
So you see, there was a quantum leap towards Budaya Malaysia and Bangsa Malaysia – the sure and sustained intertwining, merging and absorption of all the rich cultural streams of Malaysia. And all these were happening happily and voluntarily without force or coercion.
In the process, we created the feel-good feeling among all Malaysians. I am sorry, but my ministry now wishes to claim a little credit for Barisan Nasional’s huge victory in the 2004 general elections. Unfortunately, then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi rewarded me by splitting my ministry into two and moving me to the Information Ministry. Really, I have great joy and satisfaction in my tenure as the Minister of Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister.
What business are you focused on now?
My love and dream is to develop a chain of small luxury boutique resorts. Over the last 25 years or so, my brothers and nephews have collected some of the best beach land in almost all the beautiful islands in the country. On March 1 this year, we launched four resorts – in Redang Island, Lang Tengah Island (both in Terengganu), Besar Island and Sibu Island off Mersing, Johor – each with about 40 to 70 villas.
They all have fabulous white sandy beaches, snorkelling and dive sites. With that, I have also launched a new brand named “Sari Pacifica”. It is a Malaysia brand intended for luxury hotels and resorts. I really hope one day it can become iconic and be equal if not better than Singapore’s Banyan Tree or Raffles.
It is extremely tough to make luxury resorts by the South China Sea viable because we can only operate eight months a year due to the monsoon. But during these months, the beaches are heavenly with calm seas and turquoise waters. Ironically, the government still needs convincing about the urgency to develop these fabulous gems of our islands in the East Coast. Most of them do not even have basic infrastructure and are not known in the market. But I am soldiering on.