LAST_UPDATETue, 17 Jul 2018 12pm

Tun M, Father Of Modern Malaysia

“We got your books signed!“ Nathaniel Shaun shouts over the phone. His words are like music to my ears. Days earlier, Shaun, together with his fifth form classmates Neo Yi Siang and Rakesh Ram, had given me the heads up about Tun Dr Dr Mahathir Mohamad‘s impending visit to his former alma mater, Sultan Abdul Hamid College.

Mindful of a scheduled meeting between the great statesman and the students during that particular visit, I promptly handed my young friends two selected books written by Dr Mahathir himself in the hope of getting them autographed should the opportunity present itself.

Shaun‘s jubilation culminates in his rather graphic narration about how the mission was accomplished. As school prefects, the trio were among the first to greet Dr Mahathir the moment he stepped off the stage after delivering his speech. That was when they seized the moment.

I‘m indeed glad the boys, who looked upon Dr Mahathir like a father figure, managed to maintain their composure. Now, thanks to their assistance, my otherwise ordinary books have been transformed into priceless keepsakes.

“The 7th Prime Minister of Malaysia has just announced the names of his cabinet ministers. Among them are Health Minister, Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad...“ The radio commentary jolts me from my reverie. Although three years have passed since the two books, The Malay Dilemma and Menghadapi Cabaran (Facing Challenges), were signed, that important day remains fresh in my mind.

So much has changed in this country since then as well. Our Prime Minister‘s recent phenomenal return to the pinnacle of Malaysian politics certainly justifies a set fresh eyes on materials in my collection that are related to him.

Tracing the beginnings

Dr Mahathir‘s grandfather, Iskandar, was brought to Malaya from the South Indian state of Kerala by the British East India Company to teach English to the royal Kedah household. In 1881, he married Siti Hawa who hailed from Johor. Their wedding was held in Penang where the couple subsequently resided.

History shows that the family‘s fate was deeply intertwined with that of the northern Malay state. Dr Mahathir‘s father, Mohamad Iskandar, was educated in Penang Free School where he passed the Normal Class, taught by the renowned educator W.E. Mann, in 1908.

A year later, upon the request of the Kedah Government, Mohamad left his family home in Penang to be the first Malay headmaster of the Government English School (subsequently renamed Sultan Abdul Hamid College in 1935) in Alor Star.

Dr Mahathir‘s mother, Wan Tempawan Wan Hanafi, was a local Kedahan who came from a long line of Kedah royal household courtiers. Despite Dr Mahathir‘s birth certificate showing his date of birth as Dec 20, 1925, that arbitrary date is actually off by at least five months. Our newly-elected Prime Minister was actually born on July 10, 1925 in his family home at No. 18, Lorong Kilang Ais, Seberang Perak, Alor Star.

In his book Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Fasa Kedua (Dr Mahathir Mohamad: Second Phase) published in October 1988, Aziz Zariza Ahmad stated that the Malaysian leader was the youngest of nine siblings. Doted by his family members, the young Dr Mahathir was given the affectionate nickname, Che Det.

That endearing namesake has stuck with him ever since and was even used as a pseudonym when Dr Mahathir began contributing articles in the Sunday Times while pursuing his medical degree in Singapore.

Growing up under the watchful eye of a loving mother and a strict disciplinarian father, Dr Mahathir and his siblings were exposed to an environment where courtesy, religious teachings, discipline and good moral values were of utmost importance.

Those attributes stood the children in good stead and made them successful people later on in life. Morad, the eldest, became an agricultural assistant in Baling while two other boys, Mahadi and Mashor, joined the Kedah government service and served in different parts of the state.

The young Dr Mahathir

As a young boy, Dr Mahathir was deeply influenced by his father‘s tenacity and zeal when it came to helping the villagers who were constantly neglected by the colonial administrators in Kedah. Realising that a large portion of children in the villages didn‘t attend school, Mohamad used his influence as headmaster to raise awareness among the rural youths. He impressed upon them the importance of having a good education in order to secure a bright future.

Dr Mahathir was deeply influenced by his father’s thoughts and values. He fully subscribed to the idea that a person didn‘t need to be born into aristocracy or belong to prominent religious or political families in order to be successful in life. This spurred him to work hard and laid the sound foundation for him to achieve success at school.

Starting his primary education at the Seberang Perak Malay Boys School in 1930, Dr Mahathir quickly proved that he was a student with academic capabilities far beyond his age. His keen interest in writing and debate led Aziz to speculate in his book that Dr Mahathir could have been an equally good journalist or lawyer if fate hadn‘t steered him towards an illustrious career as a medical practitioner.

Dr Mahathir loved reading and was a prolific reader. Among his favourite authors was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the fictional private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Like other boys living during that era, Dr Mahathir must have been fascinated by Holmes‘ many admirable proficiencies. Doyle‘s clever portrayal of the detective as one with the uncanny ability to harness the power of forensic science and logical reasoning gave rise to generations of ardent fans.

By 1933, Dr Mahathir‘s superior command of the English language and competence in other subjects merited his admission into Sultan Abdul Hamid College. The move exposed Dr Mahathir to many new ideas and that went a long way in helping him to become an even better person.

Just like his peers, Dr Mahathir‘s progress was temporarily put on hold when schools were closed during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya. Unperturbed, the self-confident boy stared hardship in the face and was confident of overcoming any challenges life threw at him during those uncertain years.

Determined to help his family out financially, Dr Mahathir put his strong business acumen to good use and started an enterprise selling cendol, coffee and banana fritters. Later, he progressed to selling snacks from a stall in Pekan Rabu, a weekly market place popular with the people living in and around Alor Star.

The Second World War ended with the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Army. The subsequent return of the British in September 1945 led Dr Mahathir back to school. Determined to play a part in the rebuilding process, he took on the role of editor for the school magazine, Darulaman.

Dr Mahathir completed his Senior Cambridge examinations in December 1946. All his hard work and self-preservation paid off a year later when he passed with flying colours and earned a partial scholarship from the colonial government to study medicine in Singapore.

His time at the King Edward VII College of Medicine (now part of National University of Singapore) gave Dr Mahathir the opportunity to experience many new things and learn many important lessons. Among his many triumphs as a budding medical student was overcoming his initial fear of cadavers. Determined to be a doctor, Dr Mahathir forced himself to the operating table and successfully completed the given task.

Of friendship and love

My interest is piqued when the narration in the book reaches the part where Dr Mahathir met his future wife and lifelong companion, Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali. Just several months ago, I had the opportunity of acquiring a large collection of old photographs taken in Alor Star. Among them was one that featured the two of them sitting in the front row, posing with several dignitaries who‘d just been made Justices of Peace by the Sultan of Kedah.

Returning to the book, I learn that Dr Siti Hasmah hailed from Selangor and she was one of only seven Malay students studying at the medical college at that time. The time spent studying together allowed their friendship, built based on mutual respect and loyalty, to blossom.

Their relationship, however, didn‘t immediately translate to marriage after their graduation. As a fledgling doctor, Dr Mahathir was determined to set his career on the right path before he was ready to start a family.

Beginning from 1954, Dr Mahathir served at various government hospitals including those in Penang, Alor Star, Perlis and Langkawi Island. The couple eventually tied the knot two years later, on Aug 5, 1956.

The good doctor

A year later, the couple left the civil service and opened the first Malay private clinic in Alor Star, calling it Maha Clinic after the first half of Dr Mahathir‘s name. Those who sought Dr Mahathir‘s services sang praises about his caring and accommodative attitude. At times, he not only provided free consultations but also paid for the return fare for needy patients who were primarily from the rural areas and didn‘t have a fixed source of income.

Dr Mahathir also made house calls for those who were too ill to visit his clinic. Apart from driving his Pontiac Catalina or riding his trusty bicycle, he also depended on close friends for lifts. Over time, Dr Mahathir‘s popularity grew in tandem with his flourishing business. Inevitably, that became the staging point for his career in politics.

Since those early formative years, Dr Mahathir had always been the sort to utilise time to its fullest. He always starts his day early, beginning with morning prayers and exercise before adjourning for breakfast at the verandah. He‘d then proceed to do some light reading until 7.30am before heading off to the office.

His evenings at home are also spent working. Dr Mahathir holds dear to the mantra that reading helps him to keep abreast with the latest developments in the nation and the world as a whole.

Over the years, Dr Mahathir‘s great oratory prowess has given birth to a large number of memorable quotes. I found a collection of these sayings in the book Salute to a man: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad by Bernice Narayanan.

Published in 2004, it also contains a sizeable collection of photographs taken from the time Dr Mahathir entered politics in 1964 until he became Malaysia‘s 4th Prime Minister. These photographs provide an invaluable insight into his life, both private as well as public.

A father in every way

Despite his busy work schedule, Dr Mahathir always finds time for his three children, Marina, Mokhzani and Mukhriz. Thanks to his guidance and sound upbringing, they‘re successful people in their own right today.

The events leading up to the historic 14th General Election has renewed the people‘s belief in Dr Mahathir and his sound leadership capabilities. So strong is the nation‘s adoration for Dr Mahathir that a recent petition lobbying for his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize received more than 40,000 signatures on the day it was launched. This prompted his daughter, Marina, to state that her father wasn‘t a person who works hard for recognition or awards.

The petition likened Dr Mahathir to the ‘Nelson Mandela‘ of Malaysia, lauding him as a true ‘Giant of a Man‘ and a leader to emulate for openly admitting his shortcomings and apologising for his past mistakes.

Many Malaysians today are truly grateful to Dr Mahathir for his determination to save the nation. He is indeed a father in every sense of the word to all of us who love this nation that we call home


By Alan Teh Leam Seng