It’s never too late to say Happy Mother’s Day because mothers are there for us always – every single day.

Sometimes, we don’t give them enough credit for their selfless love and sacrifices even though some of us men and children still need a clip across the ear occasionally, I must admit.

Even though my own fat-and-cuddly mother Lily tops my list, I would like to mention one Lady who has been a “pillar” behind her successful husband.

Laila Taib

To remember “Mother’s Day”, I would single out the late Datuk Amar Laila Taib, the first wife of Sarawak’s Governor Tun Abdul Taib Mahmud.

The Laila and Taib story is a poignant one – a story that spanned two continents; of a European family that survived the war years only to see an only child blossom into one of Sarawak’s most beloved daughters.

Even though she was born in Poland on February 29, 1941 to the Chelecki family when the War broke out in Europe, Laila told me that her parents registered her as being born on March 1.

In fact “leap-year babies” celebrate their birthday on either February 28 or March 1 while others celebrate their birthdays on the authentic intercalary date once every four years on February 29.

Laila grew up in the City of Vilnius (now the capital of Lithuania) but lived through the days and nights of fear when the bombs fell as she and her family hid in air raid shelters.

At the age of two, her parents moved to Vienna and then to Württemberg, historical town in South Western Germany. After the war the family moved to Australia where they built a new life.

It was here that she met Abdul Taib Mahmud. Born in Miri and the eldest son of Mahmud Abang Yahaya and Hamidah Yakub, Taib had excelled in his studies at St Joseph’s school in Kuching and won a Colombo plan scholarship in 1956 which took him to Adelaide in Australia.

There he would study law instead of medicine and met Laila who was also interested in becoming a doctor.

It was through his Islamic activities that Taib’s friendship with Laila blossomed. Laila had her own opinions about things. Her exposure – having lived in Europe and Australia – gave her an advantage over many.

Taib recalled that when he first met Laila she was only 16 and even though she was five years younger (he was 21), she impressed him with her elegance and spirituality.

Taib in his memoir said, “She was a striking figure, tall and composed. What impressed me most was that Laila was selfless and always concerned with the welfare of others.

“She was patient and a very good listener and was also very concerned with the lack of religion and in the lives of the people that surrounded us.”

During their frequent meetings to discuss how they could help society, their respect for each other grew. As they drew closer to each other, it was destiny that determined that they would eventually be married.

Taib proposed to his 18-year-old future wife and the couple was married at the Adelaide mosque on January 13, 1959.

Even though “Kak Laila” was close to my mother and sisters when we first arrived in Kuching in 1967, I only got to know her when I was New Straits Time’s Sarawak correspondent 15 years later.

I first met her at Rumah Sarawak in 1981 where she raised a family of four. It was not easy. For one thing, Taib was a disciplinarian having sent both his sons to the Royal Military College while he doted on the girls who could do no wrong.

Many years later when I visited their residence at Demak Jaya on an assignment or social visits, there was always an exchange of pleasantries and a cup of tea waiting for me as we chatted in the kitchen.

In 1962 Laila was involved in the earliest women’s organisation in the state, the Sarawak Federation of Women’s Institute (SFWI) whose mission was to improve the standard of living in the rural areas.

In 1980 she founded Perkim, the Muslim Welfare Organisation of Malaysia, and when Taib became Chief Minister of Sarawak later, Laila set up Sabati, a charity body comprising wives of Sarawak cabinet ministers.

In 1997 Sabati established the Sarawak Heart Foundation dedicated to helping hole-in-the heart children. Laila had the strong support of another social worker Datuk Amar Jamilah Anu, the wife of former chief minister Tan Sri Adenan Satem.

When Laila initiated her “Have a Heart” project for hole-in-the heart children, I was there to give her charity media support.

She often spoke frankly to me even about Christianity as she was interested to know more about the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) who had touched the hearts of the native highlanders.

One day in 1999 she asked, “Do you think we can write a Sarawak book of records?” and I retorted, “No … there is nothing much to write about!”

She laughed and replied, “Think about it James … there is so much history, interesting people and exciting events to write about!”

Within a year, together with a committee of 100 civil servants, 50 organisations and 16 media groups, I coordinated the publishing of the inaugural Sarawak Book of Amazing Facts and Records.

Over a period of almost a year, we held all our meetings at Demak Jaya where Laila and later Social Development Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing (Sarawak’s first native PhD holder) chaired our meetings.

In her tribute to Laila, Christina Thomas-Mamora wrote in the old Sarawak Tribune, “Hers was a life of giving: She had given her promise to stand by her husband even to put down roots in the land of his birth.

“Her labour of love, charitable contributions as well as public image bear out her own narrative. For what she was – kind caring and compassionate, the First Lady had made her way into the hearts of his people that had become hers as she gave what she believed in – love and compassion that transcend social and economic barriers.”

Laila’s demise was all too soon and a great loss to Sarawak because on April 29, 2009 – exactly 10 years ago – she passed away peacefully at the age of 68!

To honour Laila and all our hard-working and gentle mothers, I quote from Proverbs “The wife of Noble Character” which goes: “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.

“She brings him good; not harm, all the days of her life. She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.

“She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for the task…she opens her arms to the poor and extends her hand to the needy.

“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

“She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also,

“And he praises her by saying: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.