Memories of Tun Salahuddin

The late former Head of State Tun Abang Muhammad Salahuddin Abang Barieng. Photo: JaPen

Not everyone has the opportunity to live for a hundred years or a century. Tun Abang Muhammad Salahuddin Abang Barieng was among the fortunate few.

I had the opportunity to get to know Tun Salahuddin closely in 2009 when he and his wife Toh Puan Datuk Patinggi Hajah Norkiah asked me to write a biography.

Tun Salahuddin, the son of a farmer, made history when he was appointed to the post of Governor twice, from 1977 to 1981 and from 2011 to 2014.

After the passing of his first wife, Toh Puan Datuk Patinggi Dayang Hajah Umi Khalsom, Salahuddin married Hajah Norkiah in 1996. Norkiah, 72, passed away on April 14, 2021 due to complications after suffering a stroke and bleeding in the brain. The couple adopted four children, three boys and a girl.

“Even though I am saddened by my wife’s passing, I am so blessed to have children who live with me and entertain me.

“With the longevity bestowed by Allah SWT, I can make friends and play with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” he said in conjunction with his 100th birthday celebration on August 27 last year.

One day, in 2009, I was asked to meet him at his house in Stoh, Lundu. His house is located on the beach with a beautiful view, which manifests his love of fishing and taking photos. Sometimes, he rides jet ski in the sea in front of his house.

That evening, I was warmly greeted by the couple. While enjoying the cakes being served, Tun Salahuddin expressed his wish, and asked me to write his life story and requested that the book be completed within a certain period.

For that, I had regularly visited the State Astana to interview him and his wife. Apart from that, I also interviewed various people including in Sibu and Kanowit, the place of origin of his family.

Each time I interviewed him at the Astana Negeri, I was treated warmly and served with a wide variety of food. I was given the opportunity by him to explore every corner and space in the Astana Negeri to understand the history and uniqueness of the building.

In fact, one of the memories that are definitely hard to erase is when he himself had opened durians for me. When the book was ready to be written and published, he took me and some close friends and officials from the Astana Negeri to eat seafood in Santubong as a token of appreciation for the efforts I had made.

Salahuddin, (or his real name Louis), was born on 27 August 1921 in Sibu to Abang Barieng Abang Anyut and Dayang Tamiyang Abang Masor. His father passed away in 1952 while his mother in 1973. Salahuddin, the couple’s second child, was born in a 10-door longhouse occupied by 10 families.

Actually, his father’s family ancestry came from a longhouse located in a place known as Kampung Bedil, Kanowit. I had the opportunity to track down what was left of the longhouse in 2009.

Salahuddin received his formal education at the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic School when he was 10 years old until he completed his Standard 7 studies.

He served as a health assistant in Sibu and Matu and also a Municipal Inspector in 1947 before becoming a clerk at the Sibu Registration Department in 1949. His involvement in politics began when he won the Kampung Hilir seat in the 1963 election for the Sibu District Council. He was also appointed a member and chairman of the State Civil Service Commission.

Salahuddin represented the Melanau community in the Cobbold Commission in 1962. He was one of the local leaders who fought for the independence of Sarawak in Malaysia, and was even invited to Kuala Lumpur with other leaders to meet with Tunku Abdul Rahman.

When he became the Head of State (Governor), Salahuddin often tried to bring himself closer to the people, including in the interior.

He was awarded the country’s highest medal, Seri Maharaja Mangku Negara (SMN), which carries the title of ‘Tun’, by Seri Paduka Baginda Yang di-Pertuan Agong on June 7, 1978, a year after he held the post of Head of State.

When invited to Rumah Sarawak by then Chief Minister Tun Abdul Rahman Yaakub who expressed the intention to propose to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong his name as Head of State to replace Tun Tuanku Bujang, Salahuddin was shocked.

“Since I got to know Salahuddin in the early 1960’s, I found him to be a good person, so humble, not arrogant. Although he was a Christian at the time, I found that he also attended events organised by Muslims. He was very close with the Muslims and Ibans,” said Tun Rahman in an interview with me for Tun Salahuddin’s biography – ‘Abang Salahuddin: Dari Lamin Dana Ke Astana’.

Yes, for those who know Tun Salahuddin, he was a leader with a spirit of the people, so humble and friendly, causing anyone to like and love him.

I describe Tun Salahuddin as a leader who had done a lot in liberating Sarawak through Malaysia. He led with a big heart and always puts the interests and welfare of the people first. That is why when he became the Head of State, he travelled to every nook and cranny of the state to find out the people’s problems and aspirations.

Meanwhile, one of the memories when the spirit of Ngap Sayot swelled was his antics in the stadium when watching a football game. His grandchildren used to call him ‘Papa Ngap Sayot’ due to his deep interest in football, especially in the 1980’s when the Sarawak team was led by Awang Mahyan.

The Astana Negeri officers told me how Salahuddin would request permission to leave early from a dinner he was attending if by chance on the same night, Sarawak was playing at the State Stadium in the Malaysia Cup competitions.

When the Sarawak team scored a goal, one of his habits was to stand, clap, and dance to signify his joy, while being followed by other spectators. Apart from golf and high-power motorcycling, Salahuddin was also a fan of water sports in Sarawak, namely boat racing or regatta.

What many people don’t know is that Salahuddin actually had the soul of an ordinary person. That is why he was often seen shopping at stalls, eating at regular shops, and enjoying the beauty of Kuching city in his spare time. Salahuddin enjoyed beef noodles as well as dabai, pineapples, and other local fruits.

The last time I had the opportunity to meet Tun Salahuddin was when he performed Friday prayers at a mosque in Kuching city last year. At that time, I could already see that his health was deteriorating. I only managed to greet him and chat briefly with him outside the mosque.

Tun Salahuddin passed away at the Normah Medical Specialist Centre in Kuching at 11.42pm on Friday night, Jan 28. All of his great contributions and service will be remembered. Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, manusia mati meninggalkan nama (dead tigers leave their stripes, departed people leave their name). Al-Fatihah.

Dr Jeniri Amir is Senior Fellow of the National Council of Professors.

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