Remembering Tok Nan

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BY AZMI BUJANG

It was in the morning of January 11, 2017 that I called Dr Cheong, asking him how Tok Nan (former chief minister Pehin Sri Adenan Satem) was doing. 

Dr Cheong was his physician for three years and the former CM had been admitted to the Sarawak Heart Centre for observation. Dr Cheong replied that Tok Nan was doing OK, reading the morning papers. After his routine check-up, lunch, shower and a short nap, I would be allowed to see the CM at 2 pm. I was looking forward to meeting him.

I had not met Tok Nan since he left for Australia before Christmas of 2016. Before he left, he came to the pre-Christmas event at Dewan Jamilah at Yayasan Sarawak.

At the event, he was a bit quiet and looked frail. I talked to him about some proposals that I wanted to do and he, as usual, said, “I agree and once you have all the details worked out, come and see me after my return from Melbourne.” 

Having known him for about 30 years, I was able to be very informal with him. I held his hand and asked, “Are you okay, Sir?”  

He said, “You know, lah … I am a sick man. I am not well.” 

Adenan and Jamilah arriving at Samarahan Division ‘Majlis Ramah Mesra Pemimpin Bersama Rakyat’.

I said, “Maybe after your trip, you would be better, Sir.” He just kept quiet.

His health deteriorated after the May 2016 state election. He had been campaigning very hard and travelled throughout the length and breadth of Sarawak. He wanted his mandate to be a big one.

The political situation at the time was challenging. The opposition parties were capitalising on issues affecting the federal government and alleging that Sarawak was complicit in the matter.

Tok Nan insisted that it was not for Sarawak to address the issues that happened in Malaya. He wanted a big mandate that would make the Sarawak government stand tall against its adversaries and to a certain extent, the federal government.

The late Tok Nan.

After all, he had been quite vocal against certain federal policies such as education, the use of the English language, and Sarawak’s position in the federation in respect of the Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) report and the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63). 

Despite his poor health, he insisted on travelling to meet as many people and communities as possible. 

In December, 2015, I was his Principal Private Secretary and I remember we were having lunch at the office on the 22nd Floor of Wisma Bapa Malaysia. We always had home-cooked lunch, courtesy of his wife, Datuk Amar Puan Sri Jamilah Anu. Occasionally, he would invite other ministers or guests for lunch. Most of the time, it was just him and I. 

Knowing him well, I knew when to speak and have his response. That was the moment and I was right. I talked about the upcoming state election and that he should continue for another five years. The people of Sarawak were fully supporting him, especially his agenda on the MA63. His people-centric policies and initiative on the Rural Transformation Programme (RTP) were very much appreciated by the people.

He kept quiet for a while and I could see he was in deep thoughts. I kept quiet too.

Then he said, “I want to do a lot of things for Sarawak, but I can’t”. I asked, “Why? You are the CM, we will all work with you, Sir.”
“I am a very sick man, you know that. I wish I am not sick,” he said.

“Datuk Patinggi, you have your Cabinet members, the local YBs, the State Secretary and the Civil Service. We will all carry out your policies and programmes. There is no need for you to be on the ground all the time. I will make sure that your schedule will not further burden you, Sir.”

Tok Nan responded,“People expect me to be on the ground, in the field with them, not cooped up in the office.” I said, “People would understand. Just tell us what you want, we will carry it out.” He did not respond anymore. The rest of the lunch was quiet except for his asking for the home-cooked dishes. One wondered what went through his mind.

Adenan at a PreSchool Convention in Kuching.

When it was time to call for elections, we went to have an audience with the Governor, to seek His Excellency’s consent to dissolve the Dewan Undangan Negeri (DUN). I can still remember very well what Tun Taib Mahmud said when Tok Nan walked in, “Very well, Adenan, you do not look like a CM about to face an election.” 

I reckoned so because Tok Nan was sharply dressed in his crisp white shirt, blue tie and navy-blue suit with songkok, clean-shaven as opposed to the Governor when he was CM, about to face an election. He would grow his moustache and beard, a tell-tale sign that elections were near.

The late Tok Nan.

After the Governor signed the necessary documents, Tok Nan left and an announcement on the dissolution of the DUN was made in the afternoon. 

Tok Nan started to execute his strategies for the 11th state election. Meetings were called and potential candidates were interviewed. We flew a couple of times to Kuala Lumpur to meet with the prime minister on the candidates.

On that note, I can also remember what the PM said. “Tok Nan, you know them well. I leave it to you to decide on the candidates. 

“Several party presidents came to see me so if you could accommodate them, it would be good. But you have the final say, lah, Nan.” Nonetheless, the PM studied the list and enquired about the backgrounds of some of the proposed candidates.

During the campaign period, Tok Nan travelled from Lawas to Lundu and met with thousands of people. He would sing ‘The Young Ones’ by Cliff Richard to the amusement of the crowd. 

His campaign message was simple. 

“Woooohaaaaa…. Give TeamAdenan five more years. We will do more for you. Give me a big mandate to stand up against Kuala Lumpur…. Boleh? Uuu…. uuu!” The crowd would go wild, and the band would start with the intro of ‘Biar Luka Di Dalam Dada’… another of Tok Nan’s famous renditions. Such was his charisma.  

His health took a beating at the height of the election campaign. During one of the evenings, at the old DUN Building, Tok Nan had a seizure. It subsided in a few minutes but that few minutes almost gave me a heart attack! Had something untoward happened, I could not imagine the repercussions. 

Adenan at a Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority function.

We were being briefed by Wan Khalid, Tok Nan’s special officer on issues and the standing of all the candidates and constituencies as the polling date drew near. Tok Nan was unusually quiet that evening during the briefing and I thought that he was resting. That was his usual demeanour. He would close his eyes and guests not familiar with his character would assume that he was sleeping. Then, he would say, “Continue, I am listening”, much to the surprise of the guests.

While Wan Khalid was giving the briefing, I heard someone shout “Tok Nan … Tok Nan!” That was when Tok Nan had the seizure and Datuk Amar Jamilah rushed in to assist. 

We cleared the room, the seizure subsided and Tok Nan was conscious again. It was a very close call.  

The late Tok Nan.

Despite his condition, he was still hands-on. TeamAdenan went on to win the state election with 72 out of 82 seats on May 7, 2016. He was sworn in as the CM late that evening at the Astana.

On the day of my scheduled visit to the CM, I left the office early and had lunch with my former classmate of SMK Rosli Dhoby, Vincent Ling. He had just flown in from Sibu for a business meeting and we decided to do some catching up. I told Vincent that I had to leave by 1.30 pm for my 2 pm appointment with the CM. 

At 1.21 pm, my phone rang, and the call was from Dr Cheong. I thought that my appointment had been rescheduled. I asked, ”Yes, anything, Doc?” Dr Cheong said,”CM no more.” I asked again,”What do you mean no more? No more ice cream? I can buy some on the way.” My heart was beating fast.

Dr Cheong replied, “CM more, he just passed away.” Tok Nan loved ice creams in the afternoon.

Did I listen correctly? Dr Cheong would not kid around with such a matter. I asked again, “You mean CM passed away? When, how, why?” Dr Cheong simply said, “I couldn’t save him, I did my best. We all did our best.” 

I could sense the frustration and sadness in Dr Cheong’s voice.

“So, who’s with you there now?” I asked. My eyes watered. “Shamsuddin is here,” answered Dr Cheong. “Pass the phone to him, I want to talk to him,” I requested.

Shamsuddin was also one of Tok Nan’s officers. “Tok Nan just passed away, you better come here now,” Shamsuddin told me. “Ok, thank you, Din,” I said.

I couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. I was told he was fine in the morning. And now, he was gone.
I told Vincent what happened and he was shocked to hear the news.

I was devastated. I lost someone very dear to me. Tok Nan was like a father who had an astounding influence that shaped my career life.

On my way to the Heart Centre in Kota Samarahan, I was no longer looking forward to the meeting. I had all my documents ready for him, but there was no urgency anymore. Calls were coming in every second to enquire about the news of his passing and I neither confirmed nor denied the news. All I could say was, “Wait for the official announcement. Tan Sri Datuk Amar Haji Morshidi, the then State Secretary, made the official announcement later in the afternoon.

Adenan going from table to table shaking hands with invited guests of various races in Lundu. Photos: Ramidi Subari

Memories of Tok Nan flashed in my head. I recalled the day he interviewed me to be his Private Secretary way back in 1991 when he was Minister for Land Development. All these memories, etched in my mind were slowly being displayed as I approached the Heart Centre.

Upon arrival, I was shown to the room where Tok Nan lay. As I moved near the bed, I wished I could hear him say.” Yes, Azmi, anything?” 

Those words were his normal greeting. But sadly, I did not hear anything. He was just lying there as if in deep sleep. I saw Datuk Amar Jamilah sitting by the bed, and I had no words of comfort for her. We both wept. 

Despite that, she maintained her composure though. I did not know how she did it, but she is a woman of strength. How I admired her. I could feel the devastation and the sadness Datuk Amar Jamilah felt that day. She had been faithfully taking care of Tok Nan for as long as I could remember.

I used to wake Tok Nan up in the morning when we were travelling. He was a morning person but took a short nap in-between. Sleep scientists called it power sleep. I would rub his hand to wake him up and upon waking, he would say,” Is it time?” I would reply, “We have 30 minutes before we leave.”

I couldn’t do that anymore. No amount of rubbing would wake him up. Deep in my heart, I knew that this day would come, only that earlier in the morning, I had made an appointment to see him.

Today, January 11 is a day to remember the passing of a great man to me. Tok Nan has taught me humility, kindness and wisdom in all my actions. Through the years, I have gone through thick and thin with Tok Nan. As such, I would quote Martin Luther King Jr to best describe Tok Nan. — The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how he stands at times of controversy and challenges.

There are many more stories and anecdotes I have with Tok Nan. I will, one day, write them all down.

Al-Fatihah

The writer was Private Secretary to Minister for Land Development (1991-1993), Private Secretary to Minister for Social Development (1993–1995) and Principal Private Secretary to the Chief Minister (2014–2016) when the late Tok Nan held the portfolios. And he was Lundu District Officer (2008–2014), Director of Yayasan Sarawak (2016–2021) and is currently, Director of the State Implementation Monitoring Unit, Chief Minister’s Department.

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