Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Tuesdays With Bapak
Conversations - July 3, 2007
You know how it is to have discovered that certain names you heard in mundane conversations when you were a kid, turned out to be real important personalities later on.
In my household when I was very young, the names, Pak Sako (Ishak Haji Muhammad), Rahim Kajai, Burhanuddin Helmy and well, Harry Lee (Kuan Yew) would crop up in conversations my father would have with my mother or with visiting friends.
These were names I had been connected to since a young age that even as I got older and discovered the significance and importance of these personalities, I remained unruffled. I only began to ask questions when I got more and more curious and when I began to study Malay literature. And, of course, later on, as a journalist.
However, it was only after his release in 1981 that I had frank and open discussions with Bapak. We (though I can only speak for myself here) developed a certain closeness with Bapak, forged and nurtured over time during our Tuesday visits.
I remember this conversation I had with Bapak in our living room some years ago.
Me: Bapak, you really knew Pak Sako very well, not just casually?
Bapak: Yes... I hero worshipped him. He was my idol.
Me: For his writing?
Bapak: Of course. I was not the only one. Most of my contemporaries too. Everyone was a fan of "Hantu Raya" or "Wak Ketok". And his book "Anak Mat Lela Gila" was gempar in those days. It represented something new in the writing of novels. Very exciting for us young people then....source of animated conversations not just among people like Kajai but also among the ordinary Malays. It had incredible impact. I idolised Ishak ever since I was in school, so when I became a reporter, naturally he was my idol, not the likes of journalists from the west. I wanted to be clever like Ishak, to write "pojok" like him, to write short stories... everything-lah.
Me: You got to meet your idol?
Bapak: Yes... then I wanted to be like him. You must remember I was about 17, I think. Still young. So I smoked a cigar because he smoked a cigar. I wore Manila shirts because he did. And Ishak was a very handsome young man, you know.
Me: And you learn all the bad things from him too?
Bapak: Perhaps. You can call it that. But, I learn many things too. Someone warned me when I got close to Ishak that he would be a bad influence -- I would forget to go home, I was told. In a way, yes...during our nights out, I sometimes did not go home. But, you must remember, those days, working in a newspaper during the Japanese occupation. Sometimes we would finish work very late and would go to this place at Lembu Road, and spend the night there.
Me: Lembu Road? What kind of name is that? I never knew there was such a road in Singapore? What was there? Spent your nights at a food stall?
Bapak: Near New World at Serangoon Road... a shophouse where there were Malay women. Cabaret girls-lah. Mostly from Kelantan.
Me: (Aghast!) Bapak....say no more.
Bapak: Mak kau dah tahu dah. But at that time I was not married-lah. I was young, 17 or 18. They were all kakak-kakak. I was like their body guard. Sometimes I would tell a drunken or overfriendly Japanese officer to f**** off not to harass them. Ishak and Melan would help me out. Would have got my head sliced off. Young blood, you know-lah. But I grew up very fast.
Me: Bapak... what can possibly be good that you learn from Lembu Road?
Bapak: Ok-lah, I wouldn't recommend this to young people just to know about life. When you mix with these people, you see the way they live. You learn not to judge people.You know these Cabaret women I got to know, they were kind and generous. You know, I learnt that whatever you are - a labourer, a prostitute, a cabaret girl -- you are human. You have your good and your bad. Wherever you are, in a palace, in a brothel or in a kongsi, everyone deals with life's problems and harsh realities with their own set of values.
Of course, this was the lighter side of our conversation. Clearly, Bapak held such a high regard for Pak Sako who was a force in Malay newspaperism as was Rahim Kajai (who was much older than Pak Sako).
However, his closeness with and deep respect for Pak Sako did not mean that Bapak was always in agreement with the older man or that their views were always in tandem.
Bapak was known for his stubbornness, resoluteness and tenacity in his views and beliefs. So, of course, between them, they had conflict of ideas.
But that did nothing to diminish their friendship and "persaudaraan".
To Bapak, the Japanese occupation offered Pak Sako an opportunity to continue Rahim Kajai's struggle to give new life in the development of (Malay) newspapers and journalism.
*Photo: A slice of history. This was taken during the early years of the Japanese Occupation showing leaders of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda, senior members of Berita Malai and officers of the Japanese Propaganda Department. From top right (at the table) to bottom: Ibrahim Haji Yaakob, Ishak Haji Muhammad, Ramli Haji Tahir, A Samad Ismail with (partly hidden), Bahar Abik and Kadir Adabi.