AWARD-winning journalist Zainon Ahmad is a story-teller. He has many stories because he has been reporting from the frontlines for more than 30 years. He joined the New Straits Times in 1978 and rose through the ranks to become the paper’s assistant group editor in 1997.
From the mid- to late 1980s, he was made the paper’s editor-at-large and travelled and covered assignments in southern Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, India, Afghanistan and Latin America. “I was really happy! They thought it was a punishment but I thought it was a reward,” Zainon remembers of the political manoeuvrings within the company. Eventually, it was the politics within the newsroom of the Umno-owned paper that led to his being sacked as editorial consultant in 2001.
In the following year, he was recruited by theSun to be its editor-in-chief and in 2008, he was made consultant and political editor, positions he holds up till today.
Zainon, 70, grew up with Tamils in an estate in Kedah and attended a mission school where he read the bible for a paper on religious knowledge.
“If…suddenly, all the Indians or the Chinese decide to leave Malaysia, I think it won’t be Malaysia,” he says in an 8 Feb 2012 interview at his office in Petaling Jaya. Zainon’s fortnightly column in theSun titled What They Say features a Mohan, Azman, Zain and Chong, usually in a teh tarik place discussing a current issue. These are often real conversations he overhears, he says.
Zainon has an MA in history from Universiti Malaya. When the personalities in his column tell their own stories about Malaysia, what the veteran journalist is doing is ensuring that Malaysia’s history, for better or for worse, continues to be recorded.
TNG: When and where were you born?
Zainon Ahmad: I was born in 1942 in Semeling, a small village near Bidong, on the way to Lembah Bujang [in Kedah].
And did you grow up in Semeling?
My early childhood was in Semeling until after the Japanese occupation in 1945/1946 when my father moved to the Patani Para estate, about 12 miles from Semeling.
He was a mechanic at the then Penang Harbour Board. And he spoke English, Hokkien and Tamil. At the estate, his job was to bring Malays from the villages to work as labourers because the estate workers were predominantly Tamil.
When the British left before the war, they just blew up all the factories [so the Japanese could not use them]. So, one of my father’s jobs, as the [foreperson] and mechanic, was to restore some of these machines temporarily so that they could process the latex into rubber sheets.
Before we moved to the estate, he used to cycle 24 miles every day to go to the estate and back. Those days, we thought nothing of it lah.
I lived in the estate for much of my life until I was in Form 3. My grandmother used to send me to a Malay kindergarten in Semeling when I was about three or four years old. Those days we wrote on slates — a piece of soft stone with a wooden border. We wrote using a stick of this stone. And then you could wash it off with water.
I disliked school. So, whenever I lost my temper, I used to throw the slate on the road and it would break [laughs]. My father said, “Enough is enough”, and he took me to the estate and sent me to a nearby Malay school. For a while before going to the Malay school, I was also going to the Tamil school which was attached to a Tamil Hindu temple. I managed to learn the Tamil alphabet.
And then after the Malay school, I was sent to St Theresa School in Sungai Petani. In the estate, there were Chinese, mostly carpenters. Their children would go to the Chinese school in nearby Sungai Lallang. We were all friends. I actually had a very happy childhood.
And it was very mixed, wasn’t it?
Yes. My mother, whenever there was a Hindu wedding, she would be there making kuih and doing the décor and all that. I loved those days, you know. And there was this Chinese shopkeeper who had two beautiful daughters [laughs]. It was a great past time for the estate boys to flirt with them.
So all this was happening in Patani Para estate?
Yes, it was a big estate, and where I grew up for the most part. But my grandfather, my mother’s father, came from Kerala. Married a local woman in a fishing village we used to call Kuala, not far from Kota Kuala Muda town.
So, that was the village my grandmother was from. My grandfather, the mamak, worked those tongkang. There were a lot of tongkang in Penang which were all under the mamak bosses. So when my grandfather married my grandmother, he bought his own tongkang which he used to take Kuala villagers for deep-sea fishing.
And what about your dad’s side?
His grandfather used to own a vast tract of land in Kampung Bukit Kecil. This is also not far from Kota Kuala Muda. I suppose that’s how my father met my mother. I think, I don’t know for sure, that the land was sold off. And when my father was born, there were just some orchards and padi fields. So, when I was a child, we used to go there during the fruit and harvesting seasons. It was quite exciting those days because there was no other entertainment [chuckles]. Running around in an empty padi field was the best.
I remember when news came that the Japanese had surrendered. I remember my father and his friends rode their bicycles in Semeling. Oh, hands-free and making all kinds of noises. I don’t know what word they used for “freedom” because we hadn’t yet heard of the word “merdeka”.
So, it sounds like you had a childhood that was culturally mixed and that really drew from the outdoors.
And it influenced my life. For instance, it doesn’t make me hesitate [around other cultures]. Because of so much indoctrination on radio and television, [some Muslims] are scared to go near a temple, much less to go near an idol.
But in those days at 9am and 7pm, the estate temple priest or poosari would do the pooja in praise of the deities when he sang and recited words in Sanskrit. So somebody had to ring the bell outside. And if the priest looked around and there was no Hindu around, anybody that passed by would be it. And I always made sure I was there!
You know why? I would ring the bell that was hanging from the roof until the priest finished his pooja. And the reward was that I would get half a coconut, boiled chickpeas, one or two vadai, and one or two pisang emas. I would take the food, give some to my friends and give the half coconut to my mother. The priest would take home the sireh leaves and some of the food offered to the deities.
And then I went to St Theresa School next to a Catholic church.
You mentioned once to me that it was in St Theresa School that you did bible studies, and you can recite quotes from the bible.
Ya, I did religious knowledge. For the LCE (Lower Certificate of Examination), I can’t remember if it was an A or a B I got for the paper [chuckles]. Until today, I can still recite the part about “thy prayer has been heard and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a child whom thou shall call John”.
In 1953, we celebrated [Queen Elizabeth II’s] coronation. We sang “God save the Queen” in school and in the town padang [laughs] where we listened to the speech by the High Commissioner, of course read by the DO (district officer). We were each given a 50 sen note – it wasn’t a coin, it was a note – one raisin bun, plus a bottle of Green Spot orange [laughs]. And one cinema ticket. There were two cinemas in Sungai Petani at that time. One was Queen’s. The other was Empire [chuckles].
So, what generation Malaysian are you? On your mum’s side, you would be second generation?
And what was the ancestry like on dad’s side?
I suppose it was the same like my mother.
And he was local?
Yes, he was a local Malay.
Not from southern Thailand?
Ah, that one we don’t know. Mostly the Malays from Kedah had all sorts of influence. Either from Thailand or from Penang. If Penang, means mamak lah. Or could be Arab. In the jargon of those days you are either DKK (darah keturunan Keling) or DKA (darah keturunan Arab).
What kind of stories from your family do you hold onto and that you would pass on or have passed on to your children?
I used to tell my children about myself. After my father and mother divorced, my mum, my five siblings and I continued to live in the estate until I was in Form 2 when my mother decided to go off to her kampung in Kuala. She said, “If you follow me, you can’t go to school. I can’t afford it.”
I had an Indian classmate and his father, an estate conductor, said, “Why don’t you come and stay with us?” There was a storeroom for the rubber scraps attached to his house and I stayed in that room. In that room, they had their Hindu altar. For a few nights, it was quite terrifying [laughs]. There was this deity, Durga, I think. In the dim light of the coconut oil lamp I could see it carried a pedang and a bloody head. I can still see it today. So, for a while, I couldn’t sleep. After a while, it was fine. So, I’m actually quite used to these images.
I stayed there till Form 5. I was separated from my mother and siblings. But I visited them whenever I could.
Staying with an Indian family was challenging because there were many Malay villages nearby. And the villagers said, “Why are you staying there?” And then some relative passed word around that, “This Indian man was going to go back to India, and Zainon will be taken with them.” I was sort of ostracised by some in my own community. I told myself, “I want to study.”
In St Theresa School, I did quite well in LCE and because only ten passed the exam, we were transferred to Ibrahim Secondary School. I continued to work in the estate but despite this I did quite well in my School Certificate of Examination. I got first grade and was praised at the school assembly.
All the teachers knew of my situation. So just before the first term ended a few of them came to me, “Eh, Zainon, can you pay your exam fees?” At that time, exam fees were RM60 or RM65. So, I said, “Yes, can.” Because during the first term school holiday, I had a contract to put fertiliser in one small estate.
And there was a teacher, Mrs Nair, who helped me a lot. Any opportunity to make money like when the science lab assistant was absent during weekend classes, “Zainon, you work for 50 sen an hour.” Sometimes, I was quite happy also because convent school girls would come to do their practical there, so I would be in my best of dress [chuckles].
So when the money came, I went to pay my fees. And Mrs Nair called me. “Zainon, all the teachers agreed that you use this money that you have to buy some new clothes for yourself. We have already paid your fees.”
What experience makes you feel most Malaysian?
First of all, I believe in Malaysia. I believe in multi-racial Malaysia and I think that there is a place for everybody here. If, for instance, all the Indians or the Chinese suddenly decide to leave Malaysia, I think it won’t be Malaysia.
I think the fact that we are all living together here [means] we could have more understanding. I see no reason why we can’t feel free to visit and eat in a non-Muslim’s home. I think it’s the way Islam is taught in this country.
Did you feel, for example, when you were studying the bible in school and when you were sleeping in this room that had Hindu deities, that your faith was in some way challenged? It didn’t stop you from continuing to be a Muslim, right?
I went to the mosque every Friday. I fasted. The Indian family had a kitchen that was attached to the house that had a different door which was always padlocked. I was given the key so that when I woke up before dawn, I could cook for my sahur. They helped me. They understood that I am a Muslim.
I took my grandchildren to Batu Caves last year for Thaipusam. I showed them the people carrying the kavadi, the food and the crush of the people. They enjoyed it! They want to go again next year [chuckles].
Do you struggle with any aspects of your identity as a Malaysian?
I’m still bothered when they say “bangsa” for the racial boxes we have to fill in. Why use “bangsa”? I thought “bangsa” refers to Malaysian. Even on TV, when they announce “bangsa India”, which are they referring to? Indian nationals? Or Indian Malaysians?
These kinds of things should be dealt with. The point is that nobody is honest enough to come forward especially with the likes of Perkasa around. And [I don't think] (Prime Minister Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak) feels strong enough to handle this whole thing about race, identity and privilege.
That’s why whenever I write my column on race, I never say it’s a “right”. It’s a “privilege”. The non-Malays have privileges. The Malays, too, have privileges. They are not rights. If you want to say “Malay rights”, then the Indians, too have rights.
Most of my columns are about race relations….I also wrote about fatwas. I think there are too many fatwas. You know, these fatwa councils, they are not legislative bodies. And you can’t say the fatwas don’t affect non-Muslims because some do. Just think of the problems caused by a husband who converts to Islam.
All the Middle Eastern countries, there’s no problem. It is here. They say Muslims here need to be protected. How many NGOs have come up to protect Muslims?
Do the Muslims need further protection when the state is already protecting them?
Many Muslims disagree with what is happening but they won’t speak up. I’m speaking up a bit. Because I feel that even some of these lectures on TV don’t propagate the Islam that the Prophet used to teach. You know, calling non-Muslims “kafir”. I think they shouldn’t use the word at all. “Kafir” is very derogatory. But they are using it liberally in their lectures.
What kind of Malaysia would you like for yourself and future generations?
For me and my family, I want a Malaysia where everybody is safe. Where there is no suspicion of one another and there’s an ability to interact with each other without putting up walls.
You know, a while ago, my friend died. And my wife and I went to a church in Brickfields for his funeral service. My wife wears the tudung. We were standing outside with others while waiting for the service to be over. There were other people of other religions who didn’t want to go inside. But I told my wife, let’s go in to sit. So we sat in the pew. Hymns were being sung so I picked up the hymn book and flipped through the pages because the hymns were familiar from my school days [chuckles].
I held the book and sang along. And then one parishioner came and said, “Sir, you are a Muslim, I presume.” I said, “Yes, I am a Muslim. My wife is a Muslim.” “We are feeling very uncomfortable not because some Muslims might hammer you but because they might stone the church.”
The book Found in Malaysia Volume 2, which was launched on Malaysia Day 2011, is now available in bookstores for RM50. It features previously unpublished interviews with Asha Gill, Lillian Too, Khairy Jamaluddin and Baru Bian. Volume 1 of Found in Malaysia, featuring 54 earlier interviews, is currently in its second print run and retailing at RM45