A Malaysian Life: In memory of Rehman Rashid

Karim Raslan

Rehman Rashid preferred to be among ordinary Malaysians rather than rubbing shoulders with those in the halls of power. – The Malaysian Insight pic, June 5, 2017.

Rehman Rashid, writer, raconteur, traveller and naturalist is no more.

He was more than just a journalist. Rehman was a storyteller.

In a country where the dominant narrative since Merdeka – nearly sixty years ago – has been overwhelmingly Malay, Muslim and aristocratic, his approach; multi-racial, multi-religious and ground-up; was a breath of fresh air.

He was born in 1955 in Taiping, Perak to an Indian Muslim father and Indian-Eurasian mother. Educated at the elite Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK, also in Perak), he ended up studying Marine Biology.

After stints as a civil servant with the Fisheries Research Institute and as an academic in the Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM), by 1981 he finally found his true calling, as a stringer and later an Associate Editor at the New Straits Times (NST).

Still, he disliked desk work: Rehman was too large and too noisy to fit into Kuala Lumpur’s hushed salons of power and influence.

He wasn’t the kind of man to sit quietly and wait his turn, whispering and gliding through the shadows. Rehman had too much personality and pride.

Instead, he was happiest in the field and his columns, “Scorpion Tales” reflected his preference.

His place was among ordinary Malaysians, sitting in Chinese coffee-shops and Malay warungs.

Listening to their stories, he became their muse: rejecting the world of Tunku’s, Tun’s, Tan Sri’s and Dato’s.

He regaled us with real stories and made us aware of what we were missing as we obsessed over the manoeuvres of the elite. He dignified and heightened the entire process of story-telling.

It was in this context that I first met him when I was fortunate enough to intern at the NST in 1982.

The early 80’s were heady times. Dr Mahathir Mohamad had just begun his tenure in power with Musa Hitam as his Deputy.

To be in Malaysia those days was to feel young, optimistic and hopeful – not least if you were a journalist.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act was still a distant nightmare.

It was a time when people with real fire and energy wrote for newspapers, including Zainah Anwar, Rose Ismail and Marina Mahathir.

The country felt like it was going places – but of course, we all know what happened afterwards as the New Economic Policy (NEP) began to show its first-fruits.

In a sense, Rehman gave “birth” to a cohort of Malaysian writers from the early 1980s onwards. Although we all went our separate ways, he made us all want to tell Malaysian stories.

Using the first-person narrative, he showed that journalism could be fun, relevant and razor-sharp. He pushed the boundaries as far as he could with his columns.

But he was also human and like all humans, could fall short when the call to be more came.

In his seminal memoir/national history “A Malaysian Journey”, he related his encounter with the-then much-feared Director of the Special Branch (later Inspector-General of Police), Rahim Noor.

Rehman had – in the aftermath of a broad sweep of opposition figures and political activists in 1987 – written a stern rebuke to the authorities.

Such an independent line from what was ostensibly a pro-government newspaper had been a surprise and he had been summoned to the dreaded Bukit Aman police headquarters overlooking the city.

As Rehman writes, he found himself systematically brow-beaten by the imposing Rahim Noor: “I cannot look back upon this episode now without the greatest shame. So feebly had I defended myself. A word for the journalistic fraternity, and then it was yes sir no sir three bags full sir. My capitulation was complete, and virtually immediate. Why?... I wanted to be let go. I was scared. And he knew it, and believed it right and proper that I should be. I don’t think I shall ever forgive myself for that fear… May I never be scared again.”

That was Rehman for you, his own fiercest critic, charting his accommodation with a withering and relentless manner.

His restless life (which included sojourns to Hong Kong and Bermuda) was full of moments of brilliance and terrible darkness.

But as I understand it, he found peace and contentment far from the hustle and bustle of the Klang Valley, in north-eastern Selangor’s Kuala Kubu Baru, which he so lovingly eulogized in one of his last books, “Small Town.”

As I said, he was a trailblazer of sorts for the writers of my generation, for doing whatever he wanted to do, for telling meddlesome editors to buzz off and for quite simply, being Rehman.

Al-Fatihah. My prayers are with his family. – June 5, 2017.

Sign up or sign in here to comment.