Akmal Nasir and the handshake that changed his life

Akmal Nasir is director of Malaysia’s National Oversight and Whistleblowers (NOW) Centre, co-ordinator of the siasatPRU13 team, and head of opposition party PKR’s internship programme. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Akmal Nasir is director of Malaysia’s National Oversight and Whistleblowers (NOW) Centre, co-ordinator of the siasatPRU13 team, and head of opposition party PKR’s internship programme. — Picture by Choo Choy May

MELBOURNE, Nov 3 — A funny thing happened to Akmal Nasir on his way to becoming an actuary. He shook the hand of a young American senator in Madison, Wisconsin, when he took a day off studying at the University of Wisconsin in the United States.

Nine years on, the senator whose hand Akmal shook is into his second term as the 44th President of the United States of America.

Akmal was never to work as an actuary. Today, he is director of Malaysia’s National Oversight and Whistleblowers (NOW) Centre, co-ordinator of the siasatPRU13 team, and head of opposition party PKR’s internship programme.

He had been among those instrumental in uncovering the scandal of the National Feedlot Centre in 2011 that was run by the family of Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil who eventually left her ministerial post.

“You could say America was my political awakening,” Akmal told The Malay Mail Online while on a private visit to Melbourne.

The ambition and where Akmal ended up are not as divergent as might be imagined though.

On finishing Form Five in Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, the intent of the Johor Baru-born boy from Sekolah Menengah Johor Baru was to help his nation.

“There was a lack of actuaries in the country,” Akmal said, after meeting Malaysians at a forum organised by Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) Melbourne recently. “The insurance industry was at a critical moment, lacking in expertise on how to cover risk.”

Akmal figured there might have been no more than 100 actuaries in the country at the time.

He had a head for figures so after completing a preparatory year at Mara College, Shah Alam, he was off on scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The university was ranked one of Top 20 in the world by Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University.

Akmal completed his double degree in actuarial science and economics in four years. In that time, he also read widely: politics, philosophy, practical economic theories, ways to improve society.

“My purpose shifted,” said Akmal. “My personal goal had been to become an actuary. It dawned on me that being an actuary was closer associated with corporate goals.”

In truth the purpose remained; to help his nation. It was the goalpost that had shifted. “There were more urgent matters in society issues than financial ones,” said Akmal.

It was at that time that the young black senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, was starting to turn heads in the political establishment in Washington.

“I looked up to him,” Akmal said, his eyes glinting in the spring sunshine.

When Obama came to town in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention of July 2004, Akmal was pushing his way through the throng.

“I got to shake his hand,” said Akmal of the then 42-year-old senator who was to go on to gain national attention with his keynote address at the Democratic convention.

The handshake was to be as momentous an occasion as Akmal’s return to Malaysia in 2009, after Malaysia’s 12th General Election.

He put in a call to the office of Malay College senior Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, then a first-term Selangor state assemblyman for Seri Setia, and went on to work with NOW founder Rafizi Ramli, who is now a Member of Parliament for Pandan and strategy director of PKR.

But Akmal does not see himself as a politician. “I am a backroom person, working in support of others,” he said.

Still, one could say he is finally fulfilling his purpose. To help the nation.