OBITUARY, Feb 13 ― To others, he was known as Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat.
But to those who were fortunate enough to walk beside him, he was more fondly known just as “Tok Guru”.
It was an appropriate moniker for the soft-spoken leader, a quietly resilient man with an unassuming demeanour befitting his post as spiritual adviser of PAS, Malaysia’s largest Islamist party.
In PAS, Nik Aziz was revered as the party’s conscience and moral compass, often turned to for guidance.
Among fellow politicians, friend and foe alike, he was well-respected as a voice of reason and a symbol of humility.
Over the past few months, Nik Aziz’s battle with prostate cancer saw him in and out of the hospital numerous times. At 9.40pm last night, the ailing leader passed away in the presence of his family at his old home in Pulau Melaka, Kelantan. He was 84.
My first close encounter with Nik Aziz was during the 2012 PAS muktamar, or annual congress, in Kota Baru.
Still unfamiliar with the Kelantan lilt then, I had to strain my ears when listening to a press conference given by Nik Aziz in his soft, soothing voice.
Listening back to the recording later, I realised that Nik Aziz was not simply a politician.
He was a scholar through and through, always conveying his messages through metaphors and parables ― worrying more about teaching lessons rather than rushing to enforce a point.
Nik Aziz first joined PAS in 1967 before going on to win the parliamentary seat of Kelantan Hilir in 1969. He kept the seat up until 1986 even when it changed its name to Pengkalan Chepa.
He had a stint as Semut Api state assemblyman in Kelantan, before serving the state assembly seat of Cempaka since 1990 until his death yesterday, which will now trigger a by-election.
Perhaps his most remembered contribution was as the Mentri Besar of Kelantan for 23 years, the second longest-serving state leader in the country after Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Taib Mahmud.
“As long as I breathe, I will continue to hold posts and play my role in shaping Islam,” Nik Aziz defiantly declared in April 2013, but his ailing health had his deputy Datuk Ahmad Yaakob take over after the 13th general elections.
Nik Aziz’s popularity with Kelantan folks was mostly due to his “common man” image, as he eschewed open display of material wealth. His old wooden home in Pulau Melaka is often used by those who idolised him as proof of his humility.
With his iconic attire of robe and turban sans-security guards, Nik Aziz was always approachable by the common folk who would often ask to take photos of him. And he always obliged.
Believing in Islam’s notion that all men are equal, Nik Aziz played a huge role in inter-racial reconciliations in Kelantan, and attracted even non-Muslim support for PAS and Pakatan Rakyat.
Several Buddhist monks I met for a story in September 2013 related that they used to receive cold shoulders from the Malay locals, but that immediately stopped the moment Nik Aziz attended their spiritual ceremonies to honour the community.
But Nik Aziz received his share of criticisms too, especially over his hardline and sometimes misogynistic remarks. In 2012, a four-year-old video of his lecture resurfaced, where he said that women who do not cover up deserved to be raped.
Nik Aziz was also notorious for equating joining PAS to taking part in an Islamic struggle with rewards in afterlife. He has claimed that those who go against the party, such as those in ruling party Umno, were seen as rejecting Islam.
Perhaps my most memorable encounter with the PAS spiritual adviser was when he turned up in Putrajaya before Election 2013 to support the contest bid of party vice-president Datuk Husam Musa, widely regarded as one of his protegés.
The Barisan Nasional (BN) stronghold was flooded with thousands of his supporters who turned up for the Friday prayers led by him, and later that night, filled a mega rally with an atmosphere usually reserved for rock concerts.
It was an unprecedented scene; A sea of mostly civil servants, oblivious to the rain, and Nik Aziz, a frail white-robed figure, standing among them in a place surrounded by the concrete walls of the country’s administrative capital.
But such was the gravitas of the man we called “Tok Guru”.
And with his passing, PAS has lost its most influential spiritual conscience, and Malaysia, one of its most respected political icons.
Nik Aziz leaves behind his wife Tuan Sabariah Tuan Ishak, five sons and five daughters.
His fifth son Nik Mohamad Abduh Nik Abdul Aziz, now Pasir Mas MP and PAS central committee member, has been tipped by observers to one day take over his mantle as the spiritual adviser.