The passing of a Towering Malay

MARCH 2 — Last Sunday night was terribly sad for me. I received news that my uncle, with whom I had a particularly close bond, had died. 

He had not been in the best of health so his death was no surprise but that did not lessen the sadness at all. 

Seeing the tributes from his friends and colleagues, I was reminded what a great person he was and how fortunate I was to have known him. 

He was, in the truest sense, a Towering Malay. 

The Malays have a saying — Ikan di laut, asam di darat, dalam periuk bertemu juga. (Translated: The fish in the sea, the tamarind on land, in the pot they eventually meet.)

It is meant to convey the unlikeliness of two people meeting although they eventually do and hit it off. Such was the case of Mohd Raus Borhan and me. 

He was born and raised in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan and 30 years later met my aunt through mutual friends in Seventies Klang Valley.

She eventually brought him to her family home where her eldest nephew, a baby of a few months old, unceremoniously vomitted all over him. That baby was me.

Mohd Raus eventually married my aunt and moved into our family home where I was raised, as my own parents were moving around due to my father’s job. 

The writer as a child with his uncle Mohd Raus Borhan. — Picture courtesy of Farouk A. Peru
The writer as a child with his uncle Mohd Raus Borhan. — Picture courtesy of Farouk A. Peru

My uncle loved me as his own and never once was calculative over how much he spent on me. My first foray into the world of language was in the form of a toy by Texas Instruments called Speak and Spell (which looked like handbag that talks!).

It was my uncle’s gift from his US trip. That helped instil in me a love of English.

But it was during my teenage years that I discovered the true depth and capacity of this man. 

I found myself curious to learn about the world and suddenly realised that was a treasure trove of books right in my home! There were books on ancient civilisations as well as science and mathematics. 

There were books on philosophy which started my love affair with the subject. There were books on Sufism (Islamic mysticism) which, up till that point in my life, I had not heard of. 

These books initiated my interest in the field which eventually developed into a career to this very day.

Apart from the impact on my own life, it eventually dawned on me what a rare breed of Malay my uncle was. 

He was a career-oriented person who had illustrious tours in both government and private sectors. He was one of those people whose impact was such that, people remember him decades later. 

His investigations into Western civilisation did not mean that he forgot his roots. Far from it. He loved the kampung life and was especially skilful as a woodsman. 

He also had a keen interest in Malay culture especially Malay literature. He had even saved copies of Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Abdullah which I voraciously fed on later. 

The richness of Malay history and civilisation was something I realised through discussions with him.

Although proud of our Malay heritage, my uncle was very critical of what he termed as the lazy Malay. He had found them to be endemic whilst in government service and so moved on to the private sector which was more suited to his competitive drive. 

He instilled in me a sense of fair play and reminded me that ethnic minorities should not be excluded simply because they migrated here after the Malays. 

He was very wary of those who dwelled on special rights yet were corrupted and poisoned the Malay mind with a sense of entitlement. This mentality did not suit my uncle’s mindset at all. He was too cosmopolitan for that.

In terms of religion, my uncle was very well read but again, his critical mind could not simply swallow what was being fed to the masses. He instead formulated his own views and did not shy away from challenging ones he felt were not rational. 

He and I would spend hours discussing the problems of the Ummah and the mindset of the Muslim. One could tell he spent long hours contemplating these issues.

Some years back, the government came up with the term “the Towering Malay.” This was the Malay whose capacities matched anyone else’s and presumably, would not need crutches to survive and thrive. 

My uncle was one such Malay and he had been doing his thing for decades. He was as capable and confident as anyone and remains an inspiration to his anak-anak saudara.

Rest in peace, Mamu. We will meet again one day.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.