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Dr Siti Hasmah on life in the limelight

Siti Hasmah says her proudest moment in public service was when people in rural Kedah accepted her as one of their own. — Picture by Razak Ghazali
Siti Hasmah says her proudest moment in public service was when people in rural Kedah accepted her as one of their own. — Picture by Razak Ghazali

KUALA LUMPUR, July 23 — Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali comes across as the most interesting lady that may be living in your neighbourhood and you always find time to stop to have a long chat with.

Recently, she spoke to Malay Mail on her experience working in Kedah’s rural areas and being the wife of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In conjunction with her 90th birthday on Wednesday, she released her memoir titled My Name is Hasmah.

It includes a collection of warm and enriching stories of her upbringing, career in medicine, adventures and occasional misadventures as she travelled the world with Dr Mahathir.

Q: How did you plan your memoir? How did you decide what to share, given that you have experienced so much? 

A: Well, there are some things I cannot share but most of them, I feel that if I share those experiences then people can take it as a lesson or guide, if you happen to be in the same situation. That is the main objective of wanting to share with you.

For example, about having children. How would they prepare themselves for the questions their children would ask them? That is in the book. 

And another thing was my career as a doctor. The things I learnt are not always found in books or university courses. We can be professional but there are certain things you can only learn from the workplace. 

So, that is what I wanted to share, especially for young doctors who I hope will go on to work in rural areas as public health officers.

There were no public health officers during my time. General medical officers had to do a stint in rural areas to learn how to become medical officers. That is what I became towards the end of my career.

Q: What makes being the prime minister’s wife interesting or exciting?

A: Exciting? Maybe. During my time, yes, (it was) very interesting. Because as a wife, I had the privilege of meeting people. In fact, meeting people was not a big deal, because I had been working with people all the time. 

I was a doctor working in rural areas. I could mix with them, I could be with them for any occasion and they welcomed me. 

We also got to go overseas and meet women in other countries. That was interesting. And it makes you wonder and gives you awareness of what you are and how fortunate you are to be staying in Malaysia because we were the top developing country. 

It was easy for me to relate with other people from developing countries because we went through the same process after independence. 

We had gone to most of the continents, even to the US but the most interesting period of my life as prime minister’s wife was to visit countries in the southern hemisphere, in South America, Africa, Asia and specific islands. That was the privilege I treasured most.

Q: What was the toughest story to tell?

A: How to manage, first, your career and your family, and then how to manage your husband. 

Also the problems that came, sometimes unexpectedly, during the time when you were already retired and you felt that you should be doing something else and not able to completely do it because of obstructions.

There were times it was difficult to get what you wanted to do across, especially after retirement. I wouldn’t want to just retire and relax... there is no fun in that, you know. 

Once you are used to working regular hours, you won’t want to stay home too much. I think that is good advice for everyone who is retiring — to keep being active. Otherwise you deteriorate faster.

Q: You have worn many hats throughout your life, being a mother as well as an advocate for many things. Which was the most challenging and why?

A: Bakti (Welfare Association of Wives of Ministers and Deputy Ministers). It is a privilege accorded the prime minister’s wife to become the president of this welfare organisation. 

If you read my husband’s book, he claimed he founded Bakti. I think he was not correct.

Bakti was founded by Tun Suhaila Mohamad Noah (wife of Tun Hussein Onn) and I was its vice-president, and when Tun Suhaila retired, I took over and subsequently improved it. 

It was very challenging because even during that time, there were cliques in Bakti, until I had to say my piece that Bakti belonged to everyone and not to certain sections of the membership, and that we have an objective to fulfil, which is to help people. 

This was especially so in those constituencies which gave our husbands the vote to become members of Parliament, and from that, to become ministers and deputy ministers. 

But it is a very good organisation because it brings the members of Bakti together. That was Tun Suhaila’s first objective. Bakti was the first organisation to bring them all together and to do charity work to help those in our constituencies.

I found it challenging but interesting because later on we did field visits and had welfare sub-committees. We had a sports committee and that is how we started our first badminton team in 1985. 

You can imagine, all of us were married women with children, some even grandmothers who were playing competitive badminton at that age. A few times we were just playing with each other to train, but most times it was competitive. 

We spread out to the other states and even encouraged other dignitaries’ wives to form badminton teams.

I’m so glad that at that time, there was no ambition to go outside the country except on a few occasions, and the first foreign country that we visited was Indonesia. 

We went to Sabah, Sarawak and Indonesia on a Charlie (a large plane that transports soldiers) that had no grand seats, just those made from thick ropes. 

Once there were these Japanese women who called themselves the Peace Link Group. They wanted to create friendships with the countries they once invaded and came to Kuala Lumpur. There was a return visit to Japan on which I led quite a number of party members.

I also took the initiative to plan a course for our members on how to be a good political spouse, and how to be ladies in attendance to VVIPs. 

And how to conduct themselves during public speaking, performances, traditional dances and singing. We created that under the National Institute of Public Administration (Intan) and made it compulsory when I was president. 

(The members) found it useful because when they followed their husbands overseas, they had to talk to the diplomatic corps and they would want to speak about their country. You also had to meet with the local people.

Q: What is your proudest achievement from years of public service?

A: Going to work in Kedah, with an entirely different set-up of people, both culturally and with their dialect. The best was when they all accepted me as one of them and that was how I managed to be with them successfully.

From the sultan, the royal family, down to the people in rural areas, they accepted me as a person who had an objective of changing their lives.

At the beginning, they were suspicious of me — they didn’t understand my language and neither did I understand them. So we had an interpreter and that eventually worked out well.

The proudest moment is when the penghulu and other traditional leaders in the kampung accepted me as one of them.

Come durian season, they would pick me up, take me to the estate and treat me to a nice durian lunch. That was something of a privilege and honour for me, as someone who was from another state.

Q: Is there something that the public does not yet know but is revealed in the book?

A: Most of the chapters they know. But there are certain parts, which they do not know, because it happened during my childhood, adulthood and before I got married.

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