Ahmad Talib: The Creative, Quirky Giant of Malaysian Journalism
* Told by Azmi M. Anshar, Editor @ neverforget.cloud
To instigate the flamboyant narrative of Ahmad A. Talib, this foundational plot has to be established: Mat — as he called himself — was greatly instrumental in the trajectory of many Malaysian journalistic careers, from reporter to editor, in over decades of engagement.
Another thing which needs to be grounded: Some would want their goodbyes to be politically-correct, with full aplomb and dignity. Some would want gripping tales of drama. Mat — if you knew him — would love nothing more than a self-deprecating story that will make you laugh, if not at least smile. Thus, the quirky tone of this narrative, to match that demeanour.
Many journalists will look back at their rookie year, green in the snot and greener still in the belly of life and journalism as they recount how Mat made a difference to their fledgling careers.
Street-smart, colourful, outgoing, confident, cheerful and assertive in his journalistic disposition, he – as the Business Times’ senior reporter when we start our narrative here – was the prototype of how reporters should be nurtured and moulded.
THE MANY “MAT”S
Prototype aside, it was also important to know the other variants of Mat that added to his mystique. In this recounting, we capture at least eight versions of the man: “Commander” Mat, “Affable” Mat, “Hot Rod” Mat, “Pitt Bull” Mat, “Father” Mat, “Brother” Mat, “Rocker” Mat and “Activist” Mat. And when he seemed to have exhausted these avatars, he was “Reinventing” Mat.
The first Mat I encountered was in 1981. I was a cub reporter with The Star, a rival to the News Straits Times Press Group that published the Business Times, where Mat had already spent a few years. We were both at a press conference by Suhaimi Kamaruddin, the youth wing chief then of UMNO, the party that had ruled Malaysia for most of the country’s six decades.
I barely knew anything but there I was with Mat, thanks to the assigning news editor at The Star who loved the idea of throwing rookie reporters in the deep end of the pool to see if they swim … or drown.
Like a shark in the water, Mat immediately sensed blood at the sight of the rookie swimmer before him, tearing me apart with questions on my origin, destination and what I thought would be my single largest contribution to Malaysian journalism when I retired.
But he soon sensed my discomfiture and decided to give me a break. So he helped instead to organize my bearing, once we finished with the assignment.
Back at the news conference, my head was pounding.
I couldn’t make sense of Suhaimi, who was pounding instead on Malaysia’s New Economic Policy (the NEP barely entered my radar then. I must confess it hasn’t registered much in the years since, despite the best intent of its founders).
But Mat was animated and commanding (more like commandeering) the press conference, asking piercing questions to the nods of the small gang of reporters in standstill.
I was so mesmerised by Mat’s searching technique, I method-acted my way the Ahmad A. Talib approach, to the amusement of elder contemporaries, with his brashness, colour and spit – until I sobered up.
After that first engagement, I reunited with Mat when The Star transferred me to Kota Baru. It was a sleepy hollow northeast of Malaysia. I was to take up the role of correspondent in that state capital of the opposition-ruled Kelantan state, as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — arguably Malaysia’s most enigmatic leader — ran his first term of office on the federal government’s side.
Every time Mahathir or his deputy Musa Hitam swung by Kota Baru, Mat would appear, again in his forceful element.
After guiding Mat on the sights and sounds of the Kelantanese state capital and diving into spicy tomyam (a Thai seafood broth that has some of its roots in Kelantan), daging merah (red meat, literally) and other sumptuous local cuisine, we would retreat to his hotel room. There, affable Mat would regale me with luscious story-telling of the political shenanigans in Kuala Lumpur.
And that was my limited engagement with Mat — until 1987 at least, when I dramatically exited The Star with other troops in its reporting trench, and entered the unchartered territory of Balai Berita — the enlarged editorial operations of the New Straits Times Group. It was in the days leading up to Operasi Lalang — Mahathir’s first major crackdown on dissidents in his six years of rule. I arrived at my new place with much anxiety, little to show and plenty to prove.
By this time, Mat was chief of the economic desk at Berita Harian, a Malay language daily of the New Straits Times Group, and remained very sociable. After completing the business of his day, he’d saunter over to the English language desks to chit-chat, often on his way to the loo, which was behind my table.
“HOT ROD” MAT
Mat had already acquired legendary status: from his Alfa Romeo hot rod, which often broke down at traffic lights, to his notorious income tax altercation, which he told me in confidence had slashed his monthly wages to minus 38 ringgit (or about minus 9 U.S. dollars).
Mat, however, never allowed his problems to intrude his professional or social life: He did his job and even held “open house”, the uniquely Malaysian practice of inviting colleagues and friends home to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Mat’s life as a journalist might have gone on in a quiet, less-consequential way, if not for a sudden turn of events that took place shortly after my arrival at the New Straits Times. It was May 1988, seven months after the galvanic Operasi Lalang, and A. Kadir Jasin had just taken over as group editor. He installed Mat as chief news editor, a move that shook the news floor.
Once behind the wheel, Mat had his own offbeat ideas on how to navigate the news. His decree: reporters must be assigned official beats and produce stories regularly.
I was handed the labour beat, which was Mat’s beat when he was at the Business Times. I thought it was either providence or a form of penitence, but I quickly got a handle of how to work the new task.
“Go work with Rocky…,” Mat barked the order to me. Rocky — Rocky Bru the blogger to everyone now — is Ahirudin Attan. He was an unknown colleague to me while we were at The Star (I was mostly in Kota Baru when he did his internship as a mass communications student from ITM, a local college). Rocky, who came to Business Times after leaving The Star, picked up the labour beat from Mat.
The affable Mat, I soon found out, also had a brazen if not ruthless streak. In his idiosyncratic, quirky and eccentric desk management, Mat was loud, precocious, unpredictable and sometimes a pain.
Example: he’d get fed up with repeated calls from the wife of a senior reporter during work hours. Then calls were routed directly to the hot seat of the news desk. One day, when she called for the umpteenth time, Mat yelled: “Hey (reporter’s name), wife calling. Spot check!”
One fine day, I arrived in the office to see a public admonishment on the notice board: I was scooped by the competitor about a bank picket.
Mat set out the punishment like a pit-bull on a rampage: he cut the clipping, pasted it on a white paper and wrote a stinging rebuke in red sub-editor pencil for all to see of the picket I missed.
Naturally, I was embarrassed and pissed at Mat but I couldn’t help but redouble efforts to get even for that editorial lynching, which I did, with an exclusive a few days later. I don’t know if my competitor received the same backlash as I did.
I learned lately that even Mat’s daughter wasn’t spared of his methods of retribution.
Writing about her beloved Baba in the New Straits Times, Sophia Ahmad said as a child, she used to “hate” Mat, and that his absence from home due to work was something she and her siblings looked forward to.
“To us, his children, his name was a reign of terror. He ruled with an iron fist — ‘no’ meant ‘no’, there was no compromise,” Sophia wrote in her eulogy. “Imagine my surprise when I learnt that he was well-loved by his staff and co-workers.”
Sophia, who later joined rival Malay language newspaper Utusan Malaysia at Mat’s behest, said she saw her father’s true side when she went missing for a few hours while covering street protests in Kuala Lumpur.
“All hell broke loose at the Utusan newsroom when he interrogated the editors, demanding to know my whereabouts,” she wrote.
I’ve experienced that “fatherly” side of Mat too, when he sat cross-legged behind me, witnessing me taking my wedding solemnisation vows. I’ll always be reminded of his insistence on being there, to make sure I got hitched for good.
Another thing about Mat: He didn’t invent the calling of a male friend or associate “brother”, but he may have popularised its usage in the newsroom.
Evidently influenced by the brotherhood of trade unionists he used to cover, Mat expanded the term of endearment to full effect by calling rookie lads in the newsroom “brother”. Soon, everyone was applying the Ahmad Talib noun as a form of comradeship.
A few years later, I found out more about the Kadir-Ahmad relationship: Kadir had reprimanded me for some professional slack I suffered as a result of burnout and summoned into his room. The group editor blasted me first and ordered me to sit on a small chair in the corner of the room.
“That’s the same chair Ahmad Talib sits on when I whack him for screwing up,” Kadir bellowed.
Having had his say, the NST numero uno granted me a two-week leave. The tone of our conservation changed, we chatted and had a few laughs. After I exited Kadir’s room, Mat smirked at me: “So, you got the same shelling I did …”
Mat had a little illusion of grandeur: he was never the rock singer he dreamt he was, though he was a talented poet. A forebodingly-stirring poem he composed called Tasbih itu Bukan Kalkulator ke Shurga (The Prayer Beads is Not a Calculator to Heaven) stuck in my mind forever, and he was invited to recite and articulate it in many poetry recitals.
But still, Mat had the misguided cojones to enter the NST Editorial Entertainment Committee singing contest in 1989. I’m being diplomatic here: it was a “misadventure”.
In full view, Mat belted out Cinta Kristal, an iconic rock ballad from the late 80s by the gravelly-voiced Rahim Maarof. Out of tune, out of sync, overly emotional, with overbearing stage theatrics, it was Mat’s night to forget and ours to remember. He simply couldn’t live it down for decades after that fiasco. Example: If he suddenly developed some self-righteousness in a debate on music, we in the newsroom would collectively remind him of that momentous night.
Nonetheless, Mat’s public persona was used in good stead: his penchant for social activism compelled him to help organise the Barisan Bertindak Bosnia protests in 1995, when the Balkans were phasing into its deadly and tragic consequence.
Mat also helped stage the Bosnian protests at Merdeka Stadium — Malaysia’s foremost sports and public gathering ground up until the 90s. I was there with him sauntering in the middle of the sacred pitch, relishing the screams and chants of the crowd.
In later years, Mat got deeply into global social activism: he was part of the NGO battalion that rallied medical and food supplies to Iraqi civilians collaterally damaged by the U.S. invasion of 2003.
There was also a sight of him at the Iraqi border, accepting in his arms a young girl whose legs were blown off by bombs. The image of the victim’s father handing her over to him was as iconic a scene of Mat, the activist-journalist.
However, as the new millennium progressed, Mat’s fortunes took a downward detour as the new NST editorial management under the administration of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — a one-term premier after Mahathir — provided little room for his style of newsmanship. (For readers outside Malaysia, the country’s mainstream press largely reflects government thinking; when leaderships change, newsrooms change too). Mat was sequestered to a different “floor”, which only meant one thing to us: cold storage.
But Mat took it in good stride. He was hurting inside, yet decided to give it a try, though not for long. He resigned a few months later, with it the epilogue of his accomplished journalism career.
In his re-inventive second act, Mat took up a senior gig in a major telecommunications firm but soon found his true niche: being chairman of Yayasan Salam, a foundation that fashioned itself against the U.S. Salvation Army to carry out his long-held vocation of helping distressed and oppressed people.
Our engagement lessened in recent years but I kept track of his exploits on Facebook and the occasional press reports of his charity work, chatted a few times on Whatsapp but that was it, until I learned of his passing.
As I reach the end of this tribute, I reflect on my time-worn friend, deep-rooted compatriot and quirky mentor: Ahmad Talib was that kind of man despite his flaws, and our differences, disagreements and arguments over the decades. And I’m privileged to tell his story.
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