Monday, July 13, 2009

Zam’s passion for life and language


The former information minister is busy writing his memoirs after retiring from politics. The veteran journalist talks on a wide range of issues.

HE started learning English when he was 17 – learning at least a word a day from the dictionary.

Two decades later in 1975, he became Utusan Melayu’s first correspondent in London where he worked part-time with the British Broad­casting Corporation and sat for his A-levels.

That student-cum-journalist was Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin, or fondly known as Zam.

Poverty did not stop him from knowing his purpose in life.

“I always challenge myself to do better,” says Zam, who also had a year’s stint in journalism at the Berlin Institute in 1969, and then University of Michigan in 1981.

The first breakthrough in his career came at the height of the Indonesia Confrontation in 1963. He was the Utusan Melayu reporter in Kedah, when he got an exclusive interview with then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on the issue.

“It made headlines the next day. All other papers carried my story,” recalls a visibly proud Zam of the interview on Feb 17.

Three months later, he was on a Kuala Lumpur-bound train to take up his posting at the Utusan Melayu headquarters.

His efforts to excel in journalism – fuelled by his passion and enthusiasm – had opened many doors for him during his career spanning 50 years; from a stringer with WartaNegara in 1957 to his retirement as a minister last year.

Q: Tan Sri, some critics have labelled you as a Malay chauvinist, if not a racist.

A: But I am known to have attacked extremists from Al-Arqam, PAS, and also the so-called language (Bahasa Melayu) fighters. Many language fighters, for instance, had the privilege of being educated in English. The same for their children.

As such, they do not sympathise with the many Malays who do not have such a privilege.
They (fanatics) are also more concerned that the national language be known as Bahasa Melayu and not Bahasa Malaysia instead of finding ways to use it to unite Malaysians.
I have many non-Malay friends.

Ooi Ah Kaw, a fellow journalist in Kedah, was my close friend. He was so proud when I got transferred to Kuala Lumpur in 1963.

The day I left, he handed me a brown envelope. I thought there was a press release inside but it was a ten-dollar note. It was big money that time. It is not the money that counts, but the thought and understanding, just like a father bidding farewell to his son who was going to the city to work.

Q: How should the approach be when it concerns the learning and teaching of English? What are the stumbling blocks?

A: Learning English must start from primary school. A little pressure, like making it compulsory to get a pass in English to get the SPM (certificate), can drive children, and parents as well, to pay more attention to the subject.

English must be taught as a subject and there must be an environment for the children to speak the language.

People must not think, or let themselves be made to think, that learning English will erode the status of Bahasa Malaysia.

Q: On your life as a politician, you joined the fray when you were almost 60. How did you adapt to the changes?

A: Politicians are always surrounded by supporters and this is something I found hard to adapt to. I believe in education. I don’t believe in giving handouts for political expediency.

In Merbok, we have a RM2mil library, an IT (information technology) centre and many playgrounds. Such facilities are not easily accessible to the people in the rural areas.

Q: What about life after politics?

A: I moved into my house in Putrajaya early this year. I realised it was time to catch up on lost time with my family apart from enjoying my daily teh tarik at the mamak stall.

My wife had a stroke many years ago and I thank God that she has recovered.

We have four children and 16 grandchildren now (including a grandson who died some years ago).

I also want to spend time reading and writing my memoirs (which started appearing in Mingguan Malaysia yesterday).


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