By Yong Soo Heong
IN life, there’ll be people who’ll come and touch your heart. For me, Datuk Ahmad A. Talib was one of them. To him, I was always “Buyong”, the pet name that my parents had given me.
I lost my friend and mentor to cancer on the 3rd day of Hari Raya this year. A friend had called to tell me the sad news. I was devastated as he sounded positive when I texted him after another friend had told me on 13th Ramadan that Brother Ahmad was afflicted with liver cancer.
The ever-cheerful and optimistic Tok Mat even said he would join me to rebuild Yayasan SALAM Malaysia, the NGO he once chaired, after he had gotten better. Now that he is gone, it looks like I’ve the responsibility together with other board members to help ensure that SALAM will fly high again as my dear departed friend had always envisioned.
Tok Mat, I felt, was someone who was closely connected with my career at BERNAMA somewhat. I liked his breezy approach to life, though some detractors may say too breezy at times! He wrote in a way where the reader could easily understand the subject although it was a complicated matter. Not many knew that I took after some aspects of his approach to writing and dealing with people. Therefore, his legacy lives on through me!
Unknown to many, Tok Mat was a MacGyver sort of character, too, as he knew how to “beat the phone system” at the national news agency! As outstation phone charges then were sky-high and not almost free-of-charge like what they are today, I benefitted from his “knowledge” on how to get around the PABX system by deftly tapping on the phone to get an external line to call home occasionally! Of course, those “benefits” didn’t last long when a more superior PABX system was installed and Tok Mat was then moving on to bigger things at Business Times and NST at Jalan Riong.
Before he left, Tok Mat taught me the ropes of business journalism as I had taken over the vacuum left by him in the Economic Service. He showed me how to cover the then open-cry KLSE, previously located at Damansara Heights. He was also in his element during lunch breaks as he knew almost all the stallholders and waiters operating on a sidewalk opposite the exchange building (now the location of the SBK14 Semantan MRT station). He would either get extras or extra fast service!
His network of contacts and influential people was truly amazing. Chances are that many sultans, ministers, politicians, unionists, artistes, journalists or you-name-them people will know Tok Mat, who had a knack in putting people at ease and rally round him as well. I remember attending one of the early press conferences of Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1978 after he was appointed Trade and Industry Minister. When my journalist friend saw the then up-and coming politician, he shouted,”Hello Brudder!” That was the extent of his closeness or familiarity with Che Det.
Tok Mat maintained constant contact with me although he was flying high at Jalan Riong’s Balai Berita and later at Media Prima in Bandar Utama. When BERNAMA moved to its present location in Jalan Tun Razak in the mid-1980s, he began regular Friday night nasi lemak sessions with me and some of my colleagues near the Kampong Baru mosque. There we would banter and exchange notes on which character or company had made life miserable for us in our line of work! We were there quite regularly until the quaint nasi lemak stall along Jalan Raja Abdullah had to close down because of road widening.
Talking about nasi lemak, Tok Mat always had good compass for that spicy local dish. It was he who introduced me to the famed Nasi Lemak Tanglin, which was then located opposite the Tanglin Hospital near the KL Methodist Girls School. But my late wife, Amy, and I, we would refer to it as the “Election Day Nasi Lemak” because it was on a polling day in 1982 that we got introduced to that legendary joint.
After I retired from BERNAMA in October 2014, Tok Mat, who was then Chairman of SALAM, immediately invited me to join him to do humanitarian work. It has been insightful, working alongside him again after so many years as he was very passionate about the needs of the under-privileged and under-served, especially the orang asli living on the fringe of forests and displaced and innocent children of sex workers and drug addicts in KL’s Chow Kit red-light district.
Always the wonderful and caring person that he was, he showed up at the Universiti Hospital in PJ after midnight in late 2015 when Amy had gone in for an operation. I was touched. Years after Amy had succumbed to her illness, Tok Mat had always teasingly egged me on to find a companion in my twilight years. Perhaps I shall bear that in mind, Brother!
Datuk Yong Soo Heong served with the national news agency, Bernama, and still remains on the Board of Trustees of the National Press Club Malaysia.