Saturday, April 14, 2007

How Do I Begin...

Been thinking about doing this for quite sometime, months perhaps. Blogs by Syed Imran (Kudaranggi), A.Kadir Jasin (TheScribe) and Ahiruddin Atan (Rocky's Bru) gave me the inspiration, finally. And since almost everyone was into blogs, it will not make that much of a difference for another one -- mine.

I have all my respect for these colorful individuals -- Pak Tuan Syed Imran Ahmad Al-Sagoff and Pak Kadiaq (as we younger Alor Setarians addressed these neighboring and fellow state elders respectively, as Syed Imran was Penang-born and Kadir was still proud of his beginnings in Pendang, Kedah as evident in his blog) and Mr Ahiruddin. All these fine gentlemen and me perhaps have had a thing in common -- the big fraternity of Malaysian journalists, famous during their heydays (and these days). I do not consider myself well-known, let alone famous as these fine gentlemen but people always tell me that I am remembered by my second name.

Pak Tuan Syed Imran was one of the few seniors (the other was former Bernama News Editor S.Sivaselvam, now back in the news agency) I really looked up to when I started with Bernama on March 14, 1983 while I came to know Pak Kadiaq (perhaps he does not remember me anymore after all these years of being in the shadows of two great people like Mohamed Rahmat and Mohd Khalil Yaakob) as we have met a few times in the line of duty. I began to know Mr Ahiruddin when he was in Business Times. I like to apologize to "Mr Din" that I am perhaps among the small few (very small few) who do not call him by his nickname as much as I was to Ibrahim Yahaya who was also known by his nickname.

I was with Bernama for more than 11 years during which had tours of duty in Ipoh (Bernama Bureau) in 1984, as Bernama's Kangar Correspondent in Perlis (1985-1988), temporarily in transit for 12 months in Bernama Alor Setar en route to the new Bernama Headquarters in Jalan Tun Razak. When I started out as a cadet reporter at the MCOBA Building in Jalan Syed Putra, the monthly wages to the staff were still paid in cash and handed over in envelopes. Then the new faces in Bernama like me, Khaidir Majid (now with Berita Harian) and Ghazemy Mahmud (Asian Defence Journal and committee member of National Press Club) who were always excited during paydays would know that it was the day when we noticed Bernama's own "Rifleman", the late Pak Majid who was one of the senior security guards roaming around the lobby with his pump gun and his eyes sharp and rounded. Things were really different in the spanking new Bernama headquarters when I reported for duty to Chief News Editor Jaafar Husin (Datuk and retired), in the later part of 1988.

Today, Bernama's 16-storey building was part of the colorful landmarks along Jalan Tun Razak with Istana Budaya, Balai Seni Lukis Negara, Pusat Darah Negara, Hospital Pusat Rawatan Islam and Perpustakaan Negara as its neighbors. I left Bernama in 1994, thinking that the agency was already too small for my so-called "big dream" in journalism and also pressingly for economic reason.

Then I considered myself an economic migrant as opposed to my strong belief in scientific socialism which I read as a discipline (apart from learning Russian language and understanding the principles of perestroika and glassnost) at the Moscow International Institute of Foreign Journalists in the then Soviet Union in 1990 during a 12-month course-cum-attachment with Tass, the socialist state news agency. I left Bernama in 1994 for The Star newspaper (recruited by Kelantan-speaking Chua Yew Kay, then Chief News Editor) for a month before moving on to TheSUN newspaper.

I was lured to TheSUN by Chief Reporter Halim Wahab who said "...aha! Hang dah keluaq Bernama...buat apa kat situ, mai la join kami, we are looking for good and experience reporters. Yang ada bukan boleh kerja sangat tapi mintak gaji gila-gila.." I was with the newest tabloid in town and was made chief reporter after six months to replace Halim when he was promoted Assistant News Editor. Among those already with the newspaper were Rusdi Mustapha, a writer with Section Two as well as Premesh Chandran and Steven Gan (both are currently with Malaysiakini). They were feature writers then. Later Wan Hamidi Hamid joined TheSUN. I was doing politics, covering Dr Mahathir Mohamad's and other political assignments (including MIC and PPP) and helped to clear copies at the newsdesk in 1995. There were a few other assignments given.

My regular meetings with Mohamed Rahmat during political assignments for my takes on Umno which were on a warm reporter-source relationship ended one day at the coffee house of the Equatorial Hotel Kuala Lumpur after I got an exclusive from him on a certain Mentri Besar's bid for Umno Vice-Presidency. As we were wrapping up the interview he offered me to join his office as press secretary, saying "...kau buat ape keje kat situ dengan Vincent Tan? Nanti aku cakap dengan dia..." I do not know whether he did it but I certainly did just that -- left the newspaper on a 24-hour's notice (with an envelope full of a month's salary to Rejal Arbee who was the Editor-In-Chief) and landed myself on the 8th Floor of Angkasapuri into an office next to the minister.

It was a good four-year experience of studying realpolitik as to what the then Pulai Member of Parliament described it as "Perjuangan Untuk Agama, Bangsa dan Tanahair or Alif Ba Ta" and the perjuangan was handed over to former Pahang Mentri Besar Mohd Khalil Yaakob (June 14, 1999) as both the secretary-generals of UMNO and Barisan Nasional, the unified position after the late Tun Ghafar Baba resigned as Barisan Nasional strongman a week ahead of relinquishing his No 2 position in Umno against the advent of "Team Wawasan". Tok Mat (as he was popularly known but I had other nickname for him) retired in 1999 after a long and illustrious service as a career politician in the government and a servant of the party, the last 16 years of which as Information Minister, Umno and Barisan Nasional secretary-generals. Khalil took over all positions and steered Angkasapuri, Umno and Barisan Nasional party headquarters to the next level and dimension until he retired in 2004 on a sweetest note ever dreamed of by any Malaysian politician.

It was an honor, a badge of honor actually to serve these two fine gentlemen of completely different and total contrast in character, style of administration, dealings in politic, philosophies and background which attributed to their vast dissimilarities in the many aspects of their lives as politician, minister, boss, master and commander. However, they both had a thing in common -- they were good bosses whom I called "Sir" in front of them and behind their back "Tok Penghulu Umno" and "The BISBOSS" to Tok Mat and Tun Khalil respectively. To me Tok Mat is Secretary-General of Umno Personafied and i gave Tan Sri Khalil the nickname due to his immaculate dressing a la British gentleman and his large and towering figure around Angkasapuri and the Umno headquarters in Menara Dato' Onn. When somebody asked me why I had always refered him as “The BIG BOSS’, I simply replied “he is BIG and and he is the BOSS”, period.

It was a better tour of duty and a learning curve for me the next five years until the 2004 General Election. It was during his time that Khalil sent a contingent of 35 Malaysian journalists for a month tour of duty in Iraq to cover first-hand news of the US Invasion on Baghdad. I was made the coordinator and had encountered numerous problems (25 administrative and bureaucratic roadblocks) in Angkasapuri to get our boys ready in seven days. On normal days I do not think anybody could pull the feat against the poker face, karaoke-loving and non-cooperative PTD guys in the ministry. It was Khalil’s macho and gung-ho attitude of “Zukri, you got seven days and by the next Cabinet meeting I want to tell the ministers that Ladies and Gentlemen, as we are speaking here our boys are already in Baghdad” that got me all fired up to prepare the contingent against blind intelligence on the ground as our mission in Baghdad was closed and the diplomats evacuated to Amman, Jordan.

Khalil declined to contest the 2004 general election en route to quitting active politic to move into the trappings of a royalty-like and protocol-conscious life as the Governor of Melaka, a dream end for any politician but an honor accorded only to a very small few. I left Angkasapuri (together with the departure of TheBIGBOSS) upon the expiry of my 10-year long contract for a six-month break during which I performed the Umrah in the Holy Land with my wife Rohana Mustaffa.

After the good break it was time to get back working and I joined McCann-Erickson International, one of the advertising giants in the industry the world over and among the top three in Kuala Lumpur. It was a completely different world altogether in the high-profile advertising, branding, marketing-communication, public relations and event management businesses which I have to learn and master during my 18-month stint with the American communication agency. This gave me the real insights of an advertising agency and I was glad to make friends with people with tremendous and wonderful creative talent and most of them are Malaysians. They were low-profiled but their incredible work speaks volume for themselves. It was a learning process once again for me and believe me that life in an advertising and communication agency is not as rosy as what everyone imagined.

When Dato’ Dell Akhbar Khan left the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), the departure created a void for the post of General-Secretary. I was among the applicants as the vacancy was advertised in the newspapers. At 40 and with my credentials in journalism (a major in my mass communication degree), media and public relations, politics (a disciple of two great Orang Kuat Umno), management and administration both in the government and corporate sectors I thought that I was matured enough both in age and experience to qualify as a candidate.

I was wrong but the rather funny and later questionable turns of event leading to the appointment of the general-secretary had me thinking that it could be a blessing for me and that I was better off not be in the extremely hot seat in FAM headquarters in Kelana Jaya. What more can I say when a non-Malay candidate who has a doctorate in sports management while another non-Malay who was very passionate about football and had excellent credentials were ignored and passed over for a former politician who already has too many on his his plate, business included, to be appointed.

The irony was that the politician was among the association higher-ups and could perhaps be among the selectors in the five-month long process which started as the most-professionally conducted job interview in Malaysia a la The Apprentice with the involvement of an international independent auditing firm. I was among the non-starters after having been disqualified as early as in the second round but then again, I thought that the association had lost the opportunity to pick among the best brains in professional sports management when they (two individuals actually) opted for the over 60 years old former politician (they don’t quit, do they?) as chief executive of FAM.

I was going about my own business and was having my usual breakfast at my favorite Yaseen Nasi Kandar Restoran along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman one day when I received a call from a man who said to be representing FAM and had wanted to meet up as soon as possible. At the meeting I was asked whether I was interested to join FAM as chief executive in one of its subsidiaries – the Malaysia Super League Sdn Bhd.

I accepted the good offer and left McCann-Erickson International after informing its chief executive and managing director Tony Savarimuthu that I am game for another level of challenge. He agreed and pointed out that the communication agency he was helming could play a role in helping out FAM professionally based on its vast experience in sports management and communications worldwide and that Tony was also passionate about getting Malaysian football back on its feet. I took a substantial paycut (but pacified myself by saying that it was for the greater good and for the sake of football, a subject close to my heart) to be made chief executive officer of the Malaysia Super League (MSL), a subsidiary tasked to plan and execute marketing-communication, branding, event management, media and public relations programmes as well as out-sourcing sponsorship and funding for FAM especially the Malaysian football team.

Then I was a football critic, most of the time very critical in my writings to the newspapers for my 2-sen worth of opinion of the game prior to my application for the high-profile position in the sports association. That could perhaps be the compelling reason for me to be offered the job or either my interest as a candidate for the general-secretary job or maybe the three-year experience as a ballboy (official term was junior steward/ball picker) at the famous Merdeka Stadium during Pestabola Merdeka in the 1970s. I was there when my hero arwah Mokhtar Dahari scored a double hat trick -- 6 goals for our national team when it trashed what was then Burma 9-1 in a quarter-final match during a Sea Games tournament. The magnificent feat was never repeated by any Malaysian striker since who was worth his boots and maybe not in the many, many years to come.

After a week into the job, I gave a call to Hishamuddin Aun, a friend and a former sports editor to inform him that I was now with a subsidiary of FAM operating out of a 10-storey building next to the Mirama Hotel along Jalan Maharajalela. He said “bro, hang kena pi check-out mee kari di coffee house kat sebelah”. Later I discovered while the curry noodle was good, the hokkien-styled fried noodle was even better. Hisham also told me a fact that perhaps only known to sports journalists like him was that “itu office FAM masa dulu, masa aku selalu pi sana interview Hamzah Abu Samah (former FAM president), Bakar Daud (his deputy). Aku selalu pekena mee kari dengan Hamzah la kat situ dulu…”. Then a five-storey office building in mid-1970s, it was FAM humble beginnings but during the glorious days of our Malaysian football with fantastic on-the-field exploits by legends like Mokhtar Dahari, A.Arumugam, (now Dato’) Sow Chin Aun and Santokh Singh before the association moved to its present day complex in Kelana Jaya.

Today not many know that FAM had started from this unubiquitous location which was near to the Merdeka Stadium. FAM still owned this expensive piece of mid-city property. However, this location will remain unknown as the office of Malaysia Super League Sdn Bhd simply because there was no obvious signboard to advertise its presence. All the passers-by could see was a shop for fishing equipments and everything about fishing which was renting the mezzanine floor of the building. While I was the chief executive I had forwarded a branding plan to at least signify MSL’s presence there (which was now dwarfed, probably eclipsed by other building and adjacent high-rises in its surroundings) but the proposal was shot down by the higher-ups for a reason that until now I could not comprehend.

I had to cut short my stint with MSL after 12 months due to several factors. It was beyond any explanation. But suffice to say that the state of our local football especially the national team in the present day was a reason enough for me to believe that perhaps I am better off not to be associating myself with the FAM in any capacity whatsoever. I rest my case after seeing the national being trashed left right and center by just about any other team in this region, even from a poverty-stricken country which could not even provide its national team with a decent jersey as opposed to our national team which was now clad in a well-known brand associated only with the best football teams in the world. It wouldn’t be a surprise to me if one day the newest state in the world -- Timor Leste will be in transit in Kuala Lumpur for warm-up sessions with our pathetic national team en route to the World Cup which they had qualified much earlier than Malaysia since FAM had positioned our boys to feature at the pinnacle stage of world football in light years away unimagined to our comprehension. And they keep on extending the target for convenient reasons known only to them.

These days I just mind my own business in media and communication portfolio, a specialized trade I learnt during my years of experience in the government and the corporate sector. With my short but important list of clientele, mostly VIPs who sought ideas on how to better positioned themselves in the local political landscape as well as the corporate sector my plate was almost full with assignments. Heading a small think tank agency was certainly taxing but it is an enjoyable job since this was what I like most to do these days. Basically I was backroom man and brand positioning of my clients speak volume of my professional work and attributes. For the uninitiated branding is not just about changing logos but enhancing its brand values, positioning and most important of all entrenching soul in brand positioning.

In the middle of last year I was being considered until the final list of two candidates for the position of the Director-General of the National Film Development Board or Finas but was passed over for an individual with film background. Just as I thought that it was a worthy challenge as I do not have any film experience but was evaluated for my credentials to made it into the final two and losing out to a better candidate with the appropriate attributes I was told that however the other man was not really chosen for his experience per say, rather not for his “know-how” but his “know-who”.

I do not any know higher-ups in particular in the film industry or any big shot in the Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry to “pull some cables” because as a professional I had always let my credentials and my self-made brand positioning that “I Know What To Do and How To Do It” do the talking for me in every circumstances. Sadly professionalism was not really appreciated and in this particular case a candidate with no vested interest in the industry, no physical and emotional baggage to be carried on into the job, no connection in important places and no bias whatsoever to be associated with the high office of Finas was not selected. Once again, I rest my case and hoping for the best for the corporation. I lost, period.

As one of my teachers of my Masters Degree in Hard Knocks, Pak Sanusi Junid once told me: “History will only remember the victor, the loser will slowly move into history.” He said so to me after we wrapped up an interview after he lost his 16-year position as the Head of Langkawi Umno Division in 1995 at the end of a long campaign to crumble the first line of defense of Dr Mahathir Mohamad in an elaborate attempt to unseat the Grand Old Masta then.

Nowadays it was darting between my office and home which allow me very limited time to socialize with friends (for instance, for teh tarik at Pelita Nasi Kandar in Jalan Ampang or the Lotus Restaurant nearby or some designer coffee outlets in Bangsar) due to my heavy commitments. My regular visits to Yaseen Nasi Kandar which to me has the most original taste of the famous Penang Nasi Kandar was cut down tremendously on the good advice of my doctor and my better equal. The same was with my daily consumption of teh tarik which, in my opinion is the most Malaysian and universal drink in our daily lives. You have to watch your diet with an extra scrutiny on the trappings of a good life you used to have then after you passed the 40 years age mark.

Unlike most people I do not make it a habit of having so many friends or a large pool of friends. In my vocabulary, these friends are individuals who were really close to my heart as friends, buddies and brothers-in-arms. These are the few people I could count and count on in time of need and for them in the time of their need. They are, by order of years of friendship and bondhood – Mr Rajkumar King, TheSun Newspaper’s Head of Picture whom I knew back then when both of us were in Royal Military College Sungei Besi, Mr Cheree Mohd Gamma RTM’s Head of Cameraman (Mr Bai), Mr Tok Berahim Haji Taib of MetroNews and my best and most ketat friend, my treasure hunt kapitan, my confidante, my motivator, my strongest and most radical critic and the best of all – my equal and wife Rohana Mustaffa for she completes me as the yang in our humble abode with me being the ying.

Together we have three boys Muhammad Zahir, Muhammad Zaim and Muhammad Zafir. Our first born Zahir was named after one of the most illustrious sons of Kedah – Tun Mohamad Zahir Ismail (the other was Tun Dr Mahathir), the famous Masjid Zahir Alor Setar and the obvious meaning of Zahir in Arabic. Zahir was actually the name I never had and had always wanted when I was growing up in Alor Setar. In closely observing the age-old tradition of most Kedahans in the good old days I had Tun Zahir to “ikat tangan” my little Zahir at his Office of the Speaker of Dewan Rakyat, Parliament House when the latter was 8 years old. Many years later it was Tun Dr Mahathir’s turn to “ikat tangan” Zaim and Zafir during his Aidil Adha Open House Dewan Wawasan Jitra. Both elder Kedahans willingly obliged my humble request, and both with similar comment like “Ohh, dah lama orang tak mintak buat macam ni. Tapi takpalah…you mintak, saya buatlah”.

My rather unusual second name? I never have to celebrate my birthday anymore since 1980 when I discovered the significance of my second name which according to my arwah father that he was inspired to commemorate a very special day. Being a WOG, my late father who was a career military officer said “One day you will know the real meaning of your name… you will appreciate it.” Only in 1980 I discovered the significance for I was born on February 14 and was named after the special day.

Since the world over was celebrating “my birthday”, I do not see the reason for me to do so anymore. Many Malaysians began celebrating Valentine’s Day since the mid-1990. My arwah father who co-founded the Royal Malaysian Air Force BlackHawk Rugby Team retired 5 years after getting his two pips and a crown on the shoulder, saying that it was the final line a career officer will come to while the next level and thenafter were always be that of political appointment or by political patronage. Then it was “who know you” and later “whom your wife knows”. These days it was “whose wife knows you”.

My old man told me when I, at the age of 10, questioned him on the reason he named me as such because it was difficult to explain the “baggage” I was carrying being a very Malay looking kampong boy who had an English or rather Italian-sounding name. Those were difficult times growing up in Alor Setar, what more in a padi-growing kampong at Batu 5, Anakbukit, a few kilometers from the state capital. But things changed slowly when I was in St John’s Institution Kuala Lumpur (from Standard 3 up to Form 3 in the secondary school) because there was another very Malay looking boy who was named Cyrus Reza (after former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance) and a very Mat Salleh-looking boy who had a simple Malay name -- Mohd Johan Musa, the elder brother of stand-up comedian Haris Iskandar Musa.

This has been my journey so far and my name is Zukri Valenteno. Call me Zukri. Thank you.