Friday, February 20, 2009
TAIB ANDAK by KALSOM TAIB - A BOOK REVIEW
When Kak Chom had asked me to write a frank and honest review of her book and to publish it on my blog my immediate reaction was one of hesitance and apprehension.
Frankly, I wasn't ready to write a review about a biography/history book just as I wasn't ready to be bogged down by a biography/history book especially when I was in the midst of savouring recipe books, flipping their pages and ogling at food pictures and spending a substantial amount of my waking hours on a newly acquired preoccupation; food blogging. I faltered and mumbled something along the lines of smile-blink-blank. But Kak Chom, being the formidable woman that she is, (and a good head taller than I am) immediately presented me with a free, signed copy of her book. I caved in. So recipe books, with due respect, had to move over.
"Taib Andak". I am afraid to say, that although the name had a familiar ring to it, my knowledge of the man went no further beyond that. I looked at his picture and what I really liked about it was the smile that reached his eyes. I wondered what his legacy was and the impact he must have had on those around him that has made it worth his daughter's while to spend 9 months researching, traveling and writing it all down.
A little skeptical of reading a biography written by a person's own daughter because, surely, I was thinking, it would only be natural that there would be nothing but high praises and accolades page after page and that, I told myself, would be quite stultifying.
But I was wrong. It was quite unputdownable. So it surprised me that once I had started I found myself reading it with increasing curiosity. Learning about the life of a man, with facts, dates, family history, his achievements, the history of our nation and it's achievements contrived in such a way that I perused the book diligently. When I did put it down (because I had to) I did so with a feeling of anticipation towards my next reading session. That was the result of Kak Chom's engaging, no nonsense, thoroughly pleasing writing style that posed a good balance of a personal and surely emotional, a writer's and an historian's approach to the book.
On reflection, had it not been written by Taib Andak's daughter the book would have been just another dry, factual, mechanical, stilted book devoid of the heart-pulling, throat-tightening nuggets of insights and up close personal experiences that would have been known only to the closest family members.
The first chapter greets me, not with the birth of Taib Andak but with a brief history of his ancestors, a Bugis people, and how they had come to settle in Malaysia's most southern state of Johor in the early part of the eighteenth century. It starts by clearing the confusion about the relationship between an Abdul Rahman Andak and Taib Andak who are often mistaken for brothers. In order to do so Kalsom found it necessary to begin Taib's story at his roots which must have been a time consuming and obsessive task but one that finally bore a long and impressive lineage and family tree.
The book is a wonderful study of a man caught in the three phases of Malaysia's modern history, beginning at a time of colonial rule, in the steering towards independence and finally of the coming into itself as an independent nation. It focuses on his early life, of his friendships formed and forged with the the then country's future leaders, of his life as a student in England, of his career as a civil servant, of his contributions to FELDA, of his achievements, his personal joys and tragedies and of the man himself as son, father, husband and friend, all set against the backdrop of an emerging nation beginning at a time when Taib himself recalled that "You were either a soldier, a policeman or a civil servant. There was no incentive to go into business and politics barely existed. "
So it was in this early environment that Taib grew up. In the writer's words, "Taib was very much a product of his times......hence he chose the civil service." He started his career in 1938 at the age of 22 by joining the Malay Officers Service (MOS). After the war Taib went on to read law in London under 'The Sultan Ibrahim Scholarship Fund'.
It was during his years in London that Taib forged a close friendship with the then future Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdul Razak. It was a friendship that was to strengthen and span several years until the death of the latter.
Taib was advancing in his career as a civil servant after having successfully completed his studies in England when Tun Abdul Razak as Malaysia's second Prime Minister selected Taib and appointed him as chairman of his brainchild, the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) in 1958. Razak saw Taib as the man who could translate and execute his (Razak's) vision into a reality. Taib, in order to focus fully on the job at hand, succeeded in obtaining an assurance from Razak that there would be no political interference.
This book gives a deep insight into the very significant part FELDA has played in raising the economic status of the Malays without which many would not be where they are now. It has provided land, homes, a means of earning a living and above all opportunities for a brighter future for the children of these first settlers. The early years, as Taib admitted, were not smooth sailing and "needed a lot of patience and tolerance".
Taib also headed Maybank for 12 years followed by an appointment as the Chairman of the Tropical Fish Culture Research Institute, as board member of Sime Darby and various other organizations so that he could contribute the "wisdom and experience of many years in government."
Kalsom had been honest in portraying his weaknesses as well, of his financial indulgences as a student in London, of mistakes he made as a young District Officer in Kuala Lipis, of the allegations he had faced as a board member of Hume Industries, in other words, his imperfections as a normal human being. He is also described as a disciplinarian and yet at times the indulgent father of his children, and one who gave no second thoughts of going against convention, at the aghast of friends and relatives. In one instance he had put aside cultural norms by refusing a dowry for the hand of his daughter because it would have been a financial strain on his future son-in-law.
Kalsom has done such a thorough research that she has been able to provide interesting excerpts from editorials that date back to as early as 1901. One of these excerpts describe vividly the town of Muar, the centre of Taib's early life. She has also given some feel of life in colonial Malaya. She describes in detail the many colonial homes that they have lived in, personal incidents, weddings and there is a charming detail of the Andak family home in Parit Bakar.
If you are not familiar with FELDA , if the story of Malaysia's colonial past and independence learnt from tiresome history texts have thrust you to form a complete repugnance of the subject, if you are skeptical and not able to comprehend and connect with the feelings and emotions that ran through the blood and souls of the early nationalists and our country's leaders before and immediately after independence and would like to touch base with their thoughts, ideals and passions at the time, this book is an enlightening, engaging and at times touching read. Although riddled with facts, figures, names, places and dates it is at the same time richly personal and revealing because it deals not only with the professional and the political but also with the private and colourful social interactions of an individual in the thick of Malaysia's history and how in his own way had helped in the moulding of our nation.
Kalsom's writing is not at all gratuitous because the stories and incidents that she relates eventually lead to a point that allows the reader to form an opinion of Taib him/herself. Kalsom successfully brings out the man her father was not because she says he is such but because she shows that he is such.
This is a book that is filled with letters, references, notes and photographs of a constantly smiling or laughing Taib, anecdotes of humourous and heart rending incidents, reminiscences by his large circle of old friends, all of which have come together to bring Taib Andak back to life for the three days that I spent with the book. It is definitely a good read.
It is available for sale at MPH bookstores.
Datin Kalsom Taib graduated with a BA (Hons) majoring in history in 1965 and a Diploma in Education, both from the University of Malaya. She has worked in various multinational corporations namely Shell Malaysia, Malaysia Mining Corporation and at Nestle Malaysia as its Human Resource Director from 1991 -1997.
This is her first book, has published her second and with a third in progress. When I last spoke to her she had also told me that she might write and publish a recipe book based on recipes passed down from her mother and perhaps other older relatives. I look forward that.
PS : Several mouth watering Malay dishes have been mentioned in this book. Dishes that have been lovingly prepared and cooked and served to guests by Zainab, Taib's wife, with the help of their ever faithful Mak Li. It was a well known fact that Taib loved entertaining in his home and was an excellent host "which could have been one of the factors that led the World Bank to extend loans to FELDA. Perhaps negotiations have taken place over dinner."
With dishes like beryani rice, red cooked chicken (ayam masak merah), sour and spicy curry (gulai asam pedas), fruit and vegetable salad (asma rojak), black cooked squid (sotong masak hitam), terutup fish (ikan masak terutup), dhal and vegetable pickle (dalcha and achar rampai) and desserts such as cream caramel and sweet corn one would certainly not be surprised that everyone was in a constantly agreeable mood.