Back to school and rediscovering self

23 August 1998

A day after my release from detention, which lasted for nearly five years, I received two important visitors at my wife's house, at 360C Derga, half-a-mile northeast-side of Sultan Abdul Hamid College in Alor Star, on Aug. 1, 1981 - a day perhaps two days, after Hari Raya Haji.

The visitors were both known to me. I knew them reasonably well before my detention. They were Daim bin Zainuddin (now Tun) and Khalid Abdullah (now Dato), both close friends of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

Daim, though an Alor Star man, had travelled from Kuala Lumpur and was accompanied by Khalid, who lived in Alor Star, to deliver a personal message from Mahathir. We talked at length. Daim acquainted me with the political goings on in the federal capital: who were the main and minor players, overt and covert.

The message was I should "take leave" from active politics for a decent interval of three to five years to acquire one or two degrees overseas. Daim suggested I should read law in London as he did in the fifties.

A fortnight later, my wife and I visited Mahathir and Datuk Seri Dr. Siti Hasmah, then still in residence on the fringe of Bukit Tunku, to thank him for releasing me and my friends. We stayed there for 90 minutes.

He was delighted I had decided to follow his advice to study abroad. I was surprised he did not even give a faint hint what I should learn which made a deep impression on me when I was making my decisions about my education.

As we were walking to the door he said: "Lah, you have had a rough time. Put that back behind you and get a good degree. What you need is a paper qualification because a degree is important in our society. The doors of opportunity will be open for you when you return. I want you to be ready to step through them."

I was then 43. Even when I was in Kamunting I had been assured of admission to several universities, one of which was in New Zealand. The rest were in United Kingdom. Indeed, I wrote secretly to one of then. I must thank a number of friends whose names I shall withhold for the time being who arranged for my admission simply on the strength of their recommendations. The friends were not only well-connected but highly regarded by these universities.

Finally, I went to Cambridge even though I was well received by officials (for which I am ever grateful) of Oxford, Buckingham and Lancaster universities who offered me places: Oxford to study arts, Buckingham, law and Lancaster, politics. I read international relations at Cambridge. I was interviewed by the late Professor Sir Harry Hinsley, then the vice chancellor of Cambridge as well as the master of St. John's College.

Though I was asked by Sir Harry to choose any colleges I preferred I opted for St. John's, a decision I have never regretted because I was very happy at St. John's.

St. John's is the second richest and biggest college in Cambridge (first is Trinity) and here I had the best possible intellectual experience.

At St. John's (1982-1984) I was able to build on what I had learnt in journalism and politics.

Here, they emphasized not only academic excellence and freedom but importantly also living as a constructive (which also allowed you to be independent) member of St. John's larger community within and outside the university. It was not a demanding course for me; I studied and worked only when necessary. The two years in Cambridge were a good preparation to re-enter public life at home which I did in 1985 while simultaneously being a fellow at Harvard.