Dollah's phones are ringging again

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

UN special envoy back in the limelight

It is 10.15am on a Monday morning and Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is already humming along like a human dynamo in the office annex of his bungalow home.

As I make my way along the long, carpeted corridor flanked by photographs and paintings, I can hear him talking away, a mile a minute.

Abdullah's office is one of the more homey rooms in this stylish house located in one of the most exclusive parts of Kuala Lumpur.

Two pairs of reading glasses one metal-rimmed and another with brown frames and green-tinted lenses - lie on the very neat table which he tells us is usually not so tidy.

An entire wall is hung with scholastic certificates earned by the family but it is the photographs - they're everywhere - which lend the room its intimacy.

He looks markedly different from then, but his wife, Puan Sri Fauzah Mohamad Darus, an elegant woman with chiselled features, has changed little. Family photographs almost equal those of Abdullah during the years when he moved in the intoxicating inner circle of power.

"My first datukship," he says of a 1971 black-and-white shot of the Sultan of Kelantan (who conferred the title) and Abdullah, both seated in a rather casual fashion on either side of a very slim Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah who is drawing languidly on a cigarette.

Pointing to another photograph - faded around the edges - of him chatting with Tan Sri Musa Hitam, he says with a laugh: "I was really powerful then."

"One of the last ones of Tun. Died Jan, 1976. That date will never be erased from my mind," he says of a large print of Tun, Razak Hussein, with the narrator a few steps behind.

A shot of Tun Hussein Onn (with Abdullah beside him) is passed off as "my jailor". The pictures pretty much sum up his rather controversial path from the 60s and well into the 70s. His years of living dangerously, so to speak.

Abdullah has been Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations since 1996, a post he has taken to like a duck to water. And last week, just days before he was to return to New York, he found himself on the "crony list" revealed in a statutory declaration by former Bank Negara assistant governor Datuk Abdul Murad Khalid.

Minutes after Murad's Press conference, his telephone was ringing with calls from the media (for reaction) and friends (for explanations).

Abdullah denies being an Anwar crony although he does not deny that Anwar, via Murad, played a role in settling an outstanding loan. But he stresses that the settlement was in exchange for some prime land he owned along Jalan Duta. "I have the documents to prove it," he says.

Abdullah was in the news again. The man himself takes some getting used to: his energy, his running - and irreverent - commentary on events, issues and people, his tendency of flitting from topic to topic without prelude, his -compulsion with his political past (he still identifies himself on the phone as "Dollah, Kok Lanas", a reference to his former parliamentary seat in Kelantan), and his enduring attachment to the memory of the late Tun Abdul Razak.

And he can be, as an NST editor notes, "so charming".

Abdullah, or Dollah as he is popularly known, is a person whose reputation truly precedes him. For instance, if one were to mention that one has just met/ spoken to/interviewed Abdullah, the other party is likely to go, "Ooh ... that Dollah," the tone varying depending on whether or not the person is fond of him.

You see, there are no two ways about Tan Sri Dollah, especially when it comes to the crowd who knew him from his political years. They either like him or they don't and the same holds for Abdullah - he has few grey area-type opinions.

Yet, Abdullah in person today is quite different from the larger than-life personality one reads about or hears of.

He has, as they like to say, mellowed with age (he turned 62 recently), grown a little more accommodating and even learnt to laugh at himself. His hair is more salt than pepper and his middle a little more pronounced (he insists it's his posture) but the mischievious grin is still intact.

That day, he has on a light blue shirt ("they call it TV blue in America"), and pale beige drill
trousers, rolled up at the cuffs. And socks and leather shoes because of the photo shoot. It's a with my work and promoted me to political secretary in October 1963. 1 was to be his ears and eyes and to report to him directy.

Says fellow "Razak boy", Musa Hitam: "He was Razak's not-so-secret weapon. He was always running around, doing things for Tun. Everybody knew that. And he was very loyal, he took the brickbats for Tun"

Nevertheless, it was an exciting job that gave him access to the exclusive back room of power and made him an object to be envied, even feared. From then, he steadily accumulated friends and enemies

"He was young and brash. Besides, a hatchet man cannot be popular," says another Razak-period figure.

Abdullah's own view: "That's what power is all about ... there will be those who like or dislike you. But I was really riding high in the 60s. I could do what I liked, go where I wished, but Tun had to be able to contact me at any time. I was his political secretary, Pressman, friend, everything."

Datuk Shahrir Samad, Razak's political secretary after Abdullah, explains it as a common problem in politics.

"Your power comes from the boss and often you exercise a lot more power than people think you deserve and the resentment builds. Frankly, I don't think he did it for himself as much as for his boss."

He spent 14 years with Razak and by the time Malaysia's Bapa Pembangunan succumbed to his illness, Abdullah was an Umno supreme council member, MP and Deputy Minister.

Abdullah's dark experience after Razak's death is perhaps one of the more stark and scary periods of Machiavellian politics in local political history.

Stripped of his source of political patronage and protection, Abdullah became a pawn in the power play for the pinnacle post.

What happened was a fascinating dernonstration of unbridled ambitions and of the ferociousness of Malay politics. But most of all, it was an invaluable reminder of the transient nature of political power.

In retrospect, Abdullah jokes that his arrest might have had to do with the government quarters at Bukit Petaling where he was living.

Michael Chen, then an MP, had warned him about the bungalow and the bad luck that had befallen previous occupants: Tun Omar Ong Yoke Lin was dropped from the Cabinet and despatched as Ambassador to the US; Tan Sri Lee Siok Yew lost the No. 2 post in the MCA. Abdullah lived there half a year before his arrest.

Even though Abdullah loves to dwell on the past, and misses dearly those days of power and influence, there is really little to complain about his present state.

For one, his phones have begun ringing again, whether for the right or wrong reasons. In fact, they seemed to ring non- stop throughout the interview.