Malaysia Loses a Polymath – and a Malaysian

Rehman Rashid, who died on June 3 in Kuala Lumpur of complications from a heart attack, was described by a friend as “essentially an old-school secular, Anglophile, Queens English-speaking ‘Malay’ with an elite education. Most under-40 contemporary Malays would struggle to relate to him, because there are vanishingly few similar to him around these days and there is almost zero likelihood that there will be more of his type in the future.”

Rehman suffered a heart attack while bicycling in January. It was some time before he was found and got medical attention, and he remained in a coma for months. Doctors eventually deduced that he had suffered at least some brain damage. He eventually emerged from the coma but was clearly seriously impaired. He was 62.

An author, songwriter and performer, raconteur and journalist, he was an associate editor and columnist for the New Straits Times, writing the column Scorpion’s Tales, and had worked for the now-defunct Asiaweek in Hong Kong. He was named the Malaysian Press Institute's Journalist of the Year for 1985 and, after spending a year in Bermuda, was named Print Journalist of the Year there in 1991. His books included "Small Town" in 2016, "Pangkor: Treasure of the Straits," and "Peninsula: A Story of Malaysia." Wong Chun Wai, executive editor of the daily tabloid The Star called him “one of the best writers in Malaysia. He remains a legend.”

He was more than just a good writer, however. He was one of the few who could call himself a Malaysian in a country where all too often people identified themselves first by their ethnic origins – principally Malay, Indian or Chinese.

“He was eligible for all Bumi privileges,” wrote a friend and Asia Sentinel contributor, Cyril Periera. “He studied at the Malay College, Kuala Kangsar. He got a scholarship to university in Wales and was considered a rising star in the New Straits Times. However, he called out abuse of power. His columns sometimes made the Malay leadership squirm. He did not signal that he was eager to exploit race and religion like the rest of them. There was a modicum of decency and fair play in his character. Unlike most, he had talent.”

Awarded a degree in marine biology at University College Swansea, he worked briefly with the Fisheries Research Institute in Penang and as a research associate with the Faculty of Fisheries and Marine Science of Universiti Putra Malaysia before giving it up to spend his life as a journalist. He was a gifted conversationalist who “always put quality above all else. He was a perfectionist and instilled that ethic in many. He was also a historian and wanted Malaysians to know where they came from if they wanted to know who they are and where they’re going," his brother Rafique told The Star.

Fellow journalist Jahabar Sadiq, the editor of the online Malaysian Inquirer, called him a “font of sparkling writing and the delight of those who enjoy the English language since 1981, when [he] joined the New Straits Times."

Kalimullah Hassan, who was editor in-chief of the New Straits Times Group before he left journalism for the business world, wrote this remembrance for Asia Sentinel:

“I first met Rehman Rashid in the early 1980s when he was already making a name for himself as a writer. He was talented and he knew it because he was a rarity – a wordsmith in a country where standards in English were rapidly declining because of an over-emphasis on the national language, Malay, and the de-emphasizing of English as a tool of communication.

“We were working for rival newspapers, I for The Star, and Rehman for the New Straits Times. We met many times over the years on that rocky road of Malaysian journalism and were colleagues for a time in 1987 when I joined the New Straits Times. I remember that another Malaysian journalistic legend, the late Zainon Ahmad, and I, were in charge of the news desk on that fateful night in October 1987 when then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government cracked down on opposition politicians and activists and closed down three newspapers – The Star, Watan and Sin Chew Jit Poh. The NST was and still is a pro-government newspaper and Zainon and I had to tread carefully the night of the crackdown as none of our senior editors could be contacted at a time when mobile phones were almost non-existent.

“The next day, Rehman wrote an editorial which was a stinging rebuke of the government and it was published with the approval of the newspaper’s top editors. But when Rehman was hauled up for a reprimand by the head of the police Special Branch, the newspaper’s editors did not publicly back him up. Rehman was shaken when he spoke to me shortly after returning from police headquarters and not long after, left the NST to join Asiaweek.

“I, too, left the NST soon after but our paths did cross several times. By a strange stroke of luck, Rehman, who had re-joined the NST after his sojourn in overseas publications and left after a dispute with his bosses, approached me and asked me for a job in late 2003, just as I was about to take on the appointment as Editor-in-Chief of the New Straits Times. His people management skills, as with all artists, were lacking, and his ego, as again with many talented people, had not diminished. But Rehman was my first hire, not only because of his writing and editing skills, but also because I believed that he cherished the same principles I did – that in the multi-cultural, multi-religious Malaysia that we lived in, there was no place for discrimination based on race, religion or creed. He left not long after to pursue a short-lived career in Al Jazeera and again, came back to his roots – the NST – and I hired him again. Rehman stayed on until his retirement and went on to produce two more books.

"Rehman was not an easy person to deal with; he had his idiosyncrasies and he did not suffer those he considered fools; but his writings were a delight to read and his death was a tragic end to a life he lived to the fullest.”