POWER OF WORDS: She was passionate about language, culture
KUALA LUMPUR: IT is an understatement to suggest that the late Azah Aziz (Kak Azah Aziz to most people who knew her) was passionate about language, culture and the arts.
For, she believed language is the best manifestation of the soul of the people, while culture and the arts best reflect the mind and tradition of any race.
She was more than that. She was also an indefatigable crusader for the women's cause.
I must confess, I am an admirer of her works. When I joined the Utusan Melayu group in 1992 as the chief editor, I was fully aware of her contributions there.
From 1973 to 1978, she oversaw the woman's section of Utusan Malaysia as well as advising Wanita, one of the oldest and the most successful magazines in the stable. Wanita was more than 25 years and it needed a revamp badly.
The size was odd and advertisers were shying away. I sought her guidance.
She told me that Wanita was unique. She said we should handle the magazine with care, "don't antagonise the traditional readers, but entice the younger readers with style and finesse".
I shall always remember this: do it with style and finesse, if you have to make changes. And in a typical Kak Azah fashion, she concluded with a proverb: "Jangan sampai apa dikejar tak dapat, dikendung keciciran." (Don't go after the rainbow while discarding whatever you have).
Prior to that, I was also working on the revamp of the daily, Utusan Malaysia, and its weekly edition, Mingguan Malaysia.
Her advice: "Pelihara bahasa, gunakan bahasa yang baik," (take care of the language usage). Language was everything to her. The usage differentiates a quality newspaper from the not. Those who have been blessed to work with her will remember how she treated language as a vehicle for communication.
To her, language is alive, it has a soul, and more importantly, she believed in the power of words and phrases.
The creative realm is a vast universe, shrouded with mystery, yet very much part of the Malay psyche, manifested by the best usage of language.
On many occasions when I was the chairman of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, she complained about the quality of language in the media.
She spread the love for language to children for she believed inculcating good values begins early. Literature helps in nurturing adab dan susila (courtesy and decency). She wrote countless books for children, ranging from pantun to children games and story telling. She wrote Adik Sayang, Puisi Kanak-kanak and Marilah Bermain. She published Di Taman Seni, an introduction to Malay handicraft for children. Dendang dan Dondang Kanak-kanak was written with Dr Ariff Ahmad to introduce traditional Malay songs to kids. She published Selayang Kenangan, a collection of essays on women issues, traditional dresses and handicraft in 1990.
Remember, being Kak Azah, she would not be contented with just a name. It must sound right, and in the case of Pancaindera, the entertainment supplement of Mingguan Malaysia, poetic. Even today, they retain the name. I did many changes to the name of the sections, but Kak Azah's coinage, I dare not touch. Kak Azah, the wordsmith, made "busana" (clothing) hip, chick and urbane. Just add the ornaments and jewellery, "busaneka" became part of the fashion icon.
After all, her love for traditional clothes was legendary. The baju kurung was almost her official outfit; she'd never leave home without it.
One of her books, Rupa dan Gaya: Busana Melayu, published in 2006 by Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, is testimony to that interest.
Sharifah Azah Mohammad Alsagoff, born on Aug 21, 1928, in Singapore, didn't go far in her studies, which was abruptly interfered during the war.
She married Ungku Aziz at the age of 17 and joined the Malay Studies Department of the University of Malaya in Singapore doing secretarial jobs. When Ungku Aziz became the vice-chancellor, they moved to Kuala Lumpur.
She was the secretary for the then Straits Times editor-in-chief Leslie Hoffman. Perhaps he saw in Kak Azah the tenacity and the inquisitiveness of a journalist. He introduced her to world of journalism. She never looked back.
In Berita Harian and later Utusan Malaysia, she worked with some of the great names in journalism -- A. Samad Ismail, Mazlan Nordin, A. Samad Said, Zainuddin Maidin and Ishak Haji Muhamad -- to name a few.
Kak Azah came from a very distinguished Johor family. She was the niece of Datuk Onn Jaafar, the first menteri besar of Johor and the founder of Umno. Her mother, Azizah Jaafar, had a big influence on her. Azizah was one of the pioneers of what was known back then as a domestic science studies. One of the schools in Johor Baru bears her name: Sekolah Rumah Tangga Azizah.
Kak Azah was touched by the realities of the misogynist attitude in a male-dominated society.
She championed for women to be acknowledged in their works, getting the same pay and fighting for their legal rights. For that reason, she was one of the founders of Pertubuhan Tindakan Wanita Islam.
Kak Azah was known as the wife of Ungku Aziz, one of the greatest minds the country has ever known. Their only child, Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, is governor of Bank Negara.
They both loved pantun and the Japanese haiku and they shared the passion for culture. Ungku Aziz's latest book, Pantun dan Kebijaksanaan Akal Budi Melayu (Pantun and the Wisdom of the Malay Mind) was a product of thousands of hours going through 16,000 pantun to select 78 to be studied.
Biographer and novelist Zaharah Nawawi wrote Azah Aziz: Kartika di Langit Seni in 2002. It tells half the story of this incredible lady, from her childhood years to 1993. But Zaharah was right about the analogy, kartika (Indonesian, which means a star). Kak Azah was indeed one of the brightest stars in the castellation of language, culture and the arts in this country. She was a mother to many, a legend in her own right, and icon among women.
We will miss her dearly.