The diminutive figure rises to greet me. Looking dapper in slacks and shirt, and with a pair of impenetrable dark glasses sheathing his eyes, Datuk Seri Mohamed Iqbal Rawther cuts quite a rakish figure across the restaurant. His picture on the cover of his recently published autobiography Striving For Excellence — a life fulfilled had been more on the studied side; suited and staring into the distance.
He’s slighter and frailer than I expected. Yet as he sits himself down opposite me and briskly calls over the hovering waiter to order our lunch, I’m beginning to suspect that not even the muffling layers of age can eclipse his larger-than-life personality — one that I’ve come to recognise from reading his book.
“I just had eye surgery,” he confides, touching his shades. So it’s not about being incognito and not wanting to be recognised by the riffraff? I joke and he chuckles. “Have you read my book?” he asks eagerly. I confess to being midway through it, and he nods understandingly. “I like it though,” I blurt out — truthfully — and he smiles in acknowledgement, looking pleased.
The book doesn’t possess a particularly striking cover, but the adage of “never judging a book by its cover” rings true for Iqbal’s book. “I like to keep things simple and very much as they really are,” he says simply. Evocatively written while keeping things “much as they are”, are stories and anecdotes detailing an unconventional life.
He confesses to having toyed with the idea of getting a ghost writer to pen his memoirs but decided otherwise. He shares: “There was no way this book
written by someone else was going to reflect my aspiration, the ethos, or the sort of spirit I wanted to convey!” He had to write it himself. And write he did — painstakingly in longhand scripts. “It took me two years to get it ready for print.”
A month shy of his 74th birthday, he’s now embarked on a literary adventure with the publication of his memoirs. It may be new territory for him but Iqbal’s not particularly bothered about breaking new grounds. After all, his eclectic career over the years reveals how his keen intuition led him to traverse unfamiliar terrains many times over — teacher, banker, lecturer and finally businessman — he’s done it all. “I followed the winds and landed on shores,” he writes reflectively in the conclusion of his book, adding that “...in dealing with the challenges and accepting the opportunities, intuition often determined the outcome more than reason or logic.”
The same intuition led him to pen down the story of his life, and the septuagenarian is adamant that his grandchildren get acquainted with their roots through his story. “They need to know that life isn’t as easy as it seems. They have a certain degree of affluence but I wanted them to realise that this success was the result of the sweat and toil of earlier generations who persevered to achieve that quality of life they now enjoy.”
He leans forward as if sharing a secret, except that his voice remains steadily resolute: “There are two qualities children need to be taught. One, you can get what you want but you have to work hard for it and two, you have to be very patient.”
Born in the coastal village of Alagankulam at the southern tip of India’s sub-continent, Iqbal was one of five children of shopkeeper Kuppa Pitchai Rawther and his wife, Rabiya. His father had earlier emigrated to Malaya to set up a small business with his partner but the Japanese siege on Malaya in 1941 all but ended his dreams of seeking greener pastures in a foreign land.
Penniless and in desperation, he returned to his village to recoup his ailing health, having been stricken by malaria during the height of the Japanese occupation. “It was then that a marriage proposal came through, and he gained a wife,” shares Iqbal, smiling.
With the British back in control after the war ended in 1949, Rawther decided to return to Malaya without his family. At the insistence of his wife however, he brought five-year-old Iqbal in tow. “I missed my mother deeply,” he admits half-wistfully, adding: “But I suppose she wanted more for me.” He elaborates that back in the days, the Indian Muslim shopkeepers never brought their families with them to Malaya, “...they were focused on working hard to support the family and only went back to India periodically to be with them. There wasn’t much of a family environment back here in Malaya.”
It was one of the country’s early stalwarts, Tun V.T. Sambanthan (who played a prominent role in the movement for independence in Malaya) who encouraged Rawther to send Iqbal to school. “He told my father not to make me an errand boy in the shop but to send me to school instead,” states Iqbal matter-of-factly.
“He visited my father’s shop regularly and one of the first things he used to do was to look for the newspaper,” he recalls. “I’d pick up the copy of The Straits Times which was the only newspaper back then and ensured he always had a copy.” The coincidence not lost on him, he wiggles his finger at me, insisting with a hearty chuckle: “Be sure you mention that!”
The ambitious student recognised early on that education was the key to unlocking his dreams. “I worked hard,” he says simply, of his time at his alma mater Clifford School in Kuala Kangsar. He excelled in his studies, was named Head Boy and School Captain in 1961, and was on his way to finishing his Higher School Certificate (now STPM) examinations. He made plans to pursue higher studies at the university — until his father’s decade-old business partnership dissolved unexpectedly.
The funding to keep him at school stopped abruptly and his brothers were packed away to his relatives. But Iqbal insisted on staying to complete his studies. With the support of his teachers, he lived for the duration of his studies at the servants’ out-house in the neighbouring Malay College and raised money for his school fees and books through photography — an interest he picked up when he was in Form 3.
“I took photographs during school events and sold the black and white prints to students. You could say my leanings towards entrepreneurship were evident back then since I made a tidy profit to cover my school fees!” he shares gleefully.
Two months before his final examinations, another blow almost derailed him. He was summoned back to India soon after his HSC examinations for a hastily-arranged akad nikah with the-then 14-year-old Rahmath. “I was dejected because my plans were disrupted, but I refused to allow it to overwhelm the rest of my life” he says resolutely.
It’s this same indefatigable spirit that got him pursuing a certificate in education instead. “The Ministry of Education advertised for trainee teachers to be sent to the UK and I jumped at the chance,” he recalls, adding that his first posting after graduation was in a small town near Taiping. From teacher to trade unionist (“my leadership streak led me to it!”), Iqbal soon went on to study Economics at University Malaya.
“The Malay word for a university student is mahasiswa. Those above the average age upon entry are called mahasitua (that is, older students). I was one of many who entered university after some years of work experience,” he writes, tongue-in-cheek. It was a difficult juggling act without being a clown, he quips — working part time to support his young family, participating in university-related and community activities while studying for his degree.
His outstanding achievement in university caught the attention of the newly-minted Malaysian International Merchant Bankers Berhad’s General Manager. “I was soon inducted into the world of banking,” he recollects with a smile.
After a stint in merchant banking, Iqbal received a call from the University of Malaya to take up a teaching post in their Business Administration Department. “The move from a lucrative banking career to academia was not financially driven. I simply answered a call to serve the national development cause,” he explains.
Iqbal’s next ‘calling’ came when the Central Bank invited him to set up the Institute of Bankers Malaysia to train and develop management talent for the banking and finance industry.
After seven years, he finally opted to venture into business. “My entry into the business world was by choice,” he confides, adding: “It allowed me more time for my other priorities including my family and community work but I won’t deny that making money was also a definite objective!”
There’s a wealth of stories within the book that speaks of Iqbal’s resolute character and his capacity to rise above the many challenges that came with the territory of entrepreneurship. “Life is never on a linear-ascending trajectory,” he writes when recounting some of the most difficult moments in his life. He’s equally pragmatic about his successes, attributing them to “sheer hard work and sweat” — something that he wants his grandchildren to understand.
“They were my test audience,” he reveals chuckling. He sent the first few chapters for them to read and asked for their feedback. “They were astounded, telling me Atata (father’s father), we never knew your stories!’”
A brief pause and Iqbal concludes with a smile: “It’s my hope that this book will inspire my grandchildren as well as those who’d care to read it. After all, here’s someone who never stopped striving despite the obstacles placed before him at every juncture! If I can do it, anyone can.”
Having a keen intuition, I realise, has certainly paid off for Iqbal — whether it’s in chasing the wind that landed him on different shores, or by simply telling a story that deserves to be told.
Striving for Excellence — a life fulfilled — An autobiography of Mohamed Iqbal Rawther
Publisher: Yayasan Pendidikan Islam