IT was in January 1976 that Datin Suhailah Hussein (nee Mohammad Noah) and some of her close friends, who came to her residence at No. 3, Jalan Tunku, in Kuala Lumpur, heard the official announcement by then deputy prime minister Datuk Hussein Onn (later Tun Hussein), on the demise of prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein in London. We wept with her; for Tun Razak was highly respected and loved for his implementation of rural development programmes. Tun Razak was also Datin Suhailah’s brother-in-law, as he had married her younger sister, Rahah. It seemed destined that these two sisters from a respected Johorean family would marry politicians who eventually became prime ministers of Malaysia.
I knew of Datin Suhailah only after my husband’s transfer to Kuala Lumpur in 1974 to take up the appointment of education minister. He was Tun Razak’s choice, and we had to move the family after 18 years in Kedah to Kuala Lumpur, which was my hometown, but an entirely new home for my husband and children, who were born and bred in Kedah.
It was with some apprehension that we moved to the socio-political life of Kuala Lumpur. From Kedah, and even when I was young, we were cautioned about the Datins from Johor. They were prim and proper, elegantly loyal to their baju Johor, and socially correct. And there were many Datuks and Datins in Kuala Lumpur who I must soon meet. Having mostly worked and lived with sick people and rural folk, where protocol and salutations boiled down to calling each other Tok Penghulu, Tok Bidan, Chek, et cetera, I certainly had to be careful!
I first met Datin Suhailah on a flight to somewhere. Her husband was then the deputy prime minister, and they were seated in front, while my husband and I were at the back of them. Datin Suhailah turned around and we greeted each other, and talked about our families and whether we had settled ourselves in Kuala Lumpur. She was soft spoken and genuinely friendly. She loved to smile and laugh at little things. My previous perception of a Johorean Datin was slowly melting! At an official function in Kuala Lumpur, we met again, and I was grateful to Datin Suhailah for introducing “Dr Hasmah” to the elegant wives of ministers and deputy ministers, parliamentary secretaries and top government leaders. Some of them were family friends, and Datin Suhailah made sure that we were comfortable.
In January 1976, Tun Hussein was appointed the third prime minister of Malaysia. My husband, as education minister, was busy visiting schools in the country. I didn’t follow him around as I was working at the Institute of Public Health, Maternal & Child Health Department as a medical officer of health.
In July 1976, a colleague of mine came into my office to say that my husband had been appointed deputy prime minister by Tun Hussein. It was a shock to me, and Mahathir was in Segamat then, visiting a school! I didn’t know what to do; my children were not in Kuala Lumpur with me — Marina and Mirzan were in England, and Mokhzani and Mukhriz were in MRSM (Mara Junior Science College) Pengkalan Chepa, Kelantan.
It was the start of a good relationship with Datin Suhailah Hussein, wife of the prime minister.
One day in 1977, after she moved into Sri Taman, the then official residence of the prime minister, Suhailah called a few ministers’ wives for tea. She had a proposal. I was away accompanying my husband elsewhere at the time, but as soon as I returned, I went to Sri Taman to hear her proposal.
Suhailah proposed to have a funfair to raise funds for orphans, PWDs (persons with disability — OKU), and the needy. Her reason for this was that the people had voted our husbands in during the 1974 general election, and we should show our appreciation and gratitude by helping the underprivileged and needy among them. She had planned to bring the wives of ministers and deputy minister together to help her organise the funfair and, in doing so, the wives would get to know each other better.
It was a noble idea, and it spearheaded the establishment of an organisation doing welfare activities by wives of ministers and deputy ministers. We proposed that Suhailah, being the wife of the prime minister, be the president of this welfare organisation. Finding a name for the new and prestigious organisation was, at first, a problem. Suhailah insisted that it should be a welfare non-governmental organisation driven by the efforts of the wives of ministers and deputy ministers. In the national language, it was called Badan Amal Kebajikan Isteri-Isteri; but, it didn’t have a good acronym, “Baki” (remainder/leftovers). We told Suhailah that it should depict the efforts of the wives. We could not find the Malay word to complete the acronym Bakti which, on its own, means “service”.
Fortunately, my husband had a good political secretary in the Education Ministry named Megat Junid. When approached to help, he asked for three days to come up with a solution. He did it, and completed the acronym by introducing the word “tenaga”, so that the full name of Suhailah’s organisation would be officially called and registered as “Badan Amal Kebajikan & Tenaga Isteri-isteri”, or Bakti, for short.
Suhailah was happy and satisfied. We sat down to draft Bakti’s constitution, especially its objectives, and membership and organisational structure.
We made sure the objectives of Suhailah were stressed. Wives of ministers and deputy ministers would automatically be members and they must be loyal Barisan Nasional members, even after retirement.
The wives of the prime minister and deputy prime minister would be automatically appointed president and deputy president, respectively, while other members of the executive committee were elected at the annual general meeting. No outsiders could be members except when appointed by the executive committee, eg. the patron, adviser, legal adviser and external auditor.
We were fortunate to have Datin (later, Puan Sri) Salbiah Hamid, who became Bakti’s first honorary secretary, and she composed the lyrics of the Bakti song, which we still sing today. The Bakti uniform and badge were created to identify us during events and official visits.
The funfair that Suhailah initiated was not the only fundraising event. She also initiated a joint cultural fundraising night with a Sumatran cultural troupe from Indonesia. It was held in Kuala Lumpur and the proceeds were shared between Bakti and the cultural troupe. In 1980, we had a charity screening of the movie Star Wars, and in 1981, a family walkathon. All the events were held to collect funds for our objectives and organised by Bakti members.
Suhailah’s target was very modest. We never raised even a million ringgit then, but that did not worry Suhailah and her members. It was the fun and satisfaction of organising each of Suhailah’s proposals. They depicted her feelings and care for the needy, the handicapped and the orphans who benefitted. But the most important thing that I would want all members of Bakti, past and present, to remember is the gentle lady who, in her quiet way, decided to establish our beloved Bakti, which has grown from year to year, richer and helping more and more people, as in the lyrics of our Bakti song.
On July 16, 1981, Tun Hussein stepped down as prime minister for health reasons. He had undergone a by-pass operation in London the previous year. Suhailah was with him on his last day in office, when my husband was appointed his successor. As we accompanied them on their farewell rounds of the JPM (Prime Minister’s Department) staff, it dawned on me that I would be taking over Bakti from Suhailah.
It was a sad moment for both of us, and the least that I could do for this gentle lady at that moment was to accompany her back to her residence. To me, it was courtesy and respect for someone whose husband had resigned and placed my husband and I in their positions. In the car, we chatted about many things. Even when we reached Sri Taman, we went in and chatted some more until Tun Hussein returned. It was difficult to part from Suhailah.
Bakti is very unique as it is the first organisation of its kind in the world to bring together the wives of ministers and deputy ministers to help raise funds for the needy. At the same time, members also improved their knowledge, personal relationships, skills in sports, vocal singing and dancing, and speech training.
Bakti members of today are well-equipped with the training they receive from Bakti and Intan (National Institute of Public Administration). They are now even exposed to visits abroad in groups led by the president of Bakti, or while accompanying their husbands.
Whatever role these wives perform nationally or globally now, let’s not forget the gentle lady who first thought of forming Bakti. She is no longer with us, but let the beautiful memory of Tun Suhailah Hussein always be fresh and sweet as the smile she always had for each of us.
May the Almighty bless her soul with everlasting peace and bestow upon her the highest blessings for her care and love for people.
Tun Suhailah Hussein visiting a hospital in 1976.