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Grassroots Leader

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spu-pg60-61Muhammad A’fif Osman has always known he has an auspicious name to live up to.

It was given to him by a most respected ulama in Kepala Batas, Datuk Haji Ahmad Badawi Abdullah Fahim, the father of former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (whom everyone fondly calls Pak Lah).

“My name was meant for Pak Lah’s daughter Nori who was born in the same year as me. But it was a male name, so they couldn’t give her that name. She was born in January and I was born in March. Instead, Haji Ahmad Badawi gave the name A’fif to me,” recounts the 40-year-old engineer.

His name A’fif means bermaruah dan bermertabat – to be righteous and esteemed – and it was deemed an even more blessed name because it was bestowed by a learned Islamic scholar.

In A’fif’s village of Kampung Permatang Bertam, near Kepala Batas, Pak Lah’s family is respected and revered. His grandfather, Syeikh Abdullah Fahim, was a wali, a holy man and a renowned authority on Islam. He was also gifted in ilmu falak (astronomy). The Islamic scholar – who locals called Tok Guru or Pak Him – also established the Madrasah Daeratul Maarif al-Wataniah in Kelapa Batas in 1926.

Syeikh Abdullah Fahim was born in Mecca and was the Penang Mufti in the 1950s. Politicians and leaders sought the advice of the learned man in their fight for independence from British rule.

Before he left for London to negotiate with the British, Tunku Abdul Rahman met up with Syeikh Abdullah Fahim to discuss the date for Merdeka. He told Tunku that Aug 31, 1957 was the most auspicious date to declare independence, and that the most auspicious date after that would be Aug 31, 1962.

“It was in this house that Tunku met Pak Him to decide on the date of Merdeka. It was also said that the date 31 was chosen because it meant the three races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – would make one country. So, 31 was the chosen day,” says A’fif who took us to the historical Umno house that still stands on Jalan Perak.

He also points out Madrasah Daeratul Maarif al-Wataniah, which now teaches both academic and Islamic studies. Behind the school is the compound where Pak Lah and his brother Tahir’s houses are … “they only fenced it up when Pak Lah became the deputy prime minister.”

“We grew up listening to stories of Pak Him. There was one about a businessman who overcharged him … he told the man if he cheated him, his shop would not prosper. Not long after, the shop closed down. Up till today, business in that shop never lasts long.

“We regard Pak Lah’s father and grandfather as wali… they have the gift. What they say will come true,” says A’fif who is convinced he is living proof of that. “Pak Lah’s father told my father to take good care of me. He said I would turn out well. Out of five siblings, I was the only one who furthered my studies to university.”

After graduating from Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2000, A’fif worked in a Japanese ceramic factory in Kulim as the pay was more lucrative than joining the civil service. It took him a few years to finally accept that he was not meant to be a salaryman.

 

The headman’s son

A’fif’s family’s close ties to Pak Lah’s family is not merely because they are from the same village, but also because they are political comrades. Pak Lah’s grandfather and father were also influential in politics, and very much immersed in the fight for Independence and the formation of Umno.

Syeikh Abdullah Fahim was the first Umno member in Penang. Pak Lah was Kepala Batas MP from 1978 till 2012. Before that, his father was the MP from 1972 till his passing in 1977. To this day, Kepala Batas remains an Umno stronghold.

A’fif’s father Datuk Haji Osman Said worked with Haji Ahmad Badawi and Pak Lah. He was the penghulu (village head who administered to the area of Kepala Batas) and was attached to the District Office from the early 1970s till his retirement in 1993.

“At that time, they offered me the Adun (state assemblyman) post but the pay then was only RM350. A penghulu’s salary was RM450, so of course I took the penghulu post,” recalls Osman.

Politics in his youth was different, says the 80-year-old veteran Umno leader. “Then, it was all about serving the people. Politicians at that time had to know everything from the root. We did everything. We hung up flags. We knew who needed help, orang susah,” says Osman.

Even after retiring from civil service, Osman continued to do community work. He was the deputy chairman of Bank Persatuan, a cooperative bank. He also bought a plot of land and started planting padi.

“When we were growing up, there were always people coming to our house to see our father. He worked in his office in the day, but people would come to see him in the evenings and on weekends. At that time, everyone came to see him for help, even the Chinese and Indians,” recalls A’fif.

In recognition of his service to the community, Osman was conferred a datukship when he was 70. “My father is a rank and file datuk. He had all the other awards first… PJM, PJK, DJN,” says A’fif in jest. Although proud of Osman’s dedication to serving the community, A’fif resisted his father’s attempts to get him involved.

“After work, I just wanted to rest and do my own thing even though my father said I needed to help people,” he recalls. But it wasn’t a calling – or a “legacy” as A’fif calls it – that he could stay oblivious to for long.

 

In his father’s footsteps

Eventually, A’fif started getting involved in his father’s work, taking over his father’s tasks as he grew older.

“I began by getting to know the people. There are 500 households here. I know of the families because we all grew up here, but it took time to get to know the family members. We have to listen to people on the ground. They have many ideas of how things should be done,” says A’fif who quit his factory job to join politics full-time in 2004.

A’fif, who is now Kepala Batas Umno deputy Youth head, has also taken over his father’s position at the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) in two local schools.

“My father was with the PTA of Permatang Bertam primary school for 19 years. It’s my old school. Pak Lah studied there too. When my father quit, I took over. I am also the deputy head of the PTA in a secondary school. It’s my father’s legacy. It’s good to be active in the PTA. It’s non-partisan in the PTA, so I get to know more people,” he says.

A’fif is also making the effort to forge closer ties with the Chinese community in Kepala Batas.

“We had Chinese neighbours in the 1960s. There were many Chinese living in the villages. That’s why we have kampungs here with names like Pajak Song. But then most of them moved to town.

“I remember a time when the Malays, Chinese and Indians in Kepala Batas were close to one another. Maybe there are too many people now, so it’s harder to get to know people. But we have to try.”

Kenny Loh
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