In Rehman Rashid’s much loved book, A Malaysian Journey, he describes his months-long journey through the nation, visiting every state in Malaysia. Describing the sights, sounds, smells, and souls he encounters, Rehman contemplates the colourful ways of the country, pondering on issues such as our culture, identity, unity, and future.
His book was written in 1993 – almost 25 years ago. But peruse its pages, and you’ll discover that some of the things in it could have been written yesterday. It’s no wonder that the book is a modern-day nonfiction classic, cementing Rehman in the annals of Malaysian literary history.
On June 3, the veteran author and senior journalist died, aged 62, at the Selayang Hospital, Selangor. He had suffered a heart attack while cycling in January, and had been warded ever since.
His passing is mourned by many, who remember Rehman for, among other things, his colourful personality, his love for life, his brusque frankness, his rich and eloquent vocabulary, and his nuanced way of looking at the world.
Rehman was born in Taiping, Perak, in 1955, and studied at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK). He received a degree in marine biology at University College of Swansea in Wales, and worked with the Fisheries Research Institute in Penang and Universiti Putra Malaysia’s fisheries and marine science faculty. In 1989, he married Rosemarie Chen, a lawyer. She died in 2015; the couple had no children.
He became a journalist in 1981, and spent seven years as a leader writer and columnist with the New Straits Times (NST), before joining Asiaweek magazine in Hong Kong as a senior writer. Rehman then left to work for a year in Bermuda as a senior writer with Bermuda Business magazine, before returning home to Malaysia.
Rehman was named journalist of the year in 1985 by the Malaysian Press Institute, and Bermuda’s print journalist of the year in 1991. His books include Pangkor: Treasure Of The Straits (1990), A Malaysian Journey and Peninsula (2016).
Before his death, Rehman was based in Kuala Kubu Baru, a town he loved so much that he paid tribute to it in his last book, Small Town (2016). An avid fan of diving and cycling, he lived an interesting, active lifestyle to the end.
Writer, filmmaker, and publisher Amir Muhammad, who first met Rehman while he was writing his famed column, Scorpion Tales, in the New Straits Times, said he would always remember Rehman as a larger than life figure, whose love for the written word and love for the country were not only genuine, but inexorably intertwined.
“Many of us younger writers were in awe of his wit, erudition and, of course, awesome vocabulary. We kept in touch over the decades but I don’t suppose I ever got over that initial sense of awe. He made writing about Malaysia seem like a swashbuckling adventure,” Amir said.
Journalist Melizarani T. Selva said Rehman served as one of her first gateways into journalism, both figuratively and literally. “I will always be grateful for my time with you (Rehman) at the New Straits Times’ Writing for Newspaper workshop when everyone laughed at my novice questions and you said, ‘She is doing what a journalist is supposed to do. Asking questions. There is no wrong question. But none of you asked,’” Melizarani wrote on Facebook.
“I’m very sad. I’ve known him for decades, since I was a teenager,” said writer, translator and journalist Eddin Khoo who shared on Facebook that he used to hang out with the Rashid brothers and make music when he was 14.
“He was such a huge figure for me to have met, I was a very great admirer of his column in the NST. And then I got to know his brother Rafique and mother (Rosnah) very well, so it was a bit of a family affair.
“I remember him as a very gregarious person, who had written several books that have left an indelible impression of the Malaysian experience. He was known to be difficult, but in my own personal relationship with him, he was very generous and kind. Those are two things I will always associate with him.”
Author Chuah Guat Eng also had a familial connection: “Our families knew one another. He was like a son to me,” she said.
“I am sad because he was only 62, still quite young. But he lived a good life. He had done what he had wanted to do, he had written his books.”
Radio producer and presenter Umapagan Ampikaipakan, who once worked under Rehman at the New Straits Times, described the late author as a mentor to him.
“He taught me everything I needed to know.
“After we left, we became very good friends. Whenever I wrote anything that I needed a second pair of eyes on, he would be my first stop. I would always send stuff to him first to critique,” Umapagan said.
“Rehman had this amazing way of tearing you down to size before building you up again. He would set you straight.
“When he saw potential, though, he would acknowledge it and be very encouraging. It was remarkable.”
“Rehman was really very gifted,” agreed writer, actress and trainer Fatimah Abu Bakar, who had worked with him at the New Straits Times.
“He was a qualified marine biologist, but he was much more comfortable with words. He was a wordsmith, a wonderful musician, and an entertainer who acted in plays.
“When we used to lepak-lepak, he and his brother Rafique used to sing. And he sang like a dream! Quite amazing. He could be goofy one moment, serious the next. He was a very emotional, passionate person, who didn’t mince his words. A very colourful and complex character, that’s what Rehman was.”
Writer and former editor Datuk Fauzi Omar, who studied with Rehman at the MCKK, said he is at a loss for words after hearing of Rehman’s passing, describing the late author as one of the most multitalented people he has ever known.
Fauzi recalled an occasion back in the 1980s, when he and his friends were waiting in line to enter a popular jazz lounge in Petaling Jaya, and Rehman arrived.
“He took one look at us, and then in his loud voice, said something like, ‘Move aside you droplets of water! Let this ocean pass through!’ That was Rehman. He was funny, he was witty, he was loud.
“But while people know him as this great writer, inside he was quite a pussycat!”