The innocence of young children is such that they view the world through rose-tinted glasses.
And that was certainly the case with Puan Sri Datin Zalillah Mohd Taib when she was growing up.
At the age of two, she went to live with her grandmother in Teluk Kemang, 7th mile Port Dickson, Negri Sembilan.
Her father, Captain Mohd Taib Jais, mother and eight siblings lived at the army base a few miles down the road.
(Her father eventually became lieutenant colonel and was also aide-de-camp to the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman Tuanku Muhammad.)
Located 50m from her grandmother’s house was the Chung Hwa Primary School.
“Every day, I would see the children singing, running around and playing. I admired them so much, and I told my grandmother I wanted to go there, not knowing it was a Chinese school, or that all of them were Chinese. To me, they were all the same,” she related, when met for an interview at her home in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, recently.
When she was five, she started school there, despite her parents’ wish for her to attend an English-medium school.
Since she had to have her name written in Chinese, she was known as Sa Li Na, or Salina.
“When I first entered the school, all the other children also could not speak Mandarin because they were mostly Hainanese. So most of my friends in school spoke their own dialects, and we all learnt Mandarin in school together,” she added.
Later, Zalillah transferred to the Tsun Jin Primary School on Jalan Loke Yew when her whole family moved to Kuala Lumpur. Upon completing her Senior Middle Three there, she furthered her studies at the National Taiwan University on scholarship in 1965. She was the only female Muslim student there that year, although there were seven male Muslim students.
“I love languages. I’ve always wanted to be an interpreter,” shared Zalillah, who later had a stint as an interpreter for Tun Hussein Onn when he went to China for a state visit.
In 1969, Zalillah graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in languages. Besides Mandarin and English, she also studied Russian and Japanese.
“To me, language and education are very important, because if one can speak the language, friendships become closer. I know the Chinese culture very well, actually. My friends are mostly Chinese and we get along very well. I can express myself better in Chinese, especially if I am very angry!” she laughed.
Zalillah returned to Malaysia three months after the May 13 racial riots occurred in 1969.
She was asked to join the newly formed Muhibbah (Camaraderie) Unit in the Prime Minister’s Department.
Hardly a year later, the Foreign Ministry asked her to join them – and that’s where she met her husband, Tan Sri Ismail Yusof. Subsequently, he was posted to Bangkok and later to Rome as well.
When they returned to Malaysia, Zalillah served in various government bodies, including the special division of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), the Film Censorship Board and later, the Film Appeals Board.
In 1999, when she left the Film Censorship Board, she became more active in the Girl Guides movement, inspired by her late sister Halimah, who had ended her term as chief commissioner a year before that.
Zalillah eventually assumed the position of president of the Trefoil Guild, which comprised ex-Girl Guides; the deputy president of the Fellowship of Former Scouts and Guides (FOFSAG); and in 2008, became chief commissioner of the Girl Guides in Malaysia, a post she held for five years.
Last October, she was also elected the vice-chairman for the International Scout and Guide Fellowship (ISGF), the first Malaysian to hold the post.
The 71-year-old mother of two and grandmother of four recently launched her memoir, My Chinese Name Is Salina, which is a candid take on her life experiences and achievements.
She hopes the book will inspire people to step out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves to learn and achieve more.
“I believe in going all the way and giving my all when I take up a job. I don’t believe in doing a slipshod job only to say I did it. I need to do my best to make sure the result is top-notch.”
Zalillah also spends some of her time in service at Masjid Tun Abdul Aziz in Petaling Jaya.
“I always believe in doing something in life, and not be idle, so I help out with the mosque’s religious school activities.
“I also believe in being sincere and responsible when entrusted with a job. Trustworthiness, sincerity and responsibility are characteristics I live by, which I have passed on to my children,” she said.