Many will know of Datuk Paddy Bowie through her work as a writer, speaker, political and business analyst and accomplished public relations expert.
At 93, the woman with a quiet resilience still writes almost every day and has an advising role over operations of the strategic services company she founded in 1980, Paddy Schubert Consultants Sdn Bhd.
To detail her long list of endeavours and accomplishments would fill a book, and that’s exactly what she has done – in Paddy, A Lifetime of Memories, she offers readers a glimpse into her life from her childhood in England to her move to Asia, followed by her family life and career path in both Singapore and Malaysia.
The book also contains moving testimonials from close friends and business associates who have come to respect her tremendously over the years, including former Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) president Tan Sri Tunku Imran Tuanku Jaafar, and media consultant and writer Karim Raslan.
In Bowie’s high-rise residence in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, her Executive Director Anil Pillay and Senior Consultant Fong Peng Khuan accompany us during our exclusive interview with the lady herself, who enters her sitting room in a royal blue dress, eyes lighting up as we exchange pleasantries.
As she makes herself comfortable on the sofa we begin flipping through her memoirs together – she points out personalities such as the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, whom she and her second husband Carl Schubert hosted at their Colebrook home in England after his release from prison in 1990, as well as Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is two months younger than Bowie, and for whom she has written speeches.
On why she decided to put her memories in a book, she responds, “I think it’s a legacy and what I do best, I think, is write. It’s not a different story, it’s the same story, it’s further developments and further chapters I suppose and I should personally never retire.” With age her mobility may have suffered, but not her wry wit – her eyes fall upon a picture of herself receiving her Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2007, to which she quips, “Over bloody 80” much to the amusement of everyone present.
In actual fact, she received this honour for her role in connecting and re-establishing cordial links between the United Kingdom and Malaysia. She acted as an intermediary between the Malaysian and British governments as she knew both then (and current) Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir and British Prime Minister Baroness Margaret Thatcher, who was her Oxford University contemporary.
Officially, the honour is attributed to Bowie’s contributions to AngloMalaysian relations thanks to her deep understanding of the Malaysian political scene.
Dubbed a “born writer” by many, Bowie has lived an extraordinary life – born in Padiham, England, and christened Pearl (a name she felt didn’t fit her temperament) Fort, she was an only child who dreamed of becoming a journalist or a lawyer during a time when occupations reserved for women were restricted to nursing, teaching or secretarial work.
In 1955 she landed in Singapore for what was meant to be a two-year endeavour, but little did she suspect she would end up later moving to Malaysia, marrying twice and raising three children.
Today, she has outlived both husbands (Carl Schubert and John Bowie) with whom she each shared 18 years of marriage, and all three of her adopted children – Richard, Peter and Samantha, the well-known Malaysia actress, beauty queen and theatre personality.
Surrounded in her home by memories of these loved ones framed up on the walls and shelves, it’s hard to imagine anyone having the strength to carry on after the heartache she must have endured, but Bowie keeps forging ahead, busying herself with project after project, immersing herself in books and newspapers, keeping abreast with the news, and staying in touch with old friends.
Perhaps it stems from a lifetime of venturing into unchartered territory, notably her foray into the “man’s world” of oil and gas, becoming the first woman to take on the role of Trade Relations Director on the Main Board of the Shell Group of Companies in Malaysia and Singapore.
She went on to set up her business consultancy, which facilitates strategic corporate services, specialising in communications, high-level communications training and corporate writing services.
The company caters for government relations, issues management, high-end strategic public affairs and the commercial and communications needs of a wide range of clients.
A frequent contributor to international publications such as Fortune and The Economist, as well as local publications, she has also written a number of books including one on Petronas – A Vision Realised: The Transformation of a National Oil Corporation, the autobiography of Tan Sri Azman Hashim (The Entrepreneur Banker) as well as a yet-unpublished biography of Tun Ismail Ali, the first governor of Bank Negara, and speeches for ministers and CEOs – all these and more are detailed in her latest book.
Her sharp wit jumps out of the pages, as they do during the interview, with cheeky comments like “not bad for an ancient monument like me” made to the photographer as he shows her some of the pictures he has taken during the interview.
“I’m still going strong, I didn’t bargain for it, I never expected to reach my 94th year. And oddly enough, I’m not ill, I’ve never had any physical sickness, no eye problems, no knee problems, I’ve never been physically confined to bed. I suppose it’s genetic,” she says.
Playfully, Anil suggests that perhaps it’s having two husbands that has contributed to her long and prosperous existence.
“Officially two”, quips Bowie, who receives visitors three to four times a week – her England-based grandchildren come to stay for a month during the summer break.
“I’m never alone, I’m never lonely, I’m fortunate. That my generation that I’ve know since I began life in Malaysia, they’re still here, many of them.” Her good friend, publisher Datuk Nicholas Pinder, dropped by during the interview with invitations to an art expo organised by his publication, Homme Magazine.
Pinder and Bowie are collaborating on a book on Malaysian icons together – the idea is to have 61 contributions (representing each year of independence) from celebrities, well-known individuals and members of the public on what they identify with as icons of this country.
The projects are never-ending, as are Bowie’s stream of ideas and thoughts, which she pens in longhand to be typed out by her associates at the consultancy.
As someone who broke the glass ceiling decades ago, paved her own way to success and crossed national, cultural and gender barriers while finding the perfect balance between two worlds – England and Malaysia – Bowie has no plans to stop.
“I’m never going to retire, I may have to slow down, but I will always write,” she says.
She no longer travels, and it has been over 10 years since she has celebrated Christmas in her native England. She recalls what Christmas was like for her growing up in the small rural town of Padiham in Lancashire.
“Everyone knew each other. Life was simple and Christmas celebration was really a family affair, unlike the festive way it is has become today,” says Bowie, who can’t help but include a bit of history into her response. “The history and true meaning of Christmas is often forgotten.
To start with, Dec 25 is almost certainly not the day Christ was born. It was fixed by the Church circa A.D.440, who chose the day of the winter solstice derived from heathen mythology. It was Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert who brought the Christmas tree with him from Saxe Coburg Gotha.
“Before that, yuletide was a low-key season in winter without any fuss. The first Christmas card was invented by Sir Henry Cole in 1843 who sent it to friends. Our decorations owe their existence to another pagan custom – the Roman Festival of Saturn when they adorned the temples with greenery. The Druids are associated with mistletoe, the Saxons with the holly and the ivy.
The word ‘holly’ stands for ‘holy tree.’ In Germany and Scandinavia it is called ‘Christ’s thorn’ because it puts forth its berries in December. Santa Claus is Saint
Nicholas whose feast day was originally celebrated on Dec 6.” “What do I love most about Christmas? In the past, I would always go back during the festive break.
For 11 months of the year, I was always content to be Malaysian and embrace the Malaysian way of life and of food, but come mid December, I utterly refused to eat plum pudding in the tropical heat,” she says.
“And so at this time of the year I would become tribal. The Prodigal Daughter makes her annual pilgrimage to the land of her birth in pursuit of snow, church bells ringing, log fire blazing, carol singers at the door. I braved the shopping mall music (KL had conditioned me for this) AND joined the scrum, the melee of mad trolleys clashing through Marks and Sparks’ food hall on Christmas Eve.
“However, I no longer travel. So I must stay back in KL and enjoy the season at home with friends and visitors. It is a quiet time and no longer busy and full of activities like before.” On the meaning of Christmas to her, she adds “Malaysia is a multi ethnic, multi religious society based on tolerance where we live at peace with each other. May I wish everyone a Happy Christmas, and a Happy New Year.