A simple life

A simple life

Sharmila Valli Narayanan

AT 64, Tan Sri Abdul Halim Ali, the former Chief Secretary to the Government, is a striking figure, thanks to his shock of silver hair, which gives him a distinguished look. His face is free of lines – they are concentrated on his forehead instead. The soft-spoken Abdul Halim’s mantra is to take pleasure in the simple things in life, like his daily morning walks. `When you walk in the early morning when there are no cars and the air is so fresh, it is so relaxing for the mind and at the end of it you feel so good … and it costs you nothing,’ he says with a sigh.

Even after retirement, Abdul Halim is still busy, as he sits on several boards and is the chairman of several organisations, among them, the Multimedia Development Corporation of Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). His is a classic story of a poor kampung boy who did very well in life. The eldest of six siblings, Abdul Halim hails from Tunjang, Kubang Pasu, Kedah. His father, Ali Majid, was a farmer who also dabbled in selling textiles in the weekly market. He cites his father as a big influence on his life. Although his father only had five years of education in the Malay school, he realised the importance of education in uplifting the lives of his children. `We were very scared of him, as he was very strict when it came to studies. He would literally force us to study at night and then test us! He would look through our books to check on our progress. He instilled in us discipline and taught us the value of money; of not spending unnecessarily,’ recalls Abdul Halim.

When Abdul Halim was 15, he made a momentous decision: he decided to apply to join the Royal Military College (RMC). He had heard about the high standards of the school from other friends who had gone there. Plus, there was the added attraction of the possibility of joining the military. `Like many other young boys, I was fascinated by the military and thought that being a soldier was a great thing. Although at that time RMC did not make it compulsory to join the military, I wanted the solid education that RMC offered and the option of joining the Army,’ he says.

Like many other old students of RMC, he has many fond recollections of his time there. `During my time, going to RMC was like getting an elevation in life. Besides the education, the pocket money, we also got food every day! This was something great for boys like me who came from a poor background where we sometimes had to go without a meal,’ says Abdul Halim. `I cherish my time there. RMC thought me to come out of my shell. I used to hate the military discipline but now I look back on it and am glad for it because it shaped my character.’

When he was in Lower Six, he almost wanted to join the military but his father advised him to finish his Form 6 and then decide whether he wanted to go to university or join the military. When he did well in Form 6, the attraction of going to university was too great to pass on, especially when he was given a scholarship. He went to University Malaya and graduated with a BA (Hons) degree, majoring in History.

One of the life-long friends he made there was Datuk Ahmad Zabri Ibrahim, the former Secretary-General of the Ministry of Agriculture. They were roommates in college and housemates when they were working. Ahmad Zabri witnessed Abdul Halim’s special qualities firsthand. `He was very active in college, especially in games. He was a very friendly, amiable and approachable person with a good sense of humour. He had outstanding leadership qualities even back then,’ reveals Ahmad Zabri. `He is a very good friend as well. He is always concerned about maintaining the relationship and makes it a point to keep in touch.’

Upon graduation, he joined the political department of the Foreign Ministry where he was attached for 30 years. The year he joined the ministry in 1966 was a momentous one: the Confrontation with Indonesia was still going on. As a young officer, he was intrigued by how the leaders handled the situation. His boss then was Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie. He rates him as one of the most memorable bosses he has ever had. `We were terrified of him. He would yell and scold us but he got things done,’ he looks back fondly. `He had an intellectual approach to doing things. After scolding us, he would explain to us why we were wrong. Whenever we wrote speeches, he would go through them with a fine-tooth comb and explain to us the significance of using the right words. He thought us the power of the written word – its different nuances and how it could be interpreted. After getting a verbal thrashing from him, he would join us for lunch at the canteen and joke with us. He was very professional – he never kept a personal grudge,’ says Abdul Hamid in admiration for his former boss.

During his time with the Foreign Ministry, Abdul Halim held several posts, among them, Malaysian Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 1979, Ambassador to Vietnam in 1982 and to Austria in 1988. When asked how he came to be appointed the Chief Secretary to the Government, he shrugs it off by saying it was by `sheer luck’. One of the significant posts that he held was as Deputy Secretary-General I (Administration) in the ministry in 1991. It was in this position that he had the opportunity to travel with and meet the-then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He also had to write lots of reports for the Prime Minister and other ministers. `During this time, I suppose the Prime Minister probably noticed me and thought I would be able to do the job,’ he says nonchalantly.

In September 1996, the boy from the humble farming background was appointed to the highest-ranking civil service post in the country. Although he was elated, Abdul Halim also confessed to being very nervous. `I did not know what I was in for because the nature of the job was very demanding. You not only had to know about the plans for national development, but you also needed a comprehensive understanding of the country’s policies.’

Abdul Halim threw himself into the new post with all the vigour and enthusiasm that he could muster. `I had to read a lot and try to understand the job and what it required. One of the reasons why I have so enjoyed my career is that I have had the chance to learn new things and for me, the learning process is a wonderful thing. I have a lifelong love for learning. And I am not shy about asking for help from others. I had to do the job; I could not bear to let the Prime Minister who had appointed me down.’

It was during his tenure as Chief Secretary that he had to face one of the biggest challenges of his career. It was the time of the Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim crisis and Abdul Halim had the unenviable task of keeping the civil servants united at a time when they were divided over their loyalties. `We knew there were many civil servants who felt Anwar had been unfairly treated and they supported him. I had to do something to ensure that the civil service was not split,’ he says. He went on a visiting blitz to as many departments in various states as possible to speak to the civil servants. `I had to remind them of their obligation, which is to work hard and support the government.’ He was also aware that speeches alone could not change their mind. `Whenever I spoke to them, they were silent, but I knew they were not fully with the government. I told them that they had to serve the government well. And if they did not like the government, then they could exercise their rights during the election. But once the government chosen by the people was elected, they had a duty to serve the government in power.’

Despite the dire prediction of some quarters, the civil service soldiered on and one of the worst political crises of the Mahathir era eventually simmered down. Abdul Halim is proud of the civil service. `Despite the Anwar crisis and the financial crisis where there were a lot of belt tightening and budget cuts, the civil servants by and large stood by the government.’

These days, despite the several boards he sits on, Abdul Halim tries to take things easy. `I lead a healthy life. I try not to be too stressed. I love meeting up with old friends and hanging out with them at Dome at Bangsar Shopping Complex, catching up on what’s going on while looking at all the pretty girls who pass by,’ he says with a laugh.

His late father’s lessons on being prudent with money are not lost on him. `After I retired from the civil service, I used to travel by MAS on Economy. Other senior civil servants who were flying Business were shocked to see me travel on Economy. Some of them even tried to give up their seats for me. But I am not shy – why should I be? Especially when you are travelling short distance; it’s such a waste to spend all that money on Business Class,’ says Abdul Halim with a smile. His father would no doubt agree.

Copyright 2007

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