10 Jun 2017: Rehman Rashid ― a raconteur for the ages

Rehman Rashid, writer, raconteur, traveller and naturalist is no more. He was more than just a journalist. Rehman was a storyteller. In a country where the dominant narrative since Merdeka – nearly sixty years ago – has been overwhelmingly Malay, Muslim and aristocratic, his approach; multi-racial, multi-religious and ground-up; was a breath of fresh air. – Karim Raslan, writer

The news on the passing of Rehman Rashid, one of Malaysia’s most brilliant writers, sent a crushing blow to his family, friends and colleagues. Shock waves also reverberated throughout the local community of bibliophiles and journalists, particularly those from 1980s-90s. Those were the days when the local English-language mainstream media was practically infallible, and a force to be reckoned with, boasting columnists like Adibah Amin, Rehman Rashid, Zainah Anwar, Rose Ismail, Johan Bagley, Halina Todd, Dr Tan Chee Khoon and Tunku Abdul Rahman, among others. Little did friends and fans of Rehman know, that the book which returned him to his rightful place among the pantheon of greats among Malaysian writers, would also be his last. Those who were close to Rehman saw it coming though, after he suffered a heart attack in January and was in poor health and bedridden ever since. Perhaps the writer himself had a premonition of his mortality ― he begins his last book Small Town with an homage to silence. “Some people don’t care much for silence. It can be associated with death, I suppose. Silence is an absence; what’s left when things cease … This is where and how I live, now as my own days wane, silent and invisible…”

Rehman Rashid was born in Taiping, Perak in 1955 and educated at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar and the University College of Swansea, Wales, where he graduated in Marine Biology. After stints as a civil servant with the Fisheries Research Institute and as an academic in the Universiti Pertanian Malaysia, he began his career as a journalist in 1981 at the New Straits Times (NST), eventually helming his own regular column, Scorpion’s Tales. He later served as associate editor, before joining Asiaweek in Hong Kong as a senior writer. His days at the NST were far from placid, as ex-colleagues remembered very well. His struggles in ‘maintaining a balance between his idealism and his elitism’ resulted in frequent head-on collisions with his superiors. “Rehman’s writing flair was never in question,” recalls ex-colleague Kathiresan. “He was good. He knew it. He flaunted it.” Another colleague, well-known author Karim Raslan described Rehman as “a trailblazer of sorts for the writers of my generation, for doing whatever he wanted to do, for telling meddlesome editors to buzz off and for quite simply, being Rehman.” By the time he won awards for Journalist of the Year in Malaysia (1985) and Bermuda (1991), Rehman’s writing credentials, and his superlative reputation were well established.

After three decades of a globe-spanning career in print, broadcast and online media, Rehman retired to “a town in a secluded corner of the Malaysian peninsula”. It was here, in Kuala Kubu Baru, a town of 25,000 people, where he wrote his ‘comeback’ Peninsula: A Story of Malaysia and its companion volume Small Town. His other books are Pangkor: Treasure of the Straits (1990) and A Malaysian Journey (1993). Peninsula has been described as a personal memoir against the backdrop of the generational changes Malaysia has undergone since Independence, examining their roots in the past and implications for the future, by one who lived through them. His razor-sharp narrative unravels through a series of flashbacks, from ex-Prime Ministers Abdullah Badawi and Mahathir, to May 13, the dividing of multi-cultural Malaysia into bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras, Malay and Chinese entrepreneurship, Penang under the DAP, and a sentimental chapter dedicated to his Chinese ex-wife. Defiantly original to the very end, Rehman Rashid’s inimitable voice will be missed by many.

Peninsula: A Story of Malaysia: 300 pages | 20.9cm x 15cm, Softcover | ISBN: 9789671339039 |
2016, Fergana Art Sdn Bhd | RM50
Small Town: 64 pages | 22.7cm x 15.4cm, Hardcover | ISBN: 9789671439517 | 2016, PESKUBU | RM40