May 10, 2019
By Stephen Riches
I woke up this morning in Saigon happy with the thought that I was on a 10am flight back home to Bangkok after a hectic but fruitful 72 hour trip to Vietnam.
It soon soured when I read a message from the son of a dear colleague from my past telling me that his father had succumbed to cancer this morning in Kuala Lumpur.
Kamaralzaman Tambu – known to us as Mr. Z – was a star in the world of communications in Malaysia and he was my boss, friend, mentor, eating and drinking partner (and fashion-critic) for some eight years of my life.
I remember in 1989 ,walking around the city of my birth, Kuala Lumpur, at the age of 24 with a bag full of 10 sen coins and a Yellow Pages pinched from the hostel to make calls to ad (advertisement) and PR (public relation) agencies.
After a couple of years of back-packing around the world and a 1.5 year stint in Tahiti, I found myself back in South East Asia – a calling as it turned out.
Sometimes it is good to follow your heart, boys and girls.
I vividly remember standing in the sweltering heat of a dilapidated phone box in Jalan Imbi, dressed in singlet, shorts and flip flops, dialing number after number in the vague hope that someone would offer me an interview to pitch myself.
Every call was a negative. “Sorry, we don’t employ young matt sallehs with no experience” was a common response or business was down or work permits were hard to come by.
I persevered. Finally I struck gold.
Saatchi & Saatchi invited me for an interview and I met the MD (managing director). A beautiful woman dressed to the nines. (I had dressed properly for this and spent a small fortune in Sungei Wang for the occasion!)
She listened intently to my story and after 30 minutes she said I would be wasted with her and that I should meet this man, Mr Tambu.
She said “you will be right up his street. Sit tight”.
She called him on the spot and the next day I was at this gentleman’s office in Damansara Heights not knowing what to expect.
I honestly thought I would be brushed off again – but for whatever reason – it certainly wasn’t my fashion sense! – I was given the job after meeting him and his wonderfully patient colleagues Constance Westwood and Azizul Khair Mohd Ibrahim.
Not any old job as an apprentice to learn the skills of a PR practitioner but to open up a branch of his firm in Singapore, no less!
Under the guidance of this great team, we collectively set up the Singapore branch of a company he founded – Asia PR.
The KL team mentored me at every step and we had clients such as Jaguar cars, Bonia and Asia Pacific Breweries.
I was then fortunate enough to have been his sidekick in opening up The Cambodia Times during the UNTAC days in Phnom Penh in 1992/93.
Dangerous, dusty, frustrating and with limited electricity we had to send the stories down on a floppy disk to KL and had the paper printed there and flown up to Phnom Penh.
He hand-picked some incredible talent – including Shufiyan Shukur, Shah Kobat and Weimei Tham to support the weekly and it was amazing, given the bad press that Cambodia was receiving as the Wild East, to get so many willing journalists, photographers, ad salesmen and budding writers to join us.
We even attracted a young man that was about to head to Cambridge and he’s now a leading light in the Foreign Ministry of an ASEAN nation and has even sat at the United Nations Security Council and thence became an Ambassador at a young age to one of the Emirates.
Most of us are still friends – and some even stayed in Cambodia and became successful business entrepreneurs in their own right.
Without hesitation I can say that it was Mr Z’s ability to be calm, thoughtful, supportive and humourous that made this all work. We faced pressure from all quarters to ‘print what I want, not what you want’ and unless there was an AK-47 pointed at our temple, we went ahead and printed.
There was a reason we had armed guards at our villa in Phnom Penh!
Through all of this, Asia PR branched out into publishing with the formation of Asia PR Publishing and went on to create Malaysian publications and this Mr Z managed with some serious agility with Harun Aminulrashid and many others.
If I recall, the first publication was Malaysian Doctor – which hit the medical community with a complimentary condom from Durex stuck to the front page!
As seems to be the case now, I spent most of my life flying around the region doing a ‘bit of this and that’ for the Malaysian side.
He was generous, kind and above all, the type of boss that made time for people. He was an inspiration to myself and I hope very much that, if in the course of his career, he stepped on toes that he has been forgiven. We all make mistakes but hopefully not intentionally.
He was also probably one of the best-dressed men that I knew – except in Cambodia where we discovered he actually had jeans!
He blamed it on his stint in the UK and said that if you dress well, people will notice you and listen.
I can’t tell you how many times he’d make a passing remark about the lack of shine on my shoes or the fact that my tie knot had been ‘cobbled together by a blind drunkard’
Now this all might sound as if I am repeating myself here – but Mr. Z had a rich background which in many ways mirrored his own life.
He was a son of an influential Indonesian diplomat who was in fact a Tamil from Ceylon named Charles Tambu.
Charles was a journalist in Singapore at the out-break of WW II and he was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned before being found to be useful given his communication skills.
Charles was sent to Jakarta to work in a Japanese Radio Camp to monitor allied radio broadcasts.
Whilst there, he made friends with a group of Indonesians who were allied with Sukarno – then based in the Netherlands.
After the war, Charles – with the same group he had met – became the Managing Editor of The Times of Indonesia and it was with his skills in English that this pamphlet was used to encourage agreement among the diplomatic corps to lean towards independence.
Greatly impressed with his communication skills, he was granted citizenship and a passport by President Sukarno in the nascent years of Indonesia’s independence and was made the Consul General of RI in the Philippines and thereafter he ended up as the Indonesian Permanent Resident to the United Nations.
However, his family was uprooted in the political and armed forces bickering of the early 1960s and found refuge in Kuala Lumpur.
Mr. Z was sent to university in the UK, worked at the Dorchester in F&B to finally end up back in Malaysia where he went on to build Asia PR and then his latest firm, Runaway Success.
He will be sorely missed by all of us – and I am delighted to see the Malaysian press paying homage to him so quickly. My thoughts are with Johan and Shakira at this time – your father was quite a man. Be proud of him.
RIP Maman. It was a brilliant ride.
Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un