Commentary Local

Ismail Kassim – the quintessential journalist

Ismail also wrote several books. -- Straits Times photo

Written by TheMole

Kuala Lumpur, May 28 2019

Veteran journalist Azmi Anshar pays tribute to his old buddy and accidental mentor, Ismail Kassim who passed away last Saturday. He was 76.

IN 1981, when I first stumbled on Ma’il at the cramped Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka hall on the occasion of the Pas general assembly, he was sitting cross–legged, notebook on his lap, pen tightly wound around his right hand, and ears strained to capture the hollering of a fiery orator on stage.

I had no clue as to who he was then, this wiry man of slight stature, neatly-cropped hair and a crisply manicured moustache, or what he represented. His base was Singapore but his footing was Kuala Lumpur.

However, from my narrow universe as a cub reporter, I eventually established that Ma’il was a major journo who wrote authoritatively on the political rumblings of South-East Asia, Malaysia in particular.

And a couple of complex but useful political books to his name that vaunted his imposing credentials.

“The books were to prove myself…nothing more,” he shrugged, when he passed a copy of “Race, Politics and Moderation: A Study of the Malaysian Electoral Process”, his 1979 thesis to me much later as I got to know him better.

Ma’il was as an astute journalist as they come, and his writing style, whenever it appeared in, first, The Nation, and then, in the Straits Times, a Singapore tabloid and broadsheet respectively, was cogent and revelatory.

Ma’il articulated his well-trained thoughts in analytical English that everyone could easily comprehend, even the lamest politician, who diligently absorbed his neither fuss nor fury prose on backdrops, intelligence and backstories they weren’t privy to access.

He liked it that way, he sheepishly admitted: he wasn’t graced with the colour and creativity of the great books that he devoured, like Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, which became mine after Ma’il was done reading that literary canon.

While Ma’il was a pro in political analysis, he still needed some coaching on political subtleties.
In one dispatch about a Cabinet Minister, an Umno bigwig now long dead, Ma’il unwittingly inscribed this politician’s fondness for the pint.

The bigwig was inevitably aghast at this piece of innocuous observation: predictably, he berated that Ma’il should have overlooked his partiality for the ale, for the sake of posterity be damned.

For the life of him, Ma’il couldn’t fathom what the fuss was all about and it took a while for his bewilderment to cease and for him to “get it”. We would always have a silly laugh about it.

An important part of my journalistic education oozed from Ma’il: he didn’t set out to be a mentor or an instructor to anyone (he did start his career as a teacher) but for those who hung out with him regularly, like me, he “taught” with natural ease, patiently deliberative on his analysis, intellectual/political discourse and the big picture synopsis of any political enmeshment. It was illuminating.

Ma’il studiously gathers facts, intelligence, nuances, backstory, rumours and other tidbits, coaxing out of people nuggets of information and sometimes, the mother lode, to make up a nice read.

Friends, colleagues, acquaintances and perhaps contacts knew Ma’il as a connoisseur of fine dining, albeit at the trappings of a five-star hotel, the side alleys of Chow Kit Road or the shanties of Golok.

Once, he invited me to dinner with some of his friends at a favourite Chow Kit Road Thai food stall only a non-homey could find and on the table when I arrived, were at least seven dishes of exotic Southern Thai cuisine, which he personally ordered.

It was the same when he came over to Kota Baru, where I was stationed as The Star’s State Correspondent: the moment he arrived, my task was to locate him the most inviting Kelantanese fare or if need be, cross over to the Thai red light town of Golok for an elaborate feast.

Forget the hotels, it was the food stalls and deceptive restaurants that he was fascinated with most, a soulful epicurean offering and a story to be told, and under his expense account, we wolfed down dishes of knowns and unknowns, many delightful and a few acquired tastes.

Another excuse for Ma’il to fly over to Kota Baru, aside from the useful stories of the Umno-Pas imbroglio then in the early to mid-1980s, was his passion for fishing.

Fortunately, I was well-versed in the choicest angling locations, especially at the expansive Kelantan river mouth, but I wasn’t a maven in the construct of rod, reel, tackle and bait: that was Ma’il’s expertise.

So, he brought over expensive gear from Kuala Lumpur (I acquired the selar bait from the local market) and we had funny moments catching either nothing or a bunch of menacing crabs, heaps of gelama and red carp or, horrors, the annoying puffer fish.

As usual with his generous benefaction, he left the fishing gear to me for keeps.

Another passion was golf: Ma’il wasn’t an ace but he was driven to learn by watching instructional VHS videos at my place, before hitting the links.

Ma’il noticed that I wasn’t an enthusiast of the game nor had I an inkling of interest, so he left it at that, though it would be unsurprising for him to pass me a set of golf clubs and regularly drag me to the public greens.

That Ma’il was a generous benefactor was an understatement: he readily gave away books of great literature or non-fiction after he finished reading them and even music cassettes of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach that he thoroughly enjoyed. I was one of the lucky recipients.

Ma’il was also an audiophile: his Singapore apartment (back in the 1980s) was decked with an expensive Cyrus CD player, amplifier and speakers set-up complemented by rows of CDs, mostly classical music and a slew of jazz masters powering his musical senses.

I can’t recall the last time I hung out with him. It could have been the early-1990s, a sumptuous dinner buffet at the Pan-Pacific Kuala Lumpur.

And then Ma’il retired. Somehow we lost touch for years. Colleagues told me that that they heard Ma’il retired to a fishing village off Sekinchan in Johor (that would be him) before returning for good to Singapore.

One fine day as I was tackling a thorny political column I was about to pen, I was compelled to call Ma’il over the phone to seek his counsel about a certain incident that needed verification of which he was a witness.

The political chit-chat accomplished, we strolled on nostalgia lane extracting our early years, and finishing them off with big guffaws. Fifteen minutes, give and take, and that was that.

A few years back, I reconnected with Ma’il on Facebook and on hindsight, his illness would have consumed him by then, not by him making an announcement, but by his reflective snippets on his FB timeline.

In his twilight years, Ma’il was whimsical, philosophical and circumspect on his outlook of life and how he fit into it, his illness probably motivated his little but enjoyable semi-poetic stanzas on Facebook.

Ma’il did give an indication of an illness when he allowed a photograph of himself checking out of a hospital, health intact. We were all relieved but there was a tad of apprehension about his long-term prospects.

Then came the bad news. Ma’il’s gone and by the time I got it, he was already buried. It was the lymphoma.

In essence, Ma’il left behind a legacy of accomplishments, profound little gifts in kind and kindness, and lovely memories.

Thank you Ma’il for all you gave. You were the quintessential journalist and friend in good and bad stead.
May you be blessed. We belong to Allah and to Allah we shall return. Ameen. – May 26, 2019



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