Commentary Local

Remembering Ahmad Talib – journalist, peace advocate and man on a mission

Visiting Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Ahmad Talib with the writer and blogger-journo Rockybru.

Nuraina Samad
Written by Nuraina Samad

June 2, 2020

When you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.” – Kahlil Gibran

IN our life, there are some people besides our own family members, who we think will always be there for  us. It does not matter that we had not met with one another for a good length of time. They’re always on our radar. 

People with whom we never lose any connection. We call them up for some rhyme or reason, Whatsapp them even, and pick up where we had left off.

They’re always in our thoughts.

I count Ahmad A Talib as one of them. But he is no longer around for me to have a chat with over the phone, to exchange the latest viralled joke for a good laugh or just an update about a mutual friend. 

Ahmad passed away on the third day of Syawal after a  brief battle with cancer.

The news of him having been diagnosed with cancer was shocking not only to me but to so many of his other friends – close or otherwise.

And before you could begin to process that, you learnt that he had succumbed to that dreaded C and was called home to be with his Maker.

Under the current Covid-19 environment, I’d say that it made for a worse situation for most of us who wanted to bid him our final farewell.

Until today, I confess to a mutual close friend – “can’t believe he’s gone.”

To which, this friend replied :”Forever, Ena. He’s gone forever”, as though to help me get it through my head.

I never got to say goodbye to Ahmad, a dear friend and former boss I’ve known from the start of my journalism career more than 40 years ago.

This Ramadan, Ahmad and I managed to exchange the customary wishes but never made it to the “Salam Aidilfitri” greetings. Instead, I sent him a “get well soon and I pray for the Almighty to ease your journey” message.

And later “Al Fatehah”.

I can dwell endlessly on the “if only” or “I wish I had” this and that but that will only be about me.

So, here’s to Mat – always Mat to me and countless others whom he had known for the greater part of his entire life, and theirs.

A journalist through and through. Tough. Sharp. A humanitarian – kind, compassionate, giving and much more .

Ahmad and I were never formally introduced. We just happened to be covering the same assignments those early years – he for Business Time and I, for the New Straits Times.

The first time we got to know each other was when he had already joined Business Times from Bernama. He was in his late 20s and I, with the NST, was in my early 20s.

He was a more seasoned journo than me – a rookie, still raw and hungry to learn. Like everyone else, I called him Ahmad, at first, and then it became “Mat”.

So, no, sir, he was neither Datuk nor Tok Mat to me. I met him as “Mat’ and it had been “Mat” throughout even after he became Datuk Ahmad A Talib. Of course, by then he was Datuk or Tok Mat to as many others, mostly junior reporters. That said, whenever his name was spoken in unfamiliar circles, we would, of course, refer to him as Datuk Ahmad.

If you were working in the NST newsroom back then and I imagine in the newsrooms of other newspapers, you’d find journalists calling their bosses by their first name unless any one of them was awarded a title of “Tan Sri”, “Datuk Seri”, “Datuk” et al. And as far as I can remember, none of our bosses at that time got to be any of these. And if you’re a male journo long enough at the establishment, chances are, a “Pak” will precede your name. If you’d gone for your Haj, you might be called “Haji” so-and-so. But that is not a given.

In my formative years as a young and inexperienced reporter, Ahmad to me seemed fearless and gung-ho.

He was generous and helpful to younger ones like me and my contemporaries, giving us his time whenever he could.

He was drawn to stories of the underdog, of the lives of people you never knew existed.

“There’s a whole other world out there, you know”, he would tell us, with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, making us feel guilty for not knowing that or not having lived that.

With that, I am remembering his recurring echo of :” the human angle, give it the human angle” or “human interest, find the human interest side.”

Never mind if it was a hard and heavy report on the national Budget. Because, he’d say, whatever it was that we were reporting, it had got to mean something to the ordinary folk. That stayed with me for a mighty long time.

Through the years, after he was made NST group editor, he had become a boss with whom I had a great working relationship.

NST’s former Women’s Desk editor Aishah Ali reminisced: “What remains etched in my mind about Datuk Ahmad Talib is his smile.

“As a colleague, he was always pleasant, kind and helpful. Naturally when he became our boss, he was approachable and open to ideas.”

Aishah who was and still is an advocate of women empowerment and gender equality recalled how “very supportive” Ahmad was of her passion to promote these issues in line with global awareness.

“In fact, he gave us freedom to decide on our editorial decisions and backed us as long as we could justify them. I appreciated that very much.”

And how could we forget Ahmad’s infectious enjoyment of a good teh tarik and roti canai for a good break.

When he saw us under pressure to deliver a report or an article, he’d appear in front of our desk, with a grin and a wink : “What is this…. jom, teh tarik.”

Always that perfect timing. Always a much-needed respite and a good dose of teh tarik.

Miraculously, everything would be fine after.

Datuk Hardev Kaur, former Business Times editor and NST group editor described Ahmad as a “people’s person” and couldn’t help but be reminded of his epic teh tarik and roti canai sessions with colleagues and contacts.

It was not just work that he thoroughly enjoyed. Nor his culinary adventure .

Ahmad was a true humanitarian.

Hardev remembered how each Raya, he would hold an Open House for orphans.

“He continued his social work of helping the unfortunate till the end”, she said.

Another former Business Times editor Datuk Ahirudin Attan or widely known as Rocky, described Ahmad as “a man on a mission”.

“AAT was not just a journalist, he was a peace advocate, volunteer, NGO leader, life’s adventurer.

“He championed the Bosnian cause but not just at the height of the Balkan War when he organised the Barisan Bertindak Bosnia, an NGO that helped push Malaysia to pressure the UN to end the genocide in Bosnia. But long after the war had ended.

“AAT was the individual who convinced Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to hold the Bosnia Peace Conference in Sarajevo in 2015, two decades after the Balkan War had ended.”

Rocky who had also been The Malay Mail editor said Palestine was close to Ahmad’s heart and he followed the Palestinian struggle closely with passion, despairing over what he feared would never be resolved.

He also recalled that after war broke out in Iraq, Ahmad paved the way for a group of Malaysian journalists to be sent to Baghdad to cover the war.

“He himself was at the border to ensure our journalists got in safe and came out alive. Remember , he wasn’t a soldier. He was never trained to be one. And yet, when duty called, the journalist in AAT did not hesitate.”

A journalist and much much more.

As former NST journalist Azmi Anshar told me on learning of his passing- “a larger than life character who will be greatly missed.”

To Rocky, Ahmad the journalist, was “so prolific”.

A doyen. In my book, he is a tokoh wartawan”.

And indeed, so too in mine.

Al Fatehah for a dear friend who had touched so many lives.

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About the author

Nuraina Samad

Nuraina Samad

Singapore-born PJ girl. Journalist with NST for 27 years until March 2006. Became editor-in-chief of a publishing group and media strategist. After three years (2009), went back to NST as managing editor. Currently heading The Mole as its CEO and editor-in-chief.