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Pak Samad, a towering figure in Malaysian journalism

This is an interview by Hazween Hassan of the New Straits Times with Datuk Nuraina Samad on her ‘Bapak’ the legendary Pak Samad.

KUALA LUMPUR: “You know…he was persona non grata in Singapore during Lee Kuan Yew’s premiership.”

The ‘he’ was Pak Samad– a name that reverberates through time. Pak Samad or Tan Sri Abdul Samad Ismail was a towering figure in Malaysian journalism.

Now, long after his passing 16 years ago, he is still celebrated for the many boundaries he dared to push– including Lee Kuan Yew’s, the founding father of Singapore.

While Pak Samad paved the landscape of Malaysian media to be what it is today and revered as an icon by newsmen, to his family and children, he was simply ‘Bapak’.

Datuk Nuraina Samad with her book on her family visits to Pak Samad while in detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA)

Speaking to the New Straits Times ahead of her father’s centenary remembrance event, Datuk Nuraina Samad reflects on what it was like growing up with him.

“Growing up, he was just a father (to us)— firm but so involved in our lives.

To us, he was a newspaper man and a writer (of books), an author,” Nuraina said, adding that she and her siblings had no inkling that he was who he was until much later as young adults.

“Funny thing too, it was not something extraordinary.

Even the fact that we would see him typing away late into the night, either for the newspaper or (working) on another book, it never made us think that he was better than anyone else’s dad.

“We knew, of course, of the company he kept; university students & young literary personalities who would come by our house and they’d (talk) for hours through the night. We grew up knowing them and among them were well-known literary figures.

“To us they were simply Bapak’s friends.”

Nuraina, like her late father, was a former managing editor at NST. Her father, she says, played a riveting part in her work and career choice.

“There were times in my young adult life that I visited him in Balai Berita (NST’s Bangsar office).

“I used to be awed by how much life & excitement there was in a newsroom through the day and night. That each day is different for a reporter. At least it seemed so to this young mind then.

“But.. I had no regrets,” adding that through her working life as a journalist, she would consult her father on numerous occasions.

For Nuraina, some of the most cherished memories with her father were regular visits to bookstores, emphasising a love for learning instilled by him. Sunday essay sessions became a tradition for her and her siblings where their father would cut the latest editorial or an article from the Straits Times and get them to write about it.

However, these memories were later overshadowed by the limited ‘Tuesday visits’ Nuraina and her siblings would have during her father’s detention.

Pak Samad was arrested twice in Singapore during the 1950s and was later again held under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1976 in Malaysia where he was detained in an unknown location. He was finally released five years later in 1981 under the then new prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“Every Tuesday after we were allowed our visits, he was brought at first to the KL Jalan Bandar police station and later before his release, to the PJ police station,” Nuraina said.

She added that his commitment to liberation from colonial rule was unwavering.

“He was a young newspaper editor, only in his 20s, fearless, with fire in his belly and a thirst and hunger for his country’s freedom.

“It was a different time then. He wasn’t alone. He had a large extended family. For him & his compatriots it was a cause worth fighting for.”

His resilience brought Pak Samad to forge ties with the likes of Lee Kuan Yew, with whom he founded Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954. But this partnership was short-lived, as Pak Samad left the party by the time Lee became Singapore’s first ever prime minister.

The fallout with Lee marked a significant chapter for Pak Samad. He became persona non grata in Singapore when he was put under ISA detention. But as Nuraina recalls, it was later rescinded during Lee’s premiership some time after his release in Malaysia.

While their friendship endured strains, her father never spoke ill of Lee.

“They (Pak Samad and Lee) parted ways. Bapak never spoke ill of his old friend turned nemesis. But we knew that both had crossed the bridge & never looked back.”

At just 21 years of age, Pak Samad was made editor at Berita Malai– otherwise known as Utusan Malaysia today.

Nuraina remembers her father sharing his early, young experience then.

“My dad was someone we could talk to about almost anything. Our conversations about his early days would crop up randomly after our Sunday lunches. It wasn’t a regular thing. Over the years, it was something that would be an enduring piece of conversation,” she said.

Pak Samad was always known for being audacious, not holding back on what needed to be said and heard. And from that, he championed many causes. He promoted several social causes within his writing in post-independence Malaysia. He drew attention to social inequalities within Malaysian society, called for the national standardisation of Bahasa Malaysia and reported on the complex relationship between race and Malaysian politics.

Asked if there was one cause in particular he held dearest to his heart, Nuraina said that every one he served was equally important.

“I don’t think there was one single cause. They were all in one brimming basket although I believe that education and social justice were important to him.”

Earlier this year, at the ‘Symposium Commemorating Tan Sri A. Samad Ismail: Journalist, Public Intellectual, Statesman’, there were talks about establishing an institution in remembrance of him.

Tun Musa Hitam, Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister, who was there at the event, expressed his support for the proposal, stressing that it should be done properly and diligently.

A suggestion was to have it placed under an existing university or to be a fully fledged independent institution.

As plans for the journalism institute take shape, Nuraina remains hopeful that it will serve as a fitting tribute to her father’s enduring legacy, inspiring future generations of journalists to uphold the principles he held dear.

In an era of evolving media landscapes, she hopes it will uphold his ideals while adapting to new challenges, ensuring that journalism remains a beacon of truth and justice in Malaysian society.

“I am aware that journalism now faces new & daunting challenges, in the way we get our stories and the broad and diverse resources at our disposal.

“But the ideals & goals remain the same,” she said before ending the interview.

Editor: This article had appeared in the New Straits Times.

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