The feats and foibles
Pak Mansor

by Lee Yew Meng

“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight.
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”

— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82)

Pak Abu Mansor stumbled upon this quote while reading The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by Joseph S C Abbott when he was in Form Four. He finished the book in one reading, from 9 a.m. Saturday to 3 a.m. Sunday. That was the tenacity with which Mansor devoured knowledge.

Mansor came into being neither at the worst or the best of times. His was an “endless” series of tests but aided and abetted by some fortuitous turns, as if being rewarded for overcoming those obstacles.

His story as told to the writer follows.

A house with four boys and a monkey

Abu Mansor was born in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur on March 27, 1941, the fourth son to Mohd Basir Amin and Siti Aminah Tahir. Their abode was in the government quarters until dad was transferred to Tanjung Karang during the Japanese occupation. The family then moved to a kampung house in Payar Jeras, Kuang. Siti Aminah died of yellow fever when he was two years old.

One year after mum died, the father remarried. The marriage didn’t last and they divorced two years later. He married again shortly and the four brothers were introduced to their “evil stepmother.”

Over 65 years later he still recalls the “twirling cubit” that really stung but left no mark to tell tales.

In 1948, dad succumbed to malaria and the evil stepmother absconded with all she could plunder, leaving the brothers to themselves. The eldest at 15 was sickly from birth; second brother was 12, third brother, nine, and Mansor at seven, not forgetting their pet monkey, lived on their wits the next two years.

Daily diet was variously cooked ubi kayu (cassava). School was a two-mile walk. Every Wednesday kids bring a kole or tin cup, for the free milk (vitamin B supplement).

Twice a year, he remembers someone in a white overall who distributed pink candies. The very next day worms would slide out when passing motion. Oftentimes he’d have to use a twig to twirl and ease it out. Parents on their kids used the charcoal tongs.

In those two years, Mansor was a kampung-style street urchin — wild and free.

Then, in 1950, their grand-uncle (Siti Aminah’s uncle) Haji Mohd Sidin (a Group Visiting Teacher, Malay Schools), came by and offered the brothers food, shelter and school. They had to rely on their ingenuity for anything else.

I want to be a DO

Soon after the new setting, the second brother was recruited as a guru pelatih (trainee teacher) and posted to Tilam Burok, an obscure village in Sungai Besar, north of Tanjung Karang. Over the years he upgraded his skills and was promoted the headmaster of a large school prior to retirement.

Abu Mansor (left) with schoolmates Mokhtar (centre) and Jalil in 1957

The third brother was taken in by a son of Mohd Sidin to be a “houseboy” of sorts and never attended school.

Home was now in Bukit Kuda, Klang in a vast area of six acres and school was SK Klang, three miles away. The routine was — wake at 5 a.m. to iron the school uniform, bring along lunch (mackerel, water spinach and rice everyday) prepared by grandaunt and walk one hour, reaching school around 7am. The walk home at 1 p.m. took 15 minutes longer.

Mansor recalls with amusement an incident in standard three, when Cikgu Asmawi asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up. There was the usual, teacher, policeman, fireman, clerk, etc.

When it was Mansor’s turn, he said, “I want to be a DO.” Mansor had to clarify that DO meant District Officer. The Klang District Officer, Mervin Cecil ffranck Sheppard with his delicately manicured moustache and the air of importance in demeanour made a deep impression.

That gentleman was later better known as Tan Sri Dr Mubin Sheppard (1905-94).

As the top student in Standard Four, he was offered a place in the elite English school MCKK or Malay College Kuala Kangsar for his secondary education. Eventually, the second best student took his place when he suffered a broken arm just before the intake date. This student happened to be the son of the school headmaster.

As fate would have it this boy later became the principal of MCKK.

Sojourn in Klang

Mansor joined the Klang High School in the Special Malay Class in 1952. This was a two-year transition for those from Malay-medium schools.

He managed to earn promotion to Form One in half the time. His rival in scholastic achievements was (Tan Sri) Abu Hassan Omar, later the twelfth Selangor Menteri Besar (1997-2000).

This was the first time Mansor mingled with any non-Malays and also the first time that he received instructions in English! But he had some headstart earlier, courtesy of Beano and Dandy.

These two classic comic titles made learning English compulsory to “desperate” Mansor because he had to understand the exploits of Desperate Dan and others.

Printable roll of honour during “Klang High” years:

* Had his gang — for pranks and fisticuffs but mostly to earn the “extras.”

* Crocodile hunting led by a kampong bomoh. Skinned the creature and ate the flesh.

* Applied to the Social Welfare Department to enter an orphanage for “kicks” — so happens one of Mohd Sidin’s daughters, Kamariah, worked there and told on him.

* Kamariah’s husband, Rashidi, a lovable man, provided an education not found in any books, at that time.

* School captain for football, rugby, cricket, athletics and hockey. Where did he find the time to study? “I never remembered studying.”

* Felt puppy love for the first time — “handsome” Wahab’s sister Umi Kalsum Ahmad.

He passed his Senior Cambridge in 1957 and now had to earn a place in the sixth form in one of the following schools, Victoria Institution, St John’s Institution or the Methodist Boys’ School.

Postscript - 1

Pak Mansor cuts a very sturdy figure and passes off as a 61-year-old on a good day and 65, at worst. He mixes very easily with all ages and laughs at will. A good cigar is essential though.

Any sense of deprivation those growing up years? No, because he never thought anyone had more than the other, but after a three second pause, he added — maybe a mother’s tenderness.

He thinks Malaysian and is very confident under Malay skin.

As I pondered over the phases and the circumstances of Abu Mansor’s eventful journey, his indomitable spirit increasingly amazes me.

There was, maybe 10,000-to-one odds that young Mansor wouldn’t distinguish himself in anything. Completing five years of Malay schooling was an achievement of sorts for many, and exemplary in Mansor’s case. A Senior Cambridge (SC) certificate would be the pinnacle. Anything beyond was … really quite unfathomable.

Never got his Higher School Certificate

He made the top 30 Arts stream offered for the Sixth Form at the Victoria Institution (V.I.). This was from a pool of some 600 students from Selangor, Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan.

We are brought back to a year earlier, in 1957, just before his S.C. examination. While walking towards the main Klang bus station, he noticed a Malay pakcik in a coffee shop waving him to join him. Mansor sat next to him as gestured. In the ensuing conversation, Mansor enquired if he could ask the “wise looking” pakcik three questions?

1. Would I pass my SC? Yes, with distinction.

2. Can I go to university? Even better, but very far away. (Could it be Universiti Malaya in Singapore?)

3. Would I marry Umi Kalsum? The wise man put his thumb in his mouth and then pressed against Mansor’s forehead, and waved the sixteen-year-old on.

Sixth Form in the V.I. came with a Federal Scholarship. A total of $60 was for hostel fee and food, leaving $10 for leisure activities. The $10 wouldn’t do for this lad of unconventional recreation. Innate survival instincts came to play again.

Every other Saturday, when the V.I. curfew was extended to 12am, his gang would flock to the famed BB Park (now replaced by BB Plaza and Sungei Wang Plaza). It was the “night life” of the 50s and 60s. Cinemas, gaming machines, taxi dancers, cabarets and the strip tease revue showcasing Malayan legend Rose Chan. Mansor and gang would constantly try to “beat the system” by paying less and getting more or gaining “admission” when they are short of a year or two.

Invariably, his $5 budget per outing stretched.

He was now in Upper Six. In the hostel shower stalls one day, Omar, a Selangorian told him about this advertisement he spotted in The Malay Mail. The Selangor government was offering scholarships to study in England.

Of course Mansor applied. Two weeks later he was informed of the selection interview. Mansor started work on the possible interview questions.

The day arrived. He was confident that his V.I. background was an advantage. There were twelve other boys already present, thankfully none from the V.I., which further strengthened his self-assurance.

The chair of the three-man panel was Tan Sri Abdul Jamil Rais, later Chief Secretary to the government.

1. Who is the Sultan of Selangor? Sultan Sir Hishamuddin Alam Shah came the immediate response.

2. What is the most important duty on a Friday? To attend Friday prayers.

3. Which mosque do you frequent? After an eight second pause, which seemed like eight minutes, came — Pasar Road Mosque!

4. Why do you want to be a chartered accountant? This one blew his mind. He just blurted: “I don’t know what is a chartered accountant. But if you send me there I will tell you when I come back.

C/o Burrow, Cliff & Russell Chartered Accountants, London

The Malayan Airways flight took off from Sungei Besi Airport to Singapore. Overnight stay was at the Raffles Hotel with the other scholarship recipient Shariff Yusuf. The next day BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation 1940-1974) took them to Colombo, Calcutta, Bombay, Cairo, Rome, and then London — 36 hours in total.

For the next five years, from September 1959, Mansor had to manage food, lodging and transport with 39 pounds 13 shillings and four pence monthly. 12 pence equals one shilling and 20 shillings equals one pound, which equals eight Malayan dollars and 50 cents.

In the day his articleship was at BCR and in the evenings he reported to the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales for classes. Although Mansor was theoretically an article clerk, the first six months’ duties included menial stuff, which peons did back home. There was the continuous adding and balancing on ledgers, which he later appreciated. It sharpened his mind on how figures added up.

He recounts his maiden pub lunch experience; nonchalance being key, “I wanted to act ‘local’ so I walked into a local. Beer? Yes. A draught? Yes. Cheese sandwich? Yes. Yuck, and the cheese was hard!”

Mansor with Zaitoon at the Waldorf Hotel, London, in 1962.

A first lodging was at the British Council, near Harrods, reserved for Commonwealth students. That’s where he observed how social behaviour and value systems impacted how one is viewed. His initial sympathies to how those of the less developed nations were looked down upon evaporated with the constant ordeal from the interactions. They would just grab a chair and plunk it directly in front of your view of the television. Personal hygiene was non-existent. There was even a chap who used the toilet bowl brush for his back, later remarking how tough the bristles were.

This Malay knew business

There was a flight service for London-Kuala Lumpur-London for 150 pounds with the strict proviso that passengers had no commercial interests. The normal commercial flight cost 350 pounds. There were about 5,000 students in the UK then.

Mansor together with Alex Lee (Tan Sri, of Gerakan fame) and Derek Yeoh chartered the first flight, which took off with 108 passengers, each paying 225 pounds in the 110-seat capacity.

The passengers were students and their parents. They did this three times until the authorities stopped it, as another group copied but didn’t settle payments. Boeing got wind and Mansor was solicited to purchase their aircraft and start a regular chartered flight service. They even worked out a business plan, which detailed how he could own the 14-million pound plane in 12 years. Mansor balked at the idea and completed his studies.

Postscript - 2

Mansor led the Malayan Forum (founded by Tun Razak in 1949) through to the Malaysian Forum (1962-1964). Those were the times of young nationhood where students were expected to play pivotal roles.

Political leaders eagerly engaged the students in dialogues. Lee Kuan Yew was a frequent guest and a particular crowd favourite.

In the midst, Mansor was fastidiously courting (Datin Paduka) Zaitoon Datuk Othman Mohammad, who in 1963 became the first woman deputy public prosecutor.

While contemporaries, many of whom from wealthy families, were deliberating practical career options upon graduation, Mansor loudly stated his ambition was to occupy a business office in the topmost floors of the tallest building in Kuala Lumpur!

Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men

It is now September 1965. He wasn’t keen to work for the Selangor Water Works and requested for a position in the federal government and was offered one by the Accountant-General’s Department as a Treasury Accountant. His first assignment was in the Pensions Unit.

He discovered that pensions were only paid on the average six months after retirement. Why? Because that’s when the processing begins and that’s how things were done! Abu Mansor felt that retirees already needed to make a lot of adjustments and the six-month wait was an unnecessary ordeal.

He waded into bureaucracy full frontal. And feisty Mansor won.

Next, he was seconded to the Education Ministry in the Scholarships Division. Déjà vu — scholarship recipients only received funds six months or so after studies commenced. This meant scrambling by parents to seek out moneylenders or to patronise pawnshops.

The task was more difficult this time. His immediate superior, an English remnant expatriate either couldn’t or refused to see the social consequences of the delayed disbursements. Feisty Mansor battled and got his way.

It is 1967 and his next assignment was with the Agriculture Ministry to sort out the 3,600 cooperatives, with average lapsed audited accounts of four years. It was a labourious task even with 400 staff. He became very attached to the kampung folk in agriculture and in fishermen’s villages.

One day he was summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office, then sited near Bank Negara, and Datuk (later Tun) Abdul Razak told him: “Mansor, I want you to go to Japan, stay with their rice farmers in their homes and work with them for three months and learn about...”

Mansor was overwhelmed by the discipline of the Japanese, as if they were “programmed.” After giving his report, he was next sent to Poland. The contrast made him even more amazed with the Japanese work habits.

By end 1968, Tan Sri Sheikh Ahmad, Perlis Menteri Besar (1959-1971) wanted Mansor to revive Bank Kerjasama (later Bank Rakyat) to help the farmers’ cooperatives. Mansor asked for one week to consider.

He was now father to infant Azmel Reza. Mansor had married (Datin Paduka) Zaitoon Datuk Othman on January 20, 1967.

Roaring 70s — Bank Rakyat and Nation Building

When Mansor took charge in 1969 as the managing director, the bank had $32,000, but owed the government $30 million in soft loans. The staff strength comprised one manager/secretary, seconded from the Cooperatives Department, one peon and one jaga.

Mansor had to get farmers and fishermen to invest as shareholders, and to open savings accounts, and then the bank to approve loans to deserving applicants. He had to travel literally to every nook and corner of the peninsula repeating his sales pitch on “pooling resources” using his trusty Peugeot 204. The Mercedes offered by the bank wouldn’t help his assignment at that time.

He tried to meet almost all borrowers personally to “shake their hands,” to feel the genuine farmer palms. Those who really toiled the land had the unmistakable creases. All passed.

By 1973, the bank had 4,000 shareholders and by 1975, there was nearly one billion dollars in the savings accounts. He recounts with great pride when 3,000 shareholders turned up for the 1973 AGM in the KL Hilton (formerly located at Jalan Sultan Ismail). Yes, both the regular hotel patrons and the rural farmer visitors were equally in awe of each other upon visual contact!

(From left) Harun, Abdul Razak and Mansor in 1975.

By this time, the leadership of Umno had taken note of him. He had probably met more Malay voters than even the President of Umno! This man in his early 30s had simply “rushed in where angels feared to tread” and had succeeded. Besides Tun Abdul Razak, he had also become acquainted with a few in his Cabinet who freely consulted him. As is the norm in any political setting, jealousy inadvertently crept in.

Datuk Harun Idris, the charismatic Selangor Menteri Besar was particularly close, owing to his chairmanship of the bank.

Roaring 70s — Financial Independence

During this period (1969-1976), Mansor also dabbled in the real estate/property development sector. His two personal caveats were — no business dealings during banking hours and no loans from his bank.

Mansor’s first major success was the purchase of the land to build Wisma Central in Jalan Ampang, in 1972. Within eleven months together with two other partners, his $30,000 ($20,000 of which was borrowed from Public Bank) stake turned into over eight million dollars! He recalls with relish his repayment rendezvous with the bank manager to settle the borrowing with an $850,000 banker’s draft, nearly knocking the latter off his chair.

Eight million plus was serious money (about RM240 millon in today’s value) and the first promise he reminded himself was “a fool and his money are soon parted”, so wine, women and song was taboo. Second child, Almi Rizal came earlier, in 1970.

But he still indulged a little — an $85,000 Mercedes 450. He next bought 8.5 acres in the now Ampang Point locality. The market price was between $4 to $4.50 per square foot but the land owner had no intention to sell. Mansor made a cold call and offered $6 and said that he would call back the next day for the answer.

Within two hours of the positive answer, Mansor had the Sale and Purchase agreement signed and sealed and 10 per cent of the sale price in a banker’s draft handed over.

Six months later, after conversion from residential to commercial, he sold for $8.50 per square foot. Third child, Aris Zane came in 1974.

Postscript - 3

Mansor first met Zaitoon in London in 1961 although she had already “seen” him in 1959 when she was among the audience in a V.I. concert. He and six other boys did a cancan dance. His bra strap had snapped.

Zaitoon is a Klang girl. And as if that is not enough, she was born next to Haji Sidin’s house.

Was theirs destined? You bet!

The ‘unkindest cut’ for Pak Mansor

Orphaned at age seven, and lived the following two years without adult guardianship with his three teenage brothers, until granduncle Haji Sidin offered shelter at his home in Klang.

Transferred from a Malay school to Klang High and continued his Sixth Form with Victoria Institution, then earning a Selangor scholarship to The Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales in London. Upon graduation he was absorbed into the civil service, destined for the higher echelons.

Abu Mansor’s is a remarkable story but not exactly unique for those born in the 30s and 40s, though his may have an additional bump or two. It was the time of a young nationhood and those with talent were sought to serve.

Malaysians don’t live in tree houses

We are now moving towards the mid-1970s. With the Vietnam War raging, Americans and the rest of the western world were focused on events of Southeast Asia. However news on Malaysia and even its location was murky to many.

Datuk Harun Idris wanted to put Malaysia “in the world map” and suggested to Mansor to bring a Muhammad Ali (who had defeated George Foreman in 1974 to regain his world title) to a title fight in Kuala Lumpur. This was in early 1975. Harun had been the Selangor Menteri Besar since 1964 and was the current Umno Youth chief. He was also Bank Rakyat chairman.

There were rumours of Harun’s unsavoury role during May 13, but there were also quite a few personal testimonies of his heroic deeds, which saved many non-Malays. He was now a popular national leader destined for higher office.

Mansor, never known for saying no, took on the assignment. The first thing was to seek federal support to overcome the various red tapes.

The fight is on

Prime minister Tun Razak was equally enthusiastic.

Mansor flew to Las Vegas and met boxing’s pre-eminent promoter, Don King. He remembers vividly how King greeted him with one arm clasping The Complete works of William Shakespeare. Mansor is quite sure it was “staged” to suggest that he was a man of literature. He wouldn’t be Don King otherwise, would he?

Ali’s fee was US$2.5 million.

Mansor found a Caucasian contender in London by the name of Joe Bugner. The fee was US$500,000.

Malaysia caught the world’s attention on fight day — July 1, 1975. The fall of Saigon was April 30, 1975.

Another fight was on

By the end of 1975, the failing health of Tun Razak was known to party leaders and quiet jostling for succession had commenced.

Harun had been charged with corruption over a $250,000 HSBC contribution and had requested Mansor to be his bailer.

Tun Hussein Onn took over as prime minister when Tun Razak passed away on January 14, 1976. With Harun’s ineligibility, (Tun) Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, the assertive Home Affairs minister (1973-81) was the serious top contender to be the deputy prime minister. On March 5, some seven weeks later, the third vice president (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad was chosen instead.

Harun was again charged, with criminal breach of trust (CBT) over the Bank Rakyat Investment Committee’s payment approval (for the Ali fight) process.

During that period many personages were detained under the ISA. Dr Syed Hussein Ali was detained from 1974 to 1980. And those detained from 1976 to 1981 were Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad, former political secretary to Tun Razak, Dr Kassim Ahmad, political scientist, and Tan Sri Samad Ismail, an eminent journalist.

Harun was found guilty for both offences and sentenced to six years imprisonment. In 1981, he received a royal pardon after serving three years. He passed on in 2003, aged 78.

C/o Pudu Prison, Shaw Road (now Jalan Hang Tuah)

Mansor, too, faced a similar CBT charge as Harun. Essentially, it was about the prosecution not accepting the Bank Rakyat Investment Committee’s 3-0-vote approval, insisting that it should comprise the full 5-member committee, though it wasn’t expressed in the bank’s standard operating procedure. At that time the other two members were doing their haj pilgrimage and their scheduled return was past the payment deadline.

Solicitor-General (Tun) Salleh Abas prosecuted. Mansor received a four-year sentence.

His appeal hearing two months later upheld the verdict. Four months on, he secured the Privy Council date, at that time the court of final appeal in London. Mansor recalls, “clear as day” how the presider Lord Diplock flipped open the folder, said, “This is purely a domestic matter. We are unable to deliberate”, and flipped the folder closed. Then, together with the other two Law Lords, he stood up and left.

Mansor became His Majesty’s guest at Pudu Prison on March 28, 1977. Fourth child, daughter Aryan Alini was born 20 days later.

It was a large and well-appointed room of about 800sq ft. Harun became his roommate some three months later. Meals were served and other convicts maintained their toilet. There was a television room and visitation was quite relaxed. Mansor read ferociously.

He had prepared to be incarcerated and had liquidated as much as possible to ensure that Zaitoon was free from financial constraints while looking after their young family of four kids. His earlier dream of having an office on the topmost floors in the tallest building was dashed when the construction of Belmont Centre was frozen. It was renamed Promet Building when it was sold in 1981. He had lost much more than his freedom.

Mansor was released November 30, 1980, exactly 1,000 days later.

Postscript - 4

Pak Mansor was caught in the crossfire.

He had answered the nation’s call for ten straight years. He was directly instrumental in sustaining thousands and thousands of farmers and fishermen who were then the nation’s sustenance.

Yet, he had to spend the whole of 1976 to avoid jail because he was “too useful”. Then this talented and useful person was jailed. His was the unkindest cut.

Their treatment in Pudu and Harun’s pardon suggest that they were “in the way” at that time rather than criminals. What truly amazes me is that through it all, there wasn’t a trace of rancour from this fine gentleman. Its unproductive, he muses.

Today, he has seven grandchildren with Zaitoon, his formidable pillar. From Azmel — three, Almi — two, one is half Chinese and the other half Korean, Aris is enjoying singlehood as a Londoner, and Aryan — two, both are half Chinese.

Still, we owe Pak Mansor and his family a correction.

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