“.. so how did you know him?”
“..well, he was appointed late as a prefect so one assembly, there was this huge prefect receiving a standing ovation...”
The conversation took place between me and Rizal (an ex-Cambridge lad who look after Ben all this while) on 15th January 2008 at the UMMC around 10 pm while Ben was having his routine dialysis. By then it was very clear that he (Ben) might not be around for long unless miracles happened.
I would remember that conversation with Rizal until my last breath, because despite our individual closeness to Ben, Rizal and I actually did not communicate much. I love him for looking after Ben all this while – a responsibility that I know was partly mine all along but was very bad at it; he (Rizal) must have felt the closeness by virtue of my closeness to Ben. But our relationship was awkward to say the least.
So the fact that we started to reflect the initial days that we knew Ben somehow signaled the resignation that the ‘end’ was near. It was poignant because both Rizal and I knew by then that it was a matter of days before it could happen.
My first recollection of Ben was a ceremony to appoint one Adlan Benan Omar as a prefect in my first month in MCKK. It was memorable because the name “Benan” was uncommon; plus he received a standing ovation while making his way to the stage.
Over the months, Ben had a lasting impression on me because of his oratory skills. To others in my batch, he was one of the kindest prefect-on-duty (together with Azizan Din) during the prep time inspection. Unlike some prefects who would tear our desk cover or punished us for the littlest mistake, Ben spent more time correcting our English (e.g. once someone wrote “Silent is golden” after which he spent some time explaining why it should have been “silence”).
It was these two traits – his oratory (and intellect) and kindness that eventually made us some sort of a tag team in many adventures that we had had together; from the college days all the way to the reformasi experience and beyond.
- email 31 March 2004, discussing the merit of coaching MCKK debating teams
I had been a school debater since my primary school days – apparently I never know when to shut up. In MCKK, each year the senior debaters would carry out a “screen test” to select new debaters for his batch to progress to represent koleq in future years.
As a Form 1, I never knew my “potential” (as it was referred to by Ben over and over again in my junior years) but I realized a string of interest from the senior debaters of my ability to speak; after a few months in college. While some others were more forthcoming (e.g. Dany wanted me to go to PPM – those days it was unheard of that a F1 could go to PPM); Ben kept a distance for a while. I remember that he smiled all the time when I debated, though he rarely said much.
But as a debater, he was to inspire a generation of debaters that MCKK had produced. I remember the inter-house competition in 1990 – on Saturday night he represented MS in the English section and won; the next night he won the Malay section. He was the first bilingual debater I met in my life and he was legendary in both.
In the 90s, the PPM was won repeatedly by RMC helmed by one Arulkanda Kandasamy. Later on we crossed path as the three of us were all in UKEC in the UK – and Arulkanda (the legend of the Malaysian debating circles) used to marvel endlessly at Ben’s debating prowess.
Ben went to Abingdon in Oxfordshire for his A-Level; became the first Malay head boy elected by popular votes and in his final year, won a UK-wide debate representing Abingdon.
Throughout the 2 years he was at Abingdon, our correspondence increased. He used to write on monthly basis to me – encouraging me to work hard to recapture PPM (which was last won by the newly minted YB of Temerloh, Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah in 1980). PPM by then was becoming a Holy Grail that every debater in MCKK spent our lifetime trying to win.
The friendship (between a legendary figure by MCKK’s standard and a junior who barely uttered 10 words to him while he was in MCKK) grew as our letters went back and forth (and this was during the snail mail era between Oxfordshire and Kuala Kangsar).
In 1992, I had my first ‘cap’ representing MCKK as a first speaker – a Form 3 leading a debating team, which was not so common in those days. It was a combination of Ben’s “wasiat” to the teachers as well as the teachers’ own pragmatism to promote meritocracy and break the stranglehold of “seniors-come-first” mentality. The correspondence increased as I kept sending him request for assistance with our points. He never failed to come back with a list of issues and facts for us to consider in our debates.
Nobody paid attention to us – not budak koleq, not the old boys, not even the school – as we were a bunch of first timers. Most of the attention went to the Cagers and English debaters. We were expected to lose in the first round.
Suddenly against all odds we broke the curse of 12 years and went to the final against the defending champion – all thanks to Ben. Fortunately the final was carried out annually during the summer break, so he came back from Oxfordshire to coach us.
It was only in August 1992 – after 2 years’ worth of correspondence – that I had a decent conversation with him for the first time. I remember he drove me (he was 19 years old then) in his old Saga to buy food to and fro Sekolah Alam Shah (where we were staying) throughout the preparation and looked after us.
He would explain the issue and then related the issue to the facts – so that we (myself, Badak Class of 92 as the second speaker and Kechoq Class of 93 as the third speaker) really understood the flow of thoughts. Then he would drill us with the rebuttal training – a bombardment of rebuttal upon rebuttal impromptu to train our “reflex” when dealing with opponent’s arguments. In the end, more than 90% of our text and argument was his – the only remaining 10% was what we had to come up for ourselves if the opponents went off-track in their arguments.
That year we won PPM and the jubilant celebration by the present and old boys at Dewan Muktamar that night was one of the most important memories of my childhood. In a single sweep – I owed Ben for the rest of my life; for giving us the opportunity to lift the trophy when all other better debaters than us had failed year after year before that.
One thing that I must mention here is Ben’s reputation as a walking encyclopedia. I know budak koleq of the later years would refer to this or that person as a walking encyclopedia – but if they had met Ben, they would have known what a real walking encyclopedia is. After all this is a guy who began to read when he was 3-4 years old and by Standard 6, I was told he had memorized the Malaysian Constitution. Gedebe (Baharuddin Hassan, the eccentric History teacher) used to tell me how he would never bother to mark Ben’s SPM paper, instead he would rather ask Ben to pick the mark himself.
So when both of us decided to take “sabbatical” break from partisan politics (having spent 5-6 years of our time during the early reformasi and keADILan days) – it was natural that we went back to coach MCKK debating teams, upon request by our ex-teachers.
From 2004 onwards, Ben and I spent a lot of our time with the present debaters. Ben never missed the team’s training or tournaments despite his failing health. He was a much better coach than I was since the team he coached made it to the final each year at the UIA National Debate Championship (in 2004, 2005 and 2006) while mine always crashed at earlier rounds. In 2004, he led the whole contingent of the coaches (8 of us altogether) for a week in Kangar for the PPM – we rented a bungalow and spent days and nights with the boys and teachers.
By the time we finally won UIA championship in April 2007, Ben was too sick to be present. I had tears – not so much because we won, but I had wished for him to be there as it would have meant a lot for him. He made his last visit to MCKK for a debate training in July 2007 – he collapsed while watching the boys doing a mock debate; then recovered and delivered his final speech to the present debaters. He passed away about 6 months later.
Looking back, there were times I felt guilty that I dragged Ben to coach the boys when I knew he was not fit physically. Yet I did the boys a great favour that they had the privilege to know him and drew inspiration from him, the way I was. In the final analysis, I want to believe that both Ben and I did not have regret for the last 4 years we spent coaching the MCKK debating teams.
I am sure that the present and future MCKK debating teams will always remember the Debating Master who single-handedly transformed our fortune and set in motion the discipline and tradition that defines MCKK debaters for many years to come.
“.. long ago I shot my bow, Where it fell I didn’t know, Much later in a huge great oak, I picked it up still unbroke..”
- letter from Abingdon, 16 April 1992
Ben was always a man in hurry, knowing that his health would be a limitation in the future. In his many correspondences to me when I was a junior, he would share his frustration of the unfairness of the world, of the resolve that we must have to do the right thing in life, of the burden to lead. He was very concerned about having people who would continue his “fight” for setting things right – whatever I understood that to be then.
Much of my worldview in MCKK during my formative years was influenced by Ben’s idea of “fighting for a just cause”. This romanticism later on plunged us into other things; which were to have a profound effect on the direction of his life.
My decision to shun prefectship against everyone’s expectation and chose the KPKM path was rooted from our shared belief that leadership is partly a question of legitimacy. An appointed prefect can never have the same legitimacy compared to an elected Union’s EXCO.
He encouraged me to explore the unthinkable in MCKK. By mid of Form 4 – as an anti-establishment KPKM EXCO poised to play a bigger role when I was in Form 5 – our discussion on what I should do when I was in Form 5 grew more intense in our correspondence. I bounced a lot of ideas on what I thought at the time the necessity to undo the “power structure” in MCKK dominated by the Prefects Board - he always gave feedback and advices on the need to be magnanimous and considerate when dealing with opponents.
I received an ESSO scholarship to USA before I sat for my SPM; however I went on to take PETRONAS’ scholarship solely because I wanted to join Ben in the UK. By that time, Ben was already in Cambridge reading History and Law.
We always discussed the “adventures” of doing something different for the good of the people; so when eventually he founded UKEC (a coalition of Malaysian students associations in the UK) I got very excited. Through UKEC we hoped we could change the landscape of student activism in the UK – from one that was partisan and a mere vehicle of the political masters in Malaysia (e.g. Kelab UMNO, Kelab MIC, Hizbi) – to one that promoted intellectualism, openness and the spirit of volunteerism.
Ben achieved with UKEC in two years what other student leaders before his time could not achieve for a decade. He alleviated the voice of students at the national arena so much so that ministers began to court UKEC (and directly him). It was very human to be impressed with Ben’s talent and ability, so before long he was very much the darling of the establishment (long before one KJ – not the genuine KJ from Tumpat – splashed the headlines). By 1996 – UKEC counted among its Honorary Members the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, scores of ministers, intellects and corporate leaders.
Consequently, Ben found himself in Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s circles when he came back from Cambridge. In the early days, he sometimes got very frustrated with the manners things were done in our society; when sometimes the most basic issue of fairness was easily put aside. He feared the direction the society was taking – much of his fear back then in one way or another manifested itself later on; especially on the part where “one day we shall be governed by our inferiors”.
He used to write a lot and telephoned me (I was in Leeds at the time) to share his frustration; nevertheless he trudged along serving IKD (Institut Kajian Dasar).
Then came the economic crisis and 1998; which was to change his path completely. While I struggled as UKEC Chairman in the UK to calm the students community due to various rumours of a possible recall by the government; Ben lobbied in Malaysia for the government not to over-react. We collaborated with MBM and PKPIM to put forward a common voice in dealing with students’ reaction to the economic crisis to resist suggestions that overseas scholars were relocated locally (among other issues championed); made possible through the MCKK connection (MBM President was Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, Class of 78 while PKPIM General Secretary was Ahmad Shabrimi Sidek, Class of 91). The collaboration eventually led to a lasting common ground between local and overseas Malaysian students and propelled us to the heydays of reformasi in 1998.
By 1998, the political landscape changed so much. Ben and our circles had various discussions on how to navigate but we always ended up at the same point when it came to the most appropriate response – speak our mind without fear or favour. Things snowballed and by 2 September 1998, Ben chose the irreversible.
With the benefit of hindsight, he could have chosen the easy way out. Somehow I feel human beings will always find good reasons to justify the decisions they make – so if Ben had wanted to ignore his conscience; he could have opted to go with the establishment that abandoned Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. He could have seized the vacuum left and emerged as the frontrunner among the young faces in UMNO eventually, given his unrivalled intellect, charisma and oratory skills.
Yet he was never interested in power for himself, only in power as a tool to do the right thing and to effect changes. When power by itself is in conflict with the greater purpose for which the power is supposed to be exercised; he chose to abandon the prospect for power. He chose reformasi and conscience.
Ben spent his years after 1998 on a rollercoaster of adventure – the reformasi type of adventure. Our objective as concerned activists and collegians was to keep the Anwar Ibrahim story alive – in our own small ways, together with Raja Petra, Q (Class of 95) and a few others – we were among the motley crew of people who manned the last frontier inaccessible by the reach of power of the ruling regime: internet through various reformasi websites. Ben also contributed a lot to the overseas campaign to keep Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in the limelight; given his many contacts abroad.
Eventually he did return to Malaysia and was one of the early pioneers of Pemuda keADILan, until his last posts in the party as a member of the Supreme Council (MPT) and Youth Secretary. In 2003, Ben and I decided to take a “sabbatical” leave from all party posts and went on our separate ways (as far as politics and activism was concerned). He remained very close to the opposition political pulse and frequented Kota Bharu in advisory roles on economic matters until his health deteriorated.
There were many times that I looked at Ben in melancholy especially in his final months. He was content with spending time with his little niece or entertaining some of the present debaters – what a stark difference to what could have been; for someone with gifts like his. Many times I wished that he had not chosen the path he took in 1998; so that he would be at a place where I thought he deserved. I grew restless sometimes that the society idolized certain personalities who were no match to Ben’s intellect and charisma; because the society never had the opportunity to know him in the first place. On a number of occasions, I wished that Ben had shown some sign of remorse that he had forfeited the promise of influence, power and popularity – in exchange for conscience and peace.
Ben that I know however never had a single regret of the path he had taken. Till his dying breath, never once I heard he expressed regret – his concern was always that the interest of the people and country must come over and above everyone else’s; and this he expressed with sheer eloquence in a meeting with YTM Tengku Tan Sri Razaleigh Hamzah (perhaps his last political meeting) in October 2007.
Adlan Benan Omar, Mohd Shah House (Class of 90) read History and Law in Cambridge. He was an investment banker by career and historian by passion. Rafizi Ramli, Sulaiman House (Class of 94) was the Union president and Carey Award winner in 1994. He was trained as an engineer and is currently an accountant by practice.
With the passing of Ben, I lost a person I regard as the best intellect and the most charismatic leader of my generation – and many who have had encounters with Ben from near or far would have agreed with me.
One person was constantly on my mind as the phone kept ringing and TV channels were flipped from one another on the night of 8 March. He was not around to witness the coming of age of fellow Malaysians – a dream that he pursued relentlessly throughout his relatively short life. Before I slept that morning, I reassured myself that though many will not remember his contribution that made 8 March 2008 possible; at least those who had worked with him will know that the choices he made had not been in vain.
“Time passes by, Raf, and may soon overtake us. But the love is constant and only goes stronger. Even when I am gone, I will watch over you as full of pride at you as I have always been. But then you know I have always, and will always, love you above all else..”
- SMS 24 October 2007
Most articles written on Ben revolve around his intellectual and oratory prowess. I would have understood it since Ben was always a larger than life figure who left a lasting impression on people. He was truly a shooting star – most did not have much opportunity to know him better, but they will always remember the witty genius they once met.
In that perspective, I can consider myself extremely blessed to be so close to him personally since 1990. Our relationship evolved from one of a senior-junior to a mentor-apprentice to partners in crime and finally to brothers.
Initially our relationship always revolved around “work”. In MCKK – it was always about winning PPM, restructuring the “order of the day” or succession planning, then in UKEC it was always about pushing for more moderate voice with reasons beyond racial and religious lines to the point that in 1997, he once wrote to me that sometimes in the future we (he and I) should spend time to catch up on personal matters and not just work.
But of all so many virtues that Allah has blessed him with – Ben’s greatest asset was his kindness. He had a kind heart that on many occasions he never thought twice to take from his pocket and give it to others; and he never gloat about it.
He started a charity project called Kalsom with other friends in the UK to provide guidance and assistance to excellent students from rural areas in 1994. The project had been continuous since then and each year hundreds of Form 4 students from all over the country benefited. Some of these students have long started working; some of them benefited financially from Ben’s assistance during their years in university.
Fazurin (another close friend to Ben and a fellow debater) and I had always agreed that Ben “suffered” from superiority complex. Given his intellect, in public he was a larger than life character; impressing and dazzling people to the point that he could appear remote sometimes. Yet he was a gentle and considerate person in private – a trait that perhaps many did not have the opportunity to witness.
While growing up, many of us went through ups and downs; myself included. Luckily Ben was always around and would support me in any means necessary. Once when I was going through a rough patch as a young accountant struggling to qualify for my CA in London – after a messy breakdown in relationship and barely able to pay my bills with my meager pay – Ben flew all the way from Singapore just to give moral support (and took me out for dinner etc. to cheer me up) and paid my bills until I could get back on my feet. He never once mentioned about the money he paid for my rent and bills during those days in London.
And I could not be the only one whose life he had touched. There were many others; because unlike many of us – he invested in people. He believed in potential and in people’s ability to continue the good work that he had done. Somehow he always knew that he would not live long; so his energy was spent considerably in influencing and touching the lives of others whom he hoped one day could accomplish things he did not have the time to do.
Looking back, he should be proud. There are some Malay Cambridge graduates who would not have been in Cambridge without his help. He left behind a band of junior debaters in MCKK who went on to represent Malaysia (among others) and accomplished many things none of us was able to do. The UKEC as an organization produced many outstanding professionals (having benefited from the training that UKEC provided as a platform) whose contribution to the nation will continue to grow in the future. He worked tirelessly for the cause to release Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and he held the fort for Pemuda Keadilan (together with other activists) in the face of onslaught from the opponents; so that the people after him could bring the party where it is today.
I wish many of the successful Malays would have had a passion for investing in people like him. I was partly motivated by him to start a string of projects with MCKK with the broad objective of moulding exceptional talents among our students. We follow these talented students all the way through university and into their first job. This is our only way of saying thanks to Ben – by making sure we touch many other people’s life the way he had touched ours.
I only have one regret with Ben – that I never reciprocate his time and efforts for me, as I was too busy pursuing my own things. After we took the “sabbatical” leave from partisan politics, we went separate ways. I concentrated on my duty as a corporate slave and part time MCKK coach, he was with his stuff. Along the way his health deteriorated and he kept it from me (and I was never bothered to check up on him regularly). We still talked on the phone once in a while, but the frequency got less and less over time.
After PPM 2007, I wanted to see him just to vent my frustration with the way things were – as I was frustrated with the system, MCKK and even the team. It was only then that I knew he had just been out of the ICU. He had always been in and out of hospital and I visited him once in a while, but that was the first time he was discharged from an ICU.
I remember that day – despite his difficulty and pain, he spent some time cheering me up and going through all the jokes and experiences that we went through in our many adventures, as if reflecting. It was then that I knew that his time was short.
I was glad that I had the opportunity to make it up somehow to him over the next few months – that I spent more time with him after work; mostly to cheer him up. But things deteriorated very quickly and by end of December 2007 – doctors felt that nothing much could be done for him.
In his last few weeks, he stopped talking. I would like to think that it was his resignation that he would go away and was reflecting; though sometimes I could not help but wonder whether he was angry. On 17 January 2008 – his last birthday – I brought him a card around midnight as we (the family and I) were not sure whether it was a good idea; but we thought it was worth trying to cheer him up. He did not read that night and the torrential tears that I had when he was indifferent to the card was the worst so far; as I desperately needed to believe that I had not let him down and he was not angry.
The next day his sister called me to tell me that he read the card twice and I cannot describe how happy I was. I thought that I could make a difference in assisting him to fight his illnesses, so I started writing a letter in the manner he used to write so many letters to me. I wanted to leave a letter each day to him to encourage and motivate him; to remind him of what a wonderful friendship the last 17 years had been.
I never managed to pass the first letter to him – by Saturday his health deteriorated so much that it became clear that his time would be in a matter of days. He passed away one week after his birthday and the only people around were his mother, sister, grandmother and Ezam Mohd Nor. Rizal (who had been looking after him all these years), Dany (fellow debater from Class of 90 and the closest to him from Class of 90) and myself were not around; we were at work.
The last meaningful thing that I said to him was through the birthday card, part of which was as follows (from whatever I could recall):
“.. I am sorry for all the years of neglect, for all the years of taking you for granted..
..You are the only person I ever look up to and I simply cannot contemplate life without you yet…
.. Once you wrote to me that when there was only one set of footsteps on the beach; that was because God carried the man through – so will He with you…
… As you always told me – “this too shall pass”…
… for whatever it is worth, Happy Birthday Abang…”
Ben left behind too big a vacuum that it is irreplaceable. Yet many will remember him for the kindness, the inspiration, the lessons, the assistance and the privilege of knowing him in the first place. Rest Ben, Insya Allah our prayers will never leave you alone.