It was Saturday morning, with clouds darkening in the sky, when I heard of the passing of Ani Arope, at 83 years old, after his long battle with cancer. My first thoughts, tinged with deep regret at the news, was of his remarks when we met in early July, nearly six months ago:
“Usually they say cancer patients like me, the lifespan is about five years lah… I’ve already finished four years, six months,” he said, half-winking, eyes glinting with a twinkle of humour despite his frail appearance.
As the interview unfolded and I began to get a better sense of the man, I understood that it was a candid glimpse into the man he must have been in his heyday, and the man to great extent he still was despite the toll his illness was taking on his body.
Born in 1932, by any measure Ani lived an accomplished life. After graduating from Lincoln University with a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Science, he would go on to become Malaysia’s first Fulbright scholar in 1966, just three years after the nation came into being, in pursuit of a Masters of Agricultural Economics at the University of Vermont.
In addition to six other honorary degrees from both local and foreign institutions, he is also just one of three international alumni of the Lincoln University, since the institution was founded in 1878, to have received an honorary degree from the university – a degree of Doctor of Commerce honoris causa – exactly two decades ago.
At home, his resume was no less impressive with stints at the Rubber Research Institute Malaysia (RRIM), Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC). Prior to joining national utility company Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) in 1990, he was chairman of Bank Simpanan Nasional (BSN) as well as group chief of Kumpulan Guthrie, a plantation giant of the time.
When Ani took the helm of TNB in 1990, there was opposition to his appointment. His effigies were burnt and poison pen letters made their way to the eyes of TNB customers. The police even had personnel tasked to protect him round the clock.
Two years later, a nationwide blackout struck in late September 1992, which started the ball rolling for the privatisation of the Malaysian power generation sector and culminating in the birth of YTL Power, the first independent power producer (IPP) in Malaysia in 1996, followed by many more.
Despite a public outcry and threats against TNB for its supposed incompetence at the time for the 1992 blackout, an inquiry subsequently cleared TNB of any negligence for the incident but the damage was already done to its reputation. In 1996, then-prime minister Mahathir slammed TNB for being an “embarrassment” as another widespread blackout struck in early August that year.
It was in this backdrop of events that Ani stood his ground as executive chairman of TNB at the time in refusing to sign the very first power purchase agreement (PPA) for YTL Power’s benefit. While the terms of this agreement remain under wraps of the Official Secrets Act 1972, Ani had repeatedly stated later that the terms were ridiculous from TNB’s perspective.
In the interview with KiniBiz in July, Ani reiterated that the PPA was a lopsided deal and that he could not sign it in good faith given his duty to TNB’s shareholders to administer the utility in their best interests. (To read the full story click here.)
“There were many clauses detrimental to TNB (that I couldn’t agree to),” said Ani to KiniBiz. “If I (had) signed, people would have said that I also ‘sapu’ (get a cut).”
As we spoke on that period in his life, part of me felt a sense of deep admiration and respect for the man, who opted for principle and integrity when playing ball was such an easy alternative.
I am part of a generation that is only now coming to terms with the state of the nation and how many issues today are rooted in the recent past. Growing up in the Mahathir era, only later in my life did I begin understanding the darker side to his premiership in balance of the virtues often extolled by official texts and the mainstream media then, among them the birth of IPPs in the mid-1990s.
For me and my generation, people like Ani Arope are names in history and to meet him, listen to his thoughts firsthand on historical matters of importance of which the effects still resonate today, was a surreal and insightful experience.
To defy Dr Mahathir’s wishes, at his prime no less, would have great personal cost and Ani must have known this, yet he bravely stood his ground. Indeed he was effectively kicked out of TNB for his defiance, as he told KiniBiz in the interview.
“When I was kicked out, no company would touch me,” reminisced Ani in conversation with KiniBiz, adding that many companies at the time had ties that link back to YTL. “So I worked for foreign companies for a while.”
But he did not express regret at his decision – far from it. An often-repeated statement from Ani is that he does not wish to have his grave urinated on, a grave insult in the Malay culture, for dishonest dealing in life.
“If you want to get rich that way (by being corrupt), it’s easy,” said Ani to KiniBiz. “But this (TNB) is a trust, an ‘amanah’ that is given for you to look after.”
Later anti-corruption officers even came to his house, coincidentally while he was having lunch, and Ani’s sense of humour must have surfaced here as he told the officers that he cannot offer them lunch in case the offer is misconstrued as bribery. Jokingly he had also advised me to be careful and thorough in doing journalistic work lest I find myself in jail.
That aside, to my mind Ani was the quintessential Malaysian of a time long gone, the tolerant type eager to embrace multi-culturalism that is increasingly being drowned out by the noise from bigots, extremists and racists that live among us today. In the interview I found firsthand that he indeed spoke both Hokkien and Tamil, even telling a couple of anecdotes on the etymology of certain Tamil phrases. By reputation he also spoke Japanese and French in addition to Malay and English and it seemed a fitting circumstance that his family was also multi-racial.
I later found that he has dozens and dozens of adopted children from many races and backgrounds, who he supports financially for education.
“For any language, you must have the accent. If not it doesn’t sound right,” said Ani in our conversation, adding that he got his Tamil accent from todi shops. “We need some tuak to make our cake – dulu mana ada baking powder.”
I must say I was embarrassed when he asked whether I spoke any indigenous Sarawak dialects apart from Malay and I answered in the negative. “Rugilah. Since you are there, campur dengan budak-budak Iban, belajar Bahasa Iban,” he told me.
It was a pleasant surprise to me when he told me of his brief time in Sarawak during the reign of the second prime minister, father to the current prime minister.
“I had to brief the prime minister then… there were places called Nonok, Kuching, Bau, Busuk,” said Ani, winking at the last one. “Now they changed Nonok to something else. Depa tukar dah. Kuching ada, Bau ada, Busuk tu covered.”
An old joke with the Bau division’s name, but his delivery warms the heart. As the conversation drifted to recent headlines at the time, Ani lamented the supposed issues that has risen, which he apparently felt were non-issues to begin with such as the prohibition on non-Muslims from using Allah and Alhamdulillah.
“Look, these are from a foreign language, not your language. In Arabic, they recognise four groups: Muslims, Christians, Jewish and Agnostics, but the language is the same,” he remarked. “So if they are asked among themselves, ‘how are you’? You might say ‘I am well’, but that is not complete. The sentence is not complete.”
“You need to say ‘I am well, thank to the Lord i.e. Alhamdulillah’,” said Ani. “But now cannot, non-Muslim cannot use (the word).”
When the reasoning that allowing such usage by non-Muslims might cause confusion among Muslims was raised to Ani, his eyes hinted at humorous despair as he said:” Come one lah, I went through 13 years of missionary school. I am still a Muslim.”
After a lengthy conversation, we ended the conversation and, as I left his house in Shah Alam, it struck me that I had just met a rare type of man from days long past, when a sense of duty was still paramount and people were out to serve their nation foremost.
And as I let the news of his passing sink in last Saturday, I felt a deep sense of loss as yet another towering Malaysian leaves a nation that desperately needs more men like Ani to be at the forefront of progress. Men who are willing to stand up for their beliefs, to do what is right rather than what is convenient and pursue their convictions regardless of consequences.
As I went to pay my last respects on that Saturday, Dec 20, I was reminded again of what he said when talking about his failing health in July. “There is no need to be bitter. Face it, prepare yourself,” said Ani. “So that when you have to go, you have to go and then you don’t leave problems behind.”
Watching his family members and relatives lift his body from the outside of Balai Islam to the inside for visitors, I could not help but notice that the coffin seemed light and unburdened, perhaps a divine sign that Ani did right in life.
May God bless his soul.