Perpustakaan Tan Sri Omar Mohd Hashim
As a life-long history enthusiast, one of my most desperate wishes is to visit all (or at least almost all) of the museums and historical galleries there are in Malaysia. One of these historical galleries is Persatuan Sejarah Malaysia’s (PSM) ‘Galeri Sejarah’ located at the ground floor of Wisma Sejarah—a proud landmark standing tall in one of Kuala Lumpur’s busiest roads, Jalan Tun Razak. The building also boasts a member-only library that houses more than 3,000 books! We have frequented Wisma Sejarah in the past since it is a popular wedding reception venue, but wedding receptions are generally only held on weekends in KL, and the gallery only opens on weekdays.
Thus, when my elder sister said that she will be sitting for her A-Levels at Wisma Sejarah three years back, I was beyond thrilled. With some forward planning and internet research, I whole-heartedly volunteered to accompany my sister to Wisma Sejarah and prepared my day trip backpack filled with day trip necessities and a list of agendas for the trip. The plan for me was to first register as a member of the organisation, then visit the gallery, and then read the books in the library.
Upon our arrival—and after wishing my sister good luck as she strode into the exam hall at about 08:45—I quickly went up to PSM’s office to sign up as a member of the organisation, then hurried back down and
agonisingly eagerly stood in front of the Galeri Sejarah; waiting for it to open. The guard was steadfast in following the 09:30 opening hour. The moment the guard finally (FINALLY!) pulled the large wooden doors of the gallery open, I was overwhelmed by excitement and rushed in even though the guard had yet to flick the lights on.
This trip happened during one of the bleakest times in my life. My father had just passed away a few months prior, and my family and I were not certain about anything concerning our future, including our education. I had also lost my writing and research job; a work I passionately loved. Thus, this opportunity to fulfil one of my longest dreams became even more meaningful to me.
After touring once, twice, then one last time for good measure around the minuscule yet informative gallery, I thanked the guard for his kind hospitality and went for my third aim of the trip. The library, ‘Perpustakaan Tan Sri Omar Mohd Hashim’, was already opened by the time I reached it. And after signing in the guest book, I pulled out a notebook and a pen and engulfed myself in the overwhelming sight of the shelves of books. Some of the books were books I have only dreamed of seeing, much less holding and reading. I didn’t have much time to read that day since I spent a lot of time at the gallery. Therefore, I decided to only browse around and make a mental assessment of the titles offered and what’s where so that I can spend more time reading and less time browsing (or being awestruck and distracted by the many titles offered) during my next trip.
And that was how I spent my next few trips to Wisma Sejarah—secluded in the many rows of books, being lost in tales of old and new and worlds no level of imagination can do justice, and learning lessons and words of advice I hope to remember until the day I die. It was a beautiful safe haven, a reprieve from the dreadful loop of thoughts I was stuck in during one of my bleakest moments. My trips were so frequent that the librarian and I have grown amicable to, and comfortable with, each other. The librarian would usually turn her radio on when no one is visiting the library to fill in the silence, but as a sign of respect, she would turn it off when someone visits. After my frequent drop-bys however, she asked if it was fine for her to switch the radio on at a low volume. I said yes since I could simply bring my headphones to drown the noise a little.
Every morning while I waited for the library to open, I would reread the brief biodata of Tan Sri Omar Mohd. Hashim—the namesake of the library—which was written on a wall plaque hung beside the library’s doors. Back then, I had only briefly read about him—had only heard his name and story in passing. I knew that he was PSM’s chairman as well as the person who initiated the move to build Wisma Sejarah, and I knew that he was the person largely responsible for our Malaysian Examination Council’s (MEC) take-over in handling the SPM examinations from Cambridge, but not much else. I vaguely knew his story, but not his ideals, principles or his words. However, the trips to the library stirred my curiosity and I started to read a little bit more about him from his writings which were available in the library.
Then came an unassuming morning. It was just another day of me spending my time blissfully reading in the library—while my sister racked her brains trying to answer exam papers—when I heard someone walked in. There was a little bit of a stir (and by a stir I mean that the librarian stood up from her seat to greet the person). But since I was lost in my book, I didn’t think of paying much attention. Often the office staff would come to the library to have a chat with the librarian and thus—although it bothered me a little since I prefer to read in silence—I simply buried myself deeper into my book and continued reading.
Minutes passed by and I realised that the library was the quietest it had been in a while. Apart from some keyboard and mouse clicking, and newspaper-page turning, I couldn’t hear anything else—not the radio and neither any chatter.
I glanced up and furtively looked towards the neighbouring table, where the person who had just arrived was quietly reading a newspaper. He was an aged man I estimated to be around his late seventies or eighties. By chance, I glanced at one of the bookshelves in front of me where a book by Tan Sri Omar was placed. There was a picture of him from his younger days on the book cover; staring back at me with a kind smile.
Then the realisation sank in.
I—forgetting my attempts in being furtive—glanced back at the man with the newspaper, then back at the book, then back at the man, then—remembering my attempts in being furtive—quietly walked up to the librarian and asked with a slight tilt of my head, “Tan Sri Omar Hashim?”
“Ya,” was her excited reply to my excited query.
By now, I have already read about Tan Sri Omar’s deep passion for history, Bahasa Melayu and education, and a much more in-depth piece of how he initiated the move to build Wisma Sejarah as a symbol of pride and strength for the field of history, its lovers and also for PSM. Meeting someone who had done so much for the country, had such a deep passion for history, and was responsible for the construction of the building and the library I have grown so fond of was an opportunity I didn’t imagine would happen. I asked the librarian if she thinks he would mind if I were to ask for his autograph. I didn’t want to bother him since he was reading—and I hate interrupting someone when they are reading—but I needed to tell him how much I respected his works. The librarian contemplated the question, then said that I can give it a try.
Snatching my notebook, I timidly went up to him and (in the polite-most, respectable-most manner I could muster) excused myself and asked him if he can sign an autograph for me. His first reaction was a perplexed look; asking me what would I want his autograph for. I told him about how I respected and thought highly of his works and it would be such a great honour to have a token from the person I respect. He mulled over it, then nodded his head.
When he returned my notebook to me, with his signature adorning a once-blank page, he asked me if that is all. Still bothered by the thought that I may be bothering his reading time, I refrained from asking a few questions I thought of asking him and nodded my head “yes”.
To which he scolded me and said that it is not all. “Saya belum tulis tarikh,” he reprimanded. “Never get an autograph without the date.”
After writing the date down, he opened up a conversation and asked me why I was there. We talked for a moment, though it wasn’t long-lived. He soon went back to his newspaper and I, both excited and still nervous about bothering him from his reading, went back to my book.
I have briefly recounted this tale once in a previous blog article and will probably continue to remember it fondly. Although he didn’t know it, the conversation I shared with him instilled some hope and courage in me to trudge on through the difficult moment I was living through and inspired me to pursue a few of my seemingly too idealistic dreams. And although I couldn’t muster up the courage to ask him for his opinion on the matters I was curious about, I was more than honoured to have met and shared a short moment with him.
He passed away not long after, which shocked and grieved me deeply when I heard the news.
Menongkah Gelombang Pendidikan
Fast forward to earlier this week, I started reading his autobiography, ‘Menongkah Gelombang Pendidikan’. I have previously only read a few autobiographies since it isn’t my favourite genre. An autobiography would either allow you to listen to and watch an intimate retelling of a person’s life, giving you a peek into a person’s soul, or it simply presents an image the author wants you to believe in—an act, a political play and a biased perception. The latter is what usually puts me off and drives me away from reading autobiographies in general.
However, I found a few of Tan Sri Omar’s books on sale and my mother wanted to gift one of his books of my choosing to me for my birthday. In the end, I decided to give his autobiography a go. It would be interesting, I thought, to know more about his life and times and struggle and how he accomplished the great feats which he did. And the book, it turns out, was not only the genuine kind of autobiography which I love reading, but is also perhaps one of the best books I have read.
Tan Sri Omar’s story-telling was endearing and personal. When I read his writing, I can almost hear his voice narrating the lines—passionate when talking about the matters he was enthusiastic about, concerned when sharing an analysation of certain situations, movements or events which worried him, and nostalgic when recounting the stories of his parents. I can almost see his face lighting up in amusement when retelling the upbeat and cheeky incidences in his life, or excited when talking about the successes of his advocacy for the nation. When talking about his childhood days, Tan Sri Omar perfectly captured the innocence of a child who didn’t know or can foretell much further from what was present. Who had idealistic dreams and ambitions no one can hold them back from. Who, though naive, makes judgements and learns and remembers.
It was clear that all of these experiences from his childhood and teenage days have shaped his thinking and character, building him to be the man who strived and struggled simply to see his people and the future generation standing tall atop their motherland and proudly owning their culture and heritage after years of struggle and discrimination. A line from the book, which was quoted from Tan Sri Omar’s father, echoed his wish to watch the future generation grow and become their best, “Kalau seorang bapa itu diibaratkan sebagai pokok pinang, anak mestilah jadi pokok nibung dan cucunya mestilah jadi sebagai pokok kelapa.” His love for the future generation was expressed through his love for teaching, which was his dream job growing up. And although he only had the chance to teach for a few years in his life, it was evident from the way he recounted these years that he treasured them deeply. Reading about his love for teaching, I was reminded of the way he purposely left out the date when he signed me an autograph to test me and consecutively teach me about the importance of having the date written in an autograph. As the saying goes, once a teacher, always a teacher.
Another line which he quoted in the book were the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and a big inspiration for Tan Sri Omar during his school and university days. “Failure is a word unknown to me,” were the words on a poster of a picture of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in his university dorm. And throughout his career in the education industry and his struggle to improve and uplift the education level of our nation, he held true to these words. Never did he back down from a difficult task or an obstacle, or bow down when his ideas were rejected. He kept true to his principles and marched on and into the unknown to open new doors of possibility for the country. In his pursuit to take over the handling of SPM from Cambridge, he was willing to travel the whole world and study the way each examination syndicate around the world handled their exams and run their organisations to craft the best system for our country. The process was a methodical one. One in which Tan Sri Omar and the other people working for the MEC spent years in shaping and modelling with careful and thorough steps taken.
One of my favourite parts of the book is when he would share his thoughts and analysations on the many events which happened then, and also related events which are happening in the present. Amongst the matters he stressed out in his book was the importance of a strong, stable and supportive familial connection. He pressed on how a strong, supportive and proactive family is a key to building the best minds and talents, and most importantly, in building character, principles and identity. This idea mirrors his upbringing where his father, a teacher, had proactively taught and nurtured him since he was a child despite his father’s busy schedule working for his family and the people, and how his mother sacrificed herself and worked day and night, walking around town by foot for long hours to sell goods in order to secure a great education for her children when his father passed away while Tan Sri Omar was still in his secondary school.
Speaking on the importance of studying history, he mentioned, “Sejarah laksana cermin yang makin digilap, making cerah imejnya untuk mengenal diri, masyarakat dan bangsa.” These words ring so true to me as we as individuals build our identity and principles based on what we remember and learn from our life. Similarly, a society or a civilisation becomes what it is from its collective history. Thus, the more defined our history is, the more defined our identity will be. And if our history is twisted and bent around the edges, we as a society will build an identity based on false ‘memories’ or false history. This is a sentiment that I have always felt but never found the right words to so precisely express. Perhaps this may be another reason why I found the book to be so captivating and remarkable. Reading how he articulated ideas in such a precise manner with some of these ideas or sentiments being ones I have also felt—although most definitely not as strongly or as well-fleshed out—was assuring, motivating and inspiring.
His sharing on his deep and fascinatingly beautiful worldview coming from his decades of analytical observations were as engaging as the entertaining retelling of his younger days. These short but in-depth analyses were reflective of the deep wisdom he had gained from the many experiences he had gathered throughout the years. His insights account for opposing views with structured arguments to support each case while also adding in many suggestions on ways to handle problems or issues which we are currently facing and those which we might face in the future; mostly relating to education. There are many words of advice that he left in the book for the future generation—for our generation. Reminders for those he cared so much about and worked hard to ensure that we will flourish. It would be a pity if we waste this opportunity to read the last piece of writing he left for all of us before he passed away.
A Treasure Trove of Knowledge
A line near the end of his book which struck me so strongly was when he wrote, “Tanda bangsa itu suatu bangsa yang besar ialah apabila ia pandai mengenang jasa tokoh-tokoh besarnya. Malangnya, kita di negara ini tidak pandai menghargai jasa orang yang baik sehinggalah hamba Allah itu tiada lagi.” It made me incredibly upset and disappointed with myself for not have read more about him sooner. For not have asked him the questions I wanted to ask and for his opinions and ideas on matters I was curious about when I met him. For not have put more effort in trying to perhaps meet him again and listen to the fruits of his wisdom. I am still honoured and beyond thankful that I, at the very least, was blessed with the opportunity to meet him just about six months before he passed away. But I still regret the fact that back then I was not able to appreciate him and his work as much as I do now.
Many times have I heard people say that throughout time, knowledge will slowly leave us, and it leaves us when a wise and knowledgeable person dies. I have always understood this saying, but now, I feel it profoundly. Tan Sri Omar’s passing is such a sore loss for our nation. He was a world of inspiration and a treasure trove of knowledge. He was a trailblazer and a bright star on a dark night. Now, the least that we can do is to learn from what we still have; to learn from the pieces of writing the wise of the past has left for us and to learn as much as we can from those who are still with us.