Fond memories of Sultan Iskandar

Johor Postage stamp
I WAS probably 10 years old when I first met Sultan Iskandar, the late sultan of Johor.  It was at his daughter's birthday party held in their home, a palace formerly known as Istana Bukit Coombe located on the hillock opposite the Persada International Convention Centre.  At that time, I was only aware that he was my classmate's father.  For a few years in primary school, Tunku Besar Tunku Zabedah Aminah and I were classmates. 

As a kid of 10, I didn't quite figure out that she was a royal member of Johor but I knew she was someone important because Tunku Zabedah would arrive in school in a big chauffer-driven car.  I can still picture how the driver looked when he sends and picks her up from school. He was dressed in a dark uniform complete with a smart songkok. 

When we were in Standard 4, Tunku Zabedah and I were paired off not only to sit together in class but also to learn spelling.  Our class teacher, Mrs T. P. Low, a stickler for spelling, made us work doubly hard by giving us lists of spellings to memorise.  Each morning before assembly, Tunku Zabedah and I would sit on the steps at the back of the old hall to review those words.  Tunku Zabedah's father was known by his first name, "Tunku Mahmud" when he was still a prince but he discontinued the use of this name after he became the Sultan of Johor in 1981.

I can recall vividly, the sight and sound of him riding a superbike in the neighbourhood where I was living with our grandparents at 154, Jalan Ngee Heng, which was walking distance to his palace.  Each time I heard the rev and roar of his superbike, I would rush upstairs to look out from the windows and watch him make a skilful manoeuvre around the tight corner by our house with his entourage of bodyguards following behind at a safe distance.

At that time, the adjacent row of double-storey shops along Jalan Ngee Heng was occupied by residents on the upper floor and businesses like provision shops, coffee shops, laundries, a tinsmith and a coffin shop on the ground floor.  Since the 1930s, Ah Kong, our grandfather, had trained many successful players in his Companion badminton club and almost every night, Ah Kong and his older sons would train young players on the badminton court in our compound.  Very often, shop patrons would watch the games from the neighbouring shop's window or from the driveway in front of our gates.

One night, the players had a surprise spectator. It turned out to be, Tunku Mahmud, who must have been curious seeing a crowd in front of our house.  It was a memorable night when Tunku Mahmud dropped by to watch the games and chatted with Ah Kong and my uncles.

Sultan Iskandar in his office as Yang Di-Pertuan Agong
It's interesting that Malaysia is the only country in the world to have a rotating monarchy and I actually felt very proud when Sultan Iskandar was installed as the eighth Yang di-Pertuan Agong from April 26, 1984 to April 25, 1989.  When the office of Agong was established in 1957, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor was elected to be the first Agong but he declined due to old age.  The procedures for electing our monarch gradually became clear to me as I studied my postage stamp collection.

Classmates meeting Tunku Zabedah again in 2007
By looking at the various states of Malaysia and image of sultans on the stamps, I learned more about how the sultans of the nine states ascend the throne as Yang di-Pertuan Agong for five years.  It was around this time that I finally understood who my former classmate's father really was.  I say "former" because Tunku Zabedah had by then gone to another secondary school and we did not meet again.  It was only in December 2007, during a reunion gathering at a resort hotel, that we met again.

As Johor mourns the passing of Almutawakkil Al-Allah Sultan Iskandar Ibni Almarhum Sultan Ismail, I wish to express my condolences to Tunku Besar Tunku Zabedah Aminah and her siblings for the loss of their dear father. He has endeared himself to the rakyat with his unique spontaneity and the people will fondly treasure their memories of him.  May you find comfort knowing that he is dearly missed by many who knew him!

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 3 February 2010

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