HIS home is deceptive. Located at the end of a quiet street in Cyberjaya, it doesn’t look remotely as ostentatious as I’d expected. The walls of the house look weathered and I would’ve passed it altogether if it wasn’t for the security guard standing idly in front, an incongruous addition to the modest building behind him.
Tan Sri Shamsuddin Abdul Kadir’s surroundings are apt enough, for he seems an intensely unassuming man; not in the sense of faux self-depreciation, or playing down what he’s achieved in his lifetime, because he speaks of his life and his work seriously, weighing his words carefully.
Gesturing for me to sit and after settling himself on the plush sofa next to me, he patiently waits for me to start. When I congratulate him on his autobiography A Driver’s Son, he replies wryly: “It’s my first book. It may be my last!” Pointing to his hearing aid in his right ear, he adds: “You got to speak louder… I’m 86 you know!”
He cuts a benign grandfatherly figure, sitting there with a smile on his face. But the geniality radiating from behind his spectacles masks a formidable determination and intuition that has seen his meteoric rise from poverty and wartime hardship to becoming one of our country’s most successful Malay entrepreneurs.
In an enigmatic start to his autobiography, Shamsuddin narrates: ‘Someone once said that it’s hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from’. The circumstances of his early beginnings gave no hint of what was to come.
His father, Abdul Kadir Mat, worked as a driver while his mother could neither read nor write, except for the Quran. The family of three shared a room until Shamsuddin turned 17. “That was our reality then. Wherever my father was able to find work, we invariably had one room to live in. None of the rooms were big — roughly the size of a standard single bedroom today but it was what we called home,” he wrote.
“My father was determined that I should get an education. He’d managed to finish Standard Four himself but he wanted more for me, as did my mother,” confides Shamsuddin. His schooling soon came with a lesson he’s unable to forget. “I was a good student but one day, I felt really lazy and tired of the mental arithmetic quizzes, known as congak, my teacher gave out daily,” he recounts, divulging that the teacher would harshly punish anyone failing to answer his questions correctly. “We were terrified of him!” he adds, chuckling.
He recounts that his suspicious mother dragged him to school, insisting he wore his uniform despite his profuse protestations that there was no school that day. “It was drizzling and my mother was carrying that paper and bamboo umbrella… you know, the kind you get when you attend a Chinese funeral? It was the longest walk of my life!”
He grows more animated and leans away from his chair, using extravagant hand gestures to describe his enraged mother’s beating. “When she discovered the truth, she used the payung (umbrella) and beat me until it broke to pieces!”
It didn’t stop there. Dragged home by one arm, he was tied to a jackfruit tree and left to the mercy of the tree’s main residents — big red ants. “I cried and screamed. Even the gardener who found me in that predicament knew better to keep out of my mother’s business,” he recollects.
“My illiterate mother couldn’t stand the idea of my throwing an opportunity away. I realised at that young age, how much my parents wanted me to go to school,” he remarks, adding with a chortle that he never played truant again. “The punishment my mother meted out was worse than that of the strict Maths teacher!”
The political landscape of colonial Malaya would soon change his life drastically with the arrival of the Japanese. The Japanese invasion began on Dec 8, 1941 before the attack on Pearl Harbour. School halted indefinitely, living conditions deteriorated and the full effect of the Japanese soldiers’ cruelty soon became apparent.
Eyes clouding, he recalls the time when he and his friends witnessed executions in Sentul: “The prisoners were swiftly decapitated with a single stroke. Even from where we were, we imagined we could hear the swish of the blade as it fell, the bodies falling into the pit before the blood had a chance to spurt.”
Up to this point, his family had been lucky enough to weather wartime conditions — until his father sent him back to school again. A lorry carrying Japanese soldiers pulled up, one day, in front of the school. They burst in and started randomly picking boys out, including Shamsuddin. They were subsequently herded into the waiting vehicle.
“We guessed our fate,” recalls Shamsuddin soberly. It was either to train as a soldier in New Guinea or labour at the notorious Death Railway connecting Bangkok to Rangoon, Burma. When the truck stopped momentarily at the Petaling police station, the terrified 12-year-old boy and his friends grabbed their chance to escape. “I ran and ran, and never looked back,” he recalls. There’d be no more schooling for him until after the war.
A FRESH START
The Japanese surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The war was over and his father wanted him back at school again, insisting on an English education. The 15-year-old Shamsuddin got turned down at several schools because of his advanced age. It didn’t deter his father who fervently believed learning English would help open doors for him. “I didn’t want to disappoint my father so I did my best,” he confides.
He was the oldest at 18, in a class of 11 to 13-year-olds, but that didn’t deter Shamsuddin from taking the entrance exam to get into Standard Five. His parents were ecstatic when he passed with flying colours. “My mother was typically restrained emotion-wise and it brought to mind the day she gave me a beating of my life,” he says, laughing. ‘It occurred to me that she was probably thinking: ‘Ini pasal payung’ (This is thanks to that umbrella). I can’t say that she was wrong,” he wrote in his memoir.
He continued studying and eventually earned his Grade One certificate. For the first time in his life, he faced an unusual dilemma of mulling over two scholarship offers and a job opportunity from the army. ‘We’d done it — we breached the limits of our class and our background,’ he shared in his memoir.
“I was tempted to join the army because I felt it was time for me to put the books aside and start assuming my responsibilities. I’ll never forget my father’s words,” he says softly, tears welling in his eyes. “He told me: ‘For as long as I can wash the cow dung from these car tyres, don’t worry about your mother and me.’” He pauses for a while before continuing tongue-in-cheek: “Of course, his words sounded more impactful in Malaylah. The English translation doesn’t do his words justice!”
His father urged him to take up the engineering scholarship because“ …he reminded me I had a habit of taking things apart with a screwdriver and trying to put them back together again,” he recalls, chortling.
TAKING THE LEAP
The rest, as Shamsuddin says, is history.
“I obeyed my father’s wishes, studied in Brighton, England and returned home an engineer.” He joined the government service and after many years, left to enter into business. “I was ready to take risks because I’ve tasted poverty and I knew I could handle it if it should come to that. I had nothing to lose,” he remarks.
Opportunities arose as the colonial government gave way to an independent administration. Soon he grew and expanded his company.
In his book, Shamsuddin continues to narrate bittersweet moments about raising a young family in post-colonial Malaysia while attempting to succeed in the business world. He admitted to having made mistakes and wrong decisions in the process. “It was part of my learning curve,” he concedes, pragmatically. Eventually his determination and persistence saw some breakthroughs.
“I owe my success to my father’s insistence on an education,” he says softly. Waving his hand around him, he adds with a hint of pride: “This is his legacy really. He believed in the power of education and working hard. If I can do it, anyone can.”
His father passed away at the age of 64 from a heart attack. “I still do miss him,” admits Shamsuddin softly. A silence ensues before he confides: “I’d wish for every young student to read my book and learn through my example that although there’ll be obstacles life throws you, they can be overcome.”
Concluding, he says poignantly: “My father always reminded me, ‘Jangan lupa hang ni anak drebar!’ (Don’t ever forget that you’re a driver’s son!). He can rest assured that I’ll never forget.”
A Driver’s Son
Author: Tan Sri Shamsuddin Abdul Kadir
Publisher: MPH Publishing
Pages : 347 pages
A Driver’s Son is Tan Sri Shamsuddin Abdul Kadir’s first published autobiography. One of the most prominent businessmen in the country, he reveals in his own words how he lived through poverty and navigated his way to the top of the business hierarchy.
A Driver’s Son documents more than just a legacy of business; it’s also a story of family, humility, loss, gratitude and one man’s richness of spirit.