By: Zawiyah Baba
Datuk Zakiah Hanum Abdul Hamid passed away early Friday morning of 2 August 2019 at Pantai Hospital, Kuala Lumpur. She was a month short of her 82nd birthday and 24 years after her retirement from public service. She left behind her husband, Dato’ Mohd. Nor Ismail, her three children, Mukhlis, Farha and Haiz, their spouses and grandchildren. I had not seen or met with her for almost 20 years but did get news of her occasionally from her sister Dato’ Rahmah. I was so thankful to learn that despite severe memory lapses, it was a blessing that Datuk Zakiah did not forget how to pray and to read the Quran till the last few years of her life. When I received the Whatsapp message about her passing and the burial arrangements, my husband Yusof and I hurried to the Bangsar mosque to ziarah and join in the funeral prayers.
I was fortunate to be able to see her for the last time and took my turn to give her a farewell kiss before her body was taken to the main prayer hall. While waiting for the body to be cleansed, some of those present read verses from the Quran. I met many old friends from PERTIWI (Persatuan Tindakan Wanita Islam), the Muslim womens’ charity organisation and the Malaysian Historical Society. Tan Sri Asiah Abu Samah and Puan Sri Aishah Shamsuddin, former Pertiwi Secretary were also present. I also met fellow librarians, Alimah Salam, now Secretary of PERTIWI and Kalsom Ismail, who is with the Bangsar Mosque Women’s Committee and assisted with the physical cleansing of Datuk Zakiah. I offered my condolences to Dato’ Rahmah and Datuk Munirah, Datuk Zakiah’s sisters and her daughter, Farha. After the Friday congregational prayer, which is obligatory for men, the ladies joined in the funeral prayers. Datuk Zakiah was laid to rest at the Bukit Kiara Muslim Cemetery.
The sad passing of this much-admired lady brought back memories of my early days as a librarian at the Ministry of Information Malaysia in July 1973. Datuk Zakiah was Deputy Director of the National Archives under the Department of National Archives and National Library. As the most senior professional officer in the Department, she involved me and young librarians in many activities organised by the National Archives. Datin Mariam Abdul Kadir, former Director-General of the National Library and one of the earliest to be recruited as a librarian in the National Library Division of the National Archives in 1971, remembered the late Datuk Zakiah’s warm and caring attitude as akin to an older sister as well as mentor. She provided invaluable guidance to the young Mariam in the workings of the government bureaucracy and willingly shared her experience in how to get things done effectively.
Datuk Zakiah’s mentoring and inclusive approach was perfectly understandable as the National Library begun as a Unit under the National Archives in 1966 when the Preservation of Books Act was passed and the National Archives designated as the implementing agency. The Act requires 2 copies of all books and printed materials published in Malaysia to be deposited with the National Archives and a National Bibliography published in accordance with international library standards. The National Library Unit was established in 1966 to undertake this task and before long, expanded into a Division. When the National Library Act was passed in 1972, the National Library Division became a sister department of the Department of National Archives and National Library before both became separate federal departments in 1977.
Datuk Zakiah Hanum was appointed Director–General, Department of National Archives in 1977, the first woman to head the National Archives and indeed, to head a federal government department in Malaysia. As a pro-active head of department, she was well-known in government circles. Her professionalism, diligence, organisational capability and likeable personality made her a natural choice in the implementation of a good many national government projects especially on women and culture. Some of the roles the National Archives was entrusted with even transcend the immediate scope of its functions.
Datuk Zakiah had the knack of inspiring young officers to do their best. In the 1980s, Arkib Negara was Secretariat for the annual Ibu Mithali (Exemplary Mother) Award. At a function to honour the fourth Ibu Mithali, Puan Hajjah Zabedah Haji Shahid in 1987, Datuk Zakiah gave me the honour of introducing her. She had heard me speak at a previous occasion elsewhere and thought I would do a good job. Her confidence and trust truly inspired me to do my very best. Earlier in 1984, I enjoyed working in the Publication Committee of Kata-Kata Bestari Kepimpinan of which she was Chairman. On another occasion, I had great satisfaction in helping her source out a very old and obscure novel she wanted to use as a prop for a play which she was coordinating for the Malam Mesra Perkhidmatan Awam graced by His Majesty the Yang Di Pertuan Agong. Her attention to detail and authenticity even for a small prop for a play reflected her integrity as a historian.
During CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) in 1989, Datuk Zakiah as the Committee Chairman was instrumental in planning the Head of Governments’ Spouse Programme. I was involved as a Spouse Liaison officer (SLO) for CHOGM and was assigned to Mrs. Mila Mulroney, the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife. The spouse programme for CHOGM 1989 was highly successful and truly wonderful and showed Malaysian culture at its best. The wives of the Head of Governments enjoyed the cultural show tremendously and Mrs. Mulroney said she would love to introduce the energetic Endang dance to youth camps in Canada. Tan Sri Badariah Arshad, who was Secretary of the Spouse Programme Committee, recalled that Datuk Zakiah did a such a great job that everyone wanted to meet her at the subsequent Head of Government’s retreat in Langkawi!
Datuk Zakiah wrote the official CHOGM seloka (rhymed verses which contains humour and a moral). As someone who had always loved pantun and seloka, she brilliantly captured the spirit of CHOGM in her work entitled Seloka CHOGM: Rumah Sudah Pahat Tak Berbunyi which was published by Arkib Negara in 1989. The preparation for CHOGM, the biggest event organised by Malaysia at that time was detailed in rhymed verses complete with names of everyone who played a key role and the part they played!
Datuk Zakiah also roped in librarians into PERTIWI which she led for three decades. A very active Muslim women’s charity, PERTIWI organised numerous charity projects for the benefit of the under-priviliged especially women and children. Their projects include fund-raising, food for the homeless, skills training for single mothers, educational and welfare programmes for children. Details about their programmes are available from their informative website (http://pertiwi.org.my). Inspired by her drive and dedication to voluntary work, several prominent librarians served in key roles in PERTIWI such as fund-raising or as Treasurer and Secretary. Among them were Datin Mariam Abdul Kadir, the late Hjh Shahar Banun Jaafar, who succeeded Datin Mariam as Director-General, Cik Norsham Muslim, former Chief Librarian of UKM and Cik Alimah Salam, former Head of the Kuala Lumpur Library.
My acquaintance with Datuk Zakiah actually began when I was a Temporary Language Assistant at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) in 1972. A senior Editor at the DBP, Puan Zaleha Ismail (who later became a Cabinet Minister), now Tan Sri Datin Paduka Hajjah, invited me to attend the PERTIWI AGM that year when Puan Zakiah Hanum was elected Ketua Satu, succeeding Dr. Nik Safiah Hj.Karim. Charmed by her friendly and welcoming manner, I became a PERTIWI member until I left for library studies in U.K. later that year.
Datuk Zakiah indeed loved writing. As a prolific author, she left a legacy of her work as a historian, her thoughts and original ideas on social issues, through her writing and numerous publications. She was not only a ‘keeper of our nation’s stories’ as YB Khairy Jamaluddin, her nephew, observed, but she retold these stories through her publications and various Pengkisahan or oral history programmes, especially on the struggle for Merdeka, to make them more widely known. Her newspaper column called Sembang Mak Alang, a social commentary on Malaysian life, was subsequently compiled and published. As someone who loves cooking, she had novel ideas for a cook book. Kuih Muih Utara came with anecdotes about the traditional recipes she included, mostly originating from Kedah, her home state. It was also published in English as Northern Delights by Berita Publishing.
Datuk Zakiah’s published works clearly showed that her material were well-researched and factually reliable. She adhered strictly to publishing conventions, is very methodical and systematic and her work is always infused with her sense of humour where appropriate. She never failed to acknowledge her husband, children, in-laws and grandchildren or her own family and siblings in her prefaces which undoubtedly showed they were uppermost in her mind and closest to her heart. Puan Shuzlina Mat Amin, librarian at Arkib Negara, recalled that her late boss always had a desk reserved for her to research and write in all reading rooms under the Archives and which she frequently used. Tan Sri Badariah Arshad too observed that during their frequent meetings at her office at Arkib Negara during CHOGM, Datuk Zakiah had a small writing table next to her desk which she would occasionally and suddenly turn to and scribble down an idea or information that came to her mind! She certainly walked the talk when she advised her officers to always carry a little pocket book to jot down ideas, information or facts that they suddenly thought of or came across.
Her most memorable and widely known thinking out of the box project, to my mind, was the historical trailer ‘Hari Ini Dalam Sejarah’ (Today in History) which was broadcast on Radio and Television Malaysia (RTM) in four languages, Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil. Through this programme she literally brought archives into Malaysian living rooms by highlighting a significant event in Malaysia occurring on a particular day, every single day. It ran for several years and was probably the longest running radio and television series!
Datuk Zakiah was awarded the Ramon Magsasay Award in 1989. The first Malaysian woman to be so honoured, the citation for her achievement read “A Malaysian historian who made her country’s National Archives the most professional and technically advanced in the whole of South East Asia”. Under her innovative leadership, National Archives was the leading federal government department. The award is internationally recognised as the Asian Nobel Prize. She was undoubtedly a trail-blazer and an inspiring role-model for women in government and as head of a federal department and certainly made the nation proud.
Datuk Zakiah’s other lasting legacies to the nation include the establishment of memorials for former Prime Ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak modelled on the United States’ Presidential Libraries and the Merdeka Memorial in Melaka. As consultant, the Galeria Perdana in Langkawi, which exhibits gifts, awards and souvenirs received by Tun Dr. Mahathir and Tun Siti Hasmah during his premiership, was Datuk Zakiah’s most favourite and enjoyable project, recalled her sister, Dato’ Rahmah. The Galeria had Datuk Zakiah’s knowledgeable involvement from the concept, building design, exhibition and display area to the landscaping and garden! It was well-known that Datuk Zakiah loves music and was a great fan of P.Ramlee, the legendary actor, singer and musician. At her initiative, the National Archives established the P.Ramlee Memorial as a tribute to him and published several books on the late singer including lyrics of the songs he composed or made popular.
After a three year extension on contract following the mandatory retirement age of 55, Datuk Zakiah retired from public service in 1995. Having served 18 years as D.G., Datuk Zakiah was probably one of Malaysia’s longest serving head of a federal department.
With so much more to give, Datuk Zakiah continued to be very active especially in writing and publishing. Among other ventures, Datuk Zakiah opened a bookshop in Bangsar called “Malaysiana’. It was an excellent bookshop which held selected books about Malaysia from all over the world. It was while she was showing me around the book store that she told me about her ambition to publish at least two books a month. Surprised and aware of the demands of publishing a book, I asked if she meant two books a year. But she was quite adamant about the two books a month, insisting that all the material was in her head, and she only needed to put them down on paper.
Perhaps that was an early sign that she was putting herself under undue pressure. She mentioned many other projects that she had at the same time and it was obvious that she certainly had a whole lot on her plate! It was sad that she could not fully accomplish some of her ambitious post-retirement plans due an early onset of dementia after her retirement. But what she had accomplished while she was in public service and as head of PERTIWI was well beyond expectations and made a huge and lasting impact on the National Archives and the nation’s cultural legacies.
My last contact with Datuk Zakiah was a telephone conversation in 2001 when I was acting Director General of the National Library. I was very surprised by her phone call as when I met her earlier at her nephew Khairy’s wedding, she smiled warmly but clearly did not remember me. This time she was pretty lucid and knew exactly who I was. She explained that she had collected a lot of artefacts about a well-known national personality and would like to put up an exhibition about him at the National Library. She lamented about her difficulty in going out and about at the time. I of course welcomed the proposal and told her I would follow–up with with Arkib Negara regarding the artefacts. However, Dato’ Habibah Zon who was Director-General then alerted me to Datuk Zakiah’s serious lapses in memory and that her family had understandably requested not to involve her in public activities.
I will always remember Datuk Zakiah as a tireless high achiever and an icon for women leaders in the Malaysian Civil Service and the nation. I feel blessed for the privilege of having known her and being given opportunities to be visible as a young librarian. She will also always be remembered as the dynamic founder leader of PERTIWI with Datuk Nik Safiah Karim and others who had initiated and undertaken a myriad of highly successful charity programmes since the 1970s. Datuk Munirah, the present Ketua Satu asserted that while these programmes are still on-going, PERTIWI has also added new and bigger projects.
A fairly comprehensive biography of Datuk Zakiah Hanum has been published by the National Archives in 2006. In 2011, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia conferred on Datuk Zakiah the Honorary Doctor of Letters in recognition of her outstanding contributions and achievements. Apart from books by and about Datuk Zakiah, Arkib Negara had also compiled and documented her speeches, personal papers, reports, conference and seminar papers and also press-cuttings. These will certainly facilitate further research on this iconic national personality at tertiary education institutions which will do more justice to her impactful leadership, enormous contributions and achievements.
May Allah Subhanahuwataala bless her soul and place her among the righteous.