Ani Arope – Trueblue Xaverian/Penangite – on Why He Is Now An Endangered Species

Our writer, STEPHEN NG has been a secret admirer of Tan Sri Ani Arope, a former Executive Chairman of [Malaysia’s] Tenaga Nasional since 13 years ago. He finally gets to meet the man he has always wanted to interview….

Tan Sri Ani Arope is one person you would enjoy listening to, if you have a few hours of your time to spare. He is one of a rare kind which, in his own words, “should be breasting the finishing line soon.”
Unassuming and broadminded, witty in every sense of the word, at 79, this former Executive Chairman of Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) is still mentally active and comes on regularly to chat on Facebook – offering some of his quotable quotes once in a while.
One of such quotes which caught my attention was his fatherly advice: ‘In your careers, you will meet many people from all walks of life from the CEO right down to the cleaner. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say ‘hello.’
Although known only as Ani Arope on the social network, he is known and well-loved by many of his friends, relatives and acquaintances as Pak Ani.
In fact, Pak Haji Ani, as some would also call him, is in the midst of writing his memoirs in response to his friends’ request – and “for the sake of posterity.”
When a personal friend wrote a synopsis of his soon to be published memoirs, he described the man with precision: “Ani Arope is also highly principled….when Dr. Mahathir allowed independent power producers (IPPs) to set up plants and to sell power to TNB, Ani Arope objected to the skewed terms of pricing that virtually guaranteed profitability of the IPPs and forever rising costs to the average consumers. Of course Dr Mahathir told him to buzz off…and so Ani Arope went back home to his native Penang to join the ranks of the unemployed…”
He is one such a man who would not budge, even if it was an instruction by the prime minister to sign the contracts on behalf of Tenaga Nasional. In his memoirs, he will reveal more.
“Posterity?” he quipped, quoting a line from his memoirs. “That sounds a little ostentatious to me. However, being now a member of the endangered species heading for the departure lounge for the final flight beyond, I would now collate some of my thoughts on life as I see it and leave to the readers to interpret them as they see it.”
Life Back Then
Born to Arope bin Mat and Alus binti Mohamad in 1932, Ani Arope considers himself as a `pendatang’ (foreigner).
“My paternal grandfather is Bugis. My grandmother was described as having a dark olive skin with a prominent ‘hooked’ nose,” he described, unashamedly. “She could have been of a Bangladeshi or Burmese parentage, as there was a large community of them in Kampong Bengali in Province Wellesley or Seberang Perai. My father’s family was raised around Sungai Rambai, Bukit Mertajam, Penang.”
On the maternal side, his great grandfather was an Achenese fisherman. Being a newcomer, with his Achenese language, he must have found it hard to marry a local Malay lass; so he married a maiden from the “Kuai” kongsi. The “Kuais” were a group of Muslim Chinese who were unable to integrate into the then Malay society, as were the Arabs and Indians.
Unlike the Indians and Arabs, who sat with legs folded on the floor, the “Kuais” were not accepted as they ate using chopsticks and squatted on benches. The Malays then wanted those who professed Islam to imbibe the Malay culture wholly before being accepted as Muslims – hence, the concept of “Masuk Melayu” which was used for those who had assimilated into the Malay Islam society.
Apparently, everyone in the family referred to their grandmother as “Tok Kuai.” Recalling how “Tok Kuai”, being a “Pendatang” herself, stuck to her language, Ani eventually understood why her mother spoke flawless Hokkien!
Growing up in Penang
Ani, as a boy, grew up in a highly mixed environment of Malays, Javanese, Boyanese, Hokkiens, Tamils, Thais, Burmese, Eurasians, Arabs and Jews.
As young as five years old, he and his friends had turned the uncovered monsoon drain along Cantonment Road as their meeting spot. “During siesta hours, we would sneak out of the house and tease out the hair-like worms found between the concrete slabs lining the drain to feed our fighting fish,” he laughed. “We risked facing the wrath of our parents if we were caught playing there. When one of our names were called out, we would reply in the language of the caller (with accent and all) that Ah Hai or Gopal (or whoever) was not with us — and probably grounded at home!”
One of his best friends at St Xavier’s Institution was a fellow classmate, George Manasseh, who overcame the same initial problem of acceptance in class. “We became close friends and have remained so until today,” he said. “We reveled in the camaraderie and were protective of each other.”
For one, they knew that they were the children of immigrants and it was no big issue, until much later – the way he sees it – it was played up by some politicians with their own agenda. “The word ‘immigrant’ or to use the colloquial term ‘pendatang’ has unfortunately been given a derogatory twist,” he lamented. “Strictly speaking I am a third generation of ‘Pendatang’ as both great grandparents on my paternal and maternal sides were migrants.”
“What is there to hide or be ashamed of our own roots?” he asked. “In fact, I am proud of my lineage. Some of us have our origins from India, and dare we be ashamed of it! Worse is when we try to deny our father’s lineage. If our forefathers came from India, so be it! What is there to hide!”
Being Multilingual
Ani Arope epitomizes what I consider as a truly patriotic Malaysian. He is multilingual. Besides having a strong command of the English language, from the way he speaks and writes, Ani’s ability to speak in fluent Hokkien, Japanese, French and Tamil, is a plus point. At some point, it makes me blush because he speaks better Hokkien than I could manage myself, Hokkien being my mother tongue!
He picked up Japanese during the Japanese Occupation, when everything was taught in Japanese. It was years later that he found useful, when he had to deal with Japanese staff at Malaysian Rubber Research and Development Board, while serving with the Rubber Research Institute.
Having been posted to the rural areas of Kelantan in his early years as a fresh graduate, Ani’s ability to speak the local Malay accent also proved to be crucial in being accepted as one of them. “The rural Kelantanese is very sensitive to outsiders coming in with an inflated sense of self-importance,” he surmised. “I have fond memories serving in the hinterlands or ‘ulus’ of that state. One had just to speak their brand of Malay to be accepted, failing which one would be referred to as “anjing luar daten cari maken” – literally a foreign dog coming to look for food.”
Kelantanese charm
Commenting on the rural folk in Kelantan, Ani said, they seemed to know their faith at its deepest and richest best and this gave them a robust confidence to know enough of their non-Muslim neighbour’s faith to respect it. “That is why you find the longest sleeping Buddha’s statue in Tumpat, Kelantan,” he added.

Another lesson that he learnt while serving in Kelantan in the mid-50s: “When there was a flood the folks came out in their best clothes to celebrate ‘Pesta Ayer’. Here I learnt that ‘Life isn’t about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain.’”

A strong advocate of English, he said that the importance of learning the English language cannot be overemphasized. “This emphasis needs to be reinforced, because English is the bridge for cross-cultural and global communication. We have to maintain or further improve on the quality, innovativeness and communication skills of the English language to ensure that we as a nation are not left behind in our global endeavors.”

A philosophical man himself, Ani said: “Development in the Islamic world took place at a rapid pace because scholars accepted and acknowledged the fact that learning and understanding another language was crucial for the overall advancement of the position of man. Many Islamic scholars learnt Greek, Persian, and Mandarin, Urdu and anything and everything else for the pursuit of knowledge.”
Ani was the country’s first Fulbright Scholar, but he claims to be the first Halfbright to have gone on a Fulbright scholarship. He currently holds an undergraduate degree in agriculture from, Lincoln College University of Canterbury, NZ, a Masters of Agricultural Economics, University of Vermont, USA and seven Honorary Phds/DScs from local and foreign Universities.
For most part of his primary education from as early as five-and-a-half years old, and his secondary years, he attended St Xavier’s Institution in Penang. From young, people of all races were mingling freely. One of his close friends was in fact a son of a Jewish family. “We never had this inkling of choosing our friends based on our races,” he said. “I don’t see why we cannot maintain our good relations as fellow Malaysians.”
During the Japanese Occupation, his education was interrupted. But when the war was finally over in 1945, together with these friends, Ani went back to school to prepare them for the Cambridge School Certificate. By 1949, when Ani himself sat for the papers at the age of 17, most of his friends also did well.
One of the star students was Jasper Mehta, who was the youngest to sit for his School Certificate at the age of 14. However, he did not enter the university until he was 16, and he chose to study medicine. Recalling his friendship, Ani described Jasper as someone who “was always playful and pulling pranks on others. Jasper is now retired from government service and is with a private hospital as one of its top surgeons.”

Another outstanding student was Abu Bakar Merican. He was far ahead when it came to Physics on Heat, Light and Sound – even ahead of the teacher! He would scour around the radio scrap yards to pick up parts with which he would fashion his own receivers and transmitters.

Merican’s Chemistry and Biology were above the standards required even in the Higher School Certificate level. He would have been a leading Physicist but was given a place in University of Malaya to do Biological Science. He graduated with Honours and joined the Fisheries Department but died in a commercial plane crash in Johor. “The last time we met was in Terengganu in 1962,” Ani said.

George Manasseh went on to do his degree in the United Kingdom after his Diploma from the Technical College. After leaving the Malayan Railways, he joined Shell and went up the executive ladder. “He subsequently migrated to Australia and we met up again like long-lost brothers in Perth,” he said.

His other friends were the Mong brothers – Boon Mee, Boon Khan and Mong Kong – who grew up with him. “They all decided to join the police force. Coming from Myanmar and Thai parents, they spoke their “mother” tongue fluently. Talking about the sacrifice of the non-Malays for this nation, Ani immediately came to the defence of his childhood friends: “Their mother was of Thai origin. For that, they volunteered for undercover work and were posted to the border area. One of them was kidnapped and very nearly executed.”

Ajit Singh was a junior member in his Scout patrol. “Because he was the only turbaned member in the troop, some less sensitive members would peck on him. Being his patrol leader, I had always to tell them to back off,” Ani recalled.

Being young and growing up together as fellow Malaysians long before Independence, Ani spoke of his friendship with Ajit: “This bond between us grew over the years and Ajit still looked up to me for a lot of things. When later I enrolled for the College of Agriculture, Serdang, he too applied and we met up again.”

One thing about Ajit that Ani would never forget: “I remember well the day he decided to cut his hair short. The Tamil barbers refused his request unless he got a letter of consent from his parents. They did this out of respect for his religion and did not want to get embroiled in any controversy. Such was the mutual respect and caring about other’s religion in my growing up days.”

Ani’s education did not just stop at the College of Agriculture in Serdang. He was offered a place at Lincoln College, University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “I enjoyed my stay at Lincoln as I got myself involved with the local community there,” he said.

As the Cub Master of the Lincoln Pack, every Saturday was down at the village with the Cub pack. As he recalls, the children at the village were very expressive for their age. “I had two lady assistants, Akela 1 and Akela 2. One was, let us say, well endowed. When the pack was divided into two, I gave the kids a choice of which pack they preferred to join,” he recalled. “One cheeky Cub said without hesitation, `The one with the bigger tits!’ There was an embarrassing silence, but it was hard to pretend not to have heard the remark.”

Becoming a Nation
As the nation turns 54 come August 31, Tan Sri Ani Arope is lamenting that a lot of today’s woes are the result of gutter politics played by politicians who are bounded by arrogance, boastfulness, avarice, hate and jealousy. “There seemed to be no rules governing their behavior, and these are the people who formulate bad laws and bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny,” he said.
On the issue of special rights for the Malays, the outspoken Tan Sri Ani wrote, with the hope to see the loopholes of the New Economic Policy being plugged: “The issue of special rights for Malays and other Bumiputras is and will always be a delicate issue. If these rights will benefit Malays and other Bumis who truly deserve, then Malaysians will view the whole matter in a different light. However, it appears that these rights have been skewered to benefit the privileged Malays. The rural folks and those who really need help are getting the smallest of crumbs, if at all.”
Having grown up in the same era as the first four prime ministers, where he is critical of one of them, Tan Sri Ani raised the question in the midst of today’s political scenario: “What is the answer? At this challenging period, we do not need party loyalists, but people who are sensible, temperate, sober and well-judging persons to guide us through this tumultuous political time.” For him, common sense must prevail at all times.
“A race-riot or a civil strife should never be our political option. The collateral damage is too great a cost of human sufferings,” he warned.
When speaking at the Fulbright Scholars’ meeting a year ago, Tan Sri, who was the country’s first recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship, said his major concern is “to see a more stark polarization of races in our schools and institutions of higher learning.”
“This polarization opens the door to prejudice and bigotry amongst the various races,” he said. “Harnessing our diversity could be the driving force for development not only in respect of economic growth but also of leading a more fulfilling intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual life.”
He opined that, whatever the conflicts, they should not be swept under the carpet but met head on and discussed honestly about everyone’s concerns.
“We may disagree but we must understand that healthy disagreements would help build better decisions,” he advised. “We must be prepared to discuss our value systems and our priorities. We should not feel embarrassed to talk of the short-comings amongst us or the marginalized sections of our society who are not able to participate in the mainstream of society.”
Just one final advice from this “endangered species” – something which he posted on his Facebook: “Do you know why a car’s WINDSHIELD is so large and the Rearview Mirror is so small? Because our PAST is not as important as our FUTURE. Look ahead and move on!”