Bonds of friendship
Throughout an illustrious career in mining, business and politics, Tan Sri Dato Dr Haji Ahmad Azizuddin has maintained an ongoing relationship with his alma mater and was recently awarded the Otago Medal for Outstanding Alumni Service.
In 1951 when Ahmad Azizuddin made his way from rural Perak in northern peninsular Malaysia all the way to Dunedin to take up his studies at the Otago School of Mines, the journey took three days and three nights.
In a series of aerial “hops”, the young man travelled from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, then to Jakarta, on to Darwin, and then Sydney before boarding a flying boat bound for Wellington. The final leg was a flight from Paraparaumu, north of Wellington, to Dunedin.
Sixty years on, in an era of everyday global travel and widespread cultural exchange, it is difficult to imagine the different world one of the University's earliest Malaysian students encountered when he finally disembarked in his new home. For a start, it was cooler – Tan Sri Ahmad remembers sleeping with seven blankets on his bed and a bar heater positioned beneath it – and the young Muslim man had to quickly adapt to socialising with women.
Nonetheless, the young Ahmad readily slotted into the education that would prove the foundation for a successful career in mining, business and politics, and an enduring passion for the place where it all began.
Tan Sri Ahmad's longstanding association with the University began when Malaysia's Inspector of Mines recommended the Otago School of Mines as the place to train Malaysia's future mining professionals. Among them was Ahmad Azizuddin, a villager raised by extended family members who was only able to attend University with the support of a Perak Malays Higher Studies Scholarship from the State of Perak.
Tan Sri Ahmad was 23 when he came to Otago. He had been educated in English, but was weak in chemistry and, after his studies were interrupted by the Malayan Emergency, he completed the four-year degree in five.
Today, at 84 years of age, Tan Sri Dato Dr Haji Ahmad Azizuddin remains one of the University's most distinguished alumni and strongest friends. Earlier this year he was honoured with the Otago Medal for Outstanding Alumni Service because, in the decades since he graduated, he has maintained a close and supportive relationship with his alma mater. This includes being a founding member of the University's Foundation for Malaysia and Patron of the University of Otago Alumni Association of Malaysia. He has given financial support to the University's Applied Earth Sciences Leading Thinkers project and the JB Mackie Centenary Prize, and has supported graduation ceremonies and alumni events throughout Malaysia.
Despite his illustrious career, Tan Sri Ahmad will more readily speak of the people he admires and who have mentored him – such as Malaysia's former Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamed – rather than of his own achievements, which are numerous.
After graduation he returned home where he was soon after appointed to the position of Senior Inspector of Mines. In 1976 he entered politics, serving first as a Senator and later Speaker of the Perak State Legislative Assembly and State Assemblyman of the Belanja District. For his services to politics, Tan Sri Ahmad was decorated as a Dato by the Sultan of Perak and by the Agong to carry the title Tan Sri. In 2000, the University of Otago bestowed on him an Honorary Doctor of Laws.
All this is a long way from the front row of the first-year mathematics lecture, where the foreign-looking young man in the front row wearing a distinctive songkok first caught the eye of fellow student Harry McQuillan.
“He had a sort of aura about him,” recalls Dr McQuillan. “I was intrigued with the East, but I hadn't much experience of foreigners and here was one right at the front of the pure maths class.”
Alumni, Tan Sri Ahmad believes, provide crucial networks that not only help promote economic prosperity and social advancement, but also foster cross-cultural understanding.
The two went on to become great friends. Ahmad would frequent Harry's Roslyn house to supplement his diet at Arana Hall with some home-cooked meals. The pair would hitch-hike around the South Island, the novel experience of meeting total strangers a welcome one for the gregarious Malaysian who loved to meet and converse with people. Ahmad also loved Dunedin's Scottish heritage and, when he took to alternating his songkok with a tartan bonnet, McQuillan dubbed him “McAhmad”.
Both men were members of the University's Tramping Club and a club camping trip to the Stewart Island is particularly memorable. “I can still see Ahmad on the rocks throwing out a fishing line and pulling in blue cod one after the other,” says McQuillan.
Such early New Zealand wilderness experiences ignited an enduring love of the natural environment in the young Malaysian. Since his retirement from business, he has converted former mining acreage in Perak into the Clearwater Sanctuary, a wildlife refuge and golf resort. Here he has hosted several University alumni functions.
This cross cultural understanding augurs well for our society. “It's the best thing that can happen to young people. Those who have done it – their attitudes are different, they've been exposed to life in all its diversity.”
He agrees there is something unique about the bond Otago alumni share with each other and with their University. Malaysians were among Otago's first international students and he hopes new generations of Malaysian Otago alumni continue to sustain the connections he has supported for many years.
These days, Tan Sri Dato Ahmad divides his time between Perak and Kuala Lumpur, where he remains active in non-governmental organisations. He jokes that he still keeps to New Zealand time, rising several hours earlier than many of his compatriots.
When pressed for other memories of Otago, he recalls his first visit to a Dunedin beach, on his first weekend in New Zealand all those years ago. It was a warm day and the waves, he said, looked so inviting.
“I ran into the sea and then, well, I ran straight back out of it … and never went back in!”
Otago's climate may well be cooler than Perak's, but Tan Sri Dato Dr Haji Ahmad Azizuddin remembers it warmly all the same.
– REBECCA TANSLEY