The power behind Mustapha’s iron rule

For nine years, he ran Sabah for Mustapha, who wanted a man he could trust at his side, coaxing and cajoling political opponents besides strengthening the political and economic position of the charismatic Sabah strongman.

By Balan Moses, New Straits Times

Tan Sri Syed Kechik Syed Mohamad has left a legacy in business and politics

His epitaph should read: Tan Sri Syed Kechik Syed Mohamad — master political strategist, brilliant lawyer and businessman extraordinaire.

That more or less describes the Kedah-born business figure who assumed national prominence between 1967 and 1976, when he pulled no punches in helping then Sabah chief minister Tun Mustapha Datu Harun rein in the opposition and buttress his position as the most powerful man in the state.

For nine years, he ran Sabah for Mustapha, who wanted a man he could trust at his side, coaxing and cajoling political opponents besides strengthening the political and economic position of the charismatic Sabah strongman.

He built the Sabah Foundation, which Mustapha used as his primary instrument to amass economic and political power for the state government, into a monolithic entity that had its tentacles in almost every sphere of life.

The very mention of his name evoked awe among the people of Sabah and envy among many in Peninsular Malaysia, who would have given anything to be in his shoes.

But Syed Kechik's story did not begin with fame and fortune, but in more humble circumstances like many from Kedah who had few opportunities in the agricultural state.

Born in Alor Star in 1928, he was a late starter. As a young boy, he helped in his father's sundry shop. Wanderlust hit him hard and he left for the United States, drawn by the urge to excel in studies and business.

He put himself through university in Los Angeles by working as a dishwasher and waiter, the experience hardening him for the long road ahead to eventual success.

After reading law at Lincoln's Inn in London, he returned to Malaysia and quickly involved himself with Umno politicians in Kedah.

He soon became political secretary to the then federal minister of information and broadcasting, Datuk Senu Abdul Rahman, a fellow student during his college days.

Then came the break he was looking for. Tunku Abdul Rahman, a close acquaintance, asked him to take up an assignment in Sabah as adviser to Mustapha, who was one of the prime minister's old and most trusted friends.

Syed Kechik, probably seeing the potential in crossing the South China Sea to a new life in the state which was coming into prominence, did not think twice about the offer.

He flew into Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) and worked his way into becoming the right hand man of Mustapha, whose nod was necessary in moving things.

From a mere aide, he became what some saw as the "shadow chief minister of Sabah" for the influence he wielded with Mustapha.

Syed Kechik cemented his position in Sabah when he was appointed the first secretary-general of the United Sabah Islamic Association in 1969, with Mustapha's backing.

He had his detractors in Sabah who did their best to loosen his grip on power but he did not yield.

His brilliant strategies saw not only Mustapha becoming the sole purveyor of political and economic power in Sabah, but also his position as "the power behind the power" being solidified.

While he wielded extraordinary influence in politics without direct involvement in the field, Syed Kechik was also an astute businessman who quickly rose to become one of the richest men in Sabah.

Many argue that it was this potent mix of political power and economic might that eventually ended the "reign" of an orang Semenanjung in Sabah.

At the end of 1975, Mustapha thought he was at the pinnacle of power, little realising that Sabahans, most still living in abject poverty, had become fed up with his ostentatious life and excesses in politics.

The year 1976 saw the rise of a new political party, called Berjaya, led by another charismatic leader Datuk Harris Salleh, who used a populist approach to "dethrone" Mustapha. The Usno-led Sabah Alliance government was then voted out and with it, Syed Kechik's era in Sabah came to end.

Syed Kechik had to return to the peninsula where he quickly threw himself into business, becoming one of the first Bumiputera multi-millionaires.

He built the fashionable Syed Kechik Foundation Building in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, and soon became a name to be reckoned with in business.

But the peninsula he had known was no more. New players had entered the world of business in Kuala Lumpur and carved niches for themselves in his absence.

The 1990s saw him "retire" from active business although he had a hand in some deals. But it would never be the same again and after some time, Syed Kechik went home to Kedah to settle down where his heart had always been.

Syed Kechik died at the age of 81 at his home at Jalan Sultanah, Alor Star, on April 10.