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Ilani Isahak – A true Malaysian

Despite her hectic schedule, the late Datuk Hajjah Ilani Isahak, seen here with her husband and three sons, always managed to spend quality time with her family.

Sunday March 13, 2011
Ilani Isahak – A true Malaysian

Her passion was to see Malaysians of all races and religions live in peace and harmony.

ON Feb 24, Malaysia lost one of her most dedicated champions of inter-religious harmony. And I lost a beloved sister who had shown me what it means to be dedicated to a cause, and what it means to serve the country and the people.

Datuk Hajjah Ilani Isahak fought breast cancer for three years but never for a moment did the disease deter her from continuing her work. Even when her breathing was affected after the cancer had spread to her ribcage and the covering of her lungs, she kept going. When finally she had no choice but to be hospitalised, she used her mobile phone to continue. And when tubes and an oxygen mask put paid to speech, she sent text messages, making sure that the work entrusted to her by her beloved country continued. She was 57 when she passed on.

Much has been written about Ilani’s political career and her involvement in the youth movement. She served as MP for Kota Baru for two terms (1990-1999), and I can testify that she did so with the utmost sincerity and that she was at ease with people of all races and religions, and from all strata of society. Being dedicated to her desire of serving the people, she had wanted to be known as “Yang Berkhidmat” (one who serves) instead of “Yang Berhormat” (one who is honoured).

She also received the Tokoh Belia Award for her contributions to the national youth movement, having worked closely for many years with Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam, Chief Minister of Malacca and chairman of the World Youth Foundation, an NGO in special consultative status with the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council.

My sister was much influenced in politics by our mother, Datin Hajjah Wan Zainab, an Umno veteran who provided Ilani with unreserved guidance and support throughout three decades of political life, with all its upheavals, dramas, victories and disappointments.

Mother, who is 81 and still very active in social and religious work, was Ilani’s role model and icon (as she is to all her remaining seven children, having been the matriarch since Father died 21 years ago).

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was also a major influence on Ilani’s political career; she supported and followed him through the years, first in Umno, then Semangat 46, and Umno again when he rejoined the party. In Wanita Umno, it was Tan Sri Dr Aishah Ghani who had the greatest impact on Ilani.

Ilani’s interest in politics was, in all probability, sparked by our late father, Datuk Haji Isahak Abdul Hamid, who was an active Umno member in Kelantan in the 1960s. She was also the only child to follow in his footsteps and join the legal profession.

After 1999, Ilani gradually reduced her involvement in the political arena, but her gift of being able to bring diverse people together to work in harmony saw her becoming active again in the service to the nation. This ability to get leaders and activists of different religions to communicate with each other for better understanding and harmony was her final calling, how she could serve God, humanity and her country best.

Under Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s government, Ilani was appointed to head the religious component of the National Unity Advisory Panel, a position she held from 2005 to 2008.

She worked hard to bring different religious groups together, organising workshops and seminars that allowed participants (including this writer) to speak from our hearts and air our concerns and grievances.

This was very significant because, before this, many grievances were just bottled up, having been deemed “sensitive issues” that could not be discussed at all.

Although we were far from solving all the problems between the religions (usually between the Muslims and non-Muslims), we were taking concrete steps towards facing these problems instead of sweeping them under the carpet.

While carrying out this heavy task, she received invaluable support and encouragement from Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkil (now Science, Technology & Innovation Minister), who was the minister in charge of national unity then.

We were all aware that there were (and still are) many outstanding issues between Muslims and non-Muslims, some of which had the potential to ignite wider social unrest and even open conflict.

The dispute between Muslims and Christians over the right to use “Allah” that culminated in the burning of several churches and mosques/surau last year convinced the Government that not only should the religious unity advisory panel be revived, it should be upgraded to become a proper national committee.

Thus in February 2010, the Cabinet appointed Ilani as a special coordinator tasked with establishing this committee.

As I am also involved in the committee, I can report that it was indeed a difficult task as there were so many parties to appease, especially because in Malaysia anything involving Islam/Muslims have to be ultimately approved by authorities such as state muftis and the Conference of Rulers.

After many hiccups, and thanks to Ilani’s patience, perseverance, wisdom and, most of all, her people-handling skills – she was a master at patiently and respectfully persuading religious leaders/representatives to reverse unwise decisions! – the committee was finally established. It was named the Committee to Promote Understanding and Harmony among Adherents of Religions (a mouthful, yes, because we had to satisfy so many parties).

Even though many people contributed, it was Ilani who was most responsible for making the committee a reality. In the process, she gained the respect and trust of all its religious leaders and representatives.

Ilani’s work in this received tremendous support from Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon (who oversees the National Unity and Integration Department) and his staff (in particular special officer Ivanpal S. Grewal); minister in charge of Islamic Affairs under the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom, who served as co-adviser; and the director-general, Datuk Azman Amin Hassan, and staff of the National Unity and Integration Department.

My sister was so happy when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak agreed to meet the committee and then hosted a luncheon for us in September last year, during which he pledged his full support. Unfortunately, when the PM presented us with official letters of appointment to the committee on Feb 14 this year, Ilani could not be present.

She wanted so much to be there to report in person to the PM that she had fulfilled her task of establishing the committee; instead she had to be in hospital, fighting for her life.

She was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in January 2008 and underwent various procedures right till December 2010, meaning she accepted the task of setting up the inter-faith committee while undergoing treatment and knowing that she did not have much time left.

We all witnessed how she often struggled to chair meetings because of breathing difficulties. At the last meeting she led, barely a week before her hospitalisation, she was actually gasping for breath.

Sometimes, she postponed chemo sessions so that she would not miss our meetings. She knew that without her, deliberations might not be fruitful. If you were to ask all the committee members, I am sure they will attest to this.

I hope that whoever takes over from Ilani emulates her patience, friendliness and firmness in getting things moving while maintaining cordiality between contending groups of people.

That she was a born leader was evident even during our childhood (she was two years older than I am) when she used to participate in both boys’ and girls’ games. At times she was my “troop leader” when we played soldiers.

She was active in extra-curricular activities at school, and her leadership qualities were established when, in 1971, she was elected head girl of her prestigious alma mater, Tunku Kurshiah College in Seremban.

She held strong opinions about things and always stood firm on her stance. I could see that she was serious in whatever endeavour she undertook, and that she was bound to become a community leader someday. However, I didn’t know that she would become a nationally recognised personality, and that in the last years of her life, I would work closely with her in fostering inter-religious harmony.

With her busy schedule, you can imagine how difficult it was for Ilani to juggle being a wife and mother. But she somehow managed, and was devoted in both roles.

She made sure that whatever time she had with her family at home was “quality time”, and she brought up a close and loving family. Now her three elder children have become a lawyer, engineer and doctor. Only the youngest is still studying. Ilani was able to experience the joy of grandmotherhood when her first grandson was born four years ago.

What touched me most was seeing how my beloved sister never allowed her busy schedule and her many commitments to deter her from remembering God and fulfilling her duties to Him. Her service to the nation and the people was her way of serving her Creator. She strove not to miss her prayers even when she was gravely ill in hospital. Even when she was heavily drugged, she would perform the salat (Muslim ritual prayer) when she became sufficiently aware.

I am certain that she is at peace somewhere in heaven. Probably busy watching to see if we continue her good work as we had promised!

May Allah bless her soul and reward her bountifully for all her good deeds.

> Dr Amir Farid Isahak writes the fornightly ‘Art of Healing’ column in Fit4Life.

THE late Datuk Hajjah Ilani Isahak’s husband, Haji Adam Ibrahim; her mother, Datin Hajjah Wan Zainab; her eldest sister, Hajjah Ailin Ton; and all other family members would like to thank everyone for their visitations, prayers, well-wishes, condolences, bouquets and assistance throughout Ilani’s illness and passing.

Special gratitude is due to the following: The doctors and staff who took care of her at Hospital UKM; Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai for making sure she got the best care; International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Mustapha Mohamad and all those who conducted prayers and tahlil (recitation of the confession of faith) for her; Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk V.K. Liew and Datin Linda for hosting a memorable 33rd, and last, wedding anniversary for Adam and Ilani that they treasured very much; the non-Muslims who prayed for her in their own ways; and those who have pledged to continue her work.

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