However, an important lesson I have learnt is that you can’t identify an extraordinary person from a title, the size of his bank account or the number of magazine covers he has been on.
To me, the real heroes are ordinary men and women who, when faced with dangerous situations, take the responsibility to do the right thing even if it means risking their lives.
These people are rare but I have had the privilege to meet such a person – my former driver Abdul Manaf Mohamed. He died of pneumonia on Feb 23 and the world is a sadder and poorer place without him.
Really, you could not meet a more unlikely hero than Pakcik Manap, as my children called him.
Round, even when he first started working for us, he had a full moustache and a round head which got increasingly balder over the years. I liked him from the start as he was always jovial and easy- going.
In the 30 years he worked with us, I have never heard him once say a bad word about another person or complain about his work. Even now, I can still remember his booming Kelantanese accent which he never managed to lose although he lived in Kuala Lumpur for most of his adult life.
One day, during a long drive to Pahang, our conversation meandered from one topic to another and finally landed on accidents and death. Manaf mentioned he had only once been really scared for his life.
“It was during the riot of May 13,” he said. I think that while most Malaysians have heard of May 13, those born after 1969 do not fully realise how terrifying the event really was.
Imagine countrymen who were living peacefully next to each other suddenly starting to kill one another.
For four days, friends, neighbours and colleagues turned on each other, which led to the death of 169 Malaysians.
The communal tension occurred after the 1969 general election when opposition parties gained seats at the expense of the Umno- led Alliance in Kuala Lumpur.
According to Manaf, he was at that time a young man, a bachelor living in a simple, rented shop space in Jalan Gurney in central Kuala Lumpur.
It was a lively area where he could hear the cacophony of conversations, loud music and roaring vehicles outside the window. However, on that day this generally innocuous bustle erupted into something more menacing.
“I could hear people rumbling outside my window. Looking out, I saw a mass of people on foot and on motorbikes waving party flags as they marched towards Parliament as I later found out.”
As the day progressed, news got to Manaf that mayhem was quickly spreading.
“First, I heard people were throwing stones and overturning cars, then they started burning buildings and later the killing started.”
Manaf’s thoughts turned to his friend who was Chinese.
“I knew he wouldn’t be safe. I was worried about him because I knew that like myself he was all alone in the city.”
He got on his motorbike and persuaded his friend to stay with him in his room.
“I thought that would be the end of that,” continued Manaf. “However, about one to two hours later we both heard loud shouts from outside.”
A large mob of rioters who were carrying parang and keris had gathered outside the building and were screaming for any Chinese to be brought outside.
They were threatening to break into the buildings to hunt for their victims. “My friend was petrified so I told him to stay quiet at the back of the room,” Manaf said.
What he did next is what separates a hero from an ordinary person. There are people who will leave it to others to do the right thing and then there are those who feel it is their responsibility to do what is right.
Manaf is the latter. This young man bravely walked out of the building to face this group of seething, furious, armed men and shouted as loudly as he could in his thick Kelantanese accent: “Takdok orang Cino sini.
Mitok tulong jange ganggu kami lagi. (There are no Chinese here. Please don’t disturb us anymore.)”
The men looked at each other as if unsure whether to believe him or not but then their leader suddenly made a sign and they moved on.
“That was the scariest moment of my life,” confessed Manaf. “I was shaking like a leaf.”
When I asked him why he risked his life to confront the mob, he thought for a moment and replied: “I was so upset at their behaviour. What they were doing was not right. It was just wrong.
“Anyway, I had to protect my friend so I had no choice really.”
However, the point is Manaf did have a choice. The choice he took was to step up and risk his own life for another person.
I’m not sure many of us would take that same path.
Manaf eventually lost touch with his friend but many years after May 13, they had a serendipitous reunion when he was working for me.
One day I had asked him to buy some satay at my favourite coffee shop while I waited in the car.
I was getting concerned because he was taking such a long time to do the errand when usually he was very diligent and efficient.
When he finally returned, he excitedly told me that the owner of the coffee shop was his Chinese friend whose life he had saved many years earlier.
He was late because his friend had insisted they had a cup of coffee to celebrate surviving that terrible event.
It’s good to read about people who choose to do the right thing to help their fellow human beings.
In my advanced age, it is my greatest hope that very this small story about a very ordinary Malaysian will inspire other young Malaysians to be ordinary heroes too.
Tunku Tan Sri Shahriman Tunku Sulaiman