From street brawls and ring duels to doctorates and high academic positions, one man has made good of life’s challenges in a rags-to-riches tale.
HIS is a story that begs to be told.
If there is one man who has gone from being a ridiculed street kid to becoming a renowned academic leader, it is him. But just how did it all happen?
Destiny certainly had a hand but some parts of it were engineered by himself.
Even his favourite quote is one he coined himself: “Obstacles are power generators.”
It is a philosophy that has successfully guided Prof Datuk Seri Dr Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar (pic), currently Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) vice-chancellor, through his darkest days.
Even today, when challenged, he faces adversity in its face and fights for what he believes in.
His dedication to bring the university to new heights includes collaborations with the best in the West and exploring new frontiers in co-operative research.
Powered by a drive laced with sincerity, he has rejuvenated a programme called Mengubah Destini Anak Bangsa (Changing the destiny of the nation’s children) which gives the hope of free education to the poor from the Bumiputera community.
His mother would have been proud of him. As a snotty-nosed kid, he recalls coming home one day with a bloodied lip after a street fight.
His mother took in his swollen face and asked him just one question, “Did you do this to yourself or did someone else do it?”
When he told her that it was the latter, she barked at him in her thick Penang Malay accent, “Fight back and get it right!”
Raising nine children almost single-handedly, there was no way she was going to let her eldest boy be a stranger to the law of the jungle.
In her survival guide, only the fittest made it.
Fired by the indomitable spirit of this mother whom he loved dearly, the boy spent his days working hard on the streets of Penang.
Here, he was dealt daily lessons that made him a street-smart kid who knew the ways of the world — the good, the bad and the ugly.
The boy grew up waiting on customers who got down from trishaws, especially the foreign tourists.
American soldiers from Vietnam could count on this street ruffian to point out interesting places of food, history and culture.
Be it in the major thoroughfares of the island or in its back alleys, hanging out with them bore one unprecedented fruit — the boy picked up English.
In the streets, he jostled with Chinese boys and picked up Hokkien.
While he loved Hindi movies and songs, he found himself irresistibly drawn to Thai kickboxing.
For this, he subjected himself to the rigours of training and became a serious fighter, entering tournaments to win prize money that he could pass to his mother.
Working as a sweeper at a barber’s shop, he read the Reader’s Digeston the quiet and improved his acquisition of the English language.
And then one day, his luck turned. A Malay gentleman, witnessing the 17 year-old fight, took the boy aside and helped him fill up a form to apply to Institut Teknologi Mara (ITM).
When he received the letter offering him a Pre-Diploma course, his mother did not even have a bag to pack his meagre clothes in!
Money was borrowed, clothes were donated and the boy set off to the city, never realising that destiny had picked him for a life that would alter his fate forever.
Feeling like a fish out of water, he suffered. Academic life had its challenges but, unlike the others, he also had to eke out a living to support his siblings.
On weekends and in-between classes, he worked at a construction site.
Not surprisingly, he failed the first time around. Taking the train home with his tail behind him, the young student found himself crying.
As fate would have it again, a kind Malay gentleman dressed in a blackbaju Melayu with a songkok sat down opposite him and they began talking.
After listening to his woes, the man asked him four burning questions: “Do you pray?”; “Do you believe in God?”; “Do you love your mother?” and “Would you like to help needy boys in the future?”
By the time the train pulled into the Bagan Serai railway station, he knew there was no turning back for him.
Knowing his predicament, a kind ITM Physics lecturer by the name of Tan offered monetary help to ease his financial burden.
He had been given a unique opportunity in his life — it was up to him to use it or squander it.
Listening to him, I realise this. Any man, woman or child can go far in life if he is willing to put a shoulder to the wheel and fight to survive — academically speaking and otherwise.
He reminds me of the many good teachers who are in their fifties or late forties now.
Most of them will tell you similar stories of a tough childhood, but a life nonetheless, which taught them to value what they have and make the most of what they get.
I am proud to say that I have worked with and known many of these stoic, hard-working, “salt of the earth” teachers.
Spirited and brought up to “fight”, they do wonders I tell you.
Like them, Prof Sahol Hamid too cannot deny that the mediocre students in today’s generation are those who see no need to push themselves. Handed everything on a plate from young, they lose sight of quality goals.
He tells me frankly, “Opportunity is a door marked ‘Push’ — if you don’t, you don’t make anything of yourself.”
He doles out advice freely. No wonder most of his 55,000 Facebook student fans call him “ayahanda” — the Malay expression for “father”.
In him, they have found a vice-chancellor who is approachable and willing to hear out their woes, ideas, opinions and suggestions.
His wife Prof Datin Seri Dr Hanizah Abdul Hamid, herself a UiTM Engineering lecturer, smiles when she recalls how the “tall, dark and handsome” man with the high-bridged nose and a suave charm to match, swept aside all her feminine doubts and won her heart in 1974. They have three daughters.
Looking at him, it is hard to believe that he has turned 60.
He tells me that his back is as hard as a rock, a heritage from his years of being a kickboxer.
His zeal for promoting the cause of good education? Even more so.
Who would have thought that a street kid like him would one day do a double Masters: one in Civil Engineering and one in Economics at the Colorado State University (in the United States) in 1980; and a PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom 12 years later?
In 2011, the University of Stuttgart, Germany, awarded him the Honorary Doctorate for his teaching and supervisory roles at the university and other collaborative initiatives, particularly in the field of higher education, language, art and culture.
“Destiny,” he relates, “put me on the right path. The rest I engineered myself.”
The young should listen to such good advice. If even DNA can be engineered using the right techniques — splice, recombine and fuse — you can do the same if you practise strategic thinking.
I ask him whether he worries about his detractors or bloggers who hurl brickbats at him.
“What are a few arrows aimed at me when I have suffered actual knife wounds in street fights and suffered broken fingers and lost teeth?”
The logic is hard to contest.
Providence made us meet. I was a good listener and he was a good story teller but I came away, knowing this much.
A public figure in a high position often gets fired at from several quarters but if he can remain unscathed by the elbow jabs, the swinging hooks and the vicious kicks, it’s because he’s been in the ring long enough.
His adversaries would be well-advised to know that Muay Thai is a combat sport. The fighter does not step out of the ring until the fight is done.
In the same breath, teachers with a fighting spirit will tell you the same. If it gets our students going places, we don’t give up.