Coffee With the Sultana

BY DAN-CHYI CHUA
Apr 26, 2011
*Special to asia!

asia! sits down with a champion woman golfer who also happens to be the queen of the Malaysian state of Kedah.

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The Sultana of Kedah loves talking about golf. Her face brightens up. She is proud of her game and rightly so, having managed a score of 63 on her handicap of 18, generally agreed to be impressive numbers for a non-professional, male or female.

For two years in a row, the Sultana has won the Pelangi Cup held in her native Malaysia. Golf is a passion for her Royal Highness, but she has always been an athlete, playing tennis, squash and badminton, before finally picking up golf in 1986. A year later, she won her first tournament and has not stopped since. Her official duties keep her from playing as often as she would like to, but when she gets the chance, she is a formidable opponent. And far be it that her golf buddies would let her win because of her royal status.

"They don't like to lose to her, especially the men." says Merrina Chan, a friend of the Sultana for almost 30 years. "So no, we don't give her way."

Everyone is an equal when it comes to golf, the Sultana declares mischievously.

"It is a mental game. I look for my opponents' weaknesses, and attack on them." She often successfully strategises against those she plays, but the same tricks do not work on her.

"We try to distract her, but she is very focused," says Chan.

The Sultana may be competitive on the course, but away from the green she is known among her people for her graciousness. As the state queen, Tuanku Hajjah Haminah accompanies her husband on his numerous engagements. Their time is booked up to two months in advance with functions and openings and events all over Kedah. The couple have been married for more than 30 years but it was only four years ago that Tuanku Hajjah Haminah became queen.

She was just 24 years old and working in a hotel in Penang, when she was handpicked to meet the Sultan. Chan remembers the future Sultana then as a fair-skinned beauty. She weighed just 42 kilograms, with a waistline of barely 23 inches. She might have been stunning but she was still nervous when it came to meeting the king. After all, he was, at that time, not just Sultan of Kedah but of Malaysia as well.

The country's nine state kings take turns on the throne and the Sultan was nearing the end of his five-year term as the head of state. Tuanku Hajjah Haminah recalls being very nervous, sitting at one end of a long table from the man she knew only as her country's king.

She did not know then that two months later she would be married to him, on Christmas Day 1975.

As Sultan Abdul Halim's second wife, she was given the title of Cik-Puan, or royal consort. Out of respect to the then-Sultana, she kept a low profile, focusing on charitable works. It was not until after the death of the Sultan's first wife in 2003 that she officially became queen.

According to those who spend time with the royal couple, they are very fond of each other, with the Sultan often teasing and joking with his wife. The Sultana smiles as she adoringly describes her husband as a "gentle, soft-spoken and very educated man". She points out how hard he works and his discipline in always being on time, a trait she says she has picked up.

Just as she speaks of her husband with devotion, it is in the same glowing terms that she is talked about among her subjects in the state of Kedah.

Just as she speaks of her husband with devotion, it is in the same glowing terms that she is talked about among her subjects in the state of Kedah. Mostly, people remark about how unassuming she is. The Sultana is sufficiently comfortable with herself to be able to jest about how it is important to visit the bathroom before the start of an event, when she could be standing, sometimes for hours. It all comes down to control, she adds candidly. She has no qualms about joking on the record, how she has put on weight because she has not found the time to exercise, given her busy schedule.

Once they used to be rulers in the literal sense of the word, but now the roles of the Sultans and Sultanas have become largely ceremonial. In this day and age, many question the relevance of having royalty in any society, yet in kingdoms where they do exist, royal families remain as symbols of leadership.

Ally, who has been Her Majesty's hairdresser for the last 14 years, says she has nothing but respect for the Sultana. Privately, her Royal Highness will never neglect her duties as a Muslim woman. She prays five times a day and even if she has only ten minutes, she will choose to pray first before she does her hair.

Tuanku Hajjah Haminah wants to be remembered as a queen who kept in close contact with her people, a modern woman who was active in sports and religious too. She has led the way for more women in golf, performed the pilgrimage to Mecca many times and is known to throw generous annual dinners in her home state of Perak for her relatives.

In the public persona she presents to her rakyat, she is the queen who never forgot her roots as a commoner. Talking to her one-on-one, it is not hard to see why. She exudes an easy air about her and remains so personable that it is too easy to forget her regal status, till her personal assistant indicates that time is up.

Outside her suite, the hotel staff are lined in two rows, gently bowed. Their hands are held together, pressed against the top of the forehead, as a sign of reverence. She walks down the yellow carpet rolled out for royalty. In Malaysia the colour distinguishes her royal status but personally, in the case of the Sultana of Kedah, the respect she has earned from her people will in the end be what truly sets her apart.

 

THE SULTANATE OF KEDAH

Home state of former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad, Kedah is located at the northernmost tip of Malaysia, on country's border with Thailand. It was as a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom till the arrival of Islam in 1136. Since 1958, it has been ruled by Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah, the nephew of Malaysia's much respected statesman and first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. The Tunku served for one day as premier under his nephew.

Sultan Abdul Halim is the state's 27th monarch and married the late Tuanku Hajjah Bahiyah Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the eldest daughter of Malaysia's first king. He was installed as the country's fifth king, under the system which rotates Malaysia's kingship among its nine state sultans. The Sultan of the state of Trengganu, who is the current King of Malaysia, will be attending the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi