It’s not every day that the governor of Bank Negara summons the wife of a high ranking government official, but that’s exactly what happened to Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s wife, Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, one day many years ago.
At that point, a young Mahathir was the education minister. He was based in Kuala Lumpur and had built his own home after renting a house in Petaling Jaya for several years.
Siti Hasmah, recalling the incident at an event at Bank Negara today, said she had received a call from her brother, Ismail Mohamed Ali, who was central bank governor at the time.
“I was called to his office abruptly. He didn’t tell me why, just that he wanted me to see him in his office,” she said, adding that Ismail, the first Malaysian governor, was “very strict” when it came to finances.
Upon her arrival at Bank Negara, she said, she was taken straight to his office.
“Even before I could sit down, he said, ‘Hasmah, where did Mahathir get the money to buy that house?’
“I was very hurt,” she added.
She said she explained to Ismail, whom she called “Abang Ngah”, that Mahathir had gotten some money from the sale of their house in Alor Setar. Because he was a civil servant, she said, he had been able to get a loan for the new home.
“He replied ‘mmm’. That’s what he said. I was dismissed with his ‘mmm’,” she said at the launch of a book on Ismail titled “Tun Ismail Mohamed Ali: Paragon of Trust and Integrity”.
Siti Hasmah said although her brother was a stern man, he was also very affectionate and loved his wife and family.
When his wife, Toh Puan Maimunah Abdul Latif, was admitted to hospital, she said, Ismail had requested a bed next to hers, refusing to settle for anything less.
Siti Hasmah also spoke of her brother’s habit of smoking despite her warnings of its effect on his health.
She said Ismail had friends from South America who would always bring him Cuban cigars.
“Once, when he was admitted to the hospital with a lung condition, I went to see him and to my amazement there was a box of Cuban cigars next to him.
“I was so upset. I told him, you are not supposed to smoke, but he said it was his only vice.”
Siti Hasmah said she then pasted a note on his hospital room door to tell his friends not to give him any more cigars.
“When he got to know about it, he asked the staff to remove the note so my mission failed,” she added.
She said Ismail was always a “true gentleman” and never forgot his manners, even at home.
“When I went to his house, he would open the car door for me and escort me. When going home, he would walk down the steps with me, and open and close the door.
“I miss him.”
Ismail served as Bank Negara’s second governor from 1962 to 1980. He passed away in 1998.