An Intimate Dialogue
During our photo shoot in Sharifah Menyalara Hussein’s home, photos of her grandfather Tunku Abdul Rahman caught my eye. A gentleman politician known for his diplomatic skills that secured our country its independence in 1957, Tunku’s face is one that every patriotic Malaysian knows.
Today, he remains a beloved figure for what he stood for: unity, equality and integrity. “He had no racial bias towards people, he accepted them for who they are. He was idealistic, patriotic and brave; there’s never a sense of ego about him. Everything he did was for the country he loved,” recalls Menyalara, who is affectionately called Lara by her loved ones. Lara’s mother Tunku Khadijah Tunku Abdul Rahman seconds this observation. “He would talk to sweepers and gardeners the same way he would to a VIP,” she said. Having lost her mother at a very young age, Tunku Khadijah was close to her father and was a filial daughter.
“My mum would always be honest with me about her problems and struggles. She never hides her mistakes from me so I can learn from them. No matter how tough it gets, she keeps growing”
“Despite his progressive thinking and values, Tunku is old-fashioned in some ways. He never forced me to finish my studies because he believed that, as a woman I will be taken care of when I am married. Instead he encouraged me to pick up skills such as cooking and hairdressing. I once owned a hairdressing shop in Alor Setar that I closed down after I got married. My husband Datuk Syed Hussein Syed Abu Bakar was a diplomat, so I would travel with him to all of his postings abroad,” explained Tunku Khadijah. Tunku Khadijah is mother to three daughters: Sharifah Intan, Sharifah Hanizah and of course Lara, who is the youngest. Lara was named by Tunku after his beloved mother. “My father loved Lara dearly. Every time he was on the way to his own residence, he would always stop by my house to pick up Lara, to spend time his granddaughter,” she says. The family was aware they were sharing their family patriarch with their fellow countrymen; there were always visitors clamouring to meet Tunku. “He was not only my father, he was the Father of Malaysia,” says Tunku Khadijah proudly. Lara agrees. “Tunku was never like any other grandfather. He was not a grandpa you sit around and have small talk with. You naturally just want to listen to him talk. He had an aura about him that was so majestic —he just commands respect.” In her childhood, Lara followed her parents abroad during her father’s diplomatic postings. “Lara had always been active and curious about new things. Once, she learned crochet in a class filled with old ladies. It never bothered her at all because she just wanted to learn something new,” says Tunku Khadijah. It was during her father’s work in Canberra, Australia, that Lara found a hobby she fell deeply in love with—horse-riding, which she would then pass on to her own daughters. When she was older, her parents sent her to France and England to further her education. There, Lara developed from an active precocious child into a
“Natasha’s work is intense but she knows that time and effort are necessary in cultivating a career. I don’t tell her to come home early when she works late. I allow her to do it because that’s life. I don’t pamper her. She needs to know that to succeed, you must pay your dues”
headstrong, independent woman. Despite her tenacious streak, she respected her grandfather and answered his summons to return home to Malaysia after she finished her studies abroad. “At that time, he wanted me to serve the country via foreign service. I had my reservations, but I wanted to please him, so I returned. I went for interviews to work as a diplomat but because I have spent my whole life abroad as a diplomat’s kid, I spoke little Malay and couldn’t qualify for the job,” she recalls. As a result, she stumbled into advertising by chance then worked her way up in the industry, and is currently the MD of M&C Saatchi KL. “When my daughters Natasha and Natalya were born, I was so happy. Motherhood was what I wanted, and they gave me a purpose. I dedicated my whole being to looking after them. They were my motivation,” she says. Admittedly, juggling family and work demanded a lot out of Lara, but she persevered. “I am the type of person who needs to get things done. For me, it is do or die. This drive has defined me and built my career. Was it stressful, being a working mother? Of course! But I was focused. I knew I was never going to quit my job because I wanted to give my daughters the best experiences life has to offer,” she says resolutely.
Natasha admires her mother, describing her as a lioness—courageous and protective. “My mum would always be honest with me about her problems and struggles since I was young. She never hides her mistakes from me so I can learn from them. No matter how tough it gets, she keeps growing,” she shares. In turn, Lara is proud of her two daughters. “I have been very lucky with them. I never had to tell them to work hard. They see it from me. I was never a mum who was sitting around, putting my feet up and doing nothing; they practice this today. Natasha’s work with Boston Consulting Group is intense but she knows from watching me that time and effort are necessary in cultivating a career. I don’t tell her to come home early when she works late. I allow her to do it because that’s life. I don’t pamper her or her sister. She needs to know that to succeed, you must pay your dues,” she iterates. The spirit of being fearless is indeed strong in Natasha, a Durham University graduate of economics and politics. When we met her for the photo shoot, she had just recovered from a broken rib after falling off her horse. “Show jumping is challenging but it is worth it. Of course it gets disheartening sometimes. Some days you win medals, then some days you do badly and fall off a horse.
“My father loved Lara dearly. Every time he was on the way to his own residence, he would always stop at my house to pick up Lara to spend time with her. She had always been active and curious about new things. She always wants to learn something new”
But it makes you stronger, especially since I am quite competitive by nature,” says the pretty 24-four-year-old with a laugh. Together with her beloved Dutch warmblood, Wacintha—whom she affectionately refers to as Wally—natasha travels to Europe for competitions, on top of her day job at BCG. “To say I am proud of Tasha is an understatement, she knows what she wants and she goes after it. She has this business savviness to her that helps guide her path,” says Lara. Their shared strengths led to a book called Dialog: A Book on Tunku’s Timeless Thinking, launched in August, an initiative by M&C Saatchi KL and the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. Featuring 23 essays from contributors and bundled with colourful illustrations by art students from The One Academy, the book was a labour of love by these three women. “I always felt I never really expressed tangibly what Tunku meant to me and Malaysians. I often wondered why is it only during Merdeka that people remember him?” expressed Lara with a tinge of sadness. Natasha chimes in, “I agree with mum. It is important for young people today to know more about our history. So that’s why I believed it was important to have young voices such as Harith Iskander and Altimet to contribute to the book alongside stalwarts like Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Tun Musa Hitam.” The book sparked conversation, which pleased Lara as she hoped his legacy is preserved in the right way. “Tunku inspired so many people because his intentions were pure. He was a fighter, and yet he was compassionate and full of integrity,” says Lara as our interview wrapped. Without a doubt, he has passed these traits and values on through his descendants—these women who are strong, fierce and fearless.
GIRL TALK Lara and Natasha are in Sportmax sweaters,tunku Khadijah dons a Michael Kors shirt; jewellery is by Degem