Farewell Old Friend

At 8.11 pm Malaysian time on Tuesday the 16th of February 2021, my friend and brother, Mohd Zulfadhli Faiq bin Baharuddin, passed away.

Zulfadhli (nickname: Butcher, ‘nombor dobi‘: B38, Sulaiman House) was my dorm mate in Form 1 in MCKK. He died a month short of his 37th birthday.

I was working on some MRI analysis scripts when I read the news in our batch’s WhatsApp group. Disbelief turned to shock, then grief, as more messages started pouring in. Even now, a few hours later, I am still trying to gather my thoughts. Because of the pandemic, the hospital has to wait until his COVID-19 test results are out before they can release his body. The doctor in me understands and accepts this, but still I rage quietly at this indignity. There’s nothing I can do about it though, so I turn to the next best thing.

I write.

My mind wanders back in time to 1997, to our first few weeks at the Prep School. I don’t remember how he got the nickname Butcher, nor do I recall why. Perhaps it was because of his size? Butcher’s always been on the large side, even though in recent years he had slimmed down considerably. All of us thought he had gone on a diet or something; God knows how wrong we were.

Despite his size, or perhaps because of it, Butcher tended to keep things to himself. He was mild-mannered; I struggle to recall any instance of him getting angry at someone else.

What I do recall was his undeniable sporting prowess. Butcher was a natural athlete, excelling in multiple sports to the extent that he was awarded Best Sportsman during our Form 1-Form 2 Carnival in 1997. As a rugby player, he was almost ‘untackleable’. He played ‘sepak takraw‘ very well, on top of football, table tennis, and volleyball. Without him, Sulaiman House would’ve languished in 4th place forever; with Butcher around, at least we had a small chance of getting 3rd place on Sports Day!

He was ever willing to lend a helping hand, offering his services as a masseur at the Prep School to friends who had injured themselves while playing sports. Knowing him, the fact that he could skip evening prep (or ‘prep malam‘ as we called it back then) was a bonus. The only thing you had to make sure was not to block his access to the cool air from the ceiling fan. Indeed, one of my batch’s popular sayings is “Butcher dan aircond/kipas berpisah tiada” i.e. you can’t separate Butcher from his place under the aircond/fan.

If you’ve ever been to a boarding school in Malaysia, you will know that every now and then, schools go through a period of mass hysteria, when students claim to experience all sorts of supernatural phenomena (see, for example, this BBC article). How is this relevant here? Well, it was during one such episode when some random person (I don’t remember who) claimed to have seen Butcher fly, or to be more precise, float a few inches off the ground. How’s that for a party trick? I even wrote about the incident years ago for our batch website (which I think still exists somewhere on the Internet).

I’m preparing this blog post just a few hours after attending a virtual ‘tahlil‘ session on Zoom with my batchmates. Many of us are in tears, myself included.

He is the first of us to go. Reminder to self: eventually, all of us will follow.

I can’t help but ask myself: how come I didn’t know about this earlier? Judging from what a few other people said during the ‘tahlil‘, I got the impression that most of us were caught by surprise. Did we fail our brother, thinking that he had lost weight because he was getting fitter, when in reality his health was slowly failing? Wallahu a’lam…Allah SWT knows best.

But then I look back at how Butcher had always conducted himself, and I wonder if this was what he had always wanted. Reserved to the point of being shy, maybe this was the way he wanted to be remembered. Not as a sick person, but as a natural athlete, a good friend, and an extremely likeable person.

Fighting back tears, I scroll back to the picture at the top of this post; there he was, wearing the traditional black ‘baju Melayu‘ reserved for MCKK cheerleaders during important sporting events, leading all of us, his friends and brothers, in a rousing rendition of the victory anthem ‘Gemilang’.

Such a perfect photo of our dear friend, if ever there was any!

“Ya Allah, ampunilah dosa sahabat kami Mohd Zulfadhli Faiq bin Baharuddin. Terimalah segala amalannya, berilah rahmatMu kepadanya, dan tempatkanlah beliau di kalangan orang-orang yang soleh.”

Damailah dirimu di sana wahai sahabat…

Innalillahi wa inna ilaihiraaji’uun.


Conversations #1

For all its downsides, the pandemic has given many of us a chance to spend more time with our families. In the monotony of our present lives, it is easy to lose track of the passage of time. But time marches on regardless. One moment, you’re cradling your newborn son in a warm blanket, and before you know it, he’s telling you all his friends’ names at school (Ronny, Ion, Shala, Reyhan, and Kitty…in that order).

I whispered to my son last night, just as he was about to go to sleep:

“Don’t grow up too fast, M.”

He thought about it for a few seconds, perhaps wondering why I didn’t want him to grow up so quickly.

“But if I drink more milk, soon I’ll be four years old right? Then five, six, and seven years old!” came the enthusiastic reply.

“Sure buddy,” I said, wiping a tear from my eye.


Walking around today, I am reminded of the opening lines from the beautiful poem below:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand 
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour

From ‘Auguries of Innocence’ by William Blake

The Kindness of Others

Many years ago, when I was still an A-Level student dreaming of going to medical school, my mother suggested that I consider applying to Oxford or Cambridge. At first, I didn’t give the idea much thought. After all, the idea of going to Oxbridge seemed so far-fetched, I felt it was prudent not to dwell too much on it.

But as Leonardo DiCaprio says in Inception, ‘even the smallest seed of an idea can grow.’ And true enough, the idea grew in my mind: “Why not give it a shot?”

That was how I found myself getting in touch with my former debating teammate, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, since he was already in the UK and presumably knew more about the place than I did. After all, the furthest I’ve ever been from home (in Selangor), up to that point in my life, was to visit my grandparents in Perlis.

The United Kingdom was so alien to me it might as well have been Mars!

Nik Nazmi and I agreed to meet up soon afterwards. He said he knew someone by the name of Adlan Benar Omar (Ben) who could take a look at my personal statement and give me some tips for applying. I had only heard Ben’s name spoken once or twice before, this mysterious figure who by all accounts was a bona fide genius. I told Nik Nazmi I would be grateful if he could do so.

True to form, Nik Nazmi also brought me to a Keadilan meeting that day instead of going out for a meal (but that’s a different story altogether!).

Not long after, I received a call on my trusty Nokia 8250.

It was Ben.

He introduced himself to me, told me he had read my personal statement and CV, and said something that remains etched in my memory:

“You are overqualified for this, but I’ll see if I can help.”

I don’t really remember the rest of the conversation. It was brief, and yes, I was a bit starstruck. Obviously, I didn’t actually believe that I was overqualified for Oxbridge (duh!), but you must remember, having someone say that they believe in you, that gives you a huge boost of confidence. Coming from someone you look up to, well…that’s just life-changing.

Now here’s the curious bit:

I made what was called an ‘Open Application’ to Cambridge, whereby I didn’t specify which college I wanted to apply to, mostly because I had zero knowledge about what to look for in a college. In theory, my application could’ve been allocated to any one of the 29 undergraduate colleges that were accepting medical students.

So what were the odds of it landing at Jesus College, the very same college that Ben attended?

Wallahu a’lam…

Recently, I saw a post on Facebook by Rafizi Ramli commemorating his friendship with Ben. I reached out to Raf, the one person who might know something about what Ben actually did for me, but Raf said Ben had never mentioned it.

So yes, I still don’t know for sure whether Ben actually wrote a recommendation letter for me and sent it to Jesus College, but I’d like to think that he did. Sadly, Adlan Benan Omar passed away in 2008 while I was still in medical school, and before I could say thank you in person to him.

Why am I telling this now?

I guess it’s because I want you to know about these random acts of kindness that are often done secretly without wishing for anything in return.

I guess I’m looking for an opportunity to pay it forward.

I guess I want to acknowledge a universal truth: We like to think that our accomplishments are due to hard work and diligence, but in reality, nobody succeeds on their own. God works in mysterious ways, often by blessing us with the kindness of others.

In that sense, I was blessed to have ‘known’ Allahyarham Adlan Benan Omar for the briefest of periods in the early 2000’s. Whatever kindness I show to others, whatever help I may give to my patients, I pray that Allah SWT will reward him too for the kindness that he showed me once, many years ago…