It must have been on an evening sometime in 2005 when I received a call from a businessman.
I was surprised. The man was a very rich, very reclusive entrepreneur with interests ranging from telecommunications to oil and gas, and our last conversation had not been particularly cordial.
I’d written an article for the Far Eastern Economic Review mentioning him and he wasn’t happy. Actually, he’d been far more inventive in his language, but I think you get the point.
Much had changed since. The Asian financial crisis had come and gone, the Review had disappeared, and I was now working for a Singapore-based daily as its KL bureau chief.
And said businessman was still very rich and very reclusive to the extent that some reporters didn’t even know what he looked like.
So, you can imagine my surprise. He said he knew about my shift and suggested I drop by on Monday afternoon for a “chat.”
“I think it would be nice,” quoth he.
It must be some new purchase, a deal, maybe even a market-moving scoop and I was excited. I called my paper and the editors were thrilled and promised to hold the front page for my story for all its Woodwardian promise.
The meeting was to be in his new building in the KLCC. I entered its lobby and a guard pointed ne to a reception area where visitors were queuing to get a digital pass to the floor they wanted to go to.
I reached the front desk and produced my press card. Two men appeared instantly and indicated I was to follow. Of course, a lift was waiting.
It was somewhere near the top, a whole floor actually; very cool and pin-drop silent. There was artwork everywhere with paintings stashed along the walls of the thickly carpeted floor.
I was led along to a waiting room where a television was playing and there were magazines about.
They brought it and very good stuff it was too. None of your Nescafe’s or what-have-yous!
I didn’t see a soul but could hear telephones going so there was life on the planet. I looked at the framed pictures on the wall which seemed to be all of his children.
He came in quietly and I didn’t know it until he spoke. He was dressed very casually in an open necked shirt and jeans and his smile was broad and seemed genuine.
After some desultory conversation, he declared he was famished and hadn’t lunched – it was 3.30 pm – and declared we would have tea.
A lady brought in the tea things and a large cake. I accepted the tea and declined the cake. He cut himself a generous slice and pronounced it satisfactory.
Then he held forth on healthy living and revealed that the cake had been made without butter or anything which bore malicious intent towards his cardiovascular system.
At the time, he must have been in his sixties but looked younger and, what with a fat-free diet amid rigorous exercise, seemed bent on outliving Kirk Douglas.
His summons still remains a mystery. We talked about a great deal – his art, his family, mine, education – but there were no revelations and no market-moving scoop.
It was, indeed, a “nice chat.”
Just before I left, he declared he had a gift for me and, with a flourish, handed me one of those cakes in a gift-wrapped box.
He said I should live healthier.
Like most of the evening, it was a “nice” moment.
I obtained more information from the bodyguards accompanying me down. They seemed friendly now that I’d met the “boss” and informed me that he was a workaholic who was frequently the last to leave the building.
I noticed Hassan, my then driver, eyeing the cake covetously and offered it to him. As was his wont, he agreed. He was never a man to look a gift horse in the mouth.
I remembered the cake the next day and asked Hassan how it had been received.
“Terrible,” he said. “Even the children refused to eat it”.
So, he tried it on his chickens.
Ditto, it seems.
(It’s a damn sight funnier in Malay).