A hundred adopted children, two banned books and one wacky but wonderful garden. Life for political writer Syed Hussein Alattas has always been stranger than fiction.
When you’re Syed Hussein Alattas and you’re penning your next narrative, people are bound to quake in their shoes. What happens after the release of his work is a series of clockwork events: panic, disbelief, a very embarrassed (or defiant) politician, maybe even the banning of the book.
This has happened twice out of the 60 books he’s authored, but that doesn’t mean the other 58 are any less sensational.
Among Syed Hussein Alattas’ loves are John Wayne — because he is a “man with character”.
Titles include The 15 Million Dollar Man as well as Dunia Belum Kiamat(Not The End Of The World), which chronicles the scandal surrounding Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Syed Hussein — contentious writer, self-taught gardener and architect, and doting husband and father — is not about to raise the white flag.
As he waves to me from the end of the dirt road that meanders through Taman Hana, the garden which he had lovingly built from scratch and named after his wife, it occurs to me that he is nothing like the malicious personality I had envisioned.
For one, he has the gift of making you feel instantly at ease, as if you have just been reacquainted with a long, lost friend.
“Call me Pak Habib,” he says, eyes crinkling at the sides in a smile. “Everyone does.”
When Syed Hussein tells me he’s 71, I can’t help but choke on my morning coffee. Here he is, the poster child for living life with no regrets, looking very much the part. Outfitted in red cowboy hat and matching boots, he exudes a beguiling combination of exuberance and mischief.
“I like John Wayne. I like his movies,” he announces. “He is what I’d like to call a man with character.”
Syed Hussein, it seems, is big on character and principles. Despite working in a job that requires him to leave a trail of destruction in his wake, he remains unapologetic to nothing and no one.
Taman Hana named after his wife.
“Some ministers won’t even shake my hand,” he readily admits. “But no one’s obligated to me, nor I to them. The only person I truly fear is God.”
And so begins my introduction to his first love, which isn’t writing or politics, as many would assume, but the mini Utopia that we are standing in.
Upon acquiring this eight-acre (3.2ha) plot of land in the quiet little Malay village of Janda Baik 25 years ago, Syed Hussein, who was inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, set out to create his version of beauty, harmony and tranquillity because “it’s something the world desperately needs”.
The garden of hope
Looking at Taman Hana, you can’t help but feel as if you’ve been allowed a precious glimpse into the man’s soul. Bursting with a rainbow of colours and decked out with everything from the priceless to the kitschy, the garden is wondrous as it is startling.
A crystal clear stream runs through its middle and leads to a pond where a few hundred fish feed and play.
As we make our way past the numerous tropical fruit trees and exotic blooms, it becomes evident that the garden was personalised in moments of abandon: a collection of antique pottery here, some bright plaster gnomes there, and about a million multi-hued river rocks arranged prettily and painstakingly in between — a feat that drove Pak Habib to submit his garden as a contender for The Guinness World Book of Records.
But perhaps the most conspicuous and random of all are the buildings — five and counting — for the Alattas family and guests. Each has its own quirky personality and charm —think traditional Malay, British colonial and Indonesian-style architecture — dreamt up by Syed Hussein himself.
“I picked up landscaping and architecture in the course of my travels around the world. I hope to build a library next.
“Taman Hana is a writer’s retreat, a place where artistic souls from all over the world can surround themselves with inspiration and learn.”
A stream runs through Syed Hussein’s eight-acre property in Janda Baik.
Today, I am told, happens to be one of them. The Ministry of Arts and Culture has decided to hold their annual Art Village Event here, and over 50 people have shown up, including students, government ministers and big names in theatre like Faridah Merican and Khalid Salleh.
But according to Amran Nasrudin, 50-plus, assistant director at the Ministry, it is serendipity that brought him to Taman Hana in the first place.
“I didn’t know this little gem existed until I stumbled upon it whilst holidaying. I saw a man tending to his plants out front and thought, ‘Oh, that must be the gardener’. But as I approached the entrance, I saw that it was someone much, much more important!”
Nasrudin says he instantly knew this was where he wanted the three-day event to be. And he intends to make it a permanent affair.
Syed Hussein has that effect on people. It is difficult to walk away from an encounter with him and not plan your next visit. Nonetheless, he remains firmly grounded:
“In every man there’s the good, bad and ugly. Politics is my ugly trait, while Taman Hana is the best part of me.”
Demons from the past
As fate would have it, however, politics is and will forever be the mainstay of Syed Hussein’s life. His home has but a handful of pictures that do not depict him fraternising with notable political figures.
And here’s a fascinating fact: he shares the same name as one of the founders of the political party Gerakan, Prof Datuk Dr Syed Hussein Alatas, who had also written several controversial books in his time.
When I ask Syed Hussein if he knows this, he nods: “Yes, it runs in our blood. The Alatas name is of Yemeni descent, and we are from the same bloodline. We can’t help but get embroiled in state affairs wherever we go.”
He goes on to explain that his brush with politics happened early in life, as a child growing up in Johor Baru. Johor had also, incidentally, been the birthplace of Umno, which, according to Syed Hussein, had set up their headquarters opposite from where he lived.
“Imagine having prominent leaders like Tunku Abdul Rahman, Khir Johari, Tun Razak and David Marshall as your neighbours!” he says. “What would you do?”
Syed Hussein did what any gregarious schoolboy would do: he stopped by.
“In fact, I visited Tunku so often that he soon called me his anak angkat(adopted son),” he reminisces. “Those were the days. Politicians aren’t who they were any more.”
Which brings us to the here and now. In his line of work, Syed Hussein gets to weed out the bad guys by playing super sleuth. Part of his job involves tailing the accused around the globe.
“I once camped out in Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok so I could catch a politician with his pants (literally) down. And I did. I saw him doing it again in Hong Kong.”
However, this could prove to be a bit trying. He’s travelled to at least five countries and over 30,000km this year alone, so — as far as Syed Hussein is concerned — there’s nothing better than being at home, surrounded by loved ones every opportunity he gets.
His eyes tear up as he speaks about his children — 10, if you counted only the biological ones, and up to 100, if his heart had its way. At one point, he was granted temporary custody to the 26 children of convicted religious teacher Abdul Talib Haron. They had to be returned to their parents after three years — something that still haunts Syed Hussein today.
“I miss them dearly,” he says. “Children are innocent beings. You’re responsible for moulding them into what they are.”
One of his adopted children, a young Chinese man by the name of Kuat, tells me what it is like to be part of Syed Hussein’s family: “I’ve learnt so much from him - sincerity, kindness, compassion. And for that I’m grateful.”
As the afternoon sun creeps up the cloudless sky, the garden and its people take on a bright, effervescent glow. But Syed Hussein, as it turns out, is the brightest of them all.
Taman Hana is open to visitors from 9am-5pm daily. To get there from Kuala Lumpur, take the Karak Highway and follow the signs to Janda Baik/Genting Highlands. For more information, contact Syed Hussein Alattas at firstname.lastname@example.org