Some people have that rare ability to talk to you like only you exist for the moment, and give you that full attention that makes you feel like what you say matters. These people are a rarity. But it becomes one in a million when that person is a queen. And HRH the Sultanah of Pahang has this wonderfully rare trait, above and beyond her stunning beauty, her fabulous generosity, her sparkling personality, her elegant and much-followed style sense and what matters most to her people, her limitless compassion.
“Thank you so much for your flowers, Beatrice, they are so beautiful” she says with much pleasure, and stands up. I stand up with her, not knowing what I should do, and she embraces me, and kisses me warmly on both cheeks. I look back at my little package of pink roses and white baby’s breath. And then I turn around and look at her oh-so- beautiful home, resplendent with white roses, white orchids, white lilies in glorious abundance adorning her stairs and tables, and even floors and I do a little gulp.
She calls out to someone, “Please find a vase and put these flowers in it.” That someone turns up like magic in an instant, takes the flowers and returns almost in a second with a glass vase, which the Sultanah puts on the coffeetable where we are sitting. “Look at those pretty pink roses, Beatrice. They are lovely. So sweet of you. Again thank you for thinking of me,” she turns to me with her dazzling smile.
This is the essence of Sultanah Kalsom – a regal dignity which commands respect but at the same time does not make her seem inaccessible. A gregarious personality, yet one with a strong sense of duty and responsibility. She makes people fall in love with her. And we fell in love a little bit more, than we already were, when we heard her story.
Many little girls dream of becoming a princess; of being swept off their feet by their Prince Charming and living happily ever after in a magic castle. For the young Kalsom Abdullah however, But it is when you are not looking for something that it comes up to you and sweeps you off your feet, isn’t it? And as it goes, her Prince Charming did come. But instead of a mere prince, it was a King (a Sultan in fact) who won her heart and then her hand, culminating in her marriage to HRH the Sultan of Pahang Sultan Ahmad Shah in March 1991.
Much has taken place from then till now. Yet nearly 31 years (and counting) of royal marriage later, HRH the Sultanah of Pahang Sultanah Hajjah Kalsom is still very much the same person with the same set of values. The trappings and privileges of royalty has not changed her. In fact, her regal status has only enhanced her sense of responsibility.
She calls it “the transition from I to We”. As Sultanah Kalsom explained, “I moved from ‘I, which is a personal sense of myself where my main concern is my own small world such as my family, to ‘We’ where the meaning of family is extended to my husband’s subjects, namely the people of Pahang.”
She would soon find out what that entailed. The relationship between Sultan Ahmad Shah and his people is a strong and (considering that he has been on the throne since 1974) long one. Such is the love and respect that the people of Pahang have for their Ruler that they extended those sentiments to the lady whom he chose to reign beside him.
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, Malaysia’s Prime Minister (and an anak or child of Pahang himself ), once called the Sultan “Raja berjiwa Rakyat (the People’s King)”. It is an accolade that stems from him being hands-on in addressing the needs of his subjects. Just like how the people would approach their Sultan for help, support and succour, they also turned with the same trust to their Sultanah.
It was, Sultanah Kalsom admits, quite overwhelming. Not having been brought up in a royal environment, she was initially not prepared for the responsibility or the hope that people started placing in her. The Sultan however came to the rescue. “He taught me how to balance the needs of people around us, with our duty and place in the world,” she smiled.
Frederick the Great of Prussia once summed up the role of a monarch as, “I am the first servant of the state”. In many ways, Sultanah Kalsom reflects such sentiments through her dedication to the people.
Aside from ad-hoc works of charity, Tuanku (as she is fondly called, which is Malay for “my lord/my lady”) is also the Patron of a number of philanthropic organisations to which she lends her name and position to help raise awareness, funds and support.
These include, for example, the Kiwanis Club of Kuantan and OrphanCARE – both of which are dedicated to underprivileged children. The former works on taking care of children with Down Syndrome and autism, while the latter is committed to finding loving families for orphans or reintegrating abandoned babies and children with their mothers. Then there is Yayasan Sri Kencana Kalsom; named after the Sultanah, this group provides shelter for disadvantaged women as well as those who were victims of domestic abuse.
Her passion for charity, she reveals, stems from her sense of gratitude for what she has and a desire to give back. “I have been very fortunate,” she reflects. “Compared to many people who wake up hungry, thirsty, and who do not have medicine or education, we are all very lucky.”
The Sultanah is the Patron of other societies, ranging from healthcare related ones such as CancerCare to those that encourage the empowerment of women (a cause in which she believes strongly) such as the Soroptimist Club of Kuantan and The Sorority. The last mentioned is an exclusive club founded in London for professional women.
Another factor that drives Sultanah Kalsom to give to the less fortunate is her strong Muslim faith, which is reflected in her work with Lembaga Kebajikan Perempuan Islam Malaysia (LKPIM – Malaysian Muslim Women’s Welfare Board).
Speaking on the organisation, Tuanku revealed, “LKPIM was started by none other than our first Queen not long after our independence and we are especially focused on improving socioeconomic conditions among women and families especially in kampung (villages) and among the Orang Asli (indigenous people).
More than just help support good causes, the Sultanah’s philanthropic work also helps impart values to her only child, 21-year old Prince Fahad Mu’adzam, one of which is the appreciation of the importance of education.
As she so succinctly puts it, “Many things can be taken from you, but your education will always be yours and allows you the ability to make informed choices in any situation.” Having worked before she married into royalty, Sultanah Kalsom is able to appreciate of making something of oneself without the benefit of rank or privilege.
She wanted Prince Fahad to experience the same. The Sultan was, she reveals, very supportive. This resulted in “Fahad (being) sent to schools in which his title and family were secondary to his effort, achievement and behaviour… I was keen for him to learn to be himself and balance this with his duty to Pahang and Malaysia.”
Testifying to her success is the fact that three years ago, she and the young Prince co-founded the Sultan Ahmad Shah Environmental Trust (SASET). Named after the Sultan, who is also its Patron, SASET aims to protect the natural environment of Pahang (which is home to some of Peninsular Malaysia’s largest rainforests), as well as uplift the socioeconomic conditions of Pahang’s rural communities.
It was Prince Fahad who thought of the idea of SASET, a fact which fills Sultanah Kalsom with pride. One can see another of the Sultanah’s adages reflected in her son’s actions, “It is not what you have that leads to a sense of security and self, but what you do with it.” The Sultanah also revealed that Prince Fahad is planning to start a network of football academies across Malaysia, in order to provide opportunities for talented but less fortunate youths. Interestingly, football is the sport most closely associated with the Sultan of Pahang and it looks like the young Prince has acquired the passion.
A wife, a mother, a Queen a patron of charity, a woman of style… Sultanah Kalsom of Pahang has many roles. At the end of the day though, they are all distinct yet co-equal parts of herself. As she puts it, “Ultimately, I am myself. It’s as simple as that. The life I lead has a bit of a magnifying glass, a bit of a spotlight attached to it. Everything is exacerbated, the good and bad, so one must be aware and one must be constantly vigilant of the greater good that we all seek to serve.”
And before we take leave of Her Royal Highness, she says excitedly, “Beatrice let me show you around. You’ve got to see what this wonderful girl (referring to the project manager) has done to my home. It’s just darling. I absolutely love this place, both the inside and the outside. There’s a lot of greenery surrounding it which I like as it makes everything seem so peaceful and tranquil.”
And she bundles me into the lovely floral lift, and takes me on a tour of her tastefully decorated home with lots of glass that has light coming in from every direction. It is very modern, simplistic and thoroughly elegant. I catch myself thinking, people decorate their homes in a reflection of who they are. We went up to the rooftop where she spends time at her ‘home theatre’, admitting with a roll of her eyes like any other doting mother that “it gets hijacked by my son and his friends when they come back for the holidays…”
The Sultanah of Pahang is the quintessential Queen of all Seasons. The queen of the people, like Diana was once upon a time ago. People check out her styles, her look, talk about her beauty and how kind she is. And everyone wants to be her friend, not just because she is queen, but because she is kind and caring… and powerful. As her stylist Barot whispered to me, “She knows EVERYBODY, Beatrice. And everybody loves her. She’s just amazing.”