Hishamuddin Aun: You must be new, eh? Those were the words I remember vividly how Paul Mony Samuel (later a Datuk Seri) greeted me when I met up with him in his office as the Assistant General Secretary of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).
It was my first four-eyed meeting with the man – long after everyone had left the building — after one monthly FAM Council meeting in 1982 that normally convened on a Sunday.
Yes, I must admit I was still wet behind the ears then, and going to meet him alone with no one for company required more than just a bit of courage. The prospect of facing this colossal personality, was intimidating, to say the least.
And the fact I had just been assigned the beat of a football writer by my employer, Berita Harian, was not made any easier by the popular belief then that Paul was not friendly with the vernacular press.
It was small wonder why my colleagues then preferred to cover team trainings and football matches rather than making frequent visits to Wisma FAM. In fact, to some, he was even branded a racist. If anything, some quarters would claim Paul would only talk to the English press unless it was a pre-arranged press conference where he had to address all and sundry.
How these people would portray him as someone who looked down on the Malay press – albeit it was us who should take the blame for our lack of confidence and eloquence and being scared of the man himself.
Alone just among us, football reporters from the Malay dailies at that time, I remember the constant shoving for me to take the lead whenever we chanced upon Paul close to the field next to Wisma FAM where the national team would have their trainings.
Honestly, we did not know how to start a conversation with him and we feared saying the wrong things or asking the wrong questions that might lead to a rebuke from him.
In retrospect, I find it rather weird and peculiar as Paul, a former school teacher in Kuala Ketil, Kedah and later a lecturer in a teachers training college, was equally conversant in English and Bahasa. Not only that, he was friendly and endearing too.
Ask him a question in Bahasa and he would enlighten you in text-book Malay that would be more than good enough for you to quote him verbatim.
However, he was said to be a man who gives very little information and was famous for the “don’t quote me” and “this is strictly off the record” kind of instructions.
Initially, I fell for that too – always hiding behind my seniors from the New Straits Times, The Star and The Malay Mail in wanting to avoid eye contact with the man and also not having to ask any questions but conveniently copied the answers and explanations he gave them.
But that brief meeting in his office in 1982 – meant to introduce myself as I did not have such an opportunity earlier — changed my perception towards him completely. And I must have summoned enough courage in between stuttering to share with him how he was often described as unfriendly to the vernacular press – by reporters from the Malay press mostly –and instead favoured a select few from the English press.
Upon being told that, Paul was more amused than offended.
“Siapa yang cakap ini?,” he boomed back. That was Paul to the core, sensitive to remarks like that, especially when they weren’t true. It would affect him terribly.
“I’m always trying to be fair to everyone so long as they come up to me in wanting to confirm something or to ask for an explanation on an issue. But the problem is I don’t see too many reporters from the vernacular press over anything. “Are they afraid of me or what?,” he chuckled. “So, please tell your friends they shouldn’t think that I am like that at all. And they are most welcome to see me on any issues,” he quipped. “Afraid” may not be the right word, it was more like having “too much respect”. We were simply overawed by this man’s knowledge of the sport. He was always alert, and could handle any question, even the curving balls often sent in his direction, with relative ease.
I also learnt during the months after that that Paul wasn’t someone whom you could go up to and simply ask for ‘a back page lead story’. He will show you the door, and tell you not to waste his time.
With him, you have to come prepared if you are trying to fish for some quotes pertaining to an issue or feel like engaging him in a discussion on a specific subject matter. For, Paul had so much on his plate, as he micro-managed as well.
Was he a racist? Not Paul, not even by a long shot. He was a professional, who would answer any intelligent question put to him, to the best of his ability.
Everything was at his fingertips. Be it the rules of the game, the FAM constitution, problems the players were going through, dates, events, you name it and he knew them all. Which is probably why, he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
When he talked to you, explain a policy or a decision to the press, I couldn’t help visualizing, that it was as if he was standing in front of his class, talking to his students. For, he was patient in explaining it, making sure you understood the core of the message, so you won’t get it wrong in the papers the next day. He was both articulate and coherent.
At the workplace, he was a different animal. There you would only see the stern demeanor, the dogged diligence, and the meticulous manner in which he went about his ‘Call of Duty’, as General Secretary of FAM/AFC, FIFA Instructor, general coordinator of three World Cups, and the many other roles in which he served the beautiful game. But behind that administrator was a man with a heart of gold. He was blessed with a giving heart. Even if it wasn’t within his means, Paul would never turn away anyone who came to him for help.
For, to Paul nothing made him happier than being able to put a smile on those forlorn faces who had sought him out. He could have been a multi-millionaire from the positions of power he occupied, but that wasn’t Paul. He didn’t chase rainbows for the pot of gold.
He just wanted to be relevant, to be able to fix problems, to share his knowledge and vast experience with his charges, and leave a lasting legacy.
And he never did all that for his personal fame and glory. In fact, he was publicity-shy.
Paul would never surpass the president, the council and the exco but would rather let the top brass of the FAM enjoy the glare of the limelight.
Although he would be the one providing the gems that make for a great copy, he would always ask us to quote his boss, the then president of FAM, Sultan Ahmad Shah. Such was his respect for protocol that present day issues like the Players’ Status Committee requiring 100 days just to convene a meeting, would have been unheard of during his time.
In spite of all that, there were a couple of ‘attempted coups’ to oust him from the General Secretary’s post that were mostly racial in nature. But Paul survived each time, with the solid backing of the FAM president though his dedication and hard work would have been his best defence.
During his heyday as a football administrator, Paul to us was perhaps the most intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable football official we had ever met.
And, from that first four-eyed meeting in 1982, I will always remember Paul for being firm but fair and always had a clear understanding that a journalist too had a job to do. It is for that, too, I would forever be in awe of the man whom I have my highest respects for as a football administrator extraordinaire and a friend.