Neno (17 January 1930 – 2 July 2010)


Toh Puan Norashikin Mohd Seth

Doc Ismail and Neno at Heathrow, 1969. Pix: NST, in Ooi Kee Beng's "Reluctant Politician" ISEAS, 2006.

Toh Puan Norashikin Mohd Seth, who died on July 2, 2010, aged 80, was the wife of the late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, and her unwavering strength and support for her husband did more to help the nation navigate its way through crisis and independence than has hitherto been acknowledged.

Her husband famously did not suffer fools gladly (even the Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, once attempted to escape his wrath by climbing out of a second-floor window), and she herself was warm if taciturn, maintaining throughout her long life a devotion to public service that brooked neither reward nor recognition.

She and Ismail were introduced to each other by their parents and married in January of 1950. Life, according to her family, may have resembled that of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion: a mere 21 years old, she had completed her schooling but was very much a young Malayan woman of her times, whereas her husband was already an urbane pipe-smoking medical graduate of Queen’s College in the University of Melbourne.

Doc Ismail, Neno and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. at the UN, October 1958. Pix by Robert W. Kelley for LIFE Magazine

She took quickly to her husband’s national-service mission, however, and, on his appointment as Ambassador to the United States and Malaysia’s first permanent representative to the United Nations, learnt swiftly to manage not only his welfare but that of the entire Embassy as well.

This work was made all the more onerous by Malaya’s fresh independence and Ismail’s near-fanatical devotion to duty. Only after she fainted for half an hour at a diplomatic dinner did her husband resolve, unless he received “instructions to the contrary”, to allow her the “pleasant duty” of accompanying him on official tours. Still, she grew to become a fair bridge player and mastered the dark arts of Johor cuisine—the couple rarely dined out on their own, always preferring to entertain visiting dignitaries with Norashikin’s own cooking at home.

The character of both husband and wife, such that both took a dim view of any unofficial “reward” no matter how supremely merited (Ismail frequently threatened to gaol anyone who offered him such) is now little more than a vestige of the past, and it is perhaps the mark of that era that, when ill health forced Ismail to retire from the Cabinet in 1967, the family found itself without any money.

Ismail had exhausted his savings on a house in Kuala Lumpur and was now obliged to get a job despite his cancer, but Norashikin, likewise frugal with domestic expenditure, counted this a small price to pay for the improvement of her husband’s health through a complete break from government.

The exercise was to have been curative, and indeed might well have been but for the fateful day when Norashikin ran into Puan Sri Catherine Lim in a Kuala Lumpur street, and thereby learnt that the latter’s husband, Finance Minister Tan Sri Tan Siew Sin (as he then was), intended to withdraw his party from the Alliance that very afternoon of May 13, 1969.

Ismail attempted to put a halt to it, sensing correctly that the resulting upheaval would cause a bloodletting, but by then it was already too late and the events of that evening have since been the blackest in Malaysian history.

Again Norashikin put her country above herself and her family and reluctantly agreed to her husband’s rejoining the Government. Despite support from her father-in-law, the Senate President Dato’ Abdul Rahman Yassin (who wrote a terse letter to his son admonishing him for breaking his promise to his family to leave politics), this would prove to be a terrible sacrifice.

Four years later, Norashikin discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s seventh child. Ismail had suffered three serious heart-attacks by then, but felt duty-bound to remain in office as long as the health of the Prime Minister, Tun Razak Hussein, (who had leukaemia) remained unclear. Fearing he would not survive and worried that his family would be destitute since his re-entry to the Government put paid to any hopes he entertained at holding down a City job, Ismail asked that his wife terminate her pregnancy.

She was still recovering in hospital when he suffered his final heart attack on the evening of Aug 2, 1973. Ismail was acting Prime Minister at the time of his death, and news of his passing was delivered to his wife only at 5.30 the following morning when she recovered from sedation.

Norashikin thereafter maintained a dignified retirement, dedicating much of her time to the Puteri Islam Movement, which she helped co-found in 1969 with Dato’ Lily Majeed and Datin Rahmah Osman to foster moderate Muslim values in the young. She stood down in 1995 and was succeeded by Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Very much in keeping with her attitude towards public service, Norashikin offered only the barest acknowledgement of any praise for her husband’s legacy or her own achievements. When, in 2009, the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre staged a musical commemorating her husband’s last days alive, she merely enquired why all the women-characters were so terribly weak-willed.

Norashikin Mohd Seth, or “Neno” as she was known, was born on January 17, 1930, in Johor Baru and grew up in an independently-minded family that had a strong commitment to duty. Her father, Dato’ Mohamed Seth Mohd Said was the State Secretary of Johor from 1953 to 1956 (in which capacity he was involved posthumously in a territorial dispute with Singapore), and, as Deputy Menteri Besar, represented the Johor executive at Independence talks in London.

Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar Al-Masyhur ibni Abu Bakar was an Anglophile, but also a nationalist. Pix from HMSO.

Sultan Ibrahim of Johor, fearing greater British meddling in an independent Federation, publicly called for Johor’s secession and instructed Mohamed Seth to reject the Tunku’s proposals in London. The Deputy Menteri Besar, however, defied his ruler and committed the state to the Merdeka project, earning both the wrath of the Sultan and his banishment from the state.

Norashikin then married into another prominent and rebellious Johorean family—Ismail’s father Abdul Rahman Yassin having led a rebellion against Sultan Ibrahim in February 1946 by criticising the latter’s quick accession to the Sir Harold MacMichael’s Treaty establishing the Malayan Union as a British Colony. Abdul Rahman and his six fellow-agitators, including his son Suleiman (later High Commissioner to Australia), and son-in-law Dr Awang Hassan (later Tun, and Governor of Penang) were summarily ejected from government service. (Abdul Rahman would be re-established only in 1959 with his appointment to the presidency of the Senate.)

Dato’ Sir Onn Jaafar, the founder of the United Malays National Organisation, with whom her husband would on occasion clash in Parliament, was a distant relative, and her brother General Tan Sri Mohd Ghazali Seth, later Chief of Armed Forces, commanded an infantry battalion during the Konfrontasi and directed the Rajang Security Command against communists operating in Sarawak.

Norashikin is survived by her daughters Zailah and Badariah, and her sons the former Member of Parliament for Sungei Benut Mohd Tawfik, Mohamed Tarmizi, Zamakhshari, and Mohamed Ariff. She was accorded a state funeral on Saturday, 3rd July 2010, and was buried at the Warrior’s Mausoleum in the National Mosque, close to the grave of her beloved husband.

Norashikin Mohd Seth died very much the way she lived: with humour, courage, and dedication and without reward or honours of her own.


I wrote this at the request of Tawfik Ismail and with his help.

UPDATE 1: Seth’s tribute to his grandmother appeared in the New Straits Times, July 6, 2010. Here is the link.

UPDATE 2: This obituary appeared in theSun, also on July 6, 2010. Here is a copy:


3 thoughts on “Neno (17 January 1930 – 2 July 2010)

  1. The passing of Toh Puan Norashikin Mohd Seth, or Neno as I was fortunate enough to be allowed to call her was received with the saddest of sentiment. I had known Neno for only a few years, but like many people I was deeply touched by her charm, her laughter, her dignity and her grace. Over the years I was lucky enough to call not only Neno my friend, but also her remarkable family, Tawfik, Zailah, Badariah, Tarmizi, Zamakhshari and Ariff. As they and their families gather united in the memory of their mother let us remember that the passing of Neno is not the death of personality for Toh Puan Norashikin Mohd Seth has not died in death, she will live forever in the hearts and memories of all who knew her. Mark Peaker – Hong Kong

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