People

Singapore and sambal belacan led Riau governor to love

Riau Governor Nurdin Basirun and his wife, Madam Noor Lizah Mohamed Taib, were an odd couple when they first met. He was a kampung boy and she, then 18 and fresh out of Stamford College, a strong-minded, modern girl. Now she chairs the provincial can
Riau Governor Nurdin Basirun and his wife, Madam Noor Lizah Mohamed Taib, were an odd couple when they first met. He was a kampung boy and she, then 18 and fresh out of Stamford College, a strong-minded, modern girl. Now she chairs the provincial cancer foundation and the disaster response team, among other posts.ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

He met his wife when, as a boatman, he offered to cart the spicy paste from Karimun to her family in S'pore

The Governor of Riau Islands province, Mr Nurdin Basirun, is no stranger to Singapore. His wife, Madam Noor Lizah Mohamed Taib, is a Singaporean, and so are his three children.

He worked as a boat crewman in his younger days, ferrying fish and other goods between the two countries and doing various odd jobs such as cooking and clearing up rubbish in the Kallang River.

Singapore Chinese towkays called him "Ah Seow", or crazy in Mandarin, because he loved to joke and play pranks.

Now, at 60, he has become the No. 1 man in the province known as Kepri, facing the challenge of bringing prosperity to the sprawling region of nearly 2,500 islands, from Batam and Bintan to far-flung Natuna.

"I had never dreamt of becoming governor. God has given me this blessing, I am thankful and I just want to do the best for my people," he told The Straits Times at his home in Karimun's main city of Tanjung Balai, a 11/2-hour ferry ride away from Singapore.

Mr Nurdin had grown up poor, living in a tiny wooden shack with his parents and 14 siblings on Karimun island. Money was scarce for his family.

"I sold Malay cakes, carried water from the wells to homes to help the family's finances. I was frugal and saved up to buy my own house and car," he said.

Wife Noor Lizah said her husband eschewed frivolous things. "He bought me a dress from Singapore but I told him it looked like a mosquito net," she said.

The 57-year-old said her husband would spend his free time at the mosque or the coffee shop to mingle with residents.

Once she got upset because he returned home late for breakfast after his morning prayers.

"He told me to get into the car and then he drove me to see all his 'girlfriends'," she recounted.

"'That's my girlfriend, and that one too,' he said. They turned out to be homeless street people he had helped earlier."

Indeed, the Nurdins' love story could have been the stuff of a Malay soap opera, what they themselves have dubbed "Cinta Sambal Belacan", or Sambal Belacan Love.

Madam Noor Lizah's grandmother, who had royal links in Meral, a little district off Karimun which was then the island's centre of power, broke taboo after marrying a commoner - her grandfather now - and was forced to seek refuge in Singapore.

In the late 1970s, her parents returned to Karimun to look for their family. Not only did they find their relatives, but a cousin's incredible sambal belacan, a spicy chilli padi and shrimp paste.

Mr Nurdin, a distant relative, conveniently became their courier. Whenever he sailed to Singapore, he would deliver the chilli condiment to them.

He secretly harboured feelings for her, but confessed his love only after she visited his home.

"We went for a stroll and under the frangipani tree, he said he liked me," a giggling Madam Noor Lizah said.

They were an odd couple - he was a kampung boy and she, then 18 and fresh out of Stamford College, a strong-minded, modern girl decked in miniskirts, hotpants and chunky platform shoes.

"It was 11pm. He said, 'Do you know where we are? We are at a cemetery.' I was scared, so I held his hand. We held hands all the way lah," she said.

Mr Nurdin confessed to being too shy at first to profess his feelings, saying: "I was busy working and had no idea how to court women. But I thought if she dared to come to the village, it meant she was open to change ."

And change they both did, after they tied the knot in 1982.

With his wife's encouragement, he furthered his studies, and now holds a master's degree in communications and a doctorate in state administration.

Madam Noor Lizah stayed back in Singapore to raise their children - Nora, now 33, Muhammad Nurhidayat, 27, and Harith Fachri, eight.

But eventually she moved to Karimun after her husband became its regent more than a decade ago.

She still makes weekly trips to Singapore, though, to visit her children at their Sengkang flat and hangs out at Bussorah Street to "relax".

She now chairs the provincial cancer foundation and the disaster response team, among other posts, which sees her island-hopping to attend meetings and events.

She was, however, denied permission to chair the provincial Family Welfare Movement or PKK - typically given to governors' spouses - as she is still a Singaporean.

She said: "I am proud to be Singaporean. I would like to do more things for the people here (Riau). For humanitarian work, it doesn't matter which country you are from or which passport you hold."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore and sambal belacan led Riau governor to love People'. Print Edition | Subscribe