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Sayeed of Singapore

September 25, 2005


At 2111 HRS-Z on Saturday the 17th day of September Anno Domini 2005, when the water was high and the moon full, Captain Muhammad Jalaluddin Sayeed, Gentleman and Extra Master Mariner, lying at 24 51 N 67 03 E, silently slipped his moorings and piloted himself out. His wife of 57 years, Zareena, and his daughters Mahjabeen, Nazneen, Lubna and Fatima must rejoice. Being a man of the sea, Sayeed gave all of himself whilst on Planet Earth, neither worrying about nor waiting to do good in the Hereafter.

Sayeed was born in December 1920 to Dr Lateef Sayeed and Mahmooda Begum in the Nizam’s capital city of Hyderabad, Deccan. Physician Sayeed, secretary of the Indian National Congress of Hyderabad state, a committed nationalist, was friend to Rabindranath Tagore, to the Nizam of Hyderabad, to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and to Jawaharlal Nehru. The story is often still repeated of how the Nizam, breaking with tradition, left his palace to go to offer his condolences to Widow Mahmooda when his friend Lateef died.

MJ, as Sayeed was known, was schooled in Hyderabad and in 1936, together with his first cousin Syed Mohammad Ahsan (a future commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Navy) left his home town to board the Indian Mercantile Marine Training Ship ‘Dufferin’, moored off Mazagoan Docks at Bombay harbour.

At the end of 1938, he passed out first of his batch of deck cadets, and early in 1939 signed on Scindia’s ‘Jalapadma’; second in line was Ahsan, who joined the Royal Indian Navy. (Another future commander-in-chief of our Navy, A R Khan, stood second in the batch of engineering cadets who passed out that year.)

After having sailed the seas with Scindia for nine years, literally from one end of the world to the other, in 1947 MJ qualified as a Master in London. He returned to Bombay to help organize the Maritime Union of India, an institution founded to better the lot of Indian seafaring officers. Having done his job, MJ moved on to the Maritime Union Nautical School to teach for a while before going back to the sea.

In 1952, he was on land again in London studying for his Extra Master Mariner’s certificate and in 1953, with the certificate tucked firmly under his belt, he returned to the sea until 1956 when he came ashore to stay. He was appointed Harbour Master and Deputy Conservator of the tricky riverine port of Chittagong, where he conserved the port with great ability, enjoyed his work and lived happily with his family for seven years. It was in Chittagong that I first met him.

In 1963, during his seventh year, whilst aboard my passenger-cargo liner, ‘Rustom’ working cargo at berth, I heard MJ’s by then familiar voice booming out of a megaphone as he sailed by in his favourite tug, ‘Seljuk’. An extremely conscientious harbour master, he was warning each ship in turn of an impending cyclone. Our first impulse was to put to sea immediately and ride out the storm. But reality soon dawned. We realized that we would not be able to make the ship seaworthy in time and that Sayeed’s tugs would not be available as they had urgent safe-guarding work at hand.

It was an unforgettable night. We all knew what previous cyclones had wrought, the permanent reminder being Cayzer Irving’s motor vessel ‘Clan MacAlpine’ which had been bodily lifted and carried eleven miles inland by the 1960 cyclone and still standing upright in a farmer’s field. We rode out the storm at berth, moving the engine at full revs to reduce the tension on the springs. Waterwards it was a gory sight — the bodies of men, women and children, animal carcasses, trees, broken-up huts and houses all passed us by going up-river.

In December of that year MJ came to Karachi to join the National Shipping Corporation as a marine superintendent, and worked his way up to become the commercial manager. In 1967, there came a change in the top management and irreconcilable anomalies appeared in the accounts coming in from ports abroad. Off went Sayeed to London in 1968 to try to find out exactly what was happening. To quote from his own memoirs : “I scrutinized various accounts/payments/invoices and I remember that my worst fears were not only proved correct but the magnitude of the fraud and robbery of NSC’s shareholders and of government funds, carried out under the very eyes of NSC’s representatives was of the order of 300 to 500 per cent, and in some cases even more. I was able to establish in my report that over a period of less than three months in the case of supplies provided to only three ships an excess payment to the order of Pounds Sterling 117,560 had been caused.”

This was in 1968, the good old days, as many of us still have it, so what has happened since then is unimaginable. Twenty-seven years ago, it was a goodly amount and must have well padded a few pockets, paid for extra long cigars and even longer limos, provided congenial company, and depending on individual tastes helped sponsor visits to Wimbledon or the Reeperbahn. Signals were flashed home — recall Sayeed pronto.

No problem for him. He felt well. Whilst in London, a request was received from the Singapore government for an expert to advise them on the formation of a shipping company which they neither wished to subsidize nor to give protection. So Sayeed was dispatched to Singapore, wrote a report which satisfied the government, and flew back to Karachi. Singapore then asked Pakistan to kindly send them a man to stay with them and help form the company and run it. There was much jubilation in the PNSC camp as all concerned unanimously agreed that MJ was the perfect man for the job. That is how we lost a good man, our loss being Singapore’s gain.

He was given a completely free rein in Singapore and the Neptune Orient Lines was registered in 1969. Within two months ships were at sea flying the company flag. MJ built up a fine fleet, made many joint venture agreements with other shipping companies and NOL grew and prospered.

Question : Here was a man with ability, knowledge and talent, who built up a company from scratch and made it possible for it to own a magnificent fleet of ships, now ranking amongst the first five which today sail the seas. Why was he not asked and allowed to do so for Pakistan, his own country? The answer is that he was too honest a man, too straightforward and too God-fearing for the mediocre greedy men who run this country’s affairs.

At the end of 1973, MJ felt he had done his job, and that it was time for the Singaporeans to find their own feet, run their own company, and grow taller. Reluctantly, his friend Lee Kuan Yew let him go. In a fine farewell letter Mr Lee wrote : “Thank you for your letter of September 7 telling me that you have decided to return to Pakistan. May I sincerely thank you for having helped NOL get on its feet. Your services were invaluable. Thank you for the kind and generous compliments you have paid to the people of Singapore, and for your good wishes to my wife, children and me. May I wish you an interesting and rewarding future as you move to new challenges. For a person of your years to find the time and interest in-between your duties to be able to write a note to me in Chinese demonstrates the triumph of an inquisitive mind and an indomitable spirit over hard challenges.”

Sayeed was not finished yet. He joined UNCTAD and went off to Alexandria to teach at the Arab Maritime Transport Academy. He later became general manager of the Abu Dhabi National Tanker Company which he helped build up and finally returned home in 1982 to represent the interests in Pakistan of that famous Chinese shipowner, Y. C. Chang. And so he did, right up to one week prior to his death.

A brave and unassuming man, for many of his last years he suffered with great dignity and without any complaint or self-consciousness the curse of skin cancer, never letting it impede any of his activities.

Under him at NOL, working as the financial controller, was Goh Chok Tong, who in 1990 succeeded Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, as prime minister of his country. In 2004, he stepped down to become senior minister in the cabinet of Lee Hsien Loong.

Two days after Sayeed died, his wife Zareena received a hand-delivered message from Mr Goh. An excerpt from it : Captain Sayeed laid the keel for NOL and built it up into a reputable international line for which Singapore will always be grateful. None of us had ever run a shipping line and Captain Sayeed was patient in teaching us the ropes ..... On a personal level, I will always cherish Captain Sayeed’s friendship. He was kind and considerate. He was unselfish in passing on his knowledge and I learnt quite a few things from him. He was in my eyes the perfect gentleman.....”.