KUALA LUMPUR: As a kampung boy, former deputy chief of the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) Shahrudin Mohd Ali rode his neighbour’s bullock cart to load and sell sand in Kampung Baru here.
When he tells the story of his early days to his 23 grandchildren, they laugh and refuse to believe him because grandpa was their hero fighter pilot – and a double Olympian.
To the kids, he was a defender of the nation, being one of 26 officers who formed the pioneer Air Force of Malaya in 1960.
The decorated airman clocked more than 3,000 hours flying the likes of the supersonic F-5 fighter aircraft, the transonic F-86 Sabre fighter jet and ground attack planes, Tebuan and CL-41.
He was also a star athlete who represented Malaysia in the 100m and 200m at the Olympics in Rome in 1960 and Tokyo four years later.
Born in 1940 during World War II to a poor family in a kampung in Klang, Shahrudin rose from cadet officer in 1960 to retire as RMAF No 2 with the rank of major-general at age 47.
Apart from his meteoric rise in the air force, Shahrudin was also a high-flying athlete in the early 1960s.
Shahrudin, 80, said: “Going through life the hard way and working your way up the ladder teaches you to appreciate things more and to remain humble.”
It was commitment to his career and dedication to sport that made him a highly rated airman and athlete.
It began when the well-built Shahrudin was in Lower Six at the Royal Military College (RMC) after completing his secondary education at High School Malacca.
In a military recruitment drive, he was among three students handpicked to attend a seven-day aptitude test in Singapore. He made the grade, but he declined the offer to join the air force because he wanted to be a planter.
At the insistence of his commandant, he joined the air force as cadet officer at age 20 and within 13 years became commander of the RMAF Air headquarters.
He kept soaring and nine years later, he became the RMAF deputy chief.
Shahrudin said his sporting dexterity took off in RMC where the tough training saw him compete in athletics, hockey and boxing.
“I was fortunate to have had good trainers in teachers like warrant officer Mr Stavely and physics teacher Mr Nichols.
“The canteen operator, Mr Lim, gave me extra food so that I would be in a better shape,” he said.
Shahrudin said he almost went to the Rome Olympics with a pair of spikes made by his college cobbler and designed by Nichols.
“It was the same spikes in which I clocked 10.6s on grass, but just before I left, they gave me a real pair,” he said.
Shahrudin’s achievements in athletics is commendable. Besides competing in the two Olympics, he won silver medals in the 100m (10.7s) and 200m (21.8s) at the first SEAP Games in Bangkok in 1959 and was at the 1962 Asiad in Jakarta.
Shahrudin was also the flag bearer for the Malaysian contingent at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and was given the honour to light the cauldron at the KL 1989 Sea Games with badminton star Sylvia Ng.
His record of 21.6s in 200m which he set in the 60s still stands in the Armed Forces athletics annals.
In 2012, he was inducted into the Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Hall of Fame.
He was instrumental in forming the RMAF Blackhawks for whom he was a key player for 25 years and served briefly in the Malaysian Rugby Union as vice-president.
In the mid-70s, he was also involved with Silat Lincah Malaysia.
He lamented the lack of success by athletes today despite receiving various forms of aid, including top coaches, and monetary rewards.
Shahrudin, who is of a towering stature of mixed Malay-Chinese parentage, said athletes should be big, strong, and powerful if they are to shine at international level.
He said education and sports go hand in hand, citing the practice in the US where sports teachers double up as coaches and provide a career pathway to their charges.
He said with more government assistance, the National Athletes Welfare Foundation (Yakeb) could play a bigger role to help retired athletes pursue courses in institutions of higher learning to ensure a stable future for them.
On why he did not contribute to athletics upon retirement, Shahrudin said he was denied the opportunity. He said he tried to give back to athletics but was “blocked” since the Armed Forces was not an affiliate of the Malaysia Amateur Athletics Union (MAAU) until 1983.
“I tried to join a state association, but they were a close-knit group and were not prepared to accept anyone from outside their circle,” he added. “I tried to enter politics too, but it was the same case.”
Shahrudin, who spends his spare time playing golf, is now into property development and is a director in various companies.