I distinctly remember my first encounter with Tunku Jalil some seven years ago. I had been working as a news journalist in Johor and had managed to accumulate an impressive amount of cynicism in just a few years. However, it took Tunku Jalil just minutes to challenge some of those firmly-held beliefs.
On that day, I was wrapping up a nature society assignment when I stopped to interview him. I was curious as to why this teenager was the honoured guest. I was also skeptical – surely these are not the activities of most teenagers, let alone royal ones. Chatting with him, I was surprised; this tall and gangly prince was as genuinely friendly as he was gentle and soft-spoken. He was also not faking an interest in nature.
However, there was one incident that stood out clearly from that afternoon. Towards the end of the conversation, I accidentally dropped a piece of paper I had among the sheaf I was carrying. As it floated down towards my left shoe, I watched in stunned horror as he swiftly bent down towards my feet to pick it up before I could do so myself. As he handed it to me with a grin, I was not sure if I had inadvertently committed a royal faux pas. I was however sure Tunku Jalil’s one instinctive gesture told me so much more about himself than anyone else could have verbalised in hours.
I encountered him after that on several occasions and he would always wave or stop for a chat. Once when I met him at the Johor Zoo, he revealed he kept an astounding number of pets at home. That piqued my interest and he agreed to a feature interview with some of his exotic animals. Tunku Jalil also told me of his plans to intern at the Singapore Zoo, news I received with some surprise. I could not imagine why the young prince would put himself through such labour unless he truly loved being around animals.
The last time I saw Tunku Jalil was when I was dining at an Italian trattoria with a friend and he walked in with a group of his friends. We grinned at each other and much later I found out he had quietly paid for our meal. Soon after that I moved to Australia and I remember messaging him once more, when his grandfather passed away. We lost touch after that when I misplaced the old SIM card and with it went many of my contact numbers.
Last year when I heard of his illness, I was filled with sadness and disbelief. I followed the news from abroad and while his amusing pranks brought a smile to my face, each passing day I felt my heart grow heavier. I tried to contact him as recently as last Wednesday, but it was not to be. And now it is too late. I take comfort in knowing that Tunku Jalil fought the biggest battle of his life much the same way he lived the rest of his life - with pluck, grace and humour. I can only wish his family the same strength in this terrible time of grief.
Vale, Tunku Jalil.
“Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. ”
Meera Vijayan used to be a journalist at The Star. She served in the newspaper's Johor bureau from 2005 to 2009.