This month would have marked the 50th year of Mohammad Asghar living in the UK – and in those fifty years, I can think of very few Welsh political icons who have had such a varied and rich political journey, writes Nick Ramsay MS.
Mohammad Asghar was a man of immense pride, a lover of all things British and one of the most dedicated public servants Wales has ever had.
It’s in that same spirit of love and pride, that I present you with an account of the life of Mohammad Asghar – or as we all knew him more fondly, Oscar.
Oscar was born on this day in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1945 at a time of immense political activity in his homeland.
He was born to Mohammad Aslam Khan and Zubaida Aslam. He was the second eldest of seven siblings and had two stepbrothers, whom he never considered different from his biological siblings.
Of course, at the time Peshawar was in the North-West Frontier Province of British India and so his first memories were of partition.
These were memories of the upheaval and unrest that stayed with him all his life and were key to forming much of his views and outlook on the world later in life.
He truly thought that partition was a mistake – Oscar felt people should always do their best to find common ground and made it clear that more should have been done to focus on what united people rather than what divided them.
It was this belief that shaped the way he was with people and how he worked throughout his whole life.
It’s believed that despite the political turmoil in British India at that time, Oscar had a happy childhood. He often considered himself the ‘Black sheep of his family because he never liked to study. He was always creating mischief and preferred playing cricket all night instead of revising for his exams. Unlike his other siblings, he did not go into the Airforce. A great mystery to his parents, he always managed to pass his exams and had some incredibly loyal and loving childhood friends whom he doted on, and they adored him until the end, lovingly called him Sardar ji.
As a young man, Oscar was an incredible sportsman and he passionately wanted to play cricket for his country. However his Mother like many Mothers out there wanted him to get a so-called ‘stable job.’ He was a brilliant runner and was asked to run with the Olympic torch when it passed through Pakistan in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics. It was a moment of pride for him and gave him sheer delight when he held it again I Cardiff in 2012 – this time as a member of the Welsh Assembly.
As a young man ready to take on the world, Oscar completed a degree in Political Science at Peshwar University, before moving to London to complete his MBA, at the University of Knightsbridge.
At the point in his life, he was living in Knightsbridge and once he completed his studies, he decided to turn his hand to something different.
The course he enrolled on was only nine months long but in true Oscar fashion, he completed it in six months and started immediately applying for work.
The day then came when he was given an interview for R J Minty and Co Chartered Accountants in Newport. At his interview, he was handed a copy of the Yellow Pages and asked to add up all the numbers without a calculator. Suffice to say he did, and well of course, he got the job.
He then became a principal of his own accountancy firm and held various directorial positions in other businesses before he finally decided to try his hand at politics.
In the years before he entered politics, he married Doctor Firdaus Hussain, the first Muslim Mayoress of Brent and together they had a daughter, Natasha.
His marriage to Firdaus and the birth of his daughter he would forever see as his ultimate life achievement – and he used every opportunity to talk about his family and how much they meant to him.
Life for Mohammad Asghar though, wasn’t all about work and family.
Such was his thirst for life and adventure, he started flying in 1997 and received his private pilot licence in 1998.
Anyone who visited Oscar and Firdaus’s home in Newport could not help but notice the enormous model of a Concorde that took pride of place in his living room.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easier to see, but at the time of getting to know him, it hadn’t occurred to me that that Concorde model really was the perfect metaphor for Oscar – a pioneer in its own right and a source of national pride.
In the French language, the common noun ‘concorde’ means “agreement, harmony, or peace” – how fitting then that Oscar would have a Concorde model in the heart of his home.
Now, when many people think of Oscar in a political context, the first thing that usually springs to mind is the 2007 election.
However, Oscar’s journey goes back before then.
His first attempt to join the Conservative party was in the late 1980s – he specifically made a point of hosting his daughter Natasha a birthday party in the local Conservative club as a way of ingratiating himself with the party, but nothing came to it and it wouldn’t be for some years that Oscar would join the Party.
Instead he joined the Labour Party only to leave shortly afterwards. In n 2004, he stood for council for the first time and became Wales’ first Muslim councillor, representing the Victoria ward on Newport City Council, winning the election with 571 votes. After the election, he was told by a previous councillor that “you people (meaning the South Asian community) will never amount to much in politics.”
With that insult burning like a scar on him personally, Oscar fought hard, campaigned like no one had done before, and like a duck to water, Oscar served his constituents with pride and was always ready to lend a hand and support the people he served.
However a man with the determination and commitment that Oscar had, would only stay in local politics for a short time, before deciding to turn his attention to national politics.
Leaving the Labour Party and joining Plaid Cymru, in 2007, Oscar was elected as a Member of the National Assembly for Wales for South East Wales, where he became the first ethnic minority AM to be elected in Wales.
It was during his time with Plaid Cymru that he formed a strong friendship with his then-colleague Jocelyn Davies, who also represented South Wales East.
At the 2007 election count, Jocelyn and Oscar had gone up to the stage together to be announced as duly elected. It was understood that evening that the British National Party had waited in the room for hours in order to walkout at the moment that Oscar’s name was announced.
Not deterred or intimidated at all, Oscar smiled through it, and Jocelyn has since said that hugging him as the BNP crawled away felt like a small victory over prejudice and hatred.
Jocelyn and Oscar’s friendship continued and they once addressed a mosque in Newport along with Ieuan Wyn Jones. As the story goes, they all turned up on a Friday afternoon, and at that moment Oscar dropped the bombshell that only the men would be allowed into the mosque. When Jocelyn asked, ‘Well, where will I be?’ Oscar replied, ‘In my heart’ – and as Jocelyn has subsequently told colleagues, he even managed to take the sting out of that, and eventually persuaded the mosque to let her in as well.
Oscar also held the then Plaid leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones in high regard and even took him to India.
On that visit, Oscar took him to an earthquake ridden part of the country and wanting to show him ‘the real people’ he took Ieuan to visit people who had lost everything and were living in tents – those people welcomed Oscar and Ieuan into their homes, offering them tea with a smile.
During the later part of 2009, Oscar had started discussing the idea of crossing the floor and joining the Welsh Conservatives with its leader, Nick Bourne.
Nick would become a lifelong friend to Oscar – Oscar simply adored him and when we once mused about who would be considered the greatest politicians of all time, in Oscar’s mind Nick Bourne was firmly on that list.
Media reports from 2009 say that “within the Plaid Cymru group he felt like a little parrot in a jungle” and with the benefit of hindsight, and with his ultimate enthusiasm for British tradition and our monarchy, it’s easy to see why joining the Conservatives was the right political home for him.
Oscar’s Conservativism was largely shown through his support for the British Union and the Commonwealth and would soon become a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA).
The ultimate internationalist in the Senedd, Oscar served on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive committee longer than any other Member, during which time he proudly and diligently represented our Welsh Parliament at numerous high-profile international conferences.
But it was his love for our Queen and country that really broadcasted his Conservativism.
I think back to the official opening of the Assembly in 2007, where he was very eager to meet the Queen, and when he did, it was quite clear that he’d met her before, and as they were talking to each other, it became clear that she certainly recognised him and knew him.
It was at that moment, I think I really started to understand that Oscar had a reach across society.
He could speak to people of all walks of life; he got on with them, and they got on with him.
The thrust of Oscar’s work for the people of South Wales East was in promoting and supporting business and enterprise, developing opportunities for young people and tackling hate crime and extremism. More than anything he loved helping individuals with their issues and problems. He would often read about campaigns in the papers of people raising money for life-saving operations, prosthetic limbs and get his staff to find out their addresses (this was before GDPR became mandatory!). Then after work he would go to their homes and give them a cheque from his own account and asked them to never mention he was there. He even proudly abseiled down the Newport Transport Bridge to raise funds for charity. If Oscar ever wanted to do something he would always find a way.
Oscar always opened the doors of his office to anyone who wanted work experience or an opportunity to see politics in action. He knew how important it was for others to see the work politicians did to inspire them to follow in the same career path.
He always felt that more needed to be done to provide young people with life skills before leaving the education system and regularly campaigned for more collaboration between education providers, businesses and organisations to better prepare people for the world of work.
In November 2011, Oscar was selected from a ballot of Members to introduce legislation and confirmed he would bring forward an Enterprise Bill. Had his proposal been successful, the Welsh Government would be forced to set specific economic growth targets around employment, procurement and skills, whilst following hugely successful international examples. The same Bill also looked to establish an Enterprise Wales Council made up of the Welsh business community, who would question and advise Ministers.
Sadly, Oscar’s legislative journey ended there – but his campaign to promote business and enterprise would continue for his whole political career.
In 2019, he hosted a very successful skills and jobs fair at the Newport Centre as a way of bringing people and opportunities together – with more than three dozen employers and organisations taking part.
Oscar was always more at home out in the community, talking to people and being seen across South East Wales supporting local campaigns.
He was an absolute joy to campaign with and I’ve been proud to campaign with him in all parts of Wales. Though campaigning with Oscar was not without its comic moments.
I fondly remember campaigning with him in the Ynys Mon by-election in 2013 when Oscar decided to combine canvassing with a pub lunch. It seemed a good idea at the time. After he had made sure that every car in the car park had a Welsh Conservative leaflet firmly on its windscreen, we went in for lunch only to find it packed with Plaid Cymru activists. We all had a laugh and we had a very nice lunch. It was typical Oscar.
Whether it was in the Chamber, in the community or out on the campaign trail, Oscar’s energy was infectious and he was always good company.
It will probably come as no surprise to listeners, that Oscar was nominated for the Politician of the Year award at the British Muslim Awards in 2014 and 2015. He did win the Asian Achievers Award in London and was awarded a Glory Award in 2010 by Baroness Verma, alongside Priti Patel MP and MP Shailish Vara (an award given to those individuals who have made an outstanding contribution for the progress of the nation. Or worldwide.)
He simply was a trailblazer for British politics and future Welsh politicians will look back and see him as the start of a burst in diversity for Welsh politics.
He would be supremely proud to see his work honoured in the form the “Mohammad Asghar Memorial Fund” which will be used to support Welsh Conservative BAME candidates standing for election to the Welsh Parliament.
His hard work and commitment was recognised widely and Oscar’s legacy will be one of immense generosity and respect.
I count myself incredibly lucky not only to have worked with Mohammad Asghar – but to call him a close family friend.
When I married my wife in 2017, Oscar drove me to the church that morning – and probably would have flown me if I’d given him the chance!
And when my own son was born in 2018, Oscar embraced the news as though it was one of his own.
His family embraced mine with a warmth that will be felt for a lifetime.
But his love and respect weren’t confined to his closest friends – Oscar simply had too big a heart and too much to give.
As a man of deep faith, Oscar was a proud British Muslim, a Sunni Muslim who loved and respected all faiths, and they respected him.
He even attended Midnight mass in various Churches. He took an active part in Diwali celebrations and thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the Chanukah Civic lighting ceremonies in both Shuls.
He developed a great relationship with the Honorary Counsel of Israel in Wales and was the first Assembly Member in history to invite three Israeli Ambassadors to the Senedd to discuss peace, harmony and understanding between the Muslim and Jewish communities.
Just like Justin Trudeau in Canada, Oscar was the first Senedd Member in history to have a Sikh traditional “Kirtan” held in the Senedd and I think, to me at least, that just shows Oscar’s deep commitment to opening the doors of the Senedd to the people.
Whenever he would meet someone at an event, or through an organisation, or through work, he would invite them for lunch at the Assembly. He saw the Assembly as a public place that should welcome everyone for a cup of tea or a lunch – all on him of course! Always so generous.
The Leader of the Welsh Conservative Senedd group, Paul Davies, was right to praise Oscar’s commitment to diversity in his tribute to him earlier this year.
He said that groups, organisations, individuals from such a rich variety of backgrounds and religions have felt that the Senedd was welcoming to them, and that was because Oscar worked so hard to open the door and invite them in.
I believe that that is Oscar’s legacy.
Of course, whilst he worked at the heart of Welsh democracy, he never forgot his roots and he regularly travelled to the Middle East and Asia, working to establish peace and to bring people together.
On one such visit, standing on the roof of the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem, Oscar waved his arms around and said to Angela Burns, “Look, Angie—there is Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and over there the Holy Sepulchre, and there’s the Western Wall and the Mount of Olives. They are all here, we are all here. We can all live together.”
That was the man that was Mohammad Asghar.
A man who epitomised ‘Unity, Faith and Peace’
A man who had witnessed his fair share of horrors, but who always looked up at the world with a smile on his face.
A man who proudly served the people of South East Wales.
And a man who opened the doors of democracy for people of colour to enter politics.
Mohammad Asghar, Welsh Political Icon, 1945-2020.
Nick Ramsay MS is the Welsh Conservative Shadow Finance Minister