This document is a simple, brief account free of detailed elaboration or any particular literary aspiration prepared as a quick selective overview of some aspects of life in rural Malaya up to the time of independence in the late '50s from the viewpoint of a serving police officer. A few short verses are scattered here and there to perhaps add a little atmospheric colour.
Among those who have had the opportunity and the privilege to serve in any of many colonial police forces during the era of the British Empire most would appreciate this subject. Certainly, among former Malayan Police officers at any time in the past one and half centuries while police work was tough, demanding, disciplined, professional, stressful and also dangerous and life-threatening at times there constantly existed a sense of achievement, of service to the community and care and dedication to colleagues and police personnel. And strange and amazing experiences lay round every corner in one's service and while sometimes the difficulties and routine of touring, inspections, administration and paper-work under exhausting conditions of heat and humidity took up much time, looking back there were an abundance of interesting anecdotes, sufficient to fill a book.
During my time in the Malayan Police Force - 1952 to 1958 I was the police chief - OCPD - of several districts and also served in Special Branch, the Government's chief intelligence organization. This followed earlier service as a platoon commander in the defence of NATO and special police training with the Metropolitan Police in the UK. However, unlike other senior officers in the Force, I was also a second-generation government officer, raised in Penang since 1932 where my father was in the Education Department of the Straits Settlements Government. My childhood was idyllic as an extract from one of my short stories explains -
"The experience of growing up in an exotic country was a rich and stimulating time with much to observe and learn every day. Oriental architecture with exotic designs and colours - Chinese Buddhist and Indian Hindu temples with brilliant colours and figurework and serene Moslem mosques with spiraling minarets. Many races - Malays, Chinese, Indians, Tamils, Sikhs, Siamese, Burmese, Javanese, Achenese, Bugis, Ceylonese - all contentedly living and working side by side. Many religious holidays with colourful ceremonies, music and dress. Pungent aromas of spices for cooking many different ethnic dishes - curries, mees, laksas and soups - usually from street hawkers' stalls. Earthy smells of the vegetation and the seductive fragrances of perfumed, colourful flowers. Colourful and delicious fruits abounded - mangoes, bananas, rambutans, mangostenes, papayas, pineapples, star fruits, durians and many more. There were strange and sometimes dangerous animals - many varieties of snakes, monkeys of many varieties, mongooses, 'toc-toc' birds, owls, bird-eating bats, flying foxes, gliding frogs and lizards, not to mention the common household chik-chaks [cheechars], the small geckos which habitated walls and ceilings with sucker-pad feet and called to each other with a cackling cry in the evenings. The sudden, brief downpours of heavy rain storms providing a brief respite from the oppressive heat and humidity, and the stunning brilliance of phantom pink and crimson sunsets in the quiet evenings. Altogether an idyllic island with its deep jungles, musical streams and waterfalls, the fine white sands of beautiful beaches and coves fringed with palm trees.
All overlooked by the gentle hills which turn mauve in the late afternoon. There was also a mystical aspect which stemmed from the many gods, spirits, ghosts and superstitions of the Hindu and Buddhist religions and community cultures. In learning about these at a very early age and in observing how these beliefs formed an intricate part of the fabric of life, in turn they influenced my childish sensitivity and involvement and instilled a respect for their power and influence. Indeed, in the lonely stillness of night, my imagination would carry me on journeys to the territories of spirits, ghosts and awful and frightening creatures. On occasions, when I woke up the next morning, I would find the remnants of a head, legs and a few feathers of a small sparrow on the floor, devoured by a bat hanging from the ceiling during the night near to the suspended mosquito net which enshrouded my bed and gave me emotional security from the creatures of the night. So all the many facets of life which enfolded me in different ways reflected the richness of all the complexities of the East and made their indelible mark on my nature and view of the world. Truly a world of wonder for a small boy."
However, world of wonder aside, danger and death sometimes lurked around the corner. And when I was four years old my life nearly ended. One morning when clambering up the front steps of the porch which had many pot plants I saw at the top right end a coiled scaly, black creature. As I approached curiously a head on a thick neck rose with flaring hood and forked tongue. Fortunately at that moment my mother appeared at the front door behind me and grabbing me by the arm ran screaming up the stairs, "Ular! Ular!" [Snake! Snake!]. The household was in a pandemonium. The Tamil tukang kebun [gardener] grabbed a bamboo pole and with the tukang kebun from next door, who had rushed over when he heard the noise, they beat the Hamadryad - King Cobra to death and hung the long body on the low branch of a tree in the garden. There was much to reflect on that evening by my family.
"In Georgetown on Penang's isle, exotic Pearl of the Orient
Captain Light, shahbandar, founder, decreed a message to be sent
To Asia's traders far and wide to bring their wares and build
Great wealth amidst its beauty in the shadow of the hill."
"Batu Ferringhi, mark of foreigners, on Penang's lovely northern beach
Fringed with palm trees and fishing huts and fish nets sun-bleached
Here and there tall casuarinas sway with gentle whispering sighs
And evening is heralded with pink and crimson phantom skies."
"Pagoda's gold of Kek Lok Si by Ayer Hitam town
Reflects a brilliant shaft of light, safron robed monks clamber down
As dawn breaks 'cross the misty Straits to another day begin
And Heng and Ha wake from their dreams, Lord Buddha's trust to win."
At the age of six I had the unique experience at such a tender age to board at a convent school in the Cameron Highlands. Here the climate was cooler and huge tea plantations covered the many hill slopes as they did in Assam in India. The school was surrounded by dense jungle and there were many walks along jungle tracks by rivers and waterfalls, an enchanted and remote 'Shangri-La' and part of the state of Pahang
"The timeless world of Cameron haunts me even to this time
Green tea estates, cascading waterfalls and cooler, gentler clime
The purple of wild orchids, the red hibiscus spray
Mountain spirits swathed in chilling mists at early break of day."
Sadly, however, the sudden Japanese attack and invasion of Malaya in December 1941 resulted in the loss of our home and possessions. And while my mother and I got away three days before the Japanese army arrived, my father who was in the military reserve was later in Singapore when it fell and died as a POW on the "Death Railway" on the Siam-Burma border in early 1943.
Eleven years later, when I returned to Malaya in 1952 after WW2 and the Japanese occupation, little had changed, except that the country was at the height of a horrific war against the Communist Party of Malaya whose highly committed forces - armed guerillas in the jungles and secret underground cells called the 'Min Yuen' in the communities - were dedicated to the overthrow of the governments of Malaya and Singapore. The para-military police force played a pivotal role in a long and exhausting struggle to defeat the communists, the first such victory against a militant communist threat since WW2.
There was a sense of really returning to my homeland and my roots when I set foot on Malayan soil once more. All the prior experiences flooded back filling my mind with recollections of past times and the general ambience of this exotic, beautiful country, its warmth and humidity and the evidence of the many cultures which characterized its richness of life, its colour and vibrancy.
At 21 my first posting to Kuala Lipis Police District in Pahang as Second-in-Command of a district with police, para-military police and dedicated military personnel totaling about 1, 200 personnel was a complete surprise to me. Only a year and a half earlier as a platoon commander in the defence of NATO my responsibilities concerned only 34 men. I had to adapt rapidly, to pick up the language again and fit in with the modus operandi of a highly-stretched force coping with police work, counter-insurgency military operations and counter-espionage operations at a time of great urgency for the country. Surrounded by deep jungle and crossed with deep, churning rivers the district was in an isolated part of Malaya in the largest, most deeply-jungled state in Malaya.
From the very start, in the course of his work, any police officer would come across events, people, circumstances, and the surrounding character - villages, towns, padi-fields, rubber estates, rivers, jungle and the many accompanying local sounds - the different calls of town hawkers; the click-clack of a shopkeeper's abacus; bleating of goats; the grumble of water-buffalo; the clop-clop-clop of wooden clogs on the cement five-footway; the rumble of an armoured personnel carrier; the staccato chatter of a machine-gun in a fire-fight; the distant roar of a roaming tiger; the whooping call of a band of gibbons in tree tops; the muezzin's call to prayer from a mosque minaret; the grunt of a wild boar breaking cover; the crash of a sudden rain storm; the high pitched whine of an outboard motor on river patrol; the repetitive chanting of young children in a Chinese school; the blending of fiddle and gongs in the rhythm of a local Malay dance; the clash of cymbals and drums and the high-pitched falsetto of a Chinese stage drama; the haunting sound of lutes and drums from the vicinity of a nearby Hindu temple; the 'tok-tok' bird call of the nightjar in the evenings; the sound of a police station gong sounding the hour; the splintering crash of a door break-in to a suspect opium den; the roaring 'chop-chop-chop' of a rising helicopter with a casualty from a jungle location; the moving bugle notes of the 'Last Post' at a comrade's burial, killed in action; the cacophony of an orchestra of frogs and crickets at night; the occasional shrieking and fighting of fruit bats feeding in trees at night; cocks crowing in the villages as dawn breaks the horizon - an endless repertoire which impacted the senses and formed part of the moving theatre of life and work.
The saga of the 'Emergency' - the brutal and horrific war against the ruthless communist terrorists caused much suffering and death amongst the mainly rural communities who were victims of extortion, intimidation, torture and unspeakable privations by a ruthless enemy. Police personnel were ambushed and killed and senior officers were always high priority assassination targets. Pahang state was one of the worst areas. If the reader accepts this as a 'given' I will try to paint a picture of the backdrop to this carnage - a beautiful country with breathtaking experiences and a colorful and vibrant community with character and traditions - when the ugly and the beautiful co-existed at such a pivotal time in history.
Among many early experiences in Kuala Lipis District was my long journey up the Jelai River to the remote, isolated police post at Kuala Medang where I stayed overnight before returning early the next morning accompanied by my armed escort of special constables. The great beauty of the jungle-fringed river, at places overhung with giant lichen-covered branches from vast trees, was stunning, particularly at several junctures where there were rapids which created turbulence.
Sadly the very next week, one of our best jungle squad commanders, a police lieutenant, was killed in a fire-fight with communist forces near Kuala Medang He was buried with full ceremonies in Kuala Lipis with many military, police and government representatives present. It was my sad duty to be in charge of the police burial detail. As a tribute to him a large jungle fort that was later built in the Kuala Medang area was named after him, Fort Dixon. The fatal juxtaposition of great beauty and the shock of great tragedy struck me at the time as strangely incongruous. I'm sure his 'semangat' [spirit] will always haunt the great beauty of the river and jungle where his young life ended.
"A hornbill swoops o'er water on the swift Sungei Jelai
A gibbon whoops and calls its mate near quiet Paloh Hinai
The jungles of Pahang and its rivers great and wide
Forever challenge man to tame and sweep his will aside."
Another far-flung destination was Kuala Tahan a small village in the far reaches of the Tembeling River, a tributary of the Pahang River. Kuala Tahan was also the residence of Charles Ogilvy, the Chief Game Warden of Malaya. The large area around Kuala Tahan was the Taman Negara - National Game Reserve - and included Gunong Tahan, Malaya's highest mountain. Very fortunately on one visit at dusk I was lucky enough to observe a small herd of seladang, wild buffalo, feeding in a clearing not far from the small rest-house where I was staying. Seladang are extremely rare and an endangered species, and it is exceptional ever to sight this rare animal, even by long-time residents in deep rural areas. Charles Ogilvy was an expert in national conservation and wildlife and over the next few years we kept in touch and I learnt a great deal from him about many of Malaya's wild animals. Later he showed me two sweet-looking, spitting, hissing baby leopard cats he kept. But told me that no one had ever tamed a young leopard cat. It was impossible. He explained that shortly he would be releasing the two animals back into their habitat.
Cultural experiences abounded among the multicultural communities and my first introduction to royal protocol was an occasion when as commander of the guard-of-honour for His Highness, Sultan Abu Bakar, Sultan of Pahang, at a State Government Secretariat ceremony I saluted the Sultan, resplendent in ceremonial regalia, with my ceremonial sword and then requested "Tuanku, barisan kehormatan sudah sedia. Di-persilakan preksa." - "Your Highness, the guard-of-honour is ready. Please inspect." This was my first of many later encounters with the royal personage of the His Highness, The Sultan of Pahang.
In Kuala Lipis and in later times life in such a fascinating community included the many religious festive days of the multi-racial communities. The Islamic Malays had several special occasions, chief among which was Eid al-Fitr or Hari Raya Puasa, the day of rejoicing when the fasting of the month of Ramadan was broken and prayers and feasting and gift giving celebrated the auspicious occasion. Colourful dress for men and women and home decorations added to the enjoyment for the Muslim community.
At Malay weddings there was much pomp and ceremony with all attending wearing colourful dress, The highlight was the Bersanding ceremony when bride and groom sat together solemnly enthroned on a raided dais. Much water throwing followed later with Mandi Safar a time of fun for bride and groom and guests
"At Bersanding bride and groom sit, most solemn and sedate
While eager guests cavort about in hopes a smile to break
Mandi Safar's a morning time for relaxation and fun
The water game's a wet one and all guests are on the run."
"The colour of the festive days - to gods on high preside
Allah, Siva or Buddha - the fate of birth decides
Kain Songket shot with silver thread in purple, green and blue
Saffron robes and sari flows in every brilliant hue."
The main Chinese occasion for celebration was Chinese New Year, a time for great celebration and superstitious practices among the many dialects and clans of the Chinese, including the rituals of prayer to the God of Heaven, Lord Buddha and readiness for the arrival of the Kitchen God who reports to Heaven on the moral standing of the family. It is a time for the practice of Ang Pao, red paper wrapped gifts, mainly money. Noise is always regarded as a means of scaring away evil spirits and noisy rituals formed part of many activities. On the fifteenth night of New Year festivities is Chap Goh Meh a time for young girls to playfully look for husbands. Other auspicious occasions were The Feast of the Seven Sisters, The Dragon Boat Festival, The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts, The Moon Cake Festival and The Ch'ing Ming Festival.
Among Hindus Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, was a foremost religious time of festival when burning the deeps, small oil lamps, was regarded as symbolic of the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, in readiness for the arrival of Lakshmi, Goddess of Wrath, who came to observe the moral standards of the family. The home was elaborately decorated for the pooja, a deeply religious ceremony marking the festival.
Among other religious festivals was also Thaipusam, derived from the timing of the tenth Hindu month of Thai when the star of Pusam is in the ascent. The principal God of Thaipusam is the Lord Subramaniam, son of Siva, to whom supplication is made to expiate past sins, in gratitude for good fortune received or for some good fortune in the year ahead. It is a colourful and noisy ceremony when trancelike devotees have tongues, cheeks and other body parts pierced with silver spears or hooks and with garlanded flowers, parade in the slow journey to the Hindu temple for priestly ceremonies.
"Dawn breaks on Thaipusam and the sacred Batu Caves
Devotees swarm, a sea of colour in ever climbing waves
Lord Subramaniam, son of Siva, from Pusam gazes down
Kavadis sway, their bearers pray, for forgiveness or renown."
In Triang District in the south of Pahang state where I was next posted as OCPD the communist forces operated from their camps deep in the hilly jungle area. Our police units and military units operated against them, preferably acting on sound intelligence. Travel about the district was by armoured train to the south and armoured car to the north and in the surrounding jungles jungle-green uniformed, heavily armed police and military patrols combed the deep and hilly jungle areas to contact and combat the enemy. Many rubber estates operated on the jungle fringes next to the railway line. These estates had large Chinese labour forces and the estates were surrounded with chain-link and barbed wire fences protected with kubus, guard posts, manned by armed police special constables. Here I learned much about the industry and all the processes from potong getah, tapping the trees for latex, to chemically coagulating, rolling and smoking the rubber sheets, and bundling the smoked sheet rubber in bulky packs ready for transporting. At Triang Estate I tried tapping a few trees with the curiously-shaped tapper's knife under careful guidance, a skill which requires great care in case damage is done to the tree surface which oozes the latex ready for collecting. I certainly learnt that rubber tapping is very demanding hard work at all stages.
Coordinated military operations by police and military occupied much time and effort, added to all other police duties and inspections of security measures at rubber estates. However, occasions arose when there was time to reflect for a fleeting while to appreciate the sheer beauty of one's surroundings. In the deep canopy jungle, huge trees with buttress-like trunks soared upwards forming a vast intertwined canopy ceiling through which little sun penetrated. In certain areas wild orchids in purple or white provided sudden patches of relief against the vast green surrounding panoply. Now and then the voracious strangler fig vine twined around the trunks of trees. And in extreme cases the entire original tree trunk had disintegrated leaving only the surrounding strangler fig vines in place. On higher hilly valley sides giant slender tree ferns thrust high thirty feet tall silhouetted against the sky. Downpours of rain squalls would feed brooks and streams with rushing mini-waterfalls chuckling and bubbling musically after the downpour as rain drops continued to cascade from leaves and branches overhead, temporarily freshening the atmosphere before the pitiless sun resumed its powerful onslaught on the jungle, steamy mists rising under the merciless heat and adding to the pervasive aura of decaying vegetation. Occasionally more open areas of belukar, secondary jungle, had to be traversed. Fed by heavy rain and beating sunlight these areas grew with great speed and were a nightmare to cut through, thick and full of thorns and cutting edges. Great clumps of bamboo grew with amazing rapidity, the green trunks as thick as a man's thigh at the base soaring high in the air like sentinels.
Silent movement through the jungle would on occasions surprise wild animals, usually for only a fleeting moment. Startled rusa [deer]; scurrying pelandok [mouse deer]; a huge wild boar sow crashing through undergrowth with half a dozen or so racing piglets desperately trying to keep pace with her; a slinking harimau kumbang, black panther, just a fleeting glance as it glided ghostlike off a fallen log and disappeared; a spitting cobra rearing its hooded head dangerously, then slipping away; buaya - crocodiles basking with their jaws open on sand banks in the river; a band of kera, macaque monkeys, shrieking above in the tree tops; a lone berok, pig-tailed monkey, watching from a distant tree branch; another band of monkeys, this time the rarer spectacled monkey species, quiet and suspicious staring from high branches; a rare sight of a harimau, a tigress and two cubs; a massive ular sawa [python] moving noiselessly over moulting leaves, its beautifully patterned body belying the crushing power of its muscled strength; a brightly-plumed jungle cockerel perched high and flapping away; a curious mongoose up on its hind legs sniffing the air, then a quick flick of its tail and it was gone; a band of whooping black gibbons swinging acrobatically from branch to branch, flying through the air with great agility and ease; a hornbill flapping ponderously across a clearing with a characteristic sawing sound through its flight feathers; the darting blue flash of a kingfisher swooping low over a stream; a beruang or honey bear made a brief appearance from a large tree base before scampering away; sightings of tupai or squirrels were quite common, there being many different species; sightings of monitor lizards up to six foot or over regularly occurred, usually closer to larger river banks; insects of massive proportions - huge black scorpions, black and red centipedes, spiders as big as the hand, occasionally beautiful butterflies, and at night the blinking luminescence of fire flies illuminating a bush like a Christmas tree. While in the vicinity of one once, I never encountered an elephant in the jungle, but did have the occasion of an elephant flattening a perimeter fence of a new village at night while the terrified villagers watched it devour the bananas off the palms before it finally left the same way it had entered. We nearly had to shoot it, but with perseverance it retreated on its own. I later learned from the National Game Warden that this was a well-known lone elephant and that elephants travel throughout the year in a large circle arriving at the same spot each time in the year. Where there had been jungle before there was now a new village, but that didn't deter the elephant from keeping its instinctive natural course. In elephants' priorities the jungle comes before humans.
The orang asli - 'original people' - aborigines - were the original inhabitants of the region, before the arrival of other races. Mainly nomadic, they are different in appearance according to their origins - Negritos, Senoi and Proto-Malay, within which were nineteen sub-groups, including the Jah Hut, Batek, Semai, Semok Beri, Temiar, Jakun, Semelai, Temok and Temuan in different parts of Pahang State. On one occasion my meeting with an orang asli headman resulted in startling information of a concentration of communist terrorists in the vicinity of Tasek Bera, a huge swamp-lake deep in the jungle on the southern border of Triang District. A later operation in the area eliminated many of them.
"Deep in Pahang are Jah Hut, mudek hulu Sungei Krau
Where the jungle ghosts and spirits rule from genesis to now
In the shadow of Gong Benom Jah Hut hunters track their prey
Seladang, deer and wild boar from early break of day."
"The Temiar creeps with stealth, his blowpipe at the ready
The Jakun aims his arrow, his stout bow bent rock-steady
For the law of the jungle is the law that all who dwell
Under canopy, by river bank, must know and know it well."
Later in 1953, when I was posted to the Pekan District on the east coast on the South China Sea the terrain was very different, dominated by the massive Pahang River, Malaya's largest river and with miles of pristine white beaches stretching from north to south. Here life was a little more serene with local society overseen by His Highness the Sultan of Pahang and his royal court, including Tunku Ahmad Shah, Tunku Mahkota, the Crown Prince [and later Yang di Pertuan Agong - King of Malaysia], and Tunku Arif, Tunku Bendahara, the Royal Chamberlain and many officials. The small royal township of Pekan was proud of its royal patronage and all the shop-houses were painted in the royal colour - yellow. Many were the ceremonies and parades in honour of the Sultan. An ancient ex-Royal Navy deck gun was mounted in front of Police Headquarters and was fired for the royal salute on the occasions of the Sultan's birthday parades. These were attended by honored guests from all over Malaya, the Malay dignitaries and gentry resplendent in their extremely colourful, richly gold and silver embroidered kain songket regalia with ceremonial headgear. Purples, greens, golds, burgundies, blues, oranges, pinks and other rich hues abounded in a sea of brilliant colour as the peacock-like entourage gathered at the padang - village green - for these special occasions. At some of the events I was the parade commander and escorted the Sultan on his inspection of the parade. On such occasions the Sultan would be followed by his umbrella-bearer who carefully held a ceremonial, decorative yellow umbrella over the Sultan's head as a symbolic sign of high rank and royalty and to shield him from the sun.
"The royal town of Pekan lies quiet and serene
Great rain trees overhang its streets, their limbs with lichens green
The mighty Pahang River flows by to the great South China Sea
With colourful sails of racing fishing craft, a delight for all to see."
It was here in Pekan that I had the pleasure and the honour of meeting one of the guests, Tengku Abdul Rahman, who a few years later became Malaya's first Prime Minister on achieving independence in 1957. I also had several dealings with Dato Abdul Razak, later Tun Abdul Razak, who at the time was the State Secretary of Pahang and later became Deputy Prime Minister and later still the second Prime Minister of Malaysia. Tun Abdul Razak was anak Pekan - born in Pekan - a matter of great pride among the local community. Curiosly also, the circuit magistrate of East Pahang in the mid-fifties was Tunku Aslan Shah of the Perak royal family. Many decades later, in 1993 at a Royal Banquet in Kuala Lumpur to which I had been invited by the Inspector-General of the Polis di-Raja, I had the opportunity of an audience with Duli Yang Maha Mulia Seri Paduka Baginda Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Aslan Shah, King of Malaysia. We chatted about points of interest in Pekan District. Sultan Aslan Shah is now the Sultan of Perak, about which sultanate I make a few cultural protocol observations later on.
As the police chief of Pekan District it was also my good fortune to be regularly invited to royal lunches and diners at one of the Sultan's three istanas - palaces - in Pekan. The gilt-edged invitations would be on my desk when I arrived at my headquarters office in the morning. These were on occasions of the Sultan's birthday or on the occasions of visiting dignitaries such as the High Commissioner, the British Adviser of Pahang and other dignitaries from other states. My blonde wife was very slim and attractive with a sparkling personality and I suspected that the Sultan appreciated the added contribution to his banquets and ceremonies. These sometimes also included polo matches against visiting teams from Singapore and other states. I was encouraged by the Sultan to play in his team. But after some early practices I found that my ability did not match that of some of the Malay royal family who were seasoned players and very good. Added to which was the practical aspect that I simply did not have the time from my work and responsibilities to devote to practice. Instead, I found enjoyment with an occasional game of tennis with the Sultan and members of the royal family when the sun was low in the late afternoons. Other festival occasions were with the local public, sometimes concerned with water sports on the river when my wife and I would attend with the Sultan, watching the events from his very ancient timber houseboat.
This aspect of life in Pekan was steeped in Malay tradition and protocol going back many centuries and for myself was an invaluable experience in understanding the underlying values of Malay traditions and ceremonies - adat Melayu dan istiadat Melayu. Together with my fluency in the Malay language and study of Malay history, culture and literature, this period equipped me well to live and work harmoniously in Malaya. The Malays are a good-looking race, courteous and cultured. Their humour and sensitivity is evident in their literature, pantuns and perumpamaans - verses and folklore.
"Dark-skinned girl of comely shape
Who walks with poise bearing sweet rice cake
Languorous waist, eyes of gentle dove
Hitam-manis who will earn your love?"
"Fair-skinned girl with budded charms
Who bears sweet jasmine in her arms
Soft voice, sweet lips and smiling eyes
Sirih-kuning's glance draws suitors' sighs."
While I never served in Perak State on Peninsula Malaya's west coast, I feel it may be interesting to record briefly aspects of royal protocol which provide valuable insights into some cultural beliefs which stem from the two historical eras of the Buddhist Sri-Vijaya and Hindu Majapahit empires preceding the arrival of Islam.
Over earlier centuries the sovereignty of kings and sultans in this region was quite complex. For example, the King of Siam exercised jurisdiction over, and secured obeisance from, certain sultans annually with the offering of Bungah Emas, or Tree of Gold until the end of the nineteenth century.
The origins of royal families was also significant as with Bichitram [Vicitram] a kinsman of the Sri Maharajas of Sri Vijaya, the Buddhist empire [AD 750 - 1350] which extended over northern Malaya, Sumatra and Java. The name, Bichitram, is whispered into the ear of every Sultan of Perak at his enthronement, as that of the ancestor of the Perak dynasty.
Bichitram was also the brother of the first king of Palembang [Sri Vijaya] and ancestor of the Minangkabau line from which the Negri-Sembilan royal family is descended.
The Perak ceremonial state weapon, the Churika Mandakini ['blade from the heaven-born Ganges'], a name given to a sacrificial knife [sword] of Indian or Arab make, reputedly used by the fourteenth century ruler of Minangkabau, Aditiavarman, is hung from the Sultan's shoulder.
Into the head dress [tengkolok] of the Sultan of Perak is thrust the Chap Halilintar or 'lightning seal', an historic medieval seal, a symbolic thunderbolt, possibly, as a weapon against demons.
Genies are sometimes recognized in ritual ceremonies. The guardian genies of the state are believed to inhabit the Perak State Sword. They are also invited to descend upon posies, perhaps flowers tucked behind the ear of the court magician. Thus it is that the yellow chempaka blossom is still tucked behind the ear of the Sultan of Perak at his enthronement.
Over history, the Malays have held their rulers in awe. This reverence is now primarily linked to their role as religious Islamic leaders [shadow-of-Allah-on-earth]. But previously it also had origins in the Hindu and Buddhist religions and ceremonies, these influencing the nature of ceremonies for the enthronement of Perak and Negri-Sembilan rulers.
"Perak Sultan is enthroned, chempaka blossom behind ear
Shadow-of-Allah-on-earth, whispered Bichitram by seer
Churika Mandakini, sword from royal shoulder rests
Chap Halilintar seal in head-dress bears the ancient crest."
The Police Force also had its several ceremonies, one of which was mosque parade on Friday mornings when the selected personnel would parade in their white bajus [loose fitting Malay garment], blue sarongs and badged songkoks [soft velvet caps] in front of Police Headquarters and march to prayers at the nearby mosque. It was a simple occasion of dignity and reflected the religious spirit of Malay personnel and the ethos of the Police Force.
Mosque Parade in Kuala Lumpur, 1956
Many were the long journeys up the Pahang River to visit the kampongs and the ketuas and penghulus, the kampong [village] and mukim [area] headmen, to maintain a presence of government and security. There were many occasions of interest - orang asli, aborigine villages, demonstrations of the lethal blowpipe; the ways of trapping river fish; many crocodile sightings in the infested river; various wild animals; and generally a very basic traditional life-style of the villagers that had changed little over the past centuries. In these remote areas bomos or faith healers often held sway in the communities. And more powerful shamans, locally known as pawangs, sometimes became quite powerful and influential for their mystical powers.
I was quite familiar with the various protocols and superstitions of tanum padi, rice planting and harvesting. At the early age of 9 my father had arranged for me to plant some rice seedlings in Penang in the padi fields along Green Lane near Glugor in order to begin to understand something about work and life in the country of our domicile. Rice was not only the staple diet of the population, it also has a special spiritual quality and ethos and a revered status. There are many rituals and traditions from seed generation to planting and to harvesting and rice is extremely significant as a symbol of prosperity, good fortune, long life and happiness. Rice is often an important part of ceremonies and festivities and at births, weddings and funerals. The rice spirit is always female and there are many protocols to be followed in the storage, preparation and serving of rice in different forms. These traditions stem from many centuries ago, probably even before the advent of Buddhism and Hinduism, well before the coming of Islam. Throughout Asia a similar relationship exists between the populations and rice.
"Gold glitters on the rice fields, riches fit for any king
As the sun swings low o'er padis, their harvests ripe to bring
The muezzin calls the faithful, prayer mats unfold toward
Mecca, the holy city, 'kalau miskin, kaya or lord."
"Flickering lamp throws a dappled glow on pawang Pak Long
The wailing fiddle blends with the rhythm of the gong
Incantations join the music - earth, air, fire and water
The demon's spell is broken - payment made for cured daughter."
On one of my up-river visits I took with me my mask and flippers which I had bought in Trieste, Italy, when I served with NATO several years earlier. At that early time nobody had ever seen diving masks and flippers. They were an unknown phenomenon. At a junction of the Pahang River and the smaller Mentiga River during the dry season when the waters ran slow, the usual muddy waters were slightly clearer and I slipped over the side of the boat with my mask to take a quick look and to my consternation an eight foot crocodile lying unseen under the water nearby powered its tail and fearfully took off at great speed. I don't think its fear matched mine as I hastily clambered on board again! I never again used my gear in the Pahang River. Crocodiles were very common and could often be seen sunning themselves lazily on the sand banks. Although when startled they were capable of racing at extremely high speed across the banks before plunging into the water. During my time there was one fatality of a young boy taken off a river bank bathing raft moored near a village.
When we experienced the first monsoon period, usually between the end of November and February every year, the incessant heavy rain came down in torrents every day. Leaden clouds blanketed the sky and a glimpse of the sun was very rare. The ceaseless pelting downpour was a depressing experience - dark, gloomy and very wet when just about everything in the house was affected by mould. The huge Pahang River broke its banks and flooded the township and residential area. Small animals and insects could be seen swimming towards our house to escape the waters and shelter somewhere on the pilings under the house - centipedes, scorpions, frogs, toads and a small snake. It was an interesting experience, but not an enjoyable aspect of living in Malaya. But an aspect of life residents in that part of east Malaya had to put up with every year without fail, sometimes with considerable dangers during river travel.
Essentially, all my work in Pekan followed the same pattern of responsibility of police officers in Malaya going back nearly one hundred years when the territories were wild and little developed.
I made it my job to understand the way of livelihood of the community and as fishing was a main occupation on occasions I sometimes went out with fishing sampans before sunrise, leaving the beach at Kuala Pahang village at the mouth of the Pahang River and arriving at the fishing grounds just as the sun broke the horizon, The sun-rises were spectacular with gold and crimson streaks dramatically breaking the horizon as the sun rose majestically, shimmering on the surface of the sea. The Malay fishermen, mostly young, were a humorous bunch and there was much joking and laughing. The particular hand line fishing technique was very unique. Each cord line had about ten nylon traces with green wool wrapped round each hook. After the heavy lead weight hit the bottom a rapid retrieval snared many herring-like fish grabbing at the green wool, believing it to be seaweed. I caught more fish on those trips than ever before or since, which all helped the fishermen's profits. These sojourns and many journeys and visits to kampongs kept me in touch with the community and their values and practices.
"A shaft of dawn's gold strikes attap roofs of Kuala Pahang village
The Siamese war boats mount the beach, their warriors bent on pillage
Now aeons past, the fisher folk reap rich harvests from the sea
And thank the one God, Allah, that such bounty theirs should be."
However, the one instance that remains most vividly in my memory was the occasion of a chandu raid at a small coastal village in Pekan District. Chandu is the term for prepared opium and the local Chinese shopkeeper was suspected. There were two ways of reaching the village - by boat down the main Pahang River to the coast, then north up the coast to the village on a small river mouth and to land on the beach at night. Or to travel down the small river to the village from inland and make the raid that way. My judgment was that landing on a beach at night was potentially too dangerous. So the inland river route was my choice.
All went well until we arrived by Land Rover at the upper river junction where the sampan was waiting for our raiding party. We all had torches and we shone the beams onto the shallow water we had to wade through to get to the sampan. To our complete surprise and concern about every meter of shallow river bed had a coiled sea snake resting or sleeping! There were hundreds! However, very gingerly we all managed to tread carefully between the sea snakes and got into the sampan safely. With the outboard motor we started off down river towards the coastal village. After a while we came to a long section of the river which was completely overhung with tree branches from both sides. In fact, the effect was quite cathedral-like. But the most utterly amazing aspect was that in the branches overhead were billions of fire flies all blinking on and off. The effect was absolutely magical. There was no moon at all yet the entire river and all of us in the sampan were illuminated by this massive light display in the canopy above us as we traveled along mesmerized by this amazing experience. Truly, one of nature's great marvels. It might have been possible to read a book with the massive illumination above.
It transpired that the raid was a failure, We did not detect any chandu and returned the same way with the same experiences again, awed again by the overhead light display and getting safely through the sea snakes at the landing point. That night is a memory highlight among my many experiences of nature in Malaya.
"The band of men on mission bent speed the narrow craft along
Through the night on a wine-dark river as a cathedral overhung'
With latticed trees, their branches with a billion fire-flies bright
Nature's miracle of splendour, a dazzling wondrous sight."
To the extreme south lay the beautiful island of Pulau Tioman, the largest island off Malaya's east coast. Although directly off the east coast of Johore state and accessed from the coastal town and port of Mersing, it is a part of Pahang State and Pekan District.
"Pulau Tioman's purple mountains thrust high o'er silvery sea
Its magic calls the traveler, "Come, come and rest with me."
Waving palms, darting coloured birds and soft white curving sands
Languid lagoons with jeweled fish and powdered coral strands."
As can be imagined, animals played an important part of life in rural areas and at different times I had a number of animals - two tiger cubs, several monkeys, a slow lorris, a tarsir, a mongoose, a green tree snake, a baby goat, a baby python and thirty eight baby crocodiles. The latter had been brought to the Police Headquarters in Pekan by an orang asli - aborigine - from far away in the jungle. He had traveled many days downstream for the reward. He did not know that there had been a war or that the country had been occupied by the Japanese, a complete 'Rip Van Winkle.' We had to advise him that the pre-war reward system no longer applied. Thus I ended up with the baby crocodiles in a pool constructed in my back garden.
The coastal region near and around Pekan was a veritable treasure trove of diverse and sometimes strange fish. Ikan Yu -sharks of different varieties, saw-fish with long, sharp-toothed swords, ikan alu- alu - barracuda, ikan tenggiri - Spanish mackerel, ikan pari - sting rays of many varieties, other poison barbed fish - ikan sembilang and ikan duri, garfish, tuna, bonito and further out on the reefs, the whole colorful array of many tropical coral reef fish. Among the many crustaceans was the strange-looking armoured King Crab, sometimes regarded as a 'living fosil'. And huge tuntong, Leathery Turtles well over six-foot in length and weighing over half a ton would come ashore to lay their eggs. Sea snakes were quite common and there were quite a few fatalities every year of locals accidentally bitten by sea snakes. On the shores, on the reefs and in the coastal waters was an endless array of sea life to marvel at. Similarly in the many rivers, swamps and lakes a variety of strange-looking fish reside. One of the most interesting is the Archer-Fish which approaches the surface and spits at insects on overhanging branches with great precision and force, knocking them into the water where they are seized and eaten by the fish.
Last about Pekan and Pahang, a curiously sad story. During my various meetings with the Sultan I had noticed one of his staff, a slightly-built Malay always neatly dressed and wearing a songkok - velvet cap. He walked with a decided limp and curious, I enquired why this was so. The story I was told was that on returning to Pekan from Kuantan one evening in his car with his wife and two young children he suddenly saw a massive python stretched cross the road in front of him and applied the brakes. Exactly what happened is not clear, but it seemed that the car skidded, the python wrapped itself around the front wheel area and the car crashed badly, killing his wife and two small children, and presumably the python, too - only he had survived. An illustration of the vagaries of life and death in rural Malaya.
In all the districts in which I served was the usual range of crimes against persons and property. However, later in 1956 when I was OCPD Batu Pahat, a district in the north of Johore state I had an unusual murder case which involved a stabbing during a melee at a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple. The unusual aspect of the case was that the murder weapon, a Sikh kirpan, or dagger, had the blade broken off half-way. Thorough searches were carried out everywhere and the missing dagger point was a great mystery. Shortly after the arrest of the dagger's owner I was paid a visit by David Marshall, former first Chief Minister of Singapore and a leading criminal defence counsel. He asked to see the murder weapon and I obliged, showing him the dagger. I remember his expression of satisfaction when he noted that the lethal sharp pointed half of the blade was missing.
Some ten days later, the local medical officer telephoned me from the hospital to report that the deceased's brother who had been stabbed in the back in the melee and had the wound sutured at the hospital had complained of an irritation near the wound. When the area of his back was X -rayed it revealed that there was a half a knife blade imbedded in his shoulder. With all correct procedures recorded, the doctor recovered the half knife blade and gave it to the attending inspector. When the case proceeded to court all the necessary evidence was available.
Many decades later in December 1988 I chanced upon David Marshall at the poolside restaurant of the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore. We enjoyed breakfast together and recalled with humour the famous murder case so many years before.
The evenings in Batu Pahat were characterized by massive swarms of kluang, flying-foxes or fruit bats with bodies the size of young rabbits and with huge wingspans which darkened the sky, brilliant with the orange of sunsets, as they flapped slowly towards their feeding grounds. To my surprise the wife of my colleague, a Special Branch officer, living next door, produced two grilled kluang for my dinner one evening which I found to be delicious, a little like duck with a rich gamey flavour.
My house was at the end of a hillside road and surrounded with jungle. In the late afternoons a band of gibbons would swing about in the tall trees calling to each other with their characteristic repeated whooping, the origin of their local nick-name, 'wah-wah.' And on one occasion late at night, hearing a sound outside my open-sided lounge from the direction of some nearby bushes, and suspecting an assassination attempt, I moved quickly and quietly upstairs and aimed my 9 mm Browning pistol from a darkened upstairs window, quickly shining my torch, only to see a rusa deer with its young calf feeding contentedly. I watched them finish and move away.
Wildlife abounded in the jungles of the district and on one very rare occasion a young Fijian platoon commander on patrol was confronted by a bull-elephant which charged, picking him up with its trunk and throwing him to the ground and then lumbering away. He survived to tell the tale. Paul Manueli later became the Finance Minister of the Fijian Government.
The Fijians were excellent jungle fighters and were based in Batu Pahat District, the camp very close to my house. At the time of their departure back to Fiji in 1956 an ancient canon, one of two which stood outside the front entrance to Muar District Police Headquarters to the immediate north, mysteriously went missing with no culprit found. On my visit to Queen Elizabeth Barracks in Suva, Fiji, decades later in 1981 I saw the canon outside the headquarters building of the Fiji Military Forces. The ring-leaders of the escapade came forward and photographs were taken to send to the Inspector-General of the Royal Malaysian Police as evidence that the case had been 'solved'. While in the officers mess I saw the two oil portraits of a Fijian soldier on jungle patrol and the Commanding Officer, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau which I had painted in Batu Pahat before their return to Fiji. Later, Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau became the President of Fiji. In 1991 I was invited to Government House in Suva to attend a special memorial banquet and parade dedicated to the Regiment's service in Malaya. At the ceremony the portrait of the President had a place of honour.
My last posting in 1957 was as OCPD in Johore Bahru, the capital of the state of Johore. The role of police chief was quite onerous. Aside from the responsibilities of combating crime and the Malayan Communist Party in the last stages of its faltering campaign to take over Malaya and Singapore, the district also included the close proximity of State Police Headquarters and the Royal Family of Johore. Although Sultan Ibrahim, who resided in London, ruled through his son the Crown Prince, Tunku Ismail. The adjacency of Singapore across the Causeway was also sometimes a problem with cross-territory crime. Johor Bahru had a rich history and the old Sultan Ibrahim had been characterized Somerset Maugham-like in a story including aspects of his various eccentricities. The location of Johore Bahru on the Straits of Johore was very picturesque with two main prominent buildings - the Sultan Ibrahim Government Secretariat Building, nick-named "The Kremlin" for its tall, imposing structure [from which the Japanese directed their artillery barrage on Singapore in February 1942] - and the Sultan's main istana at Bukit Serene, meaning "Hill of Serenity." It has been my unusual and rare privilege to have had connections with the Johore Royal Family which now stretches over five generations- Sultan Ibrahim, on his last visit to Johore Bahru in 1958 before he died shortly after, Sultan Ismail, when he was Tunku Mahkota or Regent, Sultan Mahmood Iskandar when he was a young Tunku, who also became Yang di Pertuan Agong, or King of Malaysia, the current Tunku Mahkota, Tunku Ibrahim and his son, Tunku Ismail.
I and my wife attended occasional Sunday luncheons at one of the royal istanas in Johore Bahru at the invitation of the Tunku Mahkota, Tunku Ismail and I was fortunate to be taught how to water ski by Tunku Mahmood Iskandar on the Straits, a favorite pastime of his. In turn, I advised him about SCUBA diving as I was a pioneer of the sport at that early time.
Uniquely, the State of Johore had its own military, the Johore Military Forces, and the Tunku Mahkota and the Sultan always wore military uniform as opposed to Malay ceremonial regalia on ceremonial occasions.
"In Johore Bahru the Sultan lives in high Bukit Serene
Below the Straits lie calm and still, such beauty overseen
Beyond lies Singapore with its pink pearlescent skies
And to the east Old Johore Town of great historic ties."
While the war against the communists and the on-going police work consumed much time there were always opportunities to observe and enjoy the local colour and culture. We lived in a beautiful Spanish style hacienda which used to be the residence of author Han Suyin [A Many-Splendoured Thing] and at the time a neighbour of ours in Johore Bahru. This is how she described the scene only a step away from our front door in her novel, And The Rain My Drink, based on her life in Johore Bahru - "Peacocks as comets catapult across the tarmac road in a tail-flurry of blue green and gilded palm-frond feathers, to drop staggering, clutching, swinging their meek sharp heads upon the wire fences which ring the Sultan's Zoo." Though small, the nearby zoo was interesting and a reminder to town dwellers of the country's amazing wild-life. And I would add that though very beautiful the peacocks' call was very harsh and unmusical.
At the nearby triple-domed, decorative Sultan Abu Bakar mosque the author describes the arriving worshippers. "Their breeze-swollen, loose shirts about them are pastel turquoise, cinnamon and apple green; their sarongs are woven with large squares of pink, blue, mauve, gold, purple, cinnabar and orange; their white trousers fall to the naked ankle, and the nude feet are clad in shoes of black and brown, plum and grey suede. Little boys, hands linked like flowers in chains, laughing, go towards the mosque, sinuous cohorts of pink and yellow and pale green satin shirts advancing up the road."
Seen from the waterfront of Johore Bahru, the Straits were mostly flat calm and occasionally the rust-coloured sails of old Chinese junks could be seen sailing slowly to their destination in nearby Singapore. However, the most picturesque time was at night when the illuminations on the long Causeway between Johore Bahru and Singapore were reflected in the calm, flat water, a breathtaking sight on any warm, still, languorous evening from the verandah of a waterfront restaurant.
There were very many more experiences but I will end my brief account here. Looking back at an era long past it gives me great pleasure and pride to have served the Malaysian people during my time in the Malayan Police Force. It was a time of great importance and urgency for the nation and pivotal for the security of the Asia-Pacific region during an era when the danger of international communism was a scourge on the Free World. The opportunity to be a part of this great multi-cultural force gave me immense pleasure and satisfaction. I am exceedingly grateful to all those Malay, Chinese, Indian and other racial colleagues, officers and personnel with whom I served. They helped to provide me with the experience of the country, their values and their beliefs. For me, commencing at the age of 21, it was greater than simply an arduous career. It was also a mission and a great adventure and a great romance. This was the land that great writers of the calibre of Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham wrote about. And great pioneers like Sir Stamford Raffles who started his career in Penang and then founded Singapore. And Sir Frank Swettenham, J.W.W. Birch and many other dedicated officials who toiled so hard for the good of the country and its people. I'm sure all were equally enchanted by Malaya's magical beauty and charm and the fascinating cultures of its many communities. This era followed the great empires of Sri Vijaya and Majapahit, the domination by Siam and the various sultanates which evolved. A rich and inspiring historical legacy of fascinating and colourful events. This brief record of a few past personal experiences half a century ago has possibly a certain unique aspect of an era long past in this day and age when the world has so greatly changed with global travel and communications and huge developments of highways and other infrastructure. It is my hikayat, as Malays say, a tale or romance, a brief sketch of life long, long ago.
On my return visits to Malaysia I am privileged to enjoy the company and generosity of old comrades and it is my pleasure to always wish that the future may hold great peace and prosperity for the people of Malaysia - warm wishes from one who lived, served and then observed the 'Sunset of the Raj' in Asia.
"Biar rentang, jangan putus."
May the golden threads of memory stretch - never part."
[David Brent was an assistant superintendent in the para-military Malayan Police Force. He served as a police commander of several large districts in the hinterlands of Malaya and was also an intelligence specialist during the Malayan Emergency. He participated in the BBC 2004 TV documentary, Empire Warriors: 'The Intelligence War', with views and recollection of the Emergency and also contributed to several publications on Malaya and the Emergency.]