British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Russell Jones
(Assistant Controller, Immigration Department, Malaya from 1948)
A Brief Spell on the Frontier
Customs Staff
In 1948 I was appointed to the Immigration Department of the Federation of Malaya as Assistant Controlier. In April 1949 I was placed in charge of the Immigration post in Padang Besar, where the twice-weekiy Bangkok Express to Penang crosses the border between Thaiiand and Malaya. To the north, on the Thai side, there was agricuiturai land, with indifferent roads, and one daily midday train from and to Haadyai. On the Malayan side to the south was jungle, with no roads, so between the morning and evening passenger trains coming from and returning to Penang, our only regular way south was in the guards van of the early morning goods train by courtesy of the Ceylonese stationmaster.

I found the languages used in Padang Besar very interesting. The only other expat there, the Police officer, and I naturaliy conversed in English. The Chinese traders passing to and fro used their own dialect (Hokkien) happily on both sides of the border. Our staff were neariy all Malay, and Malay was the prevalent language on our side. Malay was not much understood on the Thai side, where Thai was the general tongue.

The Thai Immigration officers travelled to and fro from Haadyai for their work on the trains. But the officer in charge of the Thai Customs post lived in the adjacent Thai village. He was a very civilised man named Sathien, who spoke French and English fluently. While waiting between trains, we talked for hours in the coffee shop. He taught me quite a lot of Thai, so I could get by, but since this was my first encounter with a tonal language, and since the tones came so naturally to him that he did not specifically teach them, my Thai was more fluent than correct.

Illegal immigration was not really a problem for me, there was ample space in the jungle for illegal crossing of the border without coming near us. Smuggling however was common. Some of it, caused by international restrictions on the movement of food, was relatively harmless, such as the 'illegal' importation of buffaloes from Thailand, organised by the small Pathan community, to which the Veterinary Service turned a blind eye. Similar was the importation of small quantities of rice by regular passengers, usually hidden under the train carriage. Opium was a different matter, and led to arrest and prosecution. I took a keen interest in these activities, and naturally worked closely with the Customs staff.

British Colony Map
Penang and Northern Malaya 1962 Map
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 107: April 2014


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