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
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.