Malaya - A Magical Experience

Courtesy of OSPA

by David Brent
(Asst Superintendent of Police, Malaya 1952-58)
Malaya - A Magical Experience
Pahang Stamp
Malaysia is one of the world's most exotic, tropical countries with a great variety of terrain and flora and fauna. During my earlier years in the deep jungle state of Pahang with its great rivers, cascading waterfalls, mist-swathed mountains, almost impenetrable huge jungle areas, palm-fringed beaches, coral reefs and an incredible range of amazing animals, birds and fish, life never had a dull moment. There seemed to always be another memorable experience around every corner, almost every day. Over those early years my encounters with scenes of great beauty and surprising experiences are etched on my memory. And I was extremely fortunate to come across, even fleetingly, many animals, including a tiger, black panther, wild boar, python, cobra, green tree snake, elephant, deer, many monkey species, crocodiles, slow loris, tarsier, gliding frogs and lizards and hornbills. Even greater pleasure was to have several as pets to observe and enjoy.

One particular experience stands out from the others because of its unexpected nature and the particular circumstances at the time. In 1953 I was the OCPD (police chief) of Pekan District in Pahang State. Pekan was the largest district in Malaya with massive jungle areas and Malaya's largest river, the Pahang, which flowed into the South China Sea. It also included an extremely long coastline. Uniquely, the town of Pekan, situated six miles up river from the coast on the southern bank of the Pahang River, was the Royal Town of Pahang as it was the residential location of the Sultan of Pahang who kept several istanas (palaces) and a large polo field there. The Sultan had a large and very ancient house-boat which he occasionally used, towed by boats, on travel up the Pahang River to visit various districts adjacent to the river. Other districts enjoyed his visits when he travelled by road in his easily recognized yellow Rolls Royce with number plate - HH Pahang.

Malaya - A Magical Experience
Sultan of Pahang
River travel was therefore the key to getting around and both the District Officer and myself relied on boats and motors to get about on routine visits and emergencies any time of the day or night.

My numerous responsibilities in maintaining law and order and 'busting crime' included detecting opium dens and prosecuting offenders. On one occasion information was forthcoming that a Chinese shopkeeper in a small village on the coast north of the mouth of the Pahang River on the South China Sea was involved in the opium trade. After careful consideration I decided to carry out a night raid on his premises. The remote location of the village presented difficulties. We had two choices - travel by boat from Pekan town to the mouth of the Pahang River. Then navigate north several miles along the coast and make a beach landing at the village. Or cross the Pahang River by ferry to the north bank at Peramu, travel some miles along the Kuantan road to the north, meet up with an organized boat on a narrow river which ran from the road area to the east coast where the village was located and travel down river to our target. The coastal approach was certainly simpler. However, I was concerned that a beach landing on a moonless night with little visibility and the problem of incoming surf waves could result in the boat being upturned with disastrous consequences and possible loss of life. So the alternative approach from inland was chosen as the most prudent way to go.

Malaya - A Magical Experience
Car Ferry
On the evening of the planned raid all equipment was checked and we set out. We crossed the Pahang River to Peramu on the car ferry and then drove north to the meeting point where the road crossed the narrow river to the east coast village. The police vehicle was parked to await our return and we walked a short distance to the embarkation point for the boat using torches to see our way. Unfortunately the water was too shallow at that point for the boat to get closer to the river bank and we had to wade out to the boat. However, shining our torches into the water we were astonished to observe a number of sea snakes sleepily coiled up lying on the bottom of the shallows. It seemed that there was a sea snake about every square metre or so. They didn't seem to want to move so still wearing our black canvas sneakers we carefully picked our way between them out to the boat, illuminating the way with our torches as we went.

Malaya - A Magical Experience
Pahang Trunk Road
Finally we all got aboard the boat safely and the boatman started the outboard motor and steered the boat out into the narrow river on our way to our coastal destination. It was a moonless night and we could just see the vague outline of jungle foliage on the banks. After about twenty minutes or so of travel we entered a section of the river where the trees on both banks overhung the river with branches touching in the centre in a cathedral-like effect. But the most astonishing sight was the billions of fireflies with their illumination flashing on and off repeatedly which totally covered all the branches of the trees. The effect was absolutely astonishing. I had never seen anything like this before. The entire river and the boat and passengers were illuminated as if in daylight. I could have read a book by the brightness of the light. The overall display of this staggering wonder of nature left me almost speechless, it was so incredibly and suddenly beautiful, surprising and overwhelming. I had before and since experienced many wonders of nature in locations throughout Malaya but never quite as magical as this display by nature on this special night.

We arrived at the coastal village where we raided the Chinese shopkeeper's premises. But after interrogation and a detailed search we found no evidence of chandu, the prepared form of opium, or any related activity or records.

Our return was a series of re-experiences with the amazing fireflies' display once again and, of course, wading through the sleepy sea snakes again. The return to Pekan was uneventful and the team dispersed at Police HQ. While the result of the investigation was disappointing it was merely one of many instances of success that put pressure on the opium dealers in East Pahang. From a personal point of view the evening's river travel that night was the most outstanding and amazing experience in my many years of police work in Malaya.

British Colony Map
1965 Map of Singapore and Southern Malaya
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 105: April 2013
Also by the Author
Jungle Patrols
Encounters In Malayan Police Work
Malayan Tales
Malayan Emergency
Colonialism and Empires: A natural evolution of civilizations
The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond: Real Truths, Hidden Truths and Forgotten Truths


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