During my stay in Singapore as a Broadcasting Engineer it was essential to have a
working knowledge of Bazaar Malay to deal with artisans and craftsmen who
spoke no English. On joining the Crown Agents in 1957 I continued the same career but
expanded my area of operations to Africa and other countries in South East Asia. Little
did I realise how useful my knowledge of Malay would be in this new job.
For instance, fast forward to the 1970's when Broadcasting and Television projects
for the Crown Agents were providing my growing family with their bowls of rice.
One such project was to provide television to Brunei. You may have noticed that the
aerials for TV stations are always placed on the top of hills. The trouble in Brunei was at
that time nobody seemed to know where the hills are. Outside of Bandar Seri Begawan
the jungle is all pervading and thick. Trees on the lower hillsides struggle upwards to
reach the sunlight so that viewed from the air the canopy appears flat. We struggled up
one promising looking site, only to find at the top the ground level was more like
Helvellyn and Striding Edge.
The Director of Surveys eventually suggested another site although it had never been
surveyed. He would lend me some local trackers and we could all go on another jungle
bash. I was getting quite expert at going out at first light, 6 am, and climbing hills until it
got too hot, about 10 am. A desk wallah I was not.
By this time I had invited a television engineer from Hong Kong who was coming to
the end of his assignment to join me on the project in Brunei. For brevity I will call him
Fred. So there we were, Fred, me and 4 trackers who looked very smart in green
departmental T-shirts and shorts and white trainers. Each carried a parang, a Malay
machete to blaze our path. All went well until Fred paused for breath. This was a far cry
from the fleshpots of downtown Hong Kong.
"By the way Maurice" he said, "what race are these trackers? They are not as dark as
Malays but much darker than Chinese". "Oh" I replied, "they are jungle folk. They are
Ibans". Fred went pale, he almost stopped breathing, and he remained rigid. After a
while he managed to stutter, "but Ibans ... they are head hunters". "That's right",
I said, "the Japanese were dead scared of them during the occupation, but they have been
persuaded to give up their traditional lives and adopt more peaceful ways".
The trackers were intrigued, not knowing the reason for our stop and our conversation
until one asked in Malay, "What is the matter? Does your friend require a drink of
water?" What a wonderful get out line.
"Yes" I said, "he does not feel very well, it must be the heat".
With one swipe of a parang a palm leaf was severed from a nearby tree, folded over
into a cone, dipped into a nearby stream and handed to Fred who sipped suspiciously.
To good an opportunity to miss, we all had a drink and very refreshing it was.
Crossing the stream was simple to the Ibans. They cut down a suitable length of
bamboo, placed it across the stream and ran over. It was different for Fred and me. With
much laughter born of their superiority, they cut down another bamboo pole and brought
it back to us to enable us to shuffle crab-like along the bridging pole whilst holding on to
the other pole resting in the water.
And thus we made our way to the top of the hill. There appeared to be just enough
room for our tower and the associated transmitter building. Site clearing and survey
would have to wait until the next day.
And so we solved the first of many problems before the Brunei Television project was
And Fred? He returned to Hong Kong and never came back to Brunei.