Two books about Sabah (the former North Borneo) constitute a treat for all those who
lived in that enchanting country. One is serious, the other light-hearted, but both
provoke vivid memories of how it used to be.
North Borneo was never as well-known as the more glamorous Sarawak to the south
of it, and Ronald Brooks’ book fills a wide gap in most people’s general knowledge.
Going there as an Administrative Cadet in 1940 (under the flag of the Chartered
Company), he travelled widely in the interior and grew to know the different tribes-people
well, before the Japanese invasion of Borneo, when he was sent to prison camp in
Kuching, a period under the Japanese flag which still leaves him with painful memories.
The third flag in Brooks’ story is that of the Australians who liberated North Borneo
and who were regarded as angels by the suffering ex-prisoners.
In 1946 North Borneo became a Crown Colony and the Union Jack hung outside
Government House. Ronald Brooks was back in Administration upcountry and in the
capital until he was appointed Information Officer, subsequently Director of Information
and Broadcasting Services.
He was responsible for publicity in the Colony of the forthcoming Malaysian
Federation, and thereafter worked under the Malaysian flag. Although leaving Sabah
shortly after the Federation came into being, he returned very soon to found the
Museum at Kota Kinabalu which has become internationally famous.
This very readable history, seen through the eyes of one so closely connected with it,
gives us an authentic picture of the North Borneo that was and its progress towards the
Sabah that is today.
The second book. The Lingering Eye, is written by Wendy Suart, who went to North
Borneo as a young Australian secretary in 1949, led a hilarious and busy social life, then
met and married a young Cable and Wireless engineer who ultimately became Cable and
Wireless Manager, Hong Kong. They lived in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) until 1953,
and Wendy Suart evinces almost total recall of every sight, sound and smell in the everyday
life of herself and the other bachelor girls and wives in that beautiful place.
Jesselton had been devastated by the war, and everybody lived in palm-leaf houses.
There was little or no cold storage and only a poor supply of electricity. Yet in spite of
all the difficulties, the young expatriates managed to work hard and play hard, and the
enjoyment of it comes across clearly from Wendy Suart’s book. Eccentric characters
leap out of the pages, events range from Government House receptions to brilliantly
colourful local markets and trips to the off-shore islands.
As the town was gradually being rebuilt, we follow the author’s married life from one
inadequate house to another, amid the multifarious difficulties of food shortages, servant
problems and inadequate cooking arrangements, culminating in the wonders of a permanent
home with two proper bathrooms.
Anybody reading these two books has a splendid opportunity to trace the transition of
a country from Chartered Company territory to independence within the Federation of
Malaysia, and to enter into the detailed life-style of expatriates involved in that transition.