16 September 2007

Pak Cik reminisces ( Pt 1 )– 50 years ago –Merdeka (a)

It was September 1957. I was then living in a ‘digs’, a family house with spare rooms rented to students, in a town about 100 miles away from London, 8000 miles away from home (perhaps I should say 160 km and 13,000 km respectively to be more topical with the unit of measure). Three rooms were shared between seven of us: a Peruvian, a Jew from London, a rich son of a minister from Lebanon, a Christian Arab from Iraq, an Indian from India, an Irishman and the lone Malay boy from Malaya. Our English landlady, a widow with a grown up son working in London, served us daily breakfast and dinner. We were a happy mix, sharing our differences. Nevertheless, I was but a lonely lad trying hard to adapt himself to this strange environment. There were houses of worship everywhere and plenty of food and drinks, but almost none for a Muslim. There was no shortage of restaurants but one could not find rice and curry on the menu.

There were no cassette tapes or CD’s to hear the voice of Saloma and P Ramlee. My country was celebrating her independence and here I was, oblivious to the kind of celebrations being held 8000 miles away at a place called home. Today I realise those are the elements that can contribute towards building or destroying a character. And I survived.

How about a phone call to Malaya? We can forget that, let alone hand-phones. It was a great many years before the emergence of E-mail and sending SMS. It was at an era when it was fashionable for a young would-be engineer to show off a pocket slide rule sticking out in his shirt. Today a Form 1 pupil is expected to own a calculator, a device that would be the eighth wonder of the world then. If a young person now was to ask what on earth a ‘pocket slide rule’ is, a similar question would be asked then of a ‘pocket calculator’. So, sending and receiving news was all by air-mail letters which took about two weeks to reach. If you could not afford the cost of an air-mail stamp, the alternative was going by ‘surface-mail’, a slow boat that would take about a month, with the added risk of the mail getting lost altogether.

It is pointless to keep reminding myself now how lonely it could be then. Circumstances often drive one to discover happy alternatives. So life went on. Of some comfort to me was the news I received a couple of weeks earlier that I had just passed my University of London GCE ‘A’ level, a two-year course which I was made to accomplish in one year by my sponsors. Hence I was on course to begin my degree as planned. As I had already completed my first year in UK I could rejoice at the thought that in another year I would be allowed to take my holiday at home, all paid for by my sponsors.

So this time fifty year ago I heard of the coming historic event in Malaya. What did I record in my diary ? Here goes one page from my 1957 diary :



M E R D E K A D A Y !

News in all papers
Headlines of BBC news too
The voice of T Abdul Rahman shouting ‘Merdeka!’ (3 times) and the response from people came out and clear.
Tears trickled down my face
Special BBC broadcast 10.45 to 11.00 pm
Slept very late , after 2.30 am

Am I happy to see Malaya’s independence?


Today I wonder why I deemed it important to end the brief note in my diary with that question. There seems to be a sense of disquiet, an echo of uncertainty in that young boy’s mind, away and alone among strangers, remote from the scene of the action. Today, wiser by 50 years, I understand it better. I had my independence at that young age, out of my family’s direct control. I had no need for their financial help. I could do just what I wanted, fooling around, spending my allowance, breaking all my religious rules and ethics and all. Nonetheless I needed love and affection. I longed to be with those who shared my childhood, rice and curry prepared by my mother’s loving hands. Without my sponsors I would not have the very opportunity to be at the heart of the world’s greatest empire, which granted Malaya’s independence.

Indeed I think I know it better today that ‘merdeka’ is just a great sound from an empty drum until one is able to break free from being at the receiving end to a position that others benefit from what he can contribute.

Let me take a break here. A sequel to this will follow in due course.

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