Monthly Archives: March 2011

An Old Sea Salt

An Old Sea Salt

by Kim Gooi

1st published in Penang Club magazine 2002

[Author’s note:  The most beloved headmaster of Penang Free School Mike Hughes passed away on 16 March 2011, six days after his wife Jean Hughes. Their joint funeral will be held on Tuesday 22 March at Chapel of Rest, Okehampton, Devon. Legions of old boys scattered around the world mourn their demise.
“They contributed greatly to enhance the school’s already excellent academic, sports, arts performances…and made huge impacts on many of us personally. Stories of their generosity of their time, words and acts of support and encouragement, and in kind to the students are legendary, writes Chew Poh Soon, among tributes that poured through the internet.]

Feeling top of the world - Kim Gooi(left)and Tan Poay Lim with Mike Hughes on top Penang Hill in year 2000. Mike was 84 then. Photo by Kim Gooi

In early 1900s I have a pleasant surprise when the last English headmaster of Penang Free School, JMB Hughes who retired and went back to England in 1963, wrote to me in Bangkok.

“Are you Gooi Mong Kim, the one I taught geography in Form Two? I don’t know you are now known as Kim Gooi. Heard you are a journalist based in Bangkok. I got your address from one of the old boys.


Beach Boys, December 1961 - Photo by Mike Hughes who sent and wrote the caption: "Forty years ago Batu Ferringhi! The most cheerful bunch of kids I ever knew. As ever - Mike" Front row (L-R) Tan Poay Lim, Chan Weng Thim, Chor Hock Lye, Ahmad's (the fisherman) son. Back row Chuah Lye Heen and Gooi Mong Kim

“Remember our dunking days in the sea of Batu Ferringhi. (He used to take a bunch of us camping in front of ‘Silver Sand’, while the family stayed in the bungalow)

“How is Weng Thim, Say Kok, Lye Heen?” He said he is still in contact with Poay Lim and some of the old boys but among all the students he remembers us best and the liveliest. Must be due to the fact we were the last group taught by him and the one who dunked him in the sea.

“One good dunking deserves another,” he says. And Mike, as he now wants to be called, would dunk as back in return.

After a week of sun and surf, just as we were about to cycle home with our piles of ruck sacks and camping gears, I remember vividly, Mike coming towards me and dished out about fifteen dollars (ringgit, quite a lot of money in those days).  “Take this and have a meal in the coffee shop,” he said.

Those were the days – great school, great teachers! “I would always make it a point to take my students outdoor as part of the education,” he would say. Among the field trips he had taken were to Pulau Langkawi in the early remote days (Lim Chong Keat among the group), he said. And  the most memorable – when the whole school took a day off to hike up Penang Hill in 1962, the year I was in Form Two.

Penang Free School then was noted for its academic excellence and sports prowess nationally.  The teachers were a different breed compared to now.

Many of us Old Frees, now in our autumn years, would agree that the Penang Free School is special in many ways and hold fond memories of the alma mater. From its founding in 1816 until 1963 when the last English principal left for home, it has always been headed by a British headmaster.

When Old Frees meet, they would inevitably inquire: “Which year (were you in)?…..Todd?, Hargreaves?, Pinhorn?… and so on. For me the greatest headmaster will always be Michael (JMB) Hughes.

Already an octogenarian when I heard from him, Hughes has not lost his shine and humour. “We can stage the biggest dunking of all times if you come to England,” he wrote. “Except it won’t be as warm and sunny as Batu Ferringhi; yours Old Sea Salt,” he signed off.

Coincidentally at that time Old Frees of my year had just started email contacts; Lye Heen when informed of Hughes suggested we pooled resources and get him a laptop.

But it was OK. A few weeks later Mike emailed saying: “Thanks for your kind thoughts but it’s not necessary, my daughter and son-in-law, just got me a computer and ‘wired’ me up.

“Times have changed, what I understand as a mouse and hardware are no longer the four legged animal and tools I used to know,” he wrote amusingly.

We were in regular email contact. In year 2000, Hughes visited Penang at the invitation of Lim Chong Keat and company. I met up with Mike at Chong Keat’s Penang Hill Hotel. At 84, except for the cane he uses when walking, he was robust and healthy, his mind as sharp as ever, rattling off names of old students and events, to the amazement of all.

In 2001 I was the Southeast Asia editor for Outthere News, a London based news portal, actively reporting on the American attack of Afghanistan Taliban forces. My job was to get ordinary people to comment on the Afghan War, their fear, worry and so on.

Mike and I were in regular contact. Needless to say Afghanistan featured mostly in our exchanges. Being a newsman, I was amazed at the profound insight and knowledge Mike had of the Afghans and the region.

I sent his comments to london and sure enough the editor, Paul Eedle, was astonished. “This is great stuff!” the Editor commented.

Below is the commentary of Michael Hughes as it appears in OutthereNews. I am sure Old Frees who were with Hughes would be delighted to read about the Old Sea Salt’s vast experience, knowledge and empathy for the people.

megastories from
Wednesday 21 November 2001


Michael Huhges, now 84, is the former headmaster
of Penang Free School in Malaysia, the oldest English
school in southeast Asia (founded in1816). He served
in the British army in India, Ceylon and Burma in World
War II before his life as a teacher in Malaysia. he
retired to Britain in 1963.]

I am not surprised those reporters were killed in Afghanistan. In 1942 I was stationed not far away from there. The road from Peshawar to Landi Kota (a frontier fort) had one role. Any British officer straying 50 yards from the track could be shot and several were. There was a guide book telling you this. British officers had to wear pagris like their men. It has always been a fierce area. Tribesmen could be feasting you and going overboard with hospitality one day and trying to put a bullet in your head the next. You never called them ‘Pushtuns’ then but ‘Pathans’ who spoke a language called Pusthu. My orderly was one such man and he was the salt of the earth.

When I left the army in Rangoon in 1946 and he left me, I wanted to give him 400 rupees to help create a better life for him and his family. At first he refused but I insisted and he took it. Six months later when I was back in the UK I got a letter from the village headman signed by every man in the village. He had gone home
and distributed the money between the whole community. this was a man who lived in a mud and wattle hut with one room divided from another by a rough partition. The animals on one side, the people on the other. Mostly they slept outside on a string bed called a charpoy.

With all respect you have to know these people well because robbery is common and westerners would be targets. I respected them and loved them. Allah was everything to them and Mohammad their guide. I know that there is no excuse for what happened in western eyes but in theirs there was nothing wrong. I could tell you more about them but it would take me half a book. One thing I do know. They do not fear death. Of course one cannot condone with murder but they live in a harsh climate where life is a constant struggle and death very common. Probably the infant mortality rate is higher than 60% and the death rate at about the age of 50. Of course I am talking about 60 years ago and things may have changed but I doubt very much whether attitudes have.

Mike Hughes


Filed under Penang Club magazine 2002

Cruel Death of Burmese Migrant Labourers

A dpa despatch published by the Bangkok Post editorial page on May 13, 2008

A hard life here for illegal Burmese workers

by Kim Gooi

The hot noon sun beats relentlessly down on scores of Burmese citizens packed aboard long-tail boats on the Andaman Sea, sailing from Burma’s Victoria Point to Thailand’s Ranong harbour.

These border-crossers sit in the open boats holding umbrellas to protect them from the sun. Some have come to Thailand to shop, others to find work.

Going in the opposite direction are groups of western tourists, mostly backpackers, in search of pristine beaches or a renewal of their Thai visas.

Ranong lies on the borderline between relatively prosperous Thailand and Burma, where 46 years of military misrule have impoverished the population.

Surrounded by low hills on all sides like a tilted bowl facing a sheltered seafront, Ranong is a prosperous border town. The hills around the town are planted with rubber and cashew trees.

But for Tin Aung and many other Burma national here, Ranong’s bustling harbour has become a place of fear – fear of arrest and deportation and fear of hunger.

Dreams shattered, down and out, he sleeps in a park in the day time and ventures out at night to seek work. He’s not picky. He’s willing to wash cars, wash dishes and or do other manual labour the Thais shun.

Three months ago, Tin Aung’s family sold half their house north of Rangoon to pay a job broker the equivalent of US$635 (20,257 baht) for his passage to Phuket island in southern Thailand.

He was told that he could recoup the money quickly after he found a good job on the thriving tourist island.

Tin Aung travelled by us from Rangoon to the coastal town of  Mergui and then by boat to the border at Victoria Point, near the Thai town of Ranong.

The organisers of the people smuggling racket put him in a safe house and told him to wait for a boat and the right time to make the final run to Phuket.

“A week alter I was put on a boat in the middle of the night and told we were going to Phuket,” said Tin Aung. “Instead, the boat headed out to open sea and for a month I was made to work like a slave on a fishing boat.”

He had no choice but to work, fearing he would be beaten and thrown overboard if he refused. “There were news reports of scores of bodies washed ashore along the southern coastline in recent months,” said Tin Aung.

After a month the boat landed at Ranong, and Tin Aung escaped. Now, like many of his countrymen under similar circumstances, he is in a limbo, unable to work legally in Thailand and unable to return home to Burma.

Unlike the majority of Burmese citizens from Victoria Point, who can come and go freely acorss the border, Tin Aung would be subject to arrest and imprisonment if he went back, on charges of leaving Burma without permission.

“But it could be worse. Like the 54 who suffocated to death in the cold storage truck. I could have been one of them,” he said.

On April 9, a group of 120 Burmese illegals were packed like sardines into a cold storage truck bound from Ranong to Phuket to find work. Two hours later, after travelling 90 km and repeatedly ignoring the victims’ banging on the walls of the truck and their frantic mobile phone calls saying they could not breathe, the driver of the truck pulled over to the side of the road.

When he opened the door he found 54 of his passengers were dead, among them two children. Another 66 escaped death, with a score of them hospitalised.

The story shocked Thailand and focused attention on the trade of illegal Burmese workers in the country. “It is very cruel and horrible,” said police commander Colonel Kraithong Chanthongbai. “I arrived immediately after villagers reported it at 10.30pm and didn’t sleep the whole night.

“There were screams, moaning and weeping and the stench of death. Some of the survivors helped to carry out the dead from the truck. When they saw the dead were their wives or children, they were screaming and wailing. It was a horror of the dead, half-dead and the living,” the commander recalled.

“And it wasn’t necessary for this to happen,” said Col Kraithong. “We have ways of letting them work in Thailand legally.”

There are 1-2 million Burmese citizens working in Thailand, but the majority of them do so illegally. Although it is possible to obtain an official work permit, many complain that the process is time-consuming and confusing, and leaves them at the mercy of their employers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bangkok Post (TH)

Poet of keng Tung Jail Part II

Part II: The Poet Of Keng Tung Jail – Bangkok Post,  Sunday 6 February 1983 [Author‘s note: A year after Taworn’s poems were published on Jan 10, 1982  Post editor, Kanjana Spindler, suggested an encore edition with more detail of the poet and condition in Burmese jail because of inquiries from readers]


One cigar, think not it’s little
More than fifty baht without
One cigar friendship goes
They give with an open heart
Friends from foreign and distant
Where are they from?
Many places to go, this square
My learned friend find a better life
to lead
A happy free society your
Jail can be

They call him the mad Thai. By all accounts, Taworn Nootwong, a Thai national aged about 42, who wrote this poem is believed still to be in jail. Four years have gone by since we parted company. There is a dreadful possibility that the atrocious conditions and tough prison life has taken its toll on Taworn. His health and life were precarious and he might not have lasted very long unless he were freed.

When our paths first crossed way back in the dry hot months of 1977, I had no idea that this strange Thai is a highly learned man who writes beautiful poems as well. The inmates of  Keng Tung jail in the Shan State of Burma where Taworn is incarcerated, say he is mad. Very little is known about him and he is shunned by other prisoners.

“Don’t talk to him, you are wasting your time,” warned the prisoners. “He has been here too long, the prison has made him crazy. Nobody can talk to him. If you talk about the east he answers about the west. You will go mad yourself if you keep on talking to him.”

Some people say Taworn is mad, that he does not want to go home or that he has committed a grievous crime back in Thailand. Others say he has lost his identity papers and cannot go home. From Taworn himself nothing much can be learned because he only laughs and wallows in his madness. His favorite diatribe is tinged with sarcasm:

“Why should I go home. There is free food for no work here, even when you sleep people watch over you. Burma is a good country. Ha ha ha!” he bursts out laughing and walks away whenever someone shows concern for him. Because of his attitude people leave him alone, nobody bothers him. Even the tough prison guards stay away from him.

There are various reasons for Taworn’s purported madness. According to the accounts of other prisoners, he was sentenced in 1974 to six months in jail for the crime of illegal entry into Burma. When I met Taworn he was already three years in prison. Fortunately the writer, who also ran afoul of the Burmese Immigration law and was sentenced to six months imprisonment, was released after spending only one year in jail.

The Keng Tung jail is a square area surrounded by four high walls each about 100 yards long. An inner barb wire fence interspersed with rose bushes keeps the prisoners from getting near the wall. Old time residents of Keng Tung remember that it was built by the British and designed to hold about 200 prisoners.

In 1977 there were over 500 prisoners kept in four big cells in the jail. Each cell measures about 20 feet by 150 feet and houses between 100 and 150 prisoners. They sleep on two rows of planks, raised three feet above the dirt floor, side by side, packed like sardine.

The conditions in Keng Tung jail could without exaggeration be described as appalling. Ten people died during the ten months I was interned there.

Che Peh was a Lahu boy aged about 19 who came in to serve two years for theft. He came in healthy and normal but he never left. After six months in jail he contracted some deadly virus which made him semi-paralyzed and his speech incoherent. At the end of November 1977 (his 18th month in jail) during the cold season, he was lying on a filthy rag covered with a filthy blanket in the bright sunlight in the prison compound.

He was unable to move or even turn his body. The only sign of life was when he blinked his eyes. There were feces all over the lower part of his body, flies swarming all over him covering his face and eyes. His mouth was foaming. His face had been blacken by days of lying in the open sun. Finally the authorities took him out to the town hospital where he died that same afternoon.

Another Lahu lad died of constipation, screaming until his last breath in the cell. Due to some strange, deadly and unidentified disease, he could not defecate. After a few weeks his body got bloated and his face all puffy. In his last hour he was groaning in great pain.

His fellow Lahus tried to no avail to help by wiping his anus which was covered with hideous sores, with wet rags. It was a relief for all when his screams and groans stopped and his stiff body was unceremoniously taken out in a gunny sack and buried in a vegetable garden outside the jail.

The rest of the dead were mostly old tribal opium addicts who used the drug for 15 to 20 years or more. When these enter the jail, they are thrown into the dirtiest corner of the cell. And in that corner they lay all day and night, groaning in pain from their drug withdrawal, unable to move, wash or eat.

Nobody pays much attention to them for the prisoners are hardened to the sight. By the third or fourth or at the most the fifth week they will certainly die. The bodies are taken out by the other prisoners and buried in a hole outside the prison.

Less than half the population of the jail were made to work. People like Taworn and me who violated the immigration law are automatically exempted from work; though seemingly a privilege, in reality this is a disadvantage. Workers enjoy privileges such as taking a bath once a day – while non workers can only take a bath once every four days – and have a cup of watery rice broth in the morning.

People who work in the carpentry and blacksmith workshops have access to fire where water is boiled and sold to the other prisoners for two cheroots a milk tin. Others can steal some extra food from the kitchen and vegetable plot when they are working there. Non workers are left to idle day in and day out without anything to do.

The prisoners are fed twice a day – stale, yellowish broken rice, with a bowl of yellow pea soup in the morning (10 am) and a bowl of boiled radish leaves for the afternoon meal. A spoonful of shrimp paste, ‘nga pi’ (blachan), is added to each meal as relish. Once a week a piece of meat (pork or beef), one and half inch cube, is given. Sometimes small river fish is given in lieu of the meat.

Fortunately visitors are allowed twice a week. On these important days, friends and relatives of the prisoners bring much coveted food, cheroots, clothing and medicine. it is the food that sustains the prisoners. All the food brought in by the visitors is first checked by the wardens; in the process a portion is usually extorted. The prison guards live off the prisoners because they could not survive on their meagre salary of about 150 kyat a month (about six US dollars at the black market rate).

On a rare occasion, Taworn was visited by a kindly former prisoner who brought him some foodstuff and cheroots. A crowd then gathered around Taworn and within minutes all his food and cheroots were given away.

“Why do you do that?” someone asked.
“For years I have been smoking other people’s cheroot, now I can give instead of take!” Taworn roared out laughing. Sadly enough, many people mistook his admirable generosity as a confirmation of his madness.

Tall, dark and broad shouldered,Taworn is also very myopic. His thick glasses make him conspicuous among the prisoners and give him a scholarly look. he speaks and writes Thai, English and Burmese. Someone says he is married and has children in Bangkok, he was once a sergeant in the Thai Navy. No one has a clue as to why he is not released.

Taworn’s predicament was first reported in the now defunct Business Times (a Bangkok English Daily). Early last year his poems were published in Bangkok Post.

Amnesty International took an interest in his case in 1978. but so far nothing  has been done by the organisation. One of its officials said recently, “Burma is a very secretive country, there is nothing much we can do.”Trying to talk to Taworn is a lesson in exasperation and frustration. “Nonsensical” or “weird” or “totally mad” is the manner the prisoners described his speech. “He speaks good English” is the only positive remark about him.I found out that the best way to communicate with Taworn is through a piece of paper. To pass the time in jail I had decided to learn more of the Thai language from Taworn. I asked him to translate some English words and sentences into Thai. He would translate the words and phrases and eventually expand on the contents filing up the page with poetic verses.In the dreadful confinement of the prison Taworn would write and write filling up any piece of paper he could lay hands on. On a single word or phrase like ‘roses’, ‘Burmese cigars’, ‘high walls’, he would write verse after verse, filling up all corners of the paper. In such literary pursuits we spent many fruitful hours together. I realized that in his tormented mind here was a poet of the first order.Reading Taworn’s poems one is at once struck by their intense feelings and originality. Taworn is no armchair poet. His inner thoughts and pains are expressed truly and unpretentiously. Unfortunately paper was scarce in the prison (there wasn’t even toilet paper, old rags and strips of bamboo were used as substitute); some of the poems written on pieces of cigarette wrappers were lost. I managed to keep some of the work and got them out of Keng Tung jail.The Rose of Keng Tung

Within the high walls so grim
Rows of roses could be seen
Nest to barb wires and old bricks
Sprouting shades of green

June and July, the dry heat gone
Little buds, a bloom appear.
When August rain comes
They sprout red and pink
Covering the bush a score
or more

At dawn they are best
When dew drops like jewels on
virgin petals
I can’t resist to bend down and
What sweet fragrance.

Days have gone to weeks

Weeks have gone to months
Years have come to past
My most beloved Rose whom thou
wait for

Within the high walls so grim
The rose of Keng Tung blooms

[I hope many will enjoy Taworn’s poems and like me greatly touched. As the ancient Chinese scholars believe, ‘one can only transcend the ordinary and write good poetry when one has tasted the bitterness of life’. Happy Reading! ]

Cold fog falls like a carpet, over Keng Tung Jail  /The sun is late at dawn, slowly releases the cold 

The sky is low, the land is high – the aeroplane is white /Winter wind blows and rustle, little birds walk on ground/flying to and fro

The sparrows come out to sing, a love song /the prisoners come out to sing, a farewell song

From Penang you came to listen /to a Burmese song

my dreams if, will sing a waiting song

Paper Book

Book is knowledge…’s OK to read                                                                                    We rather prefer not to                                                                                                              put Thought into it

Thai books, English books…..fluency                                                                                         Achieved                                                                                                                             Wrapping paper looks good, has                                                                                        Many  benefits 

Cheap books establish…..clearly                                                                                              in the Mind                                                                                                                         Expensive books conceal, proverbs                                                                                    and pleasantries                                                                                                                         

Lost books distribute…..surprise is exchanged                                                            with pleasure                                                                                                                                Oral books for the ears to listen                                                                                               Spread Humanity

Leave a comment

Filed under Bangkok Post (TH)