Monthly Archives: January 2017

From Burmese Jail to meeting the Tunku Part I

Waiting For The Tunku

by Kim Gooi

“Being humble and respectful does not mean that one loses one’s social standing and identity in life; in fact it stresses one’s good character and class.”– Tunku


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 will sing

a waiting song


Journalists, such as myself, are taught not to make assumptions. Things are often not what they seem at first sight; there can be stories within stories.

prisoner shackledFor example, if I were to tell you that the lines of poetry above were taken from a journalistic memoir I wrote called “The Poet of Keng Tung Jail”, you might assume that I had arranged to visit the jail on assignment. However, I was not a visiting journalist. I was myself a prisoner in Keng Tung. Who, then, is the “Poet?” Me, perhaps? But the lines are not mine. They are an excerpt from a poem called “January”, written by a Thai prisoner called Taworn.


The other prisoners had warned me that Taworn was mad and I should avoid him, but that, too, was a false assumption. Taworn was far from mad. Tall, broad-shouldered and myopic, he peered at the world from behind thick glasses and an even thicker silence, broken by outbursts of laughter or sarcasm or sudden generosity that puzzled those around him.  Even the prison guards avoided Taworn.

But he was an educated, scholarly man who spoke three languages. I asked him to teach me Thai, jotting downindividual words in English on scrap material and cigarette papers for him to translate. Taworn did not stop at translation, however. He filled the space with strangely beautiful, original poems that blossomed like flowers from the buds of the single words I had given him.Taworn was the poet of Keng Tung Jail, and his friendship helped keep me sane in this most insane of environments.

Perhaps I should now lay to rest the unspoken question of what terrible crime I had committed to land me behind bars in the first place. My crime was inexperience, more than anything else.

I was a young photojournalist, based in Bangkok. Things had been going fairly well in the 6 or 7 months since I had arrived there in early 1977. I had just completed a photo essay for Asia Magazine on migrant workers at Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station. Now, my friends encouraged me to look further afield.Why not go north to Burma and do a story there? It was very much in the news. It was a chance to take great photos and cement my reputation.

So I travelled to Mae Sai, the most northerly town in Thailand, and crossed over into Tachileik on the Burmese side. The authorities in Burma would generally turn a blind eye to Thais who walked across the border during daylight hours in order to trade and barter with the Burmese locals, as long as they did not stay overnight.

I saw no reason why I could not blend in with these daytrippers. My features, at a glance, could pass as Thai; indeed my mother was from Trang in southern Thailand. On that score, I was probably right. I fit right in. But my camera equipment did not. Tachileik wasdominated by simple folk from both sides of the border, haggling over produce. What ordinary Thai could afford a camera, and why come here, of all places? As I openly snapped pictures of the tribal Burmese, dressed in their colourful costumes and selling their wares on the ground, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

The stares became whispers, the whispers reached the authorities, and within a few hours, I was arrested.

The Burmese authorities were already jittery in any case. Tachileik lies in Shan State, a region then filled with constant rumblings of insurgency and rebellion. By 1978, 20 to 30 casualties were suffered daily in Shan State alone in battles between government and rebel forces. A foreigner with a camera and uncertain motives would have done little to soothe their nerves.

My interrogation went on for hours. They went through my life history from the day I was born until the day I entered Burma.For me, it was like reciting a verbal autobiography.I soon discovered that while slipping across the border was deemed all right if you were Thai, it was certainly not all right if you were Malaysian. The obvious fact that I had no ill intent counted for nothing. I was sentenced to six months jail for violating immigration laws, to be deported from Burma on completion of my sentence.

It was this misfortune that led me to a stroke ofgood fortune, on a strange journey that took me from the most notorious prison in Burma to the living room of Tunku Abdul Rahman, father of Malaysian independence.


Life and Death in the Square World

I spent a full year jailed in Burma, not six months. Red tape and inefficiency doubled my sentence. I was told that my deportation had to be via the capital, Rangoon, but “the transfer papers are not ready”. They were never ready. Nothing much worked properly, in that era in Burma.

So I endured ten monthsof that year in Keng Tung Jail, 650 miles from Rangoon, where I watched ten men die before my eyes, and the last two months in Rangoon’s brutal Insein Prison, once the largest jail in the British Empire, where some prisoners were driven to eating rats just to survive.

But there was an easy cure for self-pity, in circumstances like these.

All I had to do was look around me.

There were those in pain, undergoing the savage beatings administered by the guards for the slightest infringement, real or imagined. The unfortunate victimwas clamped at the ankles with an iron rod, the thickness of a thumb and eight to fifteen inches long, and made to leap-frog round the prison compound with at least three prison guards (sometimes more) kicking, punching and striking him with rattan canes from behind. The iron rods would cut into the flesh, compounding the agony. The only relief came when he passed out. A heavy wooden block was then clamped onto his legs, and fellow prisoners would carry him back to the cell.

There were also those beyond pain. I thought of them as the living dead, wretched and pitiful souls who had lost the will to live completely.They had known, a long time ago, that the Burmese authorities would never release them. They were going to die in jail. They had seen their own deaths played out hundreds of times. Maybe in two years, maybe in five or twenty, the filth, disease and worst of all, the mental agony would get them. They were now mentally dead and had to be force-fed by others. Their eyes were vacant, beyond sorrow and suffering.

Insein held both the very young and the very old. Both had equally disturbing stories behind them.

The young were the children who been born in the jail, and had never seen the outside world. Some were still in the bellies of their pregnant mothers when whole familieshad been arrested and incarcerated. Now,they ranand played freely among the murderers, the lepers, the lunatics, the TB patients and the living zombiesaround them. What crime had these children committed, except to be born in the wrong place?

The old, perhaps just as innocent, were the Rohingyas.

The Burmese authorities had locked up these Muslims from Arakan State in the 1950s and forgotten about them. They were men whose crimes had disappeared in the mists of time. Or perhaps there had been no crimes in the first place, beyond their religion and the intolerance of the regime at that era.The oldest of them was 90 years of age, half blind and bent with age. He had been held for 28 years. A group of them stayed in the hospital compound, the younger ones already in their seventies but still able to walk around and move about during their daily prayers. It must have been their prayers and faith that kept them alive.

The Muslims of Insein Prison had an unofficial leader. His name was Aktar,a one-time millionaire businessman of Pakistani extraction, who had been jailed under the nebulous offence of  “sabotaging the socialist economy of Burma”.

Aktar had bribed the jail officials and was living in relative luxury in a special compound with about 30 followers – eight of them former Chinese Red Guards, whom he had personally converted to Islam, and who now acted as his bodyguards. He had good food brought to him from outside every day, as well as books and medicine.

Aktar soon heard that a new inmate from Malaysia had arrived in Insein, andI was summoned to meet him. He said that he knew the Malaysian ambassador had visited me and I would be free soon.He wanted me to take a personal message to the former Malaysian prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was the first Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and tell him about the suffering and massacre of the Burmese Muslims.

Aktar lent me Islamic books, tolerated my many questions about them, and allowed me into his inner circle – the only non-Muslim given such a privilege. Although sometimes short-tempered at first, he had warmed to me greatly by time I was finally deported from Burma in May 1978.

I was back in Malaysia. But my passport had been seized by the government and I was told that I was under investigation because of my jail sentence. The passport could only be returned after I was cleared.When? “It could be years  –  or never”, I was told. I had two jobs waiting for me in Bangkok –one with the Business Times newspaper and the other as a reporter for the US news agency UPI at the 1978 Asian Games.

My career was in grave peril. I tried to put it out of my mind. It was time to keep my word to Aktar, and to pass on the message he had given me. But I was apprehensive. Why would Tunku Abdul Rahman even bother to see me? After all, I was a nobody, and he was a big man. But I thought I had to at least try. I owed that much, at least, to the forgotten Rohingya souls in Insein and their compatriots outside, who were suffering too. And a promise is a promise.

I had no real idea how to reach Tunku, in any case. Eventually I decided the best way would be to write a letter to Perkim, the Muslim Welfare Association he had founded. I wrote to them in May 1978, detailing the plight of the Rohingyas as my reason for wanting to meet Tunku. To my surprise, the editor of the Islamic Herald replied, requesting my photo and permission to print my letter in their next issue. They also gave me Tunku’s contact number and told me to call his secretary and make an appointment.

It was the beginning of my very fortunate and happy friendship with the Tunku.

Bangkok, 27 Jul 1985: - Tunku, wearing hat on left, with the descendants of Kedahans in Nongchok, outskirt of Bangkok      Photo: Kim Gooi

Bangkok, 27 Jul 1985: – Tunku, wearing hat on left, with the descendants of Kedahans in Nongchok, outskirt of Bangkok Photo: Kim Gooi

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From Burmese Jail to meeting the Tunku Part II

Waiting For The Tunku
It was about 10 in the morning. We were all waiting for the Tunku in the reception room-cum-office, stacked with souvenirs, trophies, walking sticks and memorabilia. This was to be my second encounter with Tunku; two weeks earlier,I’d had my first appointment with him, and had spent several hours talking about the Burmese Rohingya refugees and many other subjects, while he recorded it all on a mini-tape recorder (very rarely seen in 1978).

Samad,his driver,and Owen Chung, his aide-de-camp, stood around chatting. In a corner his Chinese secretary was pounding on a typewriter. I was seated beside a humble Malay lad of about 18 years of age. Facing us were three distinguished-looking men – two Chinese and an Indian Muslim. Obviously some rich tycoons, I thought.

As the Tunku came down the winding staircase, before I could stand up, the three big shots went forward and greeted the old man with gusto. “Tunku, Tunku! I just bought a 300-dollar shirt from Hong Kong for you. Can you play golf this Thursday? We’ve booked the golf course,” one of the Chinese said loudly.

Tunku, with hardly a glance, waved him aside. The second Chinese man cheerfully came forward and said, “Tunku, we’ve formed a Bumiputera company – 51 percent Malay and 49 percent Chinese. Can you sign for us? We got a piece of land in Balik Pulau we want to develop into a holiday resort.”

Tunku retorted, “Where did the Malays get the money to form the company to do big business?”

The tycoon confessed, “Actually, we put up the money for them.”

“I know the Malays have no money. You Chinese have the money, but still I just can’t simply sign the application for you. You have to tell me who are these people, what is their background?” Tunku admonished.“OK, OK, I’ll do that, Tunku,” the guy said, and quietly sat down.

Then the Indian Muslim man announced that he had convinced a friend in Sungai Petani to accept Islam.Tunku nodded happily and asked him to sit down. He then came straight to the Malay lad and me, and warmly shook our hands and attended to us, enquiring whether we had our coffee and how he could help us.

We said yes, and thanked him for the coffee. The Malay boy and I felt ten feet tall, the way Tunku treated us in front of the three rich and powerful guests.

The Malay boy said he had left school after Form Three and could not find a job and his family were poor. Tunku told him if he was not fussy about manual work, he would get him a job with the JKR (Public Works Department) tending trees and parks, and promptly dictated a letter to his secretary.

Turning to me, he said, “You have a problem with your passport after deportation from Burma. Just yesterday the immigration director from KL was here to visit me. What a coincidence! He told me if I need any help, don’t hesitate to tell him. I will give you a letter. You go to KL immigration and see him. You will get your passport back in no time.”

Tunku’sofficial letterhead was printed on paper of a special and unusual size, in order to prevent forgery. Cradling thefreshly typed and signed letter, I got off the next day at the Kuala Lumpur railway station and went to Immigration. I gavethe letter to the amazed officers there, who promptly handed over my passport. Thanks to Tunku, I had my job, my life and my future back.
After these episodes I had many more encounters with the Tunku, each of them memorable, educational and an insight to his wisdom and humanity.

The Visit To Bangkok
Tunku’s visit to Bangkok with Perkim officials in 1985 was another unforgettable event.

By then, my work had been going well and many of my articles were published in local and international media. After hearing complaints from the Malaysian attache, Tarmizi Hashim, that nobody had covered the news of Tunku’s arrival, I pulled every string I could among my reporter friends and the Foreign Correspondents Club. The next day, the entire Bangkok press corps turned up to hear a beaming Tunku talk about Perkim’s humanitarian work among Bangkok Muslims.

Tunku was a hit with the Thai reporters because he grew up in the Thai court of King Rama VI. To them, Tunku qualified as Thai royalty, and the government honoured him with two police outrider escorts whenever he came to the kingdom.

A Thai reporter asked Tunku whether he could still speak Thai. Tunku said that in Kedah, Thai is spoken differently from in Bangkok, for example “Tham Pleu, Tham Pleu” means “What to do, what to do!”Tunku’s knowledge of this phrase, common in southern Thailand but not part of the Bangkok dialect, greatly impressed the reporters. The next day it was front-page news in all the dailies: “Tunku speaks fluent Thai,” together with the comment that Tunku also pointed out the Malaysian journalist Kim Gooi who was once jailed in Burma, whom he knows.

Tunku, being a Kedahan prince by birth, had a special concern for the residents of the big Muslim community of Nongchok on Bangkok’s outskirts. These Muslims were the descendants of Kedahan slaves captured and brought to Bangkok to build the canals in the last century. That’s why all the mosques and many Muslim communitiesin Bangkok are along the canals. Tunku commented that they had not only survived but werenow living well, as the land where many settled had become valuable.

Tunku was so busy and had so many engagements during this trip that I was unable to sit down for a full conversation with him. But my camera recorded these encounters between Tunku and the local Muslims. He seemed genuinely touched by their presence and the opportunity to help them, and would never tire of relating the close historical ties between Kedah and Thailand to reporters.

Tunku also remembered that he had complained to the Thai government during an earliervisit that there was no central mosque in Bangkok, despite the substantial number of Muslims. The result was the big mosque we see today at Hua Mak district of Bangkok, he said proudly.

The Living Room in Ayer Rajah Road
Tunku’s home in Penang was a handsome British-style bungalow in Ayer Rajah Road, now renamed Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman in his honour.

I visited Tunku whenever I could, sometimes to update him after returning from an interesting overseas assignment. (I once hand-delivered a Shan army commander’s walking stick to Tunku, a personal gift from the warlord Khun Sa. All Shan commanders carried these carved rattan canes into battle.)
His birthday open houses were also warm and touching affairs, as the guests’ children swarmed around him naturally, taking to the kind old man like ducklings to water. Tunku loved children.Once when a whole busload of primary school studentsdropped by, unannounced,to view the father of independence at close range, he personally called up the E&O Hotel and asked them to bring over cakes and refreshments for the children. (They obliged.)
In time, I became familiar enough to the security guards for them to wave me inside when I arrived. I would wait in the reception hall. It featured a tiger skin rug and sofa, and quite often the intimidating handlebar moustache of Owen Chung, Tunku’s aide-de-camp. Owen had a soft spot for Tunku, and told me how Tunku had obtained the best possible medical care for him after Owen had suffered a minor stroke.

Soon I would be invited to join Tunku in the living room. It became the venue for our many memorable chats. Casually but immaculately dressed, Tunku would fill the air with a lifetime of wisdom as well as smoke from his John Player slims.

For a journalist, talking to Tunku was a goldmine of information. He was astonishingly well-read and informed, with a particularly impressive grasp of history and world cultures. In our very first meeting, I explained at length the suffering of the Rohingyas in Burma and the growing refugee problem. Tunku seemed to have some knowledge of the issue already, and asked me to fill in the details.

“But I would regard the Rohingyas as Burmese, based on history. Wouldn’t you?” Tunku asked me. After all, they had been there in Arakan state for many generations, dating back centuries, and had their own kingdom at one stage. They may have genetic ties to the people of Bangladesh, but that should not make them strangers in their own land. “What is a race, anyway?” mused Tunku. “Look at the southern Thais. They may share some DNA with the Malays, but that makes them no less Thai, surely.”
Tunku was saddened by what I told him, and promised toorganiserelief efforts via the OIC. He had already done much to help Muslim refugees at the Cambodia-Thailand border who were the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Tunku, as the son of a Thai princess, had used his connection to the Thai kingdom to create a passageway for the refugees to come to Malaysia. Due to his efforts, about 10,000 Cambodian Muslims were given shelter in Malaysia in the 1970s.
Tunku, for his part, seemed interested in journalists and what we saw and thought. I recall visiting him on my return from covering the Aquino assassination in 1983. As usual, we had coffee and a long chat.When I told him I had just been in the Philippines, he told me of the arrogance of the then-president Ferdinand Marcos towards our Agong a few years before.

During a cruise stopover in Manila, our ambassador had arranged for a visit by the Agong to Malacanyang Palace. When the Agong’s limousine arrived at the palace gate, Marcos ordered the car to stop and the Agong had to walk up the driveway to the palace. Our ambassador was aghast and protested. Finally Marcos relented and a great insult to Malaysia was averted.

“Even then Marcos showed his arrogance,” said Tunku. “Instead of coming to the door to greet our Agong, he stood behind the desk and made the Agong walk up to greet him.

“This was too much,” Tunku said indignantly.

Just before that fateful first meeting in 1978, close to 40 years ago, I remember my mother being quite excited that I was going to meet the great man himself. She called me up later to find out how it went, and asked:
“So, what was he like?”
So, what was he like. My memories are still vivid enough. Tunku had an ability to make you feel completely at ease, and to open up. There was always jovial laughter, but also a warmth and sincerity about him that you could feel were truly genuine. He was humble, human, respectful; he never talked down to you or lectured you, which is not always the case for men who have held position and power.
It was easy for time to fly past in that living room in Ayer Rajah Road.

The Most Memorable Ride
I cannot to this day explain why Tunku would go out of his way to help a jobless eighteen-year-old Malay boy, a Chinese photojournalist without a passport, or the countlessother acts of kindness to others that marked his life.Many, I am sure, were never recorded but I hope at least they were not forgotten by the recipients of his compassion.

Tunku liked to explain this trait by relating the famous story of his mother, Che Menjelara, who claimed to be pregnant so that the Sultan would not punish the family of the Keeper of the Ruler’s Seal, as no harm could be done to others in a household expecting a child.When she eventually did become pregnant with Tunku, her compassion was passed on to him. “My complexion is dark because my mother told a white lie”, Tunku would chuckle.

He had no interest in material wealth, yet he enriched others with his gifts of empathy and compassion, his generosity and humility. Sometimes all you can do is count your blessings that your paths have somehow crossed.
On one occasion Tunku asked me how I had come to his house and how I planned to return to Tanjung Bungah. I told him I took a taxi and intended to walk to Pulau Tikus and take a bus back.

He said he could give me a lift to Pulau Tikus, since he went there most afternoons, to shop around in his favourite market.

In the car, his bodyguard Owen Chung sat in the front beside Samad. I sat proudly in the back beside Tunku as the limousine eased out of the driveway and cruised along the tree-lined Ayer Rajah Road, to Cantonment Road towards Pulau Tikus. That was the most memorable ride ever in my life.



Kim Gooi is a veteran photojournalist who has contributed to some of the world’s most renowned publications, including Time, National Geographic andthe New York Times, as well as American, European and Japanese TV networks. He now resides in his hometown of Penang, pursuing his interests in the blues, holistic health, and taiji. His book  “The Poet of Keng Tung Jail” is available from Gerakbudaya Penang; Gallery 1921 Kampung Kolam


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