Featured interview of poeple that had memorial enounters with Tunku: for Malalaysia day celebration, September 16, 2017.
From a Burmese prison to Tunku’s home
10 Sep 2017, 10:39 am (Updated 10 Sep 2017, 11:20 am)
MALAYSIANS KINI | In 1977, the Bangkok-based photojournalist Kim Gooi was sentenced to a year in a Burmese prison
He was said to have violated immigration laws after he slipped into the rebellious Shan State. He thought he would die in jail.
Death was common in Burmese prisons, the “hell on Earth” he describes in “The Poet of Keng Tung Jail,” published in 2013. The book chronicles the horrors he faced on the inside, along with poems written by a fellow inmate and some of Kim’s photographs.
Yet prison was also the place where Kim would meet those who would eventually lead him to Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Father of Independence.
To Kim, the encounter with Tunku in 1978 was “a gift from above,” one of many recollections which he contributes to “Dialog: Thoughts on Tunku’s Timeless Thinking,” a 270-page compilation of anecdotes and essays by Malaysians about the country’s first prime minister.
While in prison, Kim was asked to pass a message to Tunku by a Burmese Muslim leader from Rangoon. At the time, 200,000 Muslims had just fled to Bangladesh due to persecution by Burmese authorities. It was also when Tunku served as the secretary-general of the World Islamic Council.
Kim was uncertain if Tunku would meet a “nobody” like him, but he took his chances and wrote to Malaysian Islamic Welfare Organisation (Perkim) anyway, as Tunku was head of the Penang branch.
“To my surprise, Perkim replied after a few days. They even asked for my mugshot as they wanted to print my letter to Tunku which detailed the plight of the Burmese Muslims,” Kim said in an interview with Malaysiakini.
He then managed to get the phone number of Tunku’s secretary, and fixed a date for a meeting.
“These are all very happy occurrences. I felt rewarded. A small occurrence, but this was something that filled my heart (with joy),” Kim recalls.
“I didn’t know what to expect as I’d never met Tunku before. There was a bit of apprehension on my part as I waited for him in his office,” said Kim, who has written for various news outlets in the US, UK, Australia and Malaysia, including New Straits Times, Harakah and Malaysiakini.
Kim couldn’t take his eyes off the mementos and gifts in Tunku’s office, including several tongkats and a tiger skin rug.
“Then Tunku came down, shook my hand and offered me coffee and cigarettes. I realised it was so easy to talk to him, there were no airs about him.”
Tunku was a “gold mine of information” and had a talent for making people feel at home. As Kim recalls, Tunku was generous, and had great empathy for common folk.
And so it was to his delight that soon after, he got the chance to meet Tunku again.
Kim’s passport was still under Malaysian immigration custody. He had a new job waiting for him in Bangkok, but he knew it could be months, maybe years, before he’d get his passport back, as a friend in a similar situation said it would.
An officer at the Penang Immigration Department suggested that he ask Tunku for help. It didn’t occur to Kim that Tunku still wielded a lot of influence in the government.
And true enough, Tunku issued him with a letter of support. With that letter, Kim was able to get a new passport from Immigration. His career was saved.
“Tunku was my saviour, redeemer, he saved my life and career and gave me a second chance.”
Since then, Kim has had a special bond with Tunku. When the Kedah prince visited Bangkok, Kim helped to round up a host of local and foreign journalists to attend his press conference.
Kim loved attending events organised by Tunku, like his birthdays, which he said was a real “sight to behold.”
“There were lots of Malaysian delicacies, but there were also a multiracial mix of guests at his parties, and lots of children, Tunku loved children. He was more than just a politician.”
Today, Kim lives in a modest terrace house in Tanjung Bungah with his family. He’s maintained a bit of his “hippie” lifestyle. Books and photographs lay scattered on the floor of his living room. His tiny garden is overgrown with plants and grass.
Dressed in a flowery orange shirt and sarong, he gives off the vibe of someone who’s seen it all. Now 70, Kim is an ardent practitioner of Chinese art and health. He still plays the blues on his harmonica, and still lives by his Taoist beliefs.
Here, in his own words, Kim talks about how certain world events shaped his life and career.
I AM INSPIRED BY TAOISM AND CHINESE SCHOLARSHIP AND CULTURE. Some may call me a “Chinese chauvinist,” but behind all these teachings is a universal humanitarianism. It is the only philosophy that can save mankind.
I STARTED MY CAREER IN JOURNALISM during the height of the hippie era. It was an incredible time of hope and optimism for the world.
MY CAREER WAS VERY MUCH INFLUENCED BYMUSIC, POETRY, PHILOSOPHY, AND DRUGS. It was all things combined. The hip word then was that these things were “groovy” and “cool.” I was called a hippie since my days at the polytechnic in Singapore, as I often wore blue jeans.
IN MY CAREER, I HAVE MET MANY WRITERS, SINGERS, POETS who introduced me to the world of photojournalism. They read a lot, and I learned from them. They also taught me how to travel the world, take photos, and get paid for it.
HIPPIES WERE FANTASTIC. They were highly educated and thoughtful people, and totally disillusioned with American culture, which we should emulate today, as it is the most rotten culture.
PEOPLE OF MY GENERATION ADORED THE USA. But from the hippies I learned the other side of the story. Look what they have done to the whole world, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and with the secret bombings in Laos.
BEING A JOURNALIST INTENSIFIED ALL THESE FEELINGS. I came face to face with American hypocrisy and lies, but at the same time, my experiences also led me to see that they have the “best” and “worst” the world has to offer.
THESE DAYS, JOURNALISM IN THIS COUNTRY IS VERY SAD. The world of journalism which I grew up with is no more. In my time, evidence mattered, and statements published were real, but today, you don’t know what is, with all the fake news on the internet.
From Merdeka Day to Malaysia Day, Malaysians Kini will feature personalities known to Tunku, as well as their memories about him. Their detailed recollections are featured in the book “Dialog: Thoughts on Tunku’s Timeless Thinking.”
MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.
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.
For 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.
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
Indonesia is a beacon of democracy in the region – it is the biggest Muslim nation in the world and there are no shortage of religious fanatics. They have the best judiciary in Asean (have jailed ministers, big shots etc); their academics, media/tv, ngos/forums can discuss/write anything openly – no taboo on racial or sensitive issues.
Panchasila is the state ideology, Islam is not a state religion and anyone is free to worship any religion.
Gusdu(Abd Rahman Wahid) as president visited Israel despite giant protest from the Muslim. He says: As a poor student in Bagdad studying for his Islamic master degree he saw his Jewish benefactor lynched by muslim crowd cos they wanted to confiscate his properties and kill him cos he is a Jew. He also said if we can’t protect our minority (Chinese) how can we called ourselves a great nation.
The Chinese enjoy more freedom, no bumiputra crap. The Army is neutral and Judiciary a shinny example of justice. I really don’t know…vis-a-vis Ahok (the besieged governor of Jakarta).
Indonesian Muslim population is the world’s biggest.
Let’s hope dirty politics fail and good ulamas/ustazs and cool heads prevail. Malaysia is a disgrace in comparison, sounds shocking … right ? man!
Indo watcher, Tan Beng Chai, says: Ahok has literally made a clean sweep of Jakarta. The streets are free of beggars, very clean and free of garbage , the canals once very filthy are now clean with flowing waters. The workers are now enjoying minimum wage set by the Government and the administration is CLEAN with little or.no corruption from top down. President Jokowi and Ahok has transformed Indonesia and Jakarta. If you visit Jakarta now you will be amazed by the shopping malls, the hotels and the many resorts operated and owned by Indonesian Chinese Tycoons.
Despite massive violent protests by Muslim for insulting the Koran, the Christian governor still has a chance to retained his position says our expert Indo-watcher: Chances of Ahok winning the Governorship of Jakarta is still very bright. The protesters that you saw gathering at Monash Jakarta are mostly the rural muslims who are not voters in Jakarta. They were paid for a sight seeing trip to Jakarta paid for by Ahok’s opponents. Almost 90 percent of the businesses in Jakarta are owned by Chinese towkays and they control a few million Indonesian workers (Jakarta has a population of 15 million including a few million Chinese.minority) They try to bring down Ahok using religion but Ahok’s supporters mostly Christians are campaigning very hard for him. In passing I would say that Ahok has been too arrogant.
From Indo-Watcher, Tan Beng Chai, on Jakarta governor Ahok – “Is he finished ?” I don’t think so. The election will be held on 15 Feb 2017, still time for Ahok to repair the damage he did it himself. Not all the protesters gathering at Monash were against Ahok moreover the protesters are not residents of Jakarta and cannot vote for Ahok’s opponents. On present count Ahok is having 60 percent support from the Chinese together with support from the Pribumi Catholics and Christians.Ahok has the tacit support of President Jokowi and has been working together to clean up Indonesia of Corruption and make Jakarta a livable city when Jokowi was Governor with Ahok was Deputy. Ahok is not finished yet.
On page 3I8 of my book “The Poet of Keng Tung Jail” you can read and see some exclusive stuff about the Tunku
After my release and deportation from Burma, I went to see the Tunku to pass him the message from the Muslim leader in Insein Jail. The leader wanted the world to know about the atrocities and downright racism unleashed against the Rohingas by the Burmese military junta.
In one summer in 1978, 200,000 Rohingas from Arakan State fled across the border into Bangladesh to escape looting, killings and rape by the Burmese army.
Today, thirty-five years later, the situation had unbelievably worsened – with Buddhist monks instigating the attacks in what Burmese scholar, Maung Zarni, writing in his daily blog termed ’Burmese Buddhist Nazism and genocide’ against the Muslim minority.
Unlike the other chapters which were published in various magazines and newspapers, this has never been published before.
Many would vote Tunku Abdul Rahman as Malaysia’s most beloved prime minister because of his endearing ways. His wit, sharpness of mind, empathy and compassion for the common people were legendary.
But many of his admirers may not be aware of his colourful early career and his enduring connection with Thailand’s Muslim minority.
Much has been written about his political development and achievements. Robert McNamara, then-president of the World Bank, said in his opening address at the first Tun Abdul Razak Memorial lecture that he was envious of the Malaysians in the audience who had walked with the founding father of the nation, whereas he had to get to know the Tunku through the history books.
I was 10 years old in 1957 when the Tunku proclaimed independence from Britain and became the country’s first prime minister. I had the good fortune of meeting him several times in his later years. Watching him in action, listening to his wise words, I became one of his many admiring fans.
I first came face-to-face with the Tunku at his residence in Ayer Raja Road, Penang, in May 1978. He had long retired and hadnchosen Penang as his retirement home.
Why had he chosen Penang and not Kuala Lumpur? The people of Penang were honoured and happy that such a great man had chosen the island as his home. It was evident that he loved the island just as the islanders loved him.
It was about 10 in the morning. We were all waiting for the Tunku in the reception room cum office, staked with expensive souvenirs, trophies, walking sticks and memorabilia.
In a corner his Chinese secretary was pounding on a typewriter. Samad the driver and Owen Chung his ADC stood around chatting. I was seated beside a humble Malay lad of about 18. 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 Bumiputra 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 happily announced that he had convinced a friend in Sungei Pattani 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 10 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 the 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.”
Two weeks earlier I had my first encounter with the Tunku and had spent several hours talking about the Burmese Rohinga refugees, while he tape-recorded it with a mini-tape recorder (very rare to see in 1978).
I was deported from Burma after a year in that country’s notorious jails. My crime was entering the country without a visa as a journalist. I was asked by the Muslim leader in the jail to see the Tunku when I got out and tell him all about their problems and persecution under the Burmese. [See story in Islamic Herald]
I wrote to Perkim, the Islamic Welfare Association founded by Tunku, and told them my situation and asked to see the Tunku as requested by the Muslim leader who was in jail with me. The reply was prompt and to my surprise they requested permission to print my letter in the Islamic Herald. It was the beginning of my very fortunate and happy friendship with the Tunku.
My passport had been taken away by the government and I was told that I was under investigation because of the 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 – with the Businese Times newspaper and as a reporter for the US news agency UPI at the 1978 Asian Games.
But without a passport I was unemployable. Tunku was my savior; as the former PM and father of the nation, he had the authority to clear my name. Without him, my career and future would have been greatly jeopardised.
After these episodes I had many more encounters with the Tunku, each of them memorable, educational and an insight to his wisdom and humanity.
His birthday open houses were warm and touching affairs, with a generous spread of Malay food and other goodies. The Chinese families, around 60 per cent of those present, would surround him together with their little children, calling out: “Say happy birthday to Tunku!”
He loved children and the children swarmed around him naturally, taking to the kind old man like ducklings to water.
His visit to Bangkok 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.
Tunku and his Perkim entourage came in Sarawak chief minister Taib Mahmud’s private jet. Taib was deputy president and Tunku’s right-hand man in Perkim. But there was no mention of the visit in the local press.
Tunku was very disappointed with Perkim’s press secretary (an Australian convert to Islam working for Perkim), said Tarmizi Hashim, the press attaché of the Malaysian embassy. Tarmizi rounded up the media. The next day the whole Bangkok press corp turned up to hear a beaming Tunku talk about Perkim’s important humanitarian work among Bangkok Muslims.
Tunku was a hit with the Thai reporters because he grew up in the Thai court of King Rama 6. To them, Tunku qualified as Thai royalty and the government honoured him with two police out-rider escorts whenever he comes to the kingdom.
He and his elder brother were “hostages” in the court as Kedah was still a vassal state of Siam at the turn of the century. He came back to Kedah in his early teens and studied at the Penang Free School. His elder brother stayed in Thailand and became a Major General in the Royal Thai Army.
“My brother died and was buried in a Bangkok Muslim cemetery,” the Tunku said. “When I became PM in 1957, the first thing I did was an official visit to Bangkok.”
“After being conferred the highest decoration, I went to the Muslim cemetery and exhumed my brother’s remains and brought them back to Kedah for reburial in my family’s cemetery. I am the only Muslim in the world who has done that,” Tunku said with a chuckle.
A Thai reporter asked Tunku whether he could still speak Thai. Tunku said that in Kedah, Thai spoken is differently from that spoken in Bangkok. Like “Tham Pleu, Tham Plue” means “What to do, what to do!
The next day it was front-page in all the dailies: “Tunku speaks fluent Thai,” together with the comment that Tunku also pointed out Malaysian journalist Kim Gooi who was jailed in Burma whom he knows.
The Tunku pointed out that the residents of the big Muslim community of Nongchok on Bangkok’s outskirts were descendants of Kedah slaves captured and brought to Bangkok to build the canals in the last century. That’s why all the mosques and many Muslim community are along the canals.
These were his people captured as slaves and brought from Kedah to dig the canals. Tunku never forgets them, they were close to his heart. Thank God, they survived and living well as the land where many settled has become valuable now, he commented.
Tunku also remembered he complained to the Thai government during the official visit 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.
In December 1985 Malaysian press attaché Tamizi arranged a meeting for me to meet opium king Khun Sa at his stronghold on the Thai-Burmese border. (5-part-story printed in NST Jan 27-Jan 31,1986). The guide and escort was a Chinese Muslim ex-general of the Kuomintang Army, Ma Sian.
Ma was an admirer of the Tunku and I suggested to him to present the Shan army commanders’ walking stick to Tunku. It is a beautiful rattan cane as thick as a toe with a curve handle. All the commanders carry one into battle and Khun Sa carried one whenever he inspected his troops.
The cane was duly delivered to the embassy. After a few months Tamizi told me that the embassy could not send it to Tunku because it is not proper coming from Khun Sa, the opium warlord of the Golden Triangle. You have to take it and deliver it to him yourself, they told me.
I presented the cane to him in 1987 and said it was from the Shan people. By coincidence I was told by Colonel Khern Sai of the Shan State Army that the Tunku’s mother was actually a Shan princess. This was not too surprising, considering that the Shan and Thai are branches of the same family of people.
As usual we had coffee and a long chat. When I told him I had been to the Philippines to cover the Aquino assassination, he told me of the arrogance and offences committed by then-president Ferdinand Marcos against our Agong (Malaysian King) a few years ago. Our Agong, after retirement went for a round-the-world cruise.
During a stopover in Manila, our ambassador arranged for a visit 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 walked up to greet him.
“This was too much,” Tunku said indignantly.
In 1986, Marcos had to flee the Philippines and died in exile in Hawaii three years later.
For a journalist, talking to the Tunku was a goldmine of information. I was privy to many exclusive bits of information.
On one occasion the 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 his favorite market to shop around.
In the car, his bodyguard Owen Chung was in the front beside Samad. I sat proudly in the back sitting beside the Tunku as the limousine eased out of the driveway and cruised along the tree-lined Ayer Raja Road, to Cantonment Road towards Pulau Tikus. That was the most memorable ride ever in my life.
On page I60 of my book you can read :
‘Flowers For Datok Kong’
UNITY WITH THE SPIRIT WORLD
More than a century ago, J.D. Vaughan was Superintendent of Penang Police from 1851 till 1856. In his book ‘The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements’, he wrote: “The Chinese people, nooks, corner of roads, trees, rocks and sundry other places with fays and fairies and goblins damned innumerable, and do them worship to propitiate them. Incense sticks, slip of paper, tinsel ornaments and other ‘gew gaws’ may be seen at the most out of the way spots showing that the inhabitants of the neighborhood have discovered an evil spirit there-abouts.”
Vaughan may be excused for his unflattering remarks, for like many colonial officials and westerners, they do not take the intangible seriously, unlike the inhabitants of Asia who experience the spirit world as indeed real.
The apparent Chinese indifference towards religious issues has often been seized upon by Westerners as an unerring mark of their want of spiritual profundity and sophistication.
If Vaughan were to look deeper, he would discover that Chinese mind is also practical and unpretentious and capable of the most abstruse speculation. In both philosophy and religion, what it seeks to do is to interpret life in terms of a monistic principle which will enable them to establish a unity between this worldly and other-worldly existence, between human self and nature, and between the material and the spiritual world.
What Vaughan described over a hundred years ago is still very much alive in Penang today. If he were to probe a little he would discover that the ‘shrines innumerable’ were for the worship of Datok (Keramat), the local deity or guardian spirit of the land (not goblins or evil spirits). It is indeed ‘damned innumerable’, occupying sundry other places, nooks and corners, trees and rocks all over the island. The worship of Datok Kong (in Hokkien) is peculiar to Penang, as nowhere else does it occur in such a scale and intensity.
Every Thursday night (Malam Jumaat, beginning of the Muslim Sabbath) worshippers light up the shrines with incenses, and offerings. Partaking of pork is taboo among the strict devotees.
Recently I chanced upon a grand celebration of a Datok Kong in the mixed working/middle class suburb of Reservoir Garden, close to the hills of Ayer Itam. It was the birthday of Datok Ayer Puteh. It falls on the 6th of the 6th lunar month. Celebrations began on the 5th and went on for 3 days. In a small field a shed was erected to house the altar and paraphernalia, which had been brought down from the shrine at the foot of the hill about 2 km away. There were a white haji cap, a small Kris, seven colour flags, and offerings of flowers, betelnut and sireh, green coconuts, rokok daun(tobacco/palm leaves), Malay sweets and cakes like dodol, betir, kueh kerai and ketupat.
Uncle Tan, a sinewy old man of 75 brightened up when I approached him for some background history. “There are all together seven Datoks,” he enthused. “They are seven brothers, famous warriors of old.” The oldest is Datok Kuning, alias Pengulu Pulau Kechil; followed by Datok Panglima Hitam, Datok Puteh, Datok Merah, Datok Hijau, Datok Kechil and Datok Bisu, he rattled off as if the spirits were right there in person. Other names that might crop up are Datok Musa, Datok Batu Acheh and Datok Ali, he added matter-of-factly.
I asked Uncle Tan are they really famous warriors before and how they came to be deified and worshiped with such reverence? Uncle Tan looked at me aghast as if saying, what dumb head!
“These Datoks, Panglima Hitam, Datok Puteh, Datok Merah, Datok Hijau, Datok Kechil and Datok Bisu, are very important and control the locality, if you pay respect and appease them, they can help you and solve your problems. If you violate and offend them like simply chopping down any trees or leveling the hills, misfortune will befall you. “
“Don’t you know so many bulldozers have overturned and accidents occurred to these violators,” Uncle Tan added, looking at me disappointingly.
Earlier on the Datok had come down from the hill shrine in a grand procession, preceded by flags and banners beating of drums and wailing Java pipes from the Menora troop. Datok Ayer Puteh came in the form of a medium in a trance. The medium wearing a sarong had very dark complexion, he was bare-chested and had a white sash across his shoulder. He weaved and danced with silat movements ceaselessly as the procession pass the housing estates.
The procession ended at the shed in the field. Opposite the shed stood an open stage for the Menora performance from the Penang Siamese Community.
Many years ago, the committee made a mistake by engaging a Chinese opera for the celebration. That night there was a thunderstorm and the stage was blown away. “The Datok was angry because he could not understand Chinese opera. We can stage Menora or Ronggeng dance for the Datok,” said Uncle Aw (uncle Blackie, a popular name among the peranakan Hokkiens), 71, who has been a medium for 60 years.
On the second day, which is the birthday, a kenduri was held in the afternoon. The shed was filled with pots of nasi kunyit, curry chicken, and all kinds of fruits. Before the food were distributed Uncle Aw went into a trance. The Datok blessed the large crowd with holy water as each came forward kneeling reverently. To those seeking a cure for sickness, he gave pinang and sireh to chew.
On the third night, an air of expectancy pervaded as a large crowd of devotees gathered. The Menora had ended and the troupe were entertaining the crowd with Thai songs and ramvong (folk dance) as a large crowd gathered waiting for the propitious hour. At 11 pm. Uncle Aw sat in front of the altar and went into trance, waving and swaying amidst thick incense (kamenyan) smoke; a cacophony of throbbing drums, clashing cymbals and gongs, and wailing java pipes (serunai).
The Datok swayed and silat-danced as the procession proceeded with groups of kids holding flags and a huge “Datok Ayer Puteh” banner leading the way. A large crowd followed with joss sticks, incense urns, and all the paraphernalia of the Datok. Thick white incense smoke lifted through the dark night, the percussion and pipes intensified, the Datok swayed and danced with exuberance with each new step as the parade wound through the middle-class housing estate. Residents came out to watch and pray along the dimly lit streets.
Arriving at the shrine at the foot of the hill, the Datok. leaped into the shrine, the size of a small room, silat danced with renewed intensity while the drums, percussion and pipes reached a crescendo. The Datok sat down on the floor and slammed his hands on the cement floor, all was quiet – he spoke: “Datok banyak suka, semua orang sukahati, makanan pun chukup; Datok minta Tuhan kasi semua orang selamat. Sila chakap sama semua orang. [Datok is very happy, everybody is enjoying, the food is plenty; I will ask God to bless you all! Please tell everyone.] The message was translated into Hokkien as the crowd clapped and cheered.
“Datok minta empat ekor,” (give us the lottery numbers) someone shouted. Speaking all the time in Malay he said, “Wait, we have to pray to God first” (sembayang Tuhan dulu), he reprimanded. “Please bring the papers.” A piece of white paper and a pen were brought forward. “I mean joss paper for praying,” he scolded in a loud angry voice.
When the ‘gold’ joss papers were brought in, he scribbled three words in Jawi on the back and asked the people to bring it outside as gold offering to Tuhan (God). And then the people worshipped and prayed and the ‘gold’ papers were burnt as he instructed.
This done, the Datok said: “Now bring the paper. On the white piece of paper, which was eagerly brought forward, he wrote a four-digit number, which was pasted outside the shrine for the eager crowd to bet on race day.
The Datok asked for anyone with problems to come forward. A man asked whether he would be successful in his new business. The Datok took his hands and examined his palm and inquired:
“Do you pray to God? The man confessed that he was so busy he has forgotten to pray. The Datok reprimanded him and ordered that he pray regularly. Then he would be all right, and be careful of the shoulders and the back of the head; don’t let anyone hit you in those areas, he advised.
Another asked whether he would be okay if he proceeds to Singapore for work. The Datok took his hands and said: “Boleh, hang boleh pi tapi tak ’boleh lama. Hang mesti balek sini sebab bini dan keluarga ada sini, hang mesti balek sini.” (You can go but not for long, because your wife and family are here. You must come back)
The consultation over, the medium swayed, gave a jerk and sprang backwards into the arms of a devotee. For a few minutes he lay still. Some water were sprinkled on his face, a guy tapped him on his chest, the medium awoke as if from a long sleep.
It seemed like a current was being switched off, and we were back to the mundane world. Slowly everyone trooped back home in groups… seemingly happy that they had found unity with the spirit world