Thursday 29 October 2009

Our Pedigree (CsH) and the Legacy of the Barrow-Diggers

One never stops learning. In the past 10 years or so, there has been a movement of research and theorizing into our part of the world for discovering and/or discarding our past. This has somehow been maneuvered into a direction that is quite disturbing - almost into denying the Malays their identity. I have come across statements like "the Malays are not even a race, not since day one", that the Malays are not the natives here, they're immigrants like the Indians and the Chinese!!

Also, our knuckles have been rapped for not acknowledging our Buddhist and Hindu antecedents. There are attempts to re-script us because of discoveries of shards of pottery, bits of jewellery, roof tiles etc. from parts of India, China, Java, Thailand and Vietnam in our tanah air. (land-water). It's interesting that we tend not to describe our birthland as homeland but land of water - because we are of the archipelago. The land and the sea are one and the same in our concept of where we belong.

Even our mother tongue was not spared. One expert claimed that only 4 words in the Malay vocabulary are genuinely Malay - words like api (fire), besi (metal) padi and nasi (rice, uncooked and cooked). Phew! Am I relieved that words like war, genocide, racism and greed are not genuinely Malay!

Also, "in a Malay sentence of 10 words, 5 will be Sanskrit, three Arabic and the remaining either of English, Chinese, Persian or some other origin". You could say the same of the English language too. But try telling Englanders that English is not truly English. All these attempts to give my identity a makeover is quite depressing. Aaah what about my food? I would be shattered if some scholars and diggers are going to educate me by stating that the food that my Malay father put on our table and that my Baweanese mother cooked like sambal blacan, masak gulai ikan sembilang dengan tempoyak, lemang and dodol do not belong to us!

We could I suppose go back to the ooze and slime of our maritime heritage - to our mode of our jalan-jalan or rather belayar-layar in the Malay Archipelago. It's such a shame that the remnants of this heritage cannot be found preserved in the depths of the Straits of Malacca for instance - to be detected by our experts just like the discovery of the Mary Rose.

Here is my feeble attempt to show what is ours - in our river and sea-going vessels
photographed by C.A. Gibson Hill in 1952. However they're only 57 years old. They cannot be admitted or accepted as valid academic evidence. And they cannot be measured or weighed or dug and they are not as credible or formidable as Borobodur or Lembah Bujang.


Maria's Malay Aunt detected and identified in 1956.

And this is Maria, a Malay woman from Johor circa 2009.

Tomorrow we leave for Johor Bahru for the weekend to visit our Johor-Malay nephew and his Sarawak-Malay wife before they leave for Mecca.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

The Saga of the Saga Seeds (CsH)

The photographs in this (except for the last two crummy pictures which are of my making) and later postings are by courtesy of my former student Lely, who, in the last 6 months has been transformed from a laid-back maknyonya to an obsessed and imaginative nature photographer. More of her marvellous work can be found at

This is the elegant saga tree


the saga seeds which had given me much joy and grief when I was a pupil at Pasir Panjang Primary School. We, especially the girls loved these beautifully bright red and heart-shaped seeds. We used to pick them from the ground on the roadside near our school. The seeds are stored in a pod and will fall when the pods ripen and turn a brittle brown. Many a time you will find a number of girls huddling and scuttling under these trees to pick the seeds. Of course when such scanty things are coveted by 4-5 pairs of eyes, you can expect a mad scramble followed by quick-fingered stuffing into pockets before making your getaway. Sometimes, you can see a couple of ripe pods with the seeds shining like red rubies still on the tree. Any red-blooded kid has to throw a branch or a shoe to bring it down. And there is an unwritten code of honour. You do not pick for your own any seeds brought down by another aficionado of saga seeds.
Then someone devised a diabolical scheme to accumulate loads of saga seeds without having to work for them. This was our first introduction to free market capitalism and Wall Street style shenanigans.
It was so simple like any other get-rich-quick ruse. Two punters would each put down 10-20 seeds. Then they cham cham pas (somewhat like scissors and water) to decide who gets to go first. Next, you sprinkle the seeds on the table and your task is to draw your finger between 2 seeds - but you must not touch either of them. Then you flick one against the other like tiddley winks and they are yours to keep if you are skilful enough not to hit the other seeds. And so it goes on until you mis-hit your seeds. It looks like this.

The first round

Voila! Winner keeps two.
But there was one conniving girl who would scoop up all the seeds for herself at the heartstopping moment when teacher enters the class. She was eventually blackballed, or rather, redballed.

I wasn't any good at this high-table gambol because of my podgy fingers and I lacked the killer instinct. And I lost it all when my seeds flew like they had been hit by a tsunami. But someone was watching my humiliation and felt sorry for me.
A few days later Ang Hock Kee shyly approached me and handed over a heap of those precious seeds. I was astounded and thanked him most profusely but quietly in case the other kids might hear. Then I noticed he had lost a tooth and asked why? He said he had taken a fall from the saga seed tree. Oh, poor Hock Kee. He was so embarassed and quickly walked away. He was indeed my hero and I wished I had told him so there and then.
I went on to Crescent Girls School and Hock Kee to Pasir Panjang Secondary School. His house was not too far from the corner of Yew Siang Road (to the school) and Pasir Panjang Road. I often saw him just hanging out in front of his house - he posed better than James Dean ever could. I would give him a wave and a big smile whenever I saw him there - when I was on my way home from school or when I was cycling to the market at Alexandra Terrace.
Those were precious innocent days when a little Malay girl and a little Chinese boy could foster a sweet loving friendship. I wasn't the prettiest girl in the class and Hock Kee was no potential Fabian. But we just liked each other and we showed that we did. We were not aware of our differences of colour and race - just 2 children who were fond of each other,

Years later after my A-Levels, I was given the very sad news that Hock Kee had passed away from a brain tumour. This posting is for my very dear friend Ang Hock Kee. I still remember you most affectionately and for always.

From our Primary One Class Photo

Sunday 25 October 2009

Kampung Abu Kassim, Pasir Panjang, (CsH) Singapore. Gone but not forgotten.

I have to show off another masterpiece.

In the above map, the location of the houses in Kampung Abu Kassim and that of Sungai Nipah is based on my memory and my geography. Of course in present day Singapore, Pasir Panjang's sea-front has been deformed into wharves and container ports and all the kampungs have transmogrified into middle class enclaves. The Buddhist temple is still there and Pasir Panjang School is now named Breakthrough Mission, a Christian church/mission house.
Our family moved from Kampung Chantek- off Dunearn Road- to Pasir Panjang sometime in the latter part of the 1940s, around 1949-1950. Our first house in Kampung Abu Kassim was a rented house. It was not the typical Malay house on stilts but it had a cosy verandah and our own indoor well. I remembered the shivers from being given a morning bath at that well. Sungai Nipah was right in front of our house and I recollected rescuing a chick that had fallen into the river. But there was also the frightening experience when I saw my sister, who was carrying our youngest brother, stumble into the river. Shouts of panic from me brought the adults to the rescue and the two of them were none the worse for wear. In those days, older sisters and mothers would carry babies and toddlers on their hips and it is very easy for a little girl to lose her balance while taking her adek (younger brother/sister) for a walk.

This photo of the verandah was taken on Hari Raya Day as can be seen from the banner and the 2 stars - all made by my ever-so-clever Abah!!

This is the sitting room where the radio had pride of place. My mum and helper are in the back row. In the front from left to right are Maznah, Mustapha and Maznoor wearing the most up to date kiddies' fashion - made by my ever-so-clever Mum!! We were all posing with a glass of aerated water in our hands. It must have been Hari Raya as can be seen by the bottles under the table. Cheers and Burp!

This is one of my very favorite songs by P. Ramlee not only because of the lyrics and the melody but it reminds me so much of my parents.

My Mum posing in her kebaya outfit in the backyard of the house.
And Abah in his Baju Melayu.

Their outfit is similar to that of Zaiton's and P. Ramlee's. I especially approve of the high songkok and the siput sanggul (coiffured bun) which was the fashion in the 50s. All her life my mother never cut or permed her hair. She kept to that style until the last few months of her life when it was not practical for her to keep her thinning but long hair. I used to admire the way she combed and tied her hair into her siput sanggul and try as I might I could not do the same when my tresses were thick and long, many many moons ago. I still keep a couple of her hairpins and the black hairclips that we kids used to keep our hair neat. But that was before Brigitte Bardot came on the scene and 'let her hair down'.
Also I love the name Mahani. That was my Ma'Long's name and she named her daughter Mahanum. Really beautiful!!!

Little drops of water, little grains of sand.
Make the mighty ocean, and the pleasant land.
So the little minutes, humble though they be,
Make the mighty ages of eternity
Julia Carney (1823-1908)
And the last words, from Abah which he wrote in my sister's autograph book.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Nasib si Panjang (CsH) - The Life and Times of Panjang

I've finally sorted out my books on Singapore - the various Annual Reports, the Street Directories, photographa and maps.
First of all, I examined most lovingly this map which I discovered searching on the net some years ago but I'm afraid I can't locate the source. It looks a bit wonky, but blame it on the unskilled lo-tech artisan, not the map.

Next I traced the area of Pasir Panjang on tracing paper. The next step was to transfer that on to another piece of white A4 paper for the final colouring. As I had no carbon paper I decided on an old device. On the other side of the tracing, just darken the outline with a pencil. Then turn it over , place it on the white A4 and start drawing the map. Now comes the best part - the colouring of your own personal map, remembering once again the old rules you learned in primary school. Blue for rivers, red for roads, green for agriculture and lowland, brown for highland and so on. As I did not have the full complement of colours, I had to make do. For this map , I am certain Mr Chia Wai Chee, my geography teacher in Pasir Panjang School would only assess it as 5 out of 10! All in all, it took me about 3 hours to do this map but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Here's the masterpiece.

And here's a beautiful 1933 map of Singapore where I have marked the map inset.

Pasir Panjang, Teluk Belanga,
Di hadapan Pulau Sentosa. (*)
Kasih sayang seperti bunga.
Tidak ku lupa setiap masa.

* Pulau Blakang Mati was the original name for Sentosa where my father worked for many years before The School of Health moved to Nee Soon.

Pasir Panjang, Teluk Belanga,
Looking towards Pulau Sentosa.
Love and affection are as flowers,
Ne'er forgotten for many a year.

This is the the beginning of my magnum opus, on Pasir Panjang. This Long Beach was where we grew up - where our parents gave us a glorious childhood. I can still remember each tree, my mother's garden and flowers, the hedge fronting our kampung house, Sesop Ridge and Kent Ridge which we could see from our backyard, - and the tracks and paths and roads where I used to walk, to cycle and then later to drive on.
Have you ever seen a bird's nest with a couple of eggs in it, tucked amongst the grass on low ground? I have - next to Seng Tiow's kampung shop. And I have never ever had the privilege to see another like it ever since. But that's the joy of living in Pasir Panjang.

Sunday 18 October 2009

French Toast - Bread and Celebration

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite is the Motto of the French Republic.

This 23rd President of the French Republic has been very vocal about implementing his nation's motto for the benefit of Muslim women in France.
Here he is in June 2009, striding in the grand Palace of Versailles to deliver his speech to declare the burqa illegal - as it represents a form of enslavement.

Picture by Benoit Tessier/Associated Press
Before this, in 2004, the French passed a law prohibiting head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols from public schools. So where is French Liberte if the President and the French Government are allowed to control what women can wear in schools and in the streets?

In October 2008, it was reported that a voodoo doll of the President had to be withdrawn or else the makers would be sued.
Read this
Well, the voodoo worked. He lost the case.
He is very protective of his right as to his appearance in the eyes of the public but this privilege is not to be extended to the Muslim woman.
Mr Sarkozy however, is inspired by his desire to control "extremist and radical" forms of Islam and one way is to prohibit the hijab and the burqa! Furthermore he claims that France's war in Afghanistan is a battle for the freedom of women in that benighted country!!!

But here comes another challenge. On October 12 , the French minister of culture, Frederic Miterrand, clamoured for the release of Hollywood film-maker Roman Polanski from a Swiss jail before extradition to the US. Polanski, in 1978, had escaped prosecution for having sex with a 13 year old girl in California. Also at the same time, it was revealed that this member of Sarkozy's government - in an autobiography "The Bad Life", released in 2005 - exulted in recalling his adventures with Thai rent boys. His exploits are described by Mitterand as "a mistake, certainly, a crime, no." He just got into the bad habit of paying for brown boys. "All these rituals of the market for youths, the slave (my emphasis) market excited me enormously....the abundance of very attractive and immediately available young boys put me in a state of desire."
It seems that 67% of the French want him to keep his post and up to today Mitterand is still the culture minister.

Don't they prosecute paedophiles in the French Republic? Aren't French choir boys protected from such predators? The conclusion is - Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite is not for Muslim women or Thai boys!

Friday 9 October 2009

An Island and a Peninsula (CsH)

I love maps - old and new, world maps, regional maps, atlases, topographic maps, town maps and even transport maps. Perusing them is an adventure, moving your fingers along the rivers, the hills and the various landscapes. I drew my first map or rather a plan of my school during my primary school years. It meant having to look at the world from above, like a bird on the wing, and not like an earthbound two-legged creature. It's a fascinating mental exercise for a child to visualize your surroundings from a totally different perspective, like a lizard on a ceiling. That was what I used to tell my students who had no interest in maps. So I remained forever and ever a map geek!
I have these two old books (what's new?). One is a Regional Geography of Malaya by C. Richardson (1933). The other is The Story of Malaya by W.S. Morgan (1956, 5th Impression). They are much treasured for their lovely maps.

Firstly, the map of the Malay Archipelago showing "The Area of the Malay Races".

On this map, the Malay Peninsula juts out from the mainland of Asia into the South China Sea and forms the northern border of the Archipelago which then stretches as far south as Australia and the South Pacific Islands. This Peninsula, once called The Golden Chersonese is physically linked to Asia yet historically and culturally it is connected to all the islands ranging from the larger ones like Borneo and Sumatra to the myriad of many other medium-size and smaller islands.

The next map informs us that the Malays prefer to set up their settlements, which later developed into states and empire, along the river banks and estuaries, typical of a seafaring people.

The most well-known was of course Malacca, an empire based on commerce with countries as far away as China and India. This map illustrates the relationship between Malacca and China which went as far back as the 15th century or even further.

Island hopping has always been a trait of the Malays of the Archipelago. Prior to western Imperialism or Hindu colonization, this part of the world which the former named South East Asia or the East Indies but never The Malay Archipelago - the Malays have had free passage criss-crossing this region in their sampans, koleks, prahus, catamarans (albeit a simple earlier prototype) and big boats wandering from coast to coast for trade and settlement - with some looting and pillaging thrown in. This is no different from our present day Nick Leeson crooks and carpet-baggers.
These Malay mariners set up roots wherever they liked. There was no need for immigration forms and passports. They blended in with whoever were there first and assimilation was not an issue because of a common language, Malay or a dialect close to it - and their physical similarities and later their religion made the integration easier.

I like to think that someone like me, born in the Malay Peninsula, grew up to adulthood on the island at the southern tip of Malaya and connected on my mother's side to the tiny island of Bawean and a Chinese immigrant grandmother (she was an abandoned baby adopted by a Bawean family) - and on my father's side to the Minangkabau people of Sumatra and a grandfather of Kuala Selangor Malay stock with a tinge of aboriginal blood I was told - should be able to move and settle anywhere she wanted to in the Malay Archipelago.
I grew up knowing that I belong to both island and peninsula, but identity cards and passport and politics got in the way. It was a dilemma for me to sort out what documents to hold. How can a piece of paper with your photograph and personal details written on it describe what and who you are?
After graduating in 1967, my father advised me to go back to Selangor - he could see the writing on the wall about the future of Malays in a Singapore which had a large Chinese majority. I was stubborn and also resentful that I had to make a choice because I believed I belonged to both geographical entities of island and peninsula. Why should I have to choose one or the other?
After 11 years of teaching, I left my island in 1978 when I finally realised that I had hit a glass ceiling where my career and future were concerned. A true friend of mine, a Chinese girl I shall just name as SLL, with whom I shared good times and bad times as impoverished students in London, was honest enough to say to me, "Maz, as a Malay graduate you have no future in Singapore, it's much easier if you're just a factory worker. If I were you, I would go to Malaysia."
Instead I left for Brunei where for 6 years I worked hard for my and my family's rice bowl. I knew I was a foreigner in this sultanate, just a temporary sojourner. But they rewarded me well for my services as a teacher just like any of the other expatriates and locals of similar qualifications - no favouritism, no discrimination- it was all very business-like. And I gave to my teacher-trainees the best that I could offer so that they would be able to stand on their own and not depend on expatriates like me.
I eventually settled down in UK where I lived for over 25 years - still with my island passport. There was no urgency or desire to become a British national. I cannot bear to cut off the umbilical cord with the Archipelago.
Age and the loss of loved ones do odd things to you. Like the salmon that swims upriver to where it was born, I returned to Selangor where my grandfather and father were born. And it was quite a swim for a Pisces like me.

On Friday the 25th of September 2009 I was given my Malaysian Identity Card and on the 29th I was granted my International Passport - both received with pride. At my age I am aware I have very little to contribute to my birthplace but I also know I will not be a burden or an opportunist. I could have opted for the Make Malaysia My Second Home scheme but I did not take it up. It was not because of insufficient resources. This peninsula is my home and I wanted no other way but to become a citizen. It was worth the waiting.
However, Kampung Chantek (off Dunearn Road), Pasir Panjang, West Coast Road,

Royal Road and Boon Lay in Singapore still belong to me - the repository of my history and heritage and no Immigration Authority can take that away from me.

And so Abah, I have come home like you asked me to, many years ago, to -

Malaya, oh tanah ayer ku.
Tanah tempat tumpah darah ku.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

The Saga of Meena and MacTavish (CsH) - Part 3 : The Denouement

N.B. Hoani is the most gorgeous looking man in Aotearoa as Meena soon discovered. However all good things had to come to an end ......

For Meena and MacTavish, the perfidy and disorientation encountered in the Pearl of the Orient finally forced our dynamic duo to return to Leicester.
It was back to a sedentary but sedate life where MacTavish spent the next eight years painting
and kerengga,
and umpteen other pictures illustrated and written for love of Meena's world and the beautiful rainforests.
As for our doughty Meena she plunged herself into the wild unknown - into the periphery of the British landscape - the environs of the English working class Reserve.
And that is how the story ended - or has it?

The Artist's Farewell - just bleeding knackered from all that drawing.
This Saga was inspired by the artist's need to placate the little woman who complained about not being given a birthday present for years on end. This explains the last sentence - written under duress.
Please click on the images for a better view - especially for short people!