Chapter 33: Malaya, 1959

News came that my next posting was to be to Malaya where I would adopt the smart uniform of the Malayan Army and have the proud title of Principal Army Staff Officer in their Ministry of Defence. This suited me well. My desire to work in distant countries and meet new races had not diminished. The children were all of an age that they could travel with us and get their schooling at a British Army School.

Leaving London in mid-1959, we had our first experience of jet transport in the Comet 4, lodged in forward seats where there was space for our four children to play. The flight was fast and comfortable though with the limited range of the time there were fuelling stops. We landed at Haifa, with a coffee break, where Hugo, aged four, gave us a fright by wandering off on his own exploration and had to be found, hurriedly, when we were called forward for reboarding. Arriving in Singapore we were greeted by Sheelah’s brother and family and the hot and humid climate that we were to live in; then on to Kuala Lumpur to complete a seventeen-hour journey. Here again, old friends who had left England before us were there to meet us. We settled in to temporary housing until a quarter was available for us.

Malaya appears hilly rather than mountainous, perhaps because jungle covers so much of the untamed area that views are few, forest covering more than half the country. It is located at the southern end of a mountain range extending two and a half thousand miles south from China, along the Burma border with Thailand and all the way to Singapore. The Malaya Cameron Highlands rise to over 7000 feet. The mountain spine effectively divides the country into two halves, though larger to the east than the west.

The city of Kuala Lumpur spreads over many hills with the Defence area with its offices and quarters occupying a hill of its own. KL, as it is called, has grown immensely in the 45 years since we left but was a fine city then, the railway station being a showpiece in Mogul fantasy style.

Malaya possessed an Army and small Navy and Air forces. General Sir Rodney Moore was the Commander of all these forces; Brigadier John Atkinson was his Chief of Staff. There were Malays in the rank of Brigadier and Colonel being groomed to take over command before very long. We also had a number of Australian officers working with us.

There were some surprises. My secretary was a Chinese Malay, smartly arrayed in a cheongsam as her standard uniform. Shortly after we were established she arrived at our temporary lodging in a smart Mercedes to take our family on a tour of the area, finishing up at her impressive parental home, appropriate to the shipping magnate who was her father.

Malaya is home to large populations of Malays, Chinese and Indians, the balance having varied over the years, labour being drawn in to operate the tin mines and the rubber plantations. Three years of wartime occupation by the Japanese had left them with economies disrupted. The Malays and Chinese had reacted differently to the Japanese though both were glad to see them defeated. Pro-communist Chinese guerrillas, though a minority of the Chinese population, had provided the backbone of Japanese resistance. They now sought settlement on terms favourable to them. The result was twelve years of military struggle that came to be known as the ‘Emergency’. There was much involvement for both Malay and British soldiers.

A seemingly endless contest was gradually brought under control when Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer was High Commissioner and Director of Operations, Federation of Malaya from 1952 to 1954. His contribution was matched on the Malayan side by Tunku Abdul Rahman, leader of the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO). Britain had promised Independence and both military and political aspects were approached together. The last of the military restrictions was removed in 1960. Singapore remained outside the new federation as a British Crown Colony.

In our time ‘The Tunku’ was the popular Prime Minister with a high reputation throughout the world. The relationship between him and our Ministry of Defence was excellent. All three Malayan nationalities were Malay citizens and eligible for military service. From my point of view there were good friends in each category, the only sadness being that with a largely Moslem population it was rare to make contact with any of the families.

As a home base KL had much to recommend it. We lived in a spacious bungalow. Temperatures remained between 21°C and 32°C day in and day out throughout the year. The air-conditioning in the main bedroom could have been a boon, but was so noisy that calls from a child could not be heard. It was never used. The high humidity is the major oppression for Europeans in Malaya and I was lucky to be of a rank that entitled me to conditioned dry air in my office. Our two domestic servants, Ah Ling and Ah Wah, lived on the premises, cooked and cleaned well and thoroughly enjoyed looking after the young. There was a good garden with flourishing orchids, bougainvillaea and frangipani. Home entertainment in the modern sense was mainly of music. Sound equipment was good and the twelve inch polythene records of the day taught us much with The Gramophone introducing us to modern composers amongst our classical purchases of many ages. A Japanese portable radio was bought that was our introduction to the transistor, the tiny device that was to replace radio valves and with its descendants lead to tremendous advances in communications electronics.

Whilst I was getting to know those of several Nations and discover my responsibilities Sheelah was discovering hers. As there were British units separate from ours, there was an Army school for our children and a NAAFI shop for stores. However the markets were much more exciting. A perky chicken could be chosen from a row of candidates and could be picked up, oven ready, as one finished the shopping round. Crab were equally fresh, crawling around on raffia ‘leads’ they were handed over in this state to our cook, Ah Wah. As in India there was much of local food to please us, particularly that of the Chinese, whose restaurants were superb.

Fortune smiled on Sheelah in another way. Invited to a wives coffee morning to meet others of her kind, she had a long and interesting talk with one of the crowd. As the party broke up, she advanced, pencil and notebook in hand, to get the lady’s telephone number, only to meet her, similarly prepared, with the same question. Eileen Rampton had no army connections and was there by chance through the intervention of a Tonbridge friend at home with a military brother in KL. It turned out that Jack, Eileen’s husband, was the Treasury representative Far East and located with the British Ambassadorial staff. His interesting employment was to travel widely over this part of the globe, gathering a comprehensive understanding of countries great and small.

The Ramptons, like us, had recently arrived in Malaya with two children of similar age to ours. When the tale of this fortuitous meeting was related in later years, as it often was, Jack would say ‘When I was told of the meeting, with the suggestion that it should be followed up, I thought it most unlikely that such treasures could be found in the Army. However there were exceptions to every rule and it was worth a try!’ The result was the closest of long-term friendships. With children we met regularly for swimming at the Golf Club and further expeditions were planned. The children took to the water readily and were soon aquatic; an advantage of a hot climate.

It is important for a newcomer at work in a strange place to get the look and feel of the country that one is serving. Meeting and becoming known by many individuals in their own surroundings establishes mutual understanding and is worth considerable effort. Leave was not generous, but could be saved from one year to the next. We decided to save days for a real holiday in late 1960 and do what we could within Malaya until then. There were a number of National holidays plus weekends. These enabled us to learn a good deal about our local surroundings. We explored Malacca, which had seen Portuguese sailors in the 16th century, and Port Dixon with its Malayan Military Academy. Their location provided one of the few stretches of sandy beach on the west coast, much of the rest being mangrove swamp.

We spent Christmas in Singapore with the Eagans, Sheelah’s brother’s family, who were soon to return to England. There we found good Clubs, fine Parks and enticing shops. I was discovering more of my family connections too. A Naval officer, married to a cousin, was serving in Singapore: John Guild, sailed our waters aboard a minesweeper and stayed with us from time to time. He claimed that it was a pleasant change to get away from the broom cupboard he lived in when at sea. He went on to be Navigator of HMS Britannia for one of the Duke of Edinburgh’s great tours. Then there was Terence Oliver, a Chinese speaking missionary near Seremban, who would often call in. I had last seen him in Newcastle where his father was Town Clerk. Last but by no means least was a family with five children whose father, John Skrine, ran a solicitor’s business in KL.

One Easter provided an opportunity to visit the island of Penang, 16 miles long and little more than two miles from the coast. The Sultan of the State of Kedah ceded it to the East India Company in 1785, when it was almost uninhabited. It became an important shipping port, being incorporated with Malacca and Singapore in 1826 and played a part in the distribution of Burma rice from Rangoon. The growing population was mainly of Chinese extraction with smaller numbers of Tamils from India. As in Hong Kong it produced a go-ahead community. It became a popular resort for holidays and relaxation. It has its own small mountain, 2,500 feet high with a hill railway that that carried us up, coming down the many thousands of steps on foot. There was a fine swimming pool to enjoy. The sea had the reputation of harbouring sea snakes whose bite could kill so we chose the safer option, visiting their relations in a small snake zoo. There were temples, shopping areas and stalls. All in all it was a sophisticated holiday resort of its time.

A visit to a more primitive area was for me of greater interest. A few days were spent visiting a Malay Battalion at Kota Baharu near the border with Thailand on the beautiful East Coast. Sheelah came for the ride. The trip involved crossing the mountain range to Kuantan on the coast and then heading north. There must be over 100 miles of unspoiled sandy beaches, the breeding ground of immense turtles and hardly a soul in sight. Beautiful shells of all kinds are legion and the sea most inviting. Minor rivers were crossed by rickety bridges and occasional ferries. Primitive fish were seen using flippers as legs to propel themselves across mudflats, displaying a step towards becoming land creatures. This northern Province, Kelantan, is famous for its silver work. Fine natural artists also produced attractive textiles.

We became patrons of the arts at interesting exhibitions by many young artists in KL where the British Council made the arrangements and in similar vein they laid on excellent piano concerts by well-known players.

Wildlife was interesting. A pangolin, medium dog-sized and robust with a pointed nose, was found wandering near the Officers’ Mess and refused attempts to go elsewhere. It was a scaly anteater. We gave it a car ride of several miles to a jungle area where we occasionally walked and left it to its own devices. Fine orchids were to be seen high on forest trees. Lovely Brookiana butterflies with emerald bars across their velvety black wings were magnificent and Bee-Eaters were amongst the decorative birds. Atlas moths inhabited the bungalow in season with six-inch wings. They had a transparent panel in each wing to avoid hindering their vision when in flight. Nature had thought of this idea long before wind-surfers.

These events filled our first year in Malaya, a year in which we celebrated Merdeka (Independence) and the official ending of the Emergency.

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