Becoming a Malaysian

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Source: The Expat Magazine April 2011
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It was easy in those days when we crossed the Causeway to get our bearings at least geographically. Life revolved around the unique centre, Merdeka Square. This is where Tengku Abdul Rahman raised his hand to declare Independence to the shouts of “Merdeka” (Freedom). Former Prime Minister’s Tun Abdullah Badawi’s father had led the procession. The man who would be Malaysia’s longest-running Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir, was in the throng echoing Tengku’s cry. A moving historic moment repeated still, every year on National Day.

On one side of Merdeka Square is that striking clock tower and those romantic Mogul buildings. Then directly opposite, and nothing could be more incongruous, is a mock Tudor English Cricket Club. That’s where I surrendered my weekends when we came up, inspecting the pitch for the morrow’s game. I was decidedly not a cricket widow but a cricket wife – on duty.

There was of course an even older town centre – market square, dedicated to Yap Ah Loy, the original founder of Kuala Lumpur. The farthest reaches of the capital then were the Wild East – the tin mines in lower Ampang, and Petaling Jaya. The high rise that now crowds the centre had yet to appear. Tan Sri Yeoh Tiong Lay, Francis’ father, dare not venture far from Bukit Bintang in those days – too dangerous.

Social life for expats and CEOs revolved around the British legacy of the Selangor Club, the Lake Club, the Coliseum and the Coq d’Or. The first was known as “the Dog” becausearegular lady member tied up her Dalmatian to one of the posts outside – a very frequent sight since her drinking bouts were long. Mind you, women were not allowed in the Long Bar. I once took a short cut through there, whereupon an irate male diner threw down his napkin and stormed out. I’m still not very welcome even in these more gender friendly times. The bar continued to be distinguished by those English public school accents (Our current Prime Minister would qualify). His father, Tun Abdul Razak, favored more the orchid room at the Lake Club for his bachelor parties. I was always intrigued as to why the Brits when in charge bestowed such exotic Mediterranean names on the Coliseum and the Coq d’Or. The latter had been built by a Chinese towkay who owned Cycle and Carriage. Again an unlikely name for a company that had imported the first car – a Benz in 1910. Why “Cycle and Carriage?”

The Coq d’Or was built to spite the towkay opposite who refused to allow his daughter to marry Tan Cheng Lock. Instead there was the portrait of a beautiful Italian lady adorning the entrance. But she is not alone. Monogamy was not the way in those days. Endless rooms stretch behind the main building to house a multiplicity of wives and concubines. I’ve never fathomed out this difference in status – and wonder if it all worked on a roster system. I remember the ancient shower in the main bathroom – a veritable iron maiden. One of my greatest regrets is that the Coq d’Or or the chief icon of our Chinese heritage should have been demolished. For what?


My children went to the Alice Smith School. Alice Smith (there was such a lady) started private education in her garage.

which grew into one of our premier private English schools. Peter our eldest was in the same class as the son of Tan Sri Ghazali Shaife. Once we invited him to a birthday party and got no reply. “I think we should ask his mother when I take you to school tomorrow”. “Oh he hasn’t got a mother – he’s got a driver”.

The other stories (remember I’m in my anecdotage) about the Alice Smith School starts with Peter. It was my turn on the school run. I had a car full of kids. As they disembarked to scoot into the school playground – came a parting shot – “You are not his real mother are you?” I spent the whole morning agonizing over what I had to do next. I had always intended to tell the children they were adopted but envisaged a cozy scene – perhaps in front of a log fire in Fraser’s Hill, preplanned. But nothing I premeditate in my life seems to happen as I imagine. That lunch time I sat Peter down to tell him he was “special” and how he was “chosen”. We were going to be very lucky – to be allowed just the child we knew we wanted – a little Chinese boy with brown hair and brown eyes. We were taken to a large nursery with scores of cots – and babies of every kind BUT not what we wanted. Some were girls, some were blonde, some were English/Indian/Malay you name it. We began to despair. Then right at the end there he was – an adorable little Chinese boy with brown eyes, brown hair. The perfect child for us. Peter burst into tears. “What is the matter?” “The baby – you’ve let it go”. I had been too premature.

The other Alice Smith story is of the school Xmas concert. The infants class were all on the platform – meant to sing a carol, in chorus. They all got stage fright which turned it into a solo performance by a little Samantha Schubert. Not that it was her actual debut into the performing arts of which she later became a star. That was at the Palace in Negeri Sembilan at Seremban. But that is another, later story.



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