Friday, 31 March 2017

A debt of gratitude (Part 1)

The old man was dressed in a simple light blue short-sleeved shirt and dark grey trousers. The white kopiah on his head seemed a bit frayed along the edges. On his right hand he carried a small packet of fish crackers while his left held a large red plastic bag, presumably containing more packets of the same.

He walked with a slight stoop as he approached our table where I was having a late supper with two friends at our favourite 24-hours mamak restaurant.

“Assalamualaikum encik,” he greeted me. “Sudi beli keropok ikang? Hok ni paling baik. Dari Kemamang.” His thick east coast accent indicated that he had come far just to peddle some produce. I was about to decline the sale when my friend Simon spoke.

“Berapa ringgit ni pakcik?”

Eight ringgit a packet was the reply.

“Pakcik ada berapa peket semuanya?” Simon continued, motioning to the large bag in the pedlar’s left hand.

The old man placed the bag on the floor and began counting its contents. He had a total of ten packs, including the one he first held in his right hand.

“Okay pakcik, saya beli semua,” Simon said.

The initial expression of surprise on the old man’s face was quickly replaced by a smile.

Simon then asked me and our other friend Suresh, how many packs of the keropok each of us wanted. Both of us replied that one was enough. Simon also wanted just one packet for himself and so requested the pedlar to place three individual packets into smaller plastic bags. For the remaining seven packets, the old man was instructed to go to the other customers in the restaurant and give them away to whomever he wishes.

The second look of surprise of the evening flashed over the old man’s face.

“Pakcik bagikan setiap meja satu bungkus, sampai habis semua,” Simon clarified. “Cakap yang ada orang sedekah. Boleh?”

Spoken like a true Muslim. Except that my friend Simon is not a Muslim and as far as I know, does not profess to any religion. Simon Yong is a third generation china-man of Hakka descent.

I have known Simon since we were in secondary school. Those days, I simply called him Ah Chye. That’s many, many years ago. We lost touch for a while after the final Form 5 exams when we chose different career paths. Throughout my adult working life, I had been posted to various states in Malaysia. A few years ago, I decided to return and settle down at my hometown of Johor Bahru. In that first few months I was back, my path was reconnected to Simon’s.

On the way home from work one evening, I had stopped by a mini-market to pick up some groceries. The man at the cash register was about my age. After totaling up my purchase, he asked if I’m new to the area because he’s not seen me before. Just moved back a few months ago, I answered. But I’m a local lad, through and through, I quickly added. If so, which school did you go to, he continued to ask. When I mentioned the name of my alma mater, he suddenly paused. He squinted his eyes and stared at my face in deep thought. I didn't feel any unease under the scrutiny. Many people say I have a very recognizable face. When he resumed speaking, the man behind the counter took a guess at my name. He was correct. It turned out that we were classmates from years long gone and have now reunited after a span of nearly thirty years. I asked him if he owned the store. Being the modest man that he is, he replied that he only works there but the store belonged to his father. I later found out that the family operates three convenience stores around town and that my friend Simon effectively owns them all because he holds the majority share. But as long as his father is still alive, Simon would say that the senior Yong is the owner.

After that day, we meet up regularly, usually over dinner or teh tarik at our favourite mamak joint. It so happened that Ah Chye and I support the same football team in the English Premier League. Later on, Simon introduced me to his friend Suresh, who is slightly younger than us but share many common interests. Except that he supports Chelsea. So when it comes to football talk, we trade friendly barbs at each other. You guys are okay, Suresh would say. “It’s the other red team supporters I cannot stand. Those devils think they are the best team ever.” Of course you have to say that, I reminded him, otherwise our good friend here would have to look for another lawyer. Suresh and Simon laughed in agreement. You see, apart from being a good friend, Suresh handles Simon’s legal affairs.

I had once asked Simon how decided upon his new western name. Is Ah Chye not glamorous enough, I joked. You remember the old TV series called The Saint, he questioned me back. The one with that handsome actor?

Yes, I do. Roger Moore.

Well, I think I’m as handsome as that actor, he continued. “So that’s why I took his name.” Now, hold on. I was puzzled. The guy’s first name is Roger. No lah, came the response… Simon Templar, the hero’s name! Oh, okay… now I get it (rolling my eyes).

So why not Roger, I asked again, just for the fun of it. The reply was just as swift. “You remember another TV series called Combat? The one where soldiers talk on the walkie-talkie and say ‘roger this’, or ‘roger that’?”

Sure, I do.

“Well, if I enter the army, I don’t want to be confused by hearing people calling out my name so many times, hahaha.” I could hardly suppress my chuckle on hearing the explanation. Of course, Simon never went to military service.

Simon made payment for the whole of the keropok pedlar's stock with two RM50 notes and told the man to keep the change.

It was our turn to be astonished when the old man responded, “Minta maaf encik. Saya dok boleh terima duit lebih ini. Saya datang nak berniaga bukan minta sedekoh. Harap encik dok kecik ati. Duit lebih tu mungkin rezeki orang laing. Terima kasih.”

He returned the RM20 change to Simon, smiled kindly at us and then left our table to distribute the remaining packets as requested.

“You are a very generous man, Simon. Your mother must have taught you well,” Suresh said.

“Actually, not my mother but my father,” Simon remarked. “He was the one who taught me to be kind and helpful to others. Because he was once helped by a very kind man... a long time ago. Have I not told you my father’s story?”

Suresh and I shook our heads.

“Okay… I’ll tell you. But let me finish my mee goreng first.”

As Simon chowed down his fried noodles, I glanced around to see how the old keropok-seller was getting along. He was actually doing something not quite different from what he had set out to do, except that now he is giving away those fish crackers for free rather than selling them. Even so, every person he approached was surprised at the gift and he had to point to our table to indicate the source of the goodwill...

Thursday, 23 March 2017

One local destination a month - Part 2 : Tanjung Kling, Melaka

Without doubt, the most famous warrior in Malay history is Laksamana Hang Tuah, an admiral and royal aide in the court of Melaka's sultan during the 15th century. His bravery, strength and fighting skills are said to be legendary. His adventures and exploits are written in a literary compilation of stories known as Hikayat Hang Tuah, the author or authors of which are unknown. Also mentioned in those stories are his four close companions named Hang Jebat, Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekir and Hang Lekiu, all of whom were also brave and skillful warriors.

Perhaps the most intriguing and controversial of the stories (to me at least), is the one where Hang Tuah was accused of having an affair with one of the sultan's maid. The king, without further investigation or trial, ordered that his admiral be executed for the alleged offense. The bendahara (chief minister), not believing in Hang Tuah's guilt, did not carry out the sentence but chose to hide the accused at an isolated place.

On hearing the unjust punishment on his friend, Hang Jebat vowed to seek revenge. He attacked the palace and killed many of the sultan's guards but the king himself managed to escape. Hang Jebat's rampage was violent and without mercy. There was no one left with equal skills to fight him.

The bendahara finally had to confide to the sultan that Hang Tuah was actually still alive and that only Tuah could persuade his friend Jebat to surrender. On hearing this, the sultan pardoned Tuah and summoned him to surface from his hiding place. Tuah then confronted Jebat and requested the latter to give up his fight. Jebat was surprised that his companion still chose to be loyal to the king despite being unjustly accused and sentenced. A fight ensued between the two close friends and it ended with Tuah killing Jebat.

This episode has been subject of study by Malay historians and scholars for many years. Does blind loyalty to a wicked king take precedence over the life of your closest friend who stood up for you or does avenging a fellow warrior's unjust execution allow you to revolt against your ruler?

This story may just be folklore. Whether it really happened is hard to say. There are some people who think that Hang Tuah and his four friends never actually existed. According to one legend, Hang Tuah was part of the entourage that went up the mountain to seek the hand of Puteri Gunung Ledang on behalf of the sultan. On hearing the pre-conditions set by the princess for the marriage, Tuah realised that they were impossible to fulfill. Feeling that he had failed in his task, Tuah reportedly threw his kris into a river and vowed never to return to Melaka until it floated, which it never did. Another version of the story has it that Tuah did return to Melaka and died of old age. His grave is said to be located at Tanjung Kling, about 10km from present-day Melaka city centre.

On 17 February 2017, we were in Melaka to attend a wedding reception. I took the opportunity to visit Hang Tuah's mausoleum, using Google Maps Navigator to guide me to the location. I had not known of the place until I discovered it while browsing Maps a few weeks earlier.

The cemetery is old but well-maintained. The peculiar thing about the grave is its elongated structure, not corresponding to the average height of a normal person. I doubt the particular deceased had abnormal length. Indeed, it is also not definitive that it is the body of the great warrior that is buried there.

Anyway, whether it is actually the grave of Hang Tuah or not, it makes interesting contemplation nonetheless.

The mausoleum of a great warrior. Visited 17 Feb 2017

The entrance gate to the cemetery

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Departed List (updated to 12)

On 12 January 2011, my Facebook friend and former classmate at MRSM Kuantan, Roswati Abdul Wahab wrote a note in her FB page. In it, she listed out the names of our friends from the MCE/SPM 1979 batch who have departed ahead of us. At the time she wrote that piece, I already had some inkling of her intentions. It was a poignant reminder that our time on this Earth was only temporary and that we would be leaving it behind none too soon. Roswati herself was under treatment for liver cancer.

When she left us in October 2012 while performing her hajj in Makkah (which I wrote about here), I made a copy of her note and amended it by adding her name. She became the 10th name on the list.

Last week on 6 March 2017, after a lapse of more than four years, I made the latest amendments to the list. But this time, adding two names at one go. Indeed, the Almighty has written it to be so...

At 4.35am, our friend Puan Noorleha Darus exhaled her last breath in Johor Bahru. At 9.30pm, our friend Sdra Azmi Abdul Samad passed away in Seremban. Both succumbed to the vagaries of cancer.

The photograph below was taken in 2012 at the residence of our batchmate, Capt Norhisham Kassim, for the Aidilfitri gathering of that year. The late Azmi was standing at the back, 8th from the right as we view it. The late Noorleha was sitting at the front, 1st from the right. The late Roswati was sitting 2nd from the left.

May Allah swt have mercy on their souls and place them amongst the soliheen...

K79 2012 Raya gathering at Norhisham's