I AM on the outside looking in again as Malaysia celebrates its independence for the 62nd time.
Being a roving expat journalist and this time with Khmer Times on my tour of duty in Cambodia, the closest point of Malaysia to Phnom Penh seems to be Kota Bharu, right across the South China Sea. Long before the birth of this nation, my Chinese mother came first in 1926, born in Kota Bharu the capital of Kelantan, the northernmost east state bordering Thailand.
The proximity was most graphic when I visited the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and spied on an old map of the Khmer Empire which included Malaya.
I am a descendant of two generations of emigrants who came from east and west of the Peninsular, and so the story of Malaysia, is essentially the story of my mother at 93 now, is primed to witness the 62nd Independence.
The throes of independence included epic events like the Japanese Occupation (1941-1945), Communist rule (which straddled 1948 and post-independence 1960), Indonesian Confrontation (1963-66) and Singapore’s separation in 1965; as well as the May 13 civilian riots of 1969.
In the treasure trove of stories that my mother related, one was about Kota Bharu, the scene of the first major battle between the British Indian Army and the Japanese Army.
Mdm Wong Kim Choo was a schoolgirl when the Japanese landed in Kota Bharu on Dec 8, 1941, after midnight before the attack on Pearl Harbour. The beachhead landing marked the beginning of Japanese Occupation which grew until the Allied surrender in Singapore on Feb 16, 1942. Japanese Occupation only ended with its subsequent surrender to the Allies in 1945 — after the USA dropped the planet’s first Atomic bombs to bring expansionist Japan to its knees.
Bachok beach in Kota Bharu was where my mother would bring the kids to play on the white sands where the Japanese fought the retreating British. It was only when we were older that we heard the ghostly tales of headless Japanese soldiers roaming Bachok Beach.
Of the many atrocities she related to me about the Japanese invasion, one stands out for its nearly narcissistic admiration of enforced discipline. “There were no thieves during the Japanese Occupation in Kota Bharu. Absolutely no one stole anything. We were already terrified after the many beheadings of anti-Japanese informers that were staged by the Kempeitai at the town padang, chuckled now white-haired Madam Wong, who was 15 then.
But it was more than the beheadings that taught Malayans in Kelantan to truly ‘Love Thy Neighbour’.
“One day, we saw what the Japanese did to wipe out petty thefts,” said Mdm Wong. And adding with a cringe: “In the middle of the field was a man hog-tied on a zinc roofing. We were just kids watching what would be a horrific demonstration of corporal punishment. After that, the town folk could even leave doors and windows open. No more thieves.”
Longevity runs in my family and to fast forward to present day Malaysia, my white-haired mother is now 93, like the nation’s longest serving premier for 23 years (1981- 2003), Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is also pushing at 93 with the keenest of minds.
My best wishes to the nation: ‘Long live Dr Mahathir’ and ‘Long live my Mother-land’.