Having been brought up in Malaysia I have found it fascinating to spend some more time back here again. A great many generations of hardworking Brits, Malays, Chinese and Indians made Malaysia what it is today. But they were my parents generation, and sadly none of them could possibly be alive to see the success of this country now.
Malaysia has an excellent school and health system and religious tolerance between the many sects who live there. I am saddened however as I have been told by a few “oldies” in Malaysia that the children are more segregated now in school than they were in my day. I went to a school with Chinese, Indian and Malay girls and, out of the 3000 pupils, I was the only English girl! In fact I often had to pull my blonde hair out of my head to prove I was a real blonde.
Of course my parents had many local friends with whom they kept up with until the end of their lives. My mother told me that the period in which she and my father had lived in Malaya was the happiest period of her life. “Why?” I asked. “The emergency was on. Weren’t you frightened?” “When your numbers up, your numbers up.” she replied. It was a phrase she used often. “No,” she added “we felt we were really contributing to building the country.”
Until the end of the fifties there were many Brits living and working in Malaysia. The government offices were headed up by the British. By that I mean education, local government, taxation offices, the law and judicial courts, engineering and, of course, medical. At that time the British mostly socialised with each other. Not many of the Mums worked. I believe the birth rate was pretty high. But why not? They had help with the children – how heavenly, help in the house, all the shopping and cooking done for them, and a very jolly social life. Not quite White Mischief but I’m sure some of that went on. Of course, as a seven year old I was completely oblivious of these things. My world was school. I was dropped there every day by our chauffeur and I swam every afternoon at the Ipoh club, which in those days was strictly Caucasian of course!
It is therefore with much pleasure that I now tell you about this now charming multicultural democratic country. The clubs that I so often frequented as a child are still run on very British lines – cucumber sandwiches etc – but of course the Chairmen and Board are eminent local people and, of course, multiracial.
Some of the wonderful old traditions still continue of course. Sunday Tiffin will never die and the billiards room is still men only! Nowadays the swimming pool is no longer full of splashing and giggling young children blissfully unaware that, when 7 years old, they will be torn from their parents and sent back to Blighty to get a good education! Now you are more likely to see an over 65 thundering up and down the swimming lanes getting their daily exercise.
People still have maids but very few have more than one! We had five! I can tell you ironing is no fun in high humidity. Let alone washing floors. Or cooking over a hot stove – forget it! No wonder the Chinese use a wok and cook quickly! In my childhood the kitchens were not part of the house – they were usually built at the back or in an outhouse. So the fumes from the charcoal stoves would not permeate the air. There might be a few chickens walking in and out of the back regions. Those chickens gave us delicious fresh eggs or, even worse, were strangled for Sunday lunch. Our cookie must have had some sort of morbid sense of humour since he took enormous delight in chopping the now dead chicken’s feet off, leaving the tendons hanging and we children would try picking up pencils from the floor pulling the tendons to make them clasp it. Those were the bad old days”! BEFORE INDEPENDENCE. What is it like now?
The answer is glorious. Everything is so easy. The roads are good. The buses are air conditioned. The food is a gourmet’s delight – there are so many cuisines to choose from. The old and the new meld together in an eclectic haphazard pot pourri of scents, traditions and architecture.
The malls are magnificent and you could spend all day there… browsing and guzzling. As there are food courts every where! And it is an inexpensive country for Brits to visit as the exchange rate is good.
In Penang, where I was staying, there are literary, music and film festivals. There are wonderful botanical gardens and an extraordinary glass and flower garden built and created on the terraces of a durian farm. If you want sea and sand you can move up the coast a little to Batu Ferrengi which is the beach area of Penang or go a little further to Pankor island.
My host is my Camino walking pal. She lives in a shop house in the centre of Georgetown which is in the Heritage area. We have a Chinese temple opposite us, a Mosque round the corner, the smartest restaurant in Penang in the next street, plus a jazz club less than a minute away! When it was Chinese New Year we had red lanterns strung across the road and crackers set off outside the house morning, noon and night! Despite being woken at 5am it was fun and I felt privileged to be part of the Chinese family festival.
It is very hot and not uncommon to have two or three showers a day. And most physical activity is done at night – like playing rugby or running! It does seem strange standing on a rugby touch line in high heels watching a game before going on to dinner.
Sometime ago I took the Eastern and Oriental train from Bangkok to Singapore, a journey I heartily recommend. Trains are a wonderful way to see into the depth of the countryside and of course you are in splendid comfort. I did see the largest rat ever in the waiting room of the O and E, before we left the station at Bangkok, but mercifully I did not set eyes on it again. Everyone dresses up for dinner and there is a cocktail bar car where a gallant piano player manages to play without his fingers sliding off the notes. It’s a sort of rolling stock Great Gatsby but without the decadence!
If you are considering having an oriental holiday don’t forget Penang. I think it is much nicer than Singapore because it still has its old world charm and much entertainment to offer.
I am off to see my glorious grandchildren next…. just can’t wait.