Still on the go at 76
by Chin Kee Leong. Posted on June 17, 2012, Sunday
SEPTUAGENARIAN Haji Talhah Mansor built two airstrips while working for Public Works Department (PWD) Lawas as a contractor, then joined an oil company as head of Estate Services before turning to business after retiring because he got tired of sitting at home and doing nothing.
After 35 years working in both the public and private sectors, he called it a day in 1991 but became so restless subsequently that he decided to try his hands at business a year later.
“I cannot sit still at home and retire just like that – so I decided to start a business,” said the indomitable 76-year-old who first joined PWD (now Jabatan Kerja Raya – JKR) in pre-Inependence 1956.
He said he preferred to be working and independent — not just sitting at home looking after the grandchildren.
Talhah’s first assignment with the Engineering and Building Construction Department of PWD Lawas was to build an airstrip in Long Semadoh in 1962.
The airstrip was often used by the then Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) church in Lawas Estate during the colonial days.
The BEM is the present-day Evangelical Church of Borneo (SIB).
In those days, Talhah had to rely on tradional manual labour and rudimentary tools to clear the jungle, and prepare the groundwork for the airstrip in Long Semadoh, also known as Long Semado.
Raw building materials were harvested from nearby areas — bamboo from the jungle and rocks from the streams — and bullock carts were used to transport them to the construction site.
Following Sarawak independence in 1963 through Malaysia, Talhah continued working for PWD Lawas until 1974.
Talhah is from Kampung Dagang that has made way for a busy commercial centre with many shophouses and multi-storey buildings like the landmark ‘Glass Tower’ in Yu Lan Plaza.
He was too young to remember much about World War Two when the Japanese invaded Borneo.
But he could recall vividly that during those days, there were many wild boars in the jungle, especially in the evenings.
“They could be dangerous when the sows were foraging with their young,” he said.
Times were hard back then — the residents had to make coffee from burnt corn mixed with sugar.
Formal schooling was delayed until after WW2. Talhah studied at SK Anchi and SMK St Joseph, Miri, from 1947 to 1956.
He left for Limbang in 1956 to work for PWD, and was transferred back to work for the department in Lawas in 1957. The department was renamed JKR Lawas after independence in 1963.
Work on the Long Semadoh airstrip started in early 1962. It was made of grass cover and gravels, and about 600 feet long and 20 to 30 feet wide.
As many as 200 workers were employed at a daily wage of $2.10, comprising a $2 salary and 10 cent for buying salt.
“We relied on raw manpower gotong-royong-style as there were no machinery or equipment available at the time,” he recalled.
Rations were air-dropped three times a week.
The missionaries used the single-engine, single-propeller Piper which could carry up to 600 lbs only while the then Borneo Airways operated the bigger twin-engine, twin-propeller Scottish Aviation Twin Pioneer flown in from Singapore to carry heavy equipment.
The general purpose Twin Pioneer from the Royal Air Force (RAF) was also the first aircraft used by the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF).
Talhah remembered the RAF used the twin-rotor, heavy-lift Bristol Belvedere helicopter to bring in zinc sheets, machinery and building materials.
Not long after construction started, Indonesia launched its Confrontation or Konfrontasi (1963-66) against Malaysia.
When a local uprising broke out in neighbouring Limbang in late 1962, work on the airstrip was halted.
Today, the Long Semadoh airport is a Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) airport with no scheduled flights.
Its crushed stone runway is now 1,597 feet long and 2,150 feet above sea level.
STOL airports were built in Sarawak to accommodate passengers and travellers in remote areas, and provide them with a lifeline to neighbouring towns.
After Semadoh, Talhah went to work on the airstrip in Ba Kelalan from 1967 to 1968. The surface was also constructed with grass covers and gravels as tar-sealing was too costly.
As Ba Kelalan lies about 28km to the south of Long Semadoh, Talhah said it was a long 20-hour walk away, criss-crossing a meandering river some 32 times.
He recalled the airstrip was very short and the incoming plane had to rely on a stretch of slopping funnel approach as a natural aid to braking during landing and to clearing away during take-off in the opposite direction.
Today, Ba Kelalan airport is a STOL airport with a 1,801-feet long bitumen runway 2,900 feet above sea level. It has only one scheduled flight to Miri.
In 1971, Talhah left Ba Kelalan on transfer to JKR Miri for another three to four years.
After 18 years with JKR, he left the civil service and joined Sarawak Shell Company in 1974. There, he was the head of Estate Services in charge of staff accommodation before retiring 17 years later in 1991.
Talhah formed Technotrend Sdn Bhd in 1995 and continued working in the private sector, this time as an entrepreneur and employer for the next 17 years.
With a paid-up capital of RM750,000, his company is now a contractor registered with Petronas, Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), and the government.
Talhah spends his spare time doing social work and dabbling in politics.
He was president of Miri Community Council, vice president of Sarawak Bumiputera Traders Association (PBMS), Miri branch, committee member of Miri Malay Association, and various other non-governmental organisations in the Division.
In politics, he plays a supporting role as Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) Pujut branch treasurer.
His political philosophy is a bird in hand is worth than two in the bush as he considers it wiser to work with an established government.
Talhah’s transformation from airstrip contractor in the civil service to private sector employee and eventually successful entrepreneur of a bumiputera company has since been acknolwedged by Chief Minister Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud who described him as an exemplary Bumiputera trader.
Talhah was also conferred Ahli Bintang Sarawak (ABS) in 2010.
His advice to young bumiputeras struggling to make it in business is to work hard, and not depend too much on the government.
“No amount of education will help without hard work,” he said.
And to give back to society after they had become successful, he advised them to do social work.
Talhah is married Hajjah Saadiah Haji Latip. They lived in Long Semadoh for about two years before returning to Lawas in 1965. They are blessed with six children, and now have as many as 17 grandchildren.
Four of his children are working in Miri, one in Kuching, and one in Kota Kinabalu.