Voluntary service in Sarawak
by Michael R Addy. Posted on July 15, 2012, Sunday
The 1950’s in Britain were, for me, very dull – characterised by post-war austerity and limited opportunities.
The termination of National Service recruitment in 1958 (two years of compulsory military training for all 18-year-olds deemed medically acceptable) meant queues for the very limited number of university places, each one keenly contested by the brightest among our public and grammar school youth.
In that same year, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) was born.
VSO was the inspiration of one man, Alec Dickson, sup-ported at every point by his wife, Mora, and a small group of men and women with an unshakable belief in Britain’s youth and the valuable contribution they could make as volunteers in those areas of great need throughout the British Commonwealth.
Its beginnings were shaky, its finances almost non-existent and its sceptics were everywhere. But the selection process for volunteers was most rigorous and soon encouraging reports received from governments, NGOs, Christian missions and voluntary organisations throughout the British Commonwealth came to the attention of the media.
From the pioneer batch of 18-year-olds dispatched to Ghana, Nigeria and Sarawak and the Falkland Islands in 1958, demand for more volunteers increased year on year, making it one of the largest voluntary organisations of its kind.
In August 1961, national recognition of VSO came in the form of an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to a reception at Buckingham Palace for returned volunteers.
News of this recognition and the work of VSO volunteers spread throughout the world.
The US, Canada and New Zealand showed particular interest. I had the good fortune to be in London in early 1962 when Dickson returned from Washington following discu-ssions with President John F Kennedy concerning the foun-dation of what came to be known as the Peace Corps.
Up to this time, VSO volunteers had been almost entirely made up of 18-year-old school-leavers.
From this point on, demand from receiving countries was more for volunteers with university training and specialised skills. A new era of expansion ensued with the period of voluntary service extended from one year to two.
Gradually, the school-leaver was phased out, replaced by volunteers with specialist skills.
My own period of voluntary service involved some 18 months in Penang (1960-61) and two years post-graduate service in Sarawak (1965–67). I was following in the footsteps of the first VSO volunteer who had arrived as a school-leaver in May, 1958.
By the time I arrived in Sarawak, Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) together with their New Zealand and Canadian counterparts were also making their welcome presence felt.
The bonds we forged, volunteer to volunteer, American, Canadian, British, New Zealander, not forgetting the wonderful people of Sarawak amongst whom we worked with common purpose are bonds that have endured to this day.
My own part in this wonderful story of voluntary work in Sarawak began in August 1965 with the evening arrival in Kuching of my flight from Singapore.
It was a time of military conflict and jungle warfare between the newly-formed Malaysia and Indonesia, known in the history books as Konfrontasi.
Brief courses at the Education Department, the Sarawak Museum, the Health Department, the British Council which assumed responsibility for us and a recording session at Radio Malaysia, Sarawak, were followed a few days later by a brief flight to Sibu, a hasty car ride to the delightful Rest House in Island Road and a river trip in pouring rain the following day in a government prahu to Binatang (now Bintangor).
My destination was the Chinese village of Tulai somewhere up an unheard of tributary of the lower Rejang where the Chinese community spoke Foochow. My elementary abilities in Penang Hokkien and Malay were clearly not going to be of much help in Tulai.
Here, I was deposited on the riverbank and advised to find the Kapitan China who “may have heard of Tulai.”
The District Office, a short distance away, provided refuge from the tropical rain, and an hour later, a wonderful man, Kapitan Teng, came to my aid, manoeuvred my barang and me on to his motorcycle and away we went to his home.
He knew Tulai well but I would have to wait until the next day as the only Chinese launch had departed on the afternoon tide. In the meantime, his hospitality knew no bounds.
We were to become very good friends and I was to remain forever in his debt.
Tong Hua Middle School, to which I had been assigned, was a Chinese medium primary and secondary school undergoing conversion to the English medium.
My job was to see that conversion through in all subjects of the curriculum, and I had two years maximum in which to achieve this.
Looking back over almost half a century, the task seems even more daunting than it did then.
There were few books, no school library, not even book shelves, few games or PE facilities, no science laboratories, no telephones, no running water, no electricity, virtually no medical facilities – though an excellent Australian midwife with very limited facilities ran a tiny clinic a short distance from the school.
There were no roads and certainly no ways of com-municating with the outside world in an emergency. The river was the main artery of communication but this could only be used when the tide was in. The school may have had one battery-operated radio but reception was not always possible. As for postal services … well!
There was very little money and little prospect of any.
Each family was required to make a financial contribution to the cost of their children’s schooling, a difficult prospect when their main income was from old, low-yielding rubber trees.
Many of the children of all ages were up and tapping rubber from three or four each morning before coming to school shortly after 6am. Immediately after school, many had to help their parents in the pepper gardens to supplement the family income and help with the household chores.
More voluntary help had to be sought from native English speakers. During my second year, this came in the form of a young Chinese missionary from America and a school-leaver volunteer from England.
Primary and secondary school children in Eng-land began collecting books and shipping them in trunks to us, the postage paid for out of their limited pocket money.
Through sporting and scouting activities and the co-operation of other schools and their VSO volunteers, inter-school and inter-racial activities were developed with the English language as the sole medium of communication. Our children couldn’t speak Iban or Malay or Kayan and children from these communities certainly couldn’t speak Foochow.
The Shell petroleum company helped fund a school trip to the Miri oilfields. Sports teams were formed and inter-school competitions held in the medium of English. A scout troop was developed with instruction in the English language with activities akin to many of those in Outward Bound programmes.
It was far from plain sailing. Most of the planned activities were completely new and many quite unheard of. The school timetable was rearranged to allow time for extra-curricular work but parents and grandparents often doub-ted the value of such activities. Besides, they needed their children to help in the rubber and pepper gardens.
Quite how it all worked, I am still not sure. What I do know is that I have never met anywhere in the intervening half century either in Europe or Asia so much determination to succeed and the degree of application required for success as I met among these children in Tulai.
What they achieved is an educational marvel and an exam-ple for children everywhere.
Unfortunately, I was in Hong Kong in late 1967 when the results of their first English medium public examinations were announced. Suffice to say those results convinced the children, their parents and grandparents that their efforts and sacrifices had not been in vain.
A door to a very different future had not only been opened but opened wide.
The lives of their parents and grandparents stretching back decades to the days when Wong Nai Siong brought them from China, had been days of unremitting toil with declining rewards and nothing but more of the same in sight.
These children changed all that – effectively changing the prospects of hundreds, perhaps thousands of their contemporaries and those of the next generation.
Last year, my daughter and I were waiting outside a well-known restaurant in London’s West End when six Foochow Chinese from Sarawak approached, a satellite navigation system in hand to guide them precisely to our meeting place.
Among those six friends and former pupils from Tulai, two were medical doctors in London to receive medical awards from London University, a Sixth Form teacher of distinction from St Thomas’ School in Kuching and a university-trained aircraft engineer.
Over dinner, talk was of Tulai and the pupils and friends I had met there so many years before. While some of my former pupils were still living in Sarawak, others were international businessmen and women living in different parts of the world but retaining strong links with Sarawak largely through their extended families.
Others had distinguished themselves in shipping, Char-tered Accountancy and other professions. One, the son of one of my pupils, who won a Shell scholarship from Miri and came top of his year with a First Class Honours degree at London University in petroleum engineering is now in the US pursuing further courses.
These are world citizens with a global view of life, thoroughly versed in modern communication technology; men and women who value education and learning and who know their goals can be achieved through honest hard work and seriousness of purpose.
I am proud to know them, to have played a part in their lives, however small, and to live out my remaining years in the sure knowledge that they have taught me far more than I ever taught them all those years ago.
Tong Hua Middle School in Tulai is still there – no longer geographically isolated but connected by a fine road net-work. It is a school that can be proud of the part it has played in the educational development of Sarawak and the achievements of its pupils.
Today, VSO sends volunteers to some 40 countries around the globe, but, sadly, none to Sarawak at this point in time.Sadly, because it was in Sarawak that VSO began in 1958; sadly because there are clearly many areas where it could perform a very useful and welcome role; sadly because its driving force is the unshakable belief that poverty and inequality are unacceptable anywhere in the world.