Wednesday, October 5

Were the good old days really that great?

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The columnist himself, seated at second left, in St Thomas’ Secondary School in Kuching, during the 1960s.

I USUALLY receive some feedback on a few of my weekly columns from a small group of folks, mainly friends and acquaintances and those who knew me from either school days, my working years or are simply friends whom I’ve been introduced to at socials and during past business occasions.

My readers are almost always affable, polite and complementary, usually wondering aloud two most often asked questions: don’t you run out of subjects or topics to write about, and a more rhetorical one – how on earth can you remember those details (like events, places, prices and other minutiae of everyday life, etc) from way back when, say, the 1960s!

My answer to the first would be that I tend to categorise my subjects into four very diverse groupings – personal and historical (usually tales of family and past experiences and my working life); topics on social consciousness/environment/causes and personal pet interests; reviews and essays on entertainment and pastimes; and last of all, local politics and global affairs.  I try to strike a fair balance and usually alternate between these topics, so I never run out of subjects and themes to write about.

All my views are, of course, highly personal and I have no doubt that often, they would fall on non-receptive minds, not fully agreeing with my opinion.

That’s how it should be. My work is done if I’ve just sparked a thought!

Today, I’d like to write about Sarawak Day, which was yesterday, and my personal experience of life before July 22, 1963 and after that; thus the subject heading ‘Were the good old days really that great?’

I had just turned 13 four months prior to that auspicious day and had started Form 1 at St Thomas’ Secondary School in Kuching. It was a momentous occasion – I was officially a teenager and had made the leap from Primary 6 to Form 1 and had thus, severed the bonds of my rather sheltered life led thus far (imagine being mother-hen watched over by a mother who was a senior teacher in primary school, and an uncle who just happened to be the headmaster then. You get what I mean!).

During the seven years in primary school (as an underaged novice at 6, I had spent two years in Primary 1 – Mum had treated Primary 1C as a kindergarten long before there were kindys), I was rather brilliant in my studies and would be in the Top 3 in all my classes.

This trend took a shocking drop when I scored barely position 30 in a class of 40 during my first Form 1 exams – what a shocker that was for the entire family (but not me of course, because I was, after all, a newly ‘woke’ teenager of 13 – on the cusp of puberty and raging hormones).

As relatively naïve and innocent on global and local politics with nothing imparted to us by our teachers then, we were all blank canvases as students for ideas and ideology of the newly proposed Federation of Malaysia, which would include us, the state of North Borneo (Sabah was only the new name from Sept 16, 1963), Singapore and the Federated Malay States collectively known as Malaya (which had, six years earlier in 1957, declared their independence from Britain).

Brunei was on and then off eventually.

Just the simple idea of it all was really exciting to us — we’re going to be independent, we’d be given self-rule!

Up to then, Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka), India, Pakistan and Indonesia were the only other countries we knew that were self-governing. As students then, we had no idea of what’s going to happen thereafter – would there be any change in our system of governance, the medium of education, the political differences, or even what it’d mean for us all socially and in terms of our future education.

The idea of ‘independence’ was, in itself, really exciting!

In my naïve 13-year-old mind, my wildest imagination had dwelled on how an independent Sarawak could progress faster and in a more efficient manner than what had come before.

Our commonly-held prior mindset was that the British colonial government had been holding us back from any faster progress as everything had to go through headquarters in London, and in the past, it had taken ages for any new development to be approved and implemented.

We perceived that we were only a small, probably obscure and irrelevant part of the vast British Empire.

At its peak, the British Empire had ruled over 23 per cent of the world – today, 52 nations remain in the British Commonwealth, with 32 keeping the Queen of England as head of state. The enormity of this was beyond comprehension.

Before July 1963 and as a student gazing in a daydream state outside my school window over Macdougall Hill, I had imagined what independence for Sarawak could mean for us in our near future.

Could our ordinary, simple everyday life change?

How about the state of affairs and development of the country?

Surely we should progress faster as we would have to form our own democratic government and every citizen worth his salt would work wonders to make a success of it all.

At that stage, we were being taught by at least half of our teachers being expatriates from the UK, Canada, India, Ceylon and elsewhere: it seemed very likely we’d get our own local teachers.

English should continue to be our medium of education forever, with further studies in institutions of higher learning now becoming nearer and more affordable for all who qualify – Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, instead of England and Australia?

It was exciting to expect that the road systems in the towns and villages would increase and improve in number and quality (unpaved roads had then outnumbered paved pre-1963) and they’d be newer and bigger shops, recreational places and more government vacancies for all those who wanted to work in the public and civil services.

Air travel would increase in frequency and prices could be affordable to more.
Such endless opportunities had abounded in the minds of our innocent teeny teen grey matters!

Today, 59 years later and having lived through all these years of political turmoil, racial strife and social unease, we have seen a mixed outcome of what independence has given us here in Sarawak.

In the good old days, there was no talk of race. Today, its endemic and the ‘ketuanan’ cry ring out loud among the major race, but most of it from across the pond.

There was no talk of religion either. There was real equality among us all; it was based on merit and not on your race, religion and your political connection.

There were very few abjectly impoverished or those whom society had cast to one side as they were unofficially classified as of no political influence due either to their lack of identity as citizens or some other excuse. Dollops of ringgit would be doled out once a while to gain political support and create an artificially induced state of ‘a caring government’.

Of course on the bright side, we have seen massive and speedy development, of skyscrapers and huge highways with multi-lanes and speedy transport systems, but these usually are concentrated in the cities and obviously, in the federal capital, mostly funded by revenues and taxes generated from states like Sarawak and Sabah.

There are plantations of oil palm, logging export conglomerates, oil and gas global corporations and a booming retail and wholesale import/export business network.

Residential housing estates are booming everywhere, comprehensive healthcare both in the private and public sectors, and an extremely top-heavy and revenue-draining civil service coupled with a bloated over-staffed gaggle of parliamentarians and ministries of every known description – all this, I might add, could well foreshadow a rather gloomy economic downturn in the near future.

Corruption, nepotism and judiciary indifference coupled with unstable political manoeuvrings have continued unabated as our country approaches its 60th anniversary of its independence state come July 22, 2023.

Sarawak, however, has been somewhat immune to most of the foregoing, but as just one state among many, it has to bear the burden of part sharing the blame too – if the nation moves forward and progresses well as was the mission and the aim that July day 59 years ago, we can truly then dismiss those ‘good old days’ when hope was the dream we all had. The dream that an independent Sarawak would spell better days ahead.

We pray that day will come when we can all stand up proud and be able to shout out – ‘Yes, I am Sarawakian and I’m proud of it’!

God bless Sarawak, our home, and God bless us all.