THE slim, tall man walked towards the coffee house, oozing with confidence – the kind that came from 33 years in the civil service.
Nonetheless, Richard Pahang Lah was very cheerful, which made him look decades younger than his age of 85.
Hailing from Long Miri, a rural area about a five-hour road journey from Miri, the Kayan gentleman was very happy to talk about his time in the government, which had taken him to many ‘ulu’ (remote) stations of the Baram, Limbang, Bintulu, Matu Daro and Betong.
He retired in September 1992, as a Miri Divisional Development Officer.
“You know, we had to sit for many examinations during my time!” said Richard as he began recounting his experience in the civil service that spanned from the British colonial era up to three decades after Malaysia was formed.
Anecdotes came forth one after another as the conversation flowed, but there was an exceptional story that you just knew could not have been made up.
In 1982, Richard was granted an audience with Sultan of Pahang Sultan Ahmad Shah Al-Musta’in Billah, who was the seventh Yang di-Pertuan Agong at the time.
His Majesty was on a royal visit to Northern Sarawak, and Richard was part of the welcoming committee.
“During the audience with the King, I told him my name’s Pahang.
“His Majesty lauded me, declaring: ‘You’re associated with my state, Pahang. What a coincidence!”
Sultan Ahmad Shah later gave Richard a gold-plated signature watch, which the latter still keeps until today.
“Working as a government officer amidst strict rules, etiquettes and protocols, one must realise the limitations, but at times, you’d get the perks too,” he smiled.
‘Life’s full of surprises’
Speaking of protocols, it was in 1963 when he was first tasked with such duty and got to meet the last British Governor for Sarawak, Sir Alexander Waddell.
At the time, Richard was an assistant officer in charge of the cooperatives in Bintulu.
“I was a young government servant who was given the opportunity to help welcome the Governor.
“In a brief conversation, Sir Waddell learned that I was with the cooperatives department and later, he bade me success in Bintulu.”
Richard then pointed out how life would often bring in ‘surprises, at times when nobody would least expect it’.
It was the late 1980s, when he was the District Officer (DO) of Marudi.
“There I was, welcoming Sir Waddell at the Long Panai longhouse in Baram, who was en route to the Mulu Caves during a tour conducted by the state government in connection with Malaysia’s silver jubilee.
“The ‘Tua Kampong’ (village headman) of Long Panai at the time was Gilbert Ding Lawai, who is now a Pemanca (second-tier community leader).
“After lunch at Long Panai, the visitors left for the Mulu Caves, boarding three Nuri helicopters.
“I regretted over not seizing the opportunity to tell the ex-governor that I was the protocol officer whom he met in 1963.
“I always wonder – had I told him that back then, what would his reaction be?”
‘Meeting future TYT’
Year 1963 also marked another memory of Richard meeting ‘someone important’.
At the time, there were talks about David Marshall, a very well-known Singaporean lawyer then, would be coming to defend a criminal breach of trust (CBT) case involving an Agriculture Department staff member.
On the prosecution side was a young Sarawakian lawyer, whom Richard described as ‘handsome’.
“Guess – who’s that lawyer?” he winked.
It was Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, who would go on to become Sarawak’s fourth chief minister and its seventh Yang DiPertua Negeri (TYT).
“My friend Mostapha and I actually accompanied him on a cycling tour across Bintulu that year, covering Tanjong Kidurong, Tanjung Batu and Sibiew areas,” recalled Richard, describing it as ‘not an easy ride’.
The three of them rented bicycles for the tour and on their way to Sibiew, they saw many people carrying their bicycles on their shoulders.
“After witnessing that, we decided to return to the Asghar Khan Hotel, where he (Taib) was spending several nights at.
“I wonder if I were to meet him today, would he remember our bicycle tour in Bintulu?”
Richard also recalled Taib telling him about Bintulu having ‘a great potential for development.
“He said he had plans to explore the possibilities towards great socio-economic growth in the division.
“Even as a young man at that time, Tun Taib already had the vision of developing Bintulu,” he said.
Childhood and education
Richard was born into a household of Kayan Maren, the aristocratic class of the community.
He admitted that being in this social status, he had a disciplined upbringing, which compelled him to value social commitment and responsibility highly, to always obey rules and regulations, and to uphold social mores.
He spent his childhood years in Baram Valley, where schools had been built by the Kayan, Kenyah and Iban communities and the salaries of teachers were covered by the local council.
He said the majority of parents in those days were illiterate and not many knew – or cared – much about the need to send their children to school.
However, he said it was fortunate for him that at that time, there was already a primary school in Long Pilah.
“After just one year in Long Pilah Primary School, I was sent to the Good Shepherd School in Marudi, where I stayed from 1950 to 1953.
“Then I was picked to join St Joseph School in Miri, where I passed my Primary 6 Common Entrance Examination in 1954.”
Entering secondary school, however, was not easy for Richard.
“Luckily for me, I was taken to Tanjong Lobang School, where I stayed at the hostel for free up until 1957 when I completed Form 3.
“It was a great relief for my parents.
“In Tanjong Lobang, I had schoolmates from different ethnic backgrounds, and the teachers came from many parts of the world.
“This had really opened up my mind.”
Upon leaving school, Richard joined government service straight away in 1958, where he landed the position of Division 5 (Northern) Junior Agricultural Assistant in the Agriculture Department.
He was sent for training in Kuching for two months, specialising in fisheries and rice agronomy.
After that, he underwent courses on pig farming and rubber planting in Semenggok for three weeks. His first posting was at Tanjong Tahap near Long Ikang in Baram, where he stayed for one year.
Richard admitted that for years, it was difficult for him to land any promotion because he only had a Sarawak Junior Certificate. So upon finding out that an Orang Ulu was needed to join the Cooperatives Department, he wasted no time.
Like his first job, Richard first underwent training in Kuching before being sent to Bintulu where he served until 1967 as assistant cooperatives officer.
It was in Bintulu where he got promoted to the C1-3 scale after passing the second part of the departmental examinations – he was the only one out of eight candidates who made it.
In 1962, Richard married his ‘kampong’ (village) sweetheart Molly Telun Laing.
“Not long after that, my predecessor got transferred to Kuching, which I was very happy about as we could move into the permanent quarters.
“Prior to that, we had been renting a room in a shophouse,” he said.
In 1968, Richard went to India where he spent a year undertaking the Higher Diploma in Cooperatives Programme.
His quest for higher knowledge never stopped. Between 1973 and 1974, he studied in Kuching to obtain a Diploma in Law.
It was right after that when he found out about a vacancy for a Sarawak Administrative Officer (SAO) Class 1 position, which came with a monthly salary of RM750 – a huge pay at the time.
Again, he wasted no time in applying for it.
Richard secured the job, which later took him to Matu Daro District where he served from 1975 to 1979.
In 1980, he was transferred to Betong and there, he studied for his SAO examinations and passed, earning him the gazetted position of SAO Class 3. He was in charge of Betong District for three months until the arrival of the new DO, Patrick Chaong.
From Betong, Richard was transferred to Limbang.
“Frequent transfers and relocations are a part of a civil servant’s life, even till today.
“My family had to be ready to pack everything and go whenever the letters of directive came,” he said.
He was the planning development officer for Limbang until December 1985, and Limbang DO from 1985 to 1989. Throughout this tenure, many Limbang folks got to know him better and hailed him as ‘a very humble, understanding and very approachable person’.
Renai Tapun, 65, formerly a teacher at SK Menuang near Limbang town, said: “Tuan (Mr) Pahang Lah has always been very helpful.
“Back then, Limbang was a small town and almost everybody knew everybody.
“Those who needed help could easily approach him. In fact, they could even go to his quarters after office hours – more because of the poor transport system in those days that they could not see him during regular working hours.”
Richard’s longtime Bujang Ong, now in his 60s, regarded him as ‘a very good and capable administrator’.
“He’s very well-versed in local affairs, because he had started from the bottom.”
It is noteworthy to mention that so far, Richard is the second Kayan in the whole of Sarawak to have been appointed as DO – before him was the late Steward Ngau Ding.
Many people had even said that he could have become a Division Resident, in view of his vast experience in state administration and community leadership.
“I missed out on the selection.
“Actually, there have been a lot of ‘misses’ in all the years of my working life.
“I was a shoo-in for a training programme in Taiwan, but the government had pulled out for some reason.
“Regardless, I remained undaunted and continued to serve my beloved Sarawak.
“Yes, as civil servants we are ruled by the General Orders, to obey and serve.
“I personally consider myself to be quite blessed already – having a stable job, a happy marriage and also we have three children, all of whom have grown to become good people.”
His sons Joseph and Thomas are both successful businessmen, while daughter Teresa has just retired from teaching.
Richard’s wife Molly, a sister of Pemanca Gilbert Ding, passed away on Aug 28, 2018, at age 69.
‘An honour to serve’
As stated before, Richard retired in 1992 but even after that, he continued to serve as advisor to the Juvenile Court and a member of the Welfare Juvenile Delinquency Committee for a while.
From the conversation with him, it would not be wrong to describe this Kayan gentleman as ‘a true-blue, old-school government man’.
“It’s a great honour and privilege to have been able to serve in the government,” he said.
“On some days, it’s smooth sailing.
“On other days, I had to travel into the remote pockets via raging rivers, which might sound adventurous, but they’re actually dangerous.
“There were times I had to go jungle-trekking when boats were not available.
“But we’re carrying our responsibilities as civil servants. For me, I must perform my duties without question, or without delay.
“As a former government man, I hope that all civil servants in Sarawak would continue to serve with honour, sincerity and passion.”