JUST the other day, I was talking to a group of British veterans, listening to their stories about their time in Malaya. I couldn’t help noticing the twinkle in their eyes as they remembered the war they fought, the experience in the tropical jungles and the friendships they forged.
They were in their late teens, or early 20s when they went to a country they didn’t know even existed. Yet, I was amazed to hear that there were some, who would return year after year to the country that is now Malaysia, which had almost become a second home to them.
The 60th Merdeka celebrations were not far from their minds; some had gone back to join in the parade of the 50th Merdeka celebrations and some were already planning their itinerary for this Jubilee celebrations.
For those going, this would be their last trip en masse, for most of them now were in their seventies. This begs the question, how would this special relationship be continued, how would the memories be remembered?
Would children and grandchildren of British servicemen, who had served in Malaya, still be interested to pursue this relationship?
Not many of those people I met could answer beyond a chorus of laughter.
This reminded me of an event I attended last year — it was the gathering of the Malayan Volunteers Group (MVG) — at the Malaysian High Commission. This was the first time I had ever heard of such group, although it had been in existence for some years now.
The MVG started with an informal gathering of a few British Malayans, who were Volunteer Veterans and used to meet to reminisce about their times in Malaya and the good old days. Naturally, the number decreased over the years and, fortunately, the tradition was continued by their children and grandchildren, leading to lunchtime meetings every October. Now membership has grown as interested people from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia joined the group.
A quarterly newsletter aptly named Apa Khabar was started in January 2005, to keep British Malayan families in touch with each other. Thus, the birth of the MVG. The MVG emblem carries the motto “Andai Kita Terlupa”, which I found most touching.
It was at that meeting at the Malaysian High Commission in Belgrave Square that I met Rosemary Fell, a daughter of a Malayan Volunteer, whose research work had done much to unearth many treasured information about people who were working in the region before and during the war.
These had piqued the interest of the children, who wanted to know what their parents did during the war out in the East, what happened to them during the war and during as well as after captivity in the notorious war camps.
Fell, a researcher, whose father Eric Reeve taught at the Victoria Institute, a headmaster of Bandar Hilir English school in Melaka and also taught at the Raffles Institute in Singapore, was born in Singapore, where her parents met.
“We have children and grandchildren in this group. We only became interested when we retired and had more time to do the research,” said Fell.
She too hoped that the grandchildren would be interested enough to carry on the work that had so far brought so many people together; be it for luncheons, placing of plaques at war memorials in Indonesia and Thailand or just on their website; sharing stories and old diaries and entries found in their attics or old cupboards in their parents’ home.
There were precious black and white photographs and documents that held so much history for the benefit of the younger generation, if and when their interest were aroused.
When I met Fell, she was on to a project to replace a missing plaque at a war memorial in Ulu Selangor. There were some names missing, she said, and research work was being done to find these missing names before the plaque could be replaced.
The story of the Ulu Selangor war memorial came to light when a member, Ann Evans, sent them two old photographs.
According to the newsletter, Ann recalled attending services here with her mother.
“The name of Ann’s father, Philip Paxton-Harding FMSVF was on the bronze plaque (he was killed-in-action in Singapore) together with those of other European and local Malay Volunteers and members of the Malay Regiment, who lost their lives in the Second World War.”
As a result of their efforts, there are two teak benches at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, each with a brass dedication plaque to the Malayan Volunteers.
In August 2005, to mark the 60th Anniversary of V-J Day, a granite stone tablet was unveiled in the Arboretum, inscribed with the words, “Commemorating the Malayan Volunteers both Military and Civilian who served in WW2, 1941-1945”.
This then stood on the outline of a Malay Kris landscaped into the NMBVA Plot.
A 70-year-old member I met at the meeting, Janet Leeson, told a story of how her grandparents and her mother fled to Singapore from Malaya during the war.
“Just for a few hours on the boat, the Japanese torpedoed their boat and they were taken as prisoners in Sumatra. By the time war ended, they suffered malnutrition and malaria,” said Leeson.
An elderly gentleman I met at the gathering was then in the process of writing a book about their three generations in Malaya.
His grandfather was a planter in 1908 in Kepala Batas and his father played cricket and rugby for Malaya. He was only 18 months old when they fled the Japanese. At the start of the war, his father became a volunteer, organising a retreat of civilians working in Malaya.
His mother told him a lot about their time in Malaya and he was keen to know more.
Many books had been written by veterans, who worked and lived in Malaya, and these hopefully would revive the interest about the relationship between the countries.
Some like Bill Cranston, had brought back and had a huge collection of Malay military badges, which again had interesting stories and history behind them.
Again, the question begging an answer was, would there be any interest among the younger generation from both countries that had enjoyed a long and special relationship?
Some of the veterans who were going to join the Jubilee celebrations would be accompanied by their children and hopefully the experience would help to continue the links with Malaysia.