CHRISTOPHER James Syer is among tens of thousands of foreigners who contributed to the defence of a young Malaya during its most trying times.
The Englishman, who was popularly known as Chris, was just 20 when he was posted as a second lieutenant with the British Royal Army Service Corps to Malaya in 1960.
“As a young man, I was proud to be enlisted in the army to serve the country.
“The experiences gained, especially being posted to the Far East, are invaluable and something that cannot be obtained elsewhere,” said Syer, 79, who was born in Swanage, England, on Sept 25, 1939.
Following his arrival in Malaya, Syer fell in love with the country almost instantly, and has made it home for the past 59 years!
More importantly, he fell in love with a Malaysian — former Malayan Airways Limited air stewardess Amarjit “Ambi” Kaur.
Syer, who completed his studies at Caterham School in Surrey, has since obtained permanent residency here. And he speaks fluent French and Bahasa Malaysia too.
At one time, he was a familiar voice over Radio Malaysia as a sports commentator.
He will be the master of ceremonies at the “Malaya At War: Remembering the Malayan Campaign and the Malayan Emergency” conference at the Royale Chulan Hotel in Jalan Conlay on Aug 10 and 11.
Syer arrived in Singapore in May 1960 on board a Royal Air Force aeroplane.
“It was my first flight ever.
“The journey from England to Singapore took three days, with refuelling stop-overs at El Adam (Libya), Aden (Yemen), Gan (Maldives) and Bombay (India).
“While preparing to leave Singapore for my posting in Paroi Camp in Negri Sembilan, I received a notification to report to the 37th Company (Water Transport) on Pulau Brani, Singapore.”
At that time Pulai Brani was an island next to Belakang Mati (now Sentosa island), where the 2nd/10th Gurkha regiment was based.
He had earlier in 1959 trained with the Black Watch in Perth, Scotland, before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the British Royal Army Service Corps.
“As a serviceman, I chose not to spend all my spare time with military colleagues.
“I joined the Singapore Cricket Club where I could not only play cricket and hockey, but also mix with people from the ‘outside world’.”
The unit he was attached to was involved with river patrols and provided vital supplies for ground troops in Johor.
He said at the height of the communist insurgency, they were trained to kill or be killed.
“Nevertheless, I never fired a shot in anger!”
He recalled how apart from the humidity, the first and lasting impression of Malaya and Singapore to this day was its greenery and vast range of flora and fauna.
“Although I lived in a multi-racial environment, it was amazing to see the integration of people with no thought for racial or ethnic backgrounds.
“We often visited each other’s homes without hesitation, which sadly is no longer the case,” said Syer.
MEETING HIS SOUL MATE
Syer was a regular at the Singapore Cricket Club, where he not only played cricket and hockey but also caught up with friends over happy hours.
“It was during one of my outings at the club that I had a chance meeting with Ambi, who was also a hockey player in her own right.
“And I must say that Ambi and I took a liking for each other almost instantly,” said Syer, who also captained the army and armed forces’ teams and played hockey for Selangor.
He played cricket for Melaka and the South Malaya combined team.
Ambi was one of nine girls and two boys of Gorbex Singh, a well- known cricketer and hockey player.
During World War 2, Gorbex served as an interpreter with “Force 136”, which was the general cover name for a branch of the British World War 2 organisation, the Special Operations Executive.
The organisation was established to encourage and supply resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory and occasionally mount sabotage operations.
“Gorbex was imprisoned for two years during the Japanese Occupation, while his father, Lall Singh, died during interrogation.
“After the war, Gorbex taught at Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur,” Syer said.
Owing to the prevailing policy at that time, Syer had to leave the army as a second lieutenant after three years.
This followed his marriage to Ambi, one year his junior, at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Singapore on Sept 23, 1961.
Singapore was then part of Malaya and Syer and Ambi were serving there at that time.
“My service regulation did not permit me to marry.
“This was to prevent my family from becoming a security risk.
“Perhaps I should have married a communist insurgent instead (to avoid the risk),” said Syer in jest.
Ambi, too, had to abort her flying career as she had to accompany Syer to live in Kuala Lumpur.
“We have no regrets and have lived through the years with a blissful marriage and journey, doing other vocations,” said Syer, who lives in Bukit Pantai.
The couple have a son and a daughter.
The eldest, Ian Alan, 56, is married to a Chinese citizen and lives in Beijing, where he runs an event management business and a food and beverage outlet.
Selena Mary, 55, is married to a New Zealander and lives in Florida, the United States. She runs her own business and organises events on behalf of the Golf Channel where her husband is a broadcaster.
LIFE AFTER THE ARMY
After leaving regular service in 1961, Syer continued as an army reservist and was promoted to lieutenant.
Being an active man, the retired officer initially joined A. Clouet & Co, a French company trading in a wide range of products, including the well-known “Cap Ayam” brand of sardines and construction materials.
In 1964, he joined Expandite Sdn Bhd as its regional director, travelling extensively in Southeast Asia and the Far East.
One of his trips was to China, where Syer took the opportunity to go on a group tour to Pyongyang, North Korea, on Nov 20, 1970.
“While there, I visited the demilitarised zone in Panmunjom which divides South Korea from the North.
“Some people even accused me of being a ‘touristic spy’ for that visit,” quipped Syer, who recently retired as a sports complex manager after four years with Stella Maris International School in Medan Damansara here.
When Expandite became a subsidiary of Burmah Oil Company in 1966, Syer went on to serve the group in senior management posts for 20 years.
Expandite manufactured waterproofing products, coatings and sealants for the construction and civil engineering industries.
From 1986, he worked in senior posts for other companies, including the London-based Building Materials Export Group, Illuma Lighting Australia Pty Ltd, Rolnic Ceramic Sdn Bhd and Brady’s (Malaya) Sdn Bhd.
From 2000, he first managed the Royal Selangor Golf Club, then the Bukit Unggul Country Club in Dengkil, Selangor, Royal Selangor Club and then the Malaysian Golf Tourism Association.
He was also CBRE Property’s building manager for Millennium Damansara from March 2007 to June 2011.
SPORTS AND RECREATION
Along the way, Syer made inroads serving non-governmental organisations, including as a Olympic Council of Malaysia’s media, finance and marketing committee member.
He served the charity organisation Lord Taverners Malaysia Bhd.
Syer did sports commentary for Radio Televisyen Malaysia’s Radio 4 (now Traxx FM) for four years, and was a sports analyst for two years with BFM (Business FM) radio.
He served with the Malaysia-Australia and Malaysia-New Zealand business councils.
“I have been a life member of the Royal Selangor Club, serving as its cricket convenor. I also served the Selangor Cricket Association for a good many years.”
He is currently the Malaysia-British Society president.
THE WAR CONFERENCE
Syer said the upcoming “Malaya At War” conference was important because many youngsters were unaware about history. He knew of some people who did not even know what the racial riots of May 13, 1969 was about.
“One student even asked if the incident were about World War 2.”
He urged parents to educate their children on history, and for the lessons of the past to be brought across to the younger generation.
“I believe that knowing history and learning the importance of camaraderie, courtesy, discipline, dedication and loyalty are traits which are better than just obtaining straight As in your examinations.”
He disagreed with views that often describe aged veterans as “has beens” or “crippled”.
Instead, he said, these people were armed with immense knowledge and experience.
“We can rope in senior veterans to give some input on the history of the nation.
“There is a reason why wars happened.
“And the younger generation ought to know history.”
Among the speakers at the conference are Royal Australian Navy Rear Admiral (Rtd) Guy Griffiths, who was a young midshipman aboard the HMS Repulse when it sank on Dec 10, 1941, off the coast of Kuantan, Pahang.
He is the patron of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse Survivors Association.
Another is Tan Sri J.J. Raj Jr, who was the police chief of Pagoh, Johor, during the Bukit Kepong incident in 1950.
The keynote speaker is Rear Admiral (Rtd) Tan Sri K. Thanabalasingam, the first local Royal Malaysian Navy chief.