A Tale Worth Telling (Part 1)

This is a story as yet unpublished, which the author has offered to Ipoh Echo’s readership, with the hope to keep alive some eminent Perakeans’ history, hopes and memories for the younger generation.

*This is Part 1 of a 5-part series. 

A Tale Worth Telling (Part 1)

by Prema Arasu

Author (center) with her good friend (on her left) and Convent schoolmates, circa 1969

“I’m going to India to start medical school at Manipal,” said my best friend many years ago when we were just a couple of months into our Sixth Form at the St. Michael’s school in Ipoh. I remember being sad with her good news, not just about losing a dear friend with whom I had shared many memories as well as pranks. I would miss her laughter and smart banter, but I was also hurt that she hadn’t told me about her plans till just a few days before she left. 

We were 16 back then, had done well with our senior Cambridge Ordinary O-level exams, and were on the threshold of new paths. We both had parents who valued higher education above the cultural constraints of gender and social conformity. She was taking the fast track to become a doctor and I was going to stay home and continue with Advanced A-level studies with hopes of getting into a local university. But then again, this story is not about childhood friendships or how we fared. I want to fast forward through 46 years and tell you about the time I went to visit her parents. They still lived at the same address in a stately bungalow home with a beautiful garden and tree-lined roadway, right next to the Anderson School where Uncle had been a teacher.

I called them Uncle and Aunty as was, and still is, the polite honorific in Malaysia’s multiracial society. It didn’t matter if there were blood ties. Uncle and Aunty, then 92 and 89, had both been teachers and had received many accolades in recognition of their decades of unwavering service and commitment to excellence in molding the intellectual and moral fiber of the children they taught. I went to visit them for many reasons – out of respect and connection to old familial and community ties; on behalf of my friend who lived abroad like many of our cohort of school mates including myself; and also because her parents were always very warm and gracious. Conversations with them were always engaging and thought-provoking.

It was 10 in the morning and I had called ahead to see if they were up for some company. I arrived to find both of them comfortably seated at the kitchen table and having their breakfast. Like much of the furniture in their house, the square kitchen table was of solid wood and probably older than even they were. Uncle and Aunty were looking relaxed yet vibrant. They asked about my family and listened keenly, observing my words and mannerisms. Aunty caught me saying “Yeah…” and the English teacher in her just couldn’t resist a correction. “You mean ‘Yes’, why are you saying ‘Yeah’?” As we sat together, the conversation slowly drifted to the topic of the upcoming national elections and earlier times in the history of Malaya. And then, there unfolded an incredible story which I wanted to share with you.

Uncle, always the consummate teacher, laid the groundwork. “There were rumbles of war in late 1941, the 2nd World War. Many countries were getting prepared for this eventuality. All of a sudden on November 10, there were two significant movements in various places. The British brought two huge warships, the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, and strategically parked them on the east coast of the country within quick reach of the island of Singapore so that they could combat any form of invasion. These ships represented the might of the British Empire. General Wavell was prepared for war but didn’t expect what happened next. Unexpectedly, the Japanese launched a surprise attack and bombed Pearl Harbor, and the world saw Kamikaze pilots for the first time. They flew their bomb-laden planes directly into their targets.”

Aunty, who was quietly listening, interrupted him and said, “You know, they sacrificed themselves for their country. When the plane went down, they also died!” 

Uncle smiled and touched her arm lightly, as if to indicate “You’ll have your turn soon enough, I’m the warm-up act.” He continued. “As this was going on, many countries were getting ready for impending war. We too went and bought groceries and stocked up the house. Meanwhile, Thailand had always remained neutral and nobody was sure what they would do. The thinking was that if there was any invasion into Malaya, it would come through Thailand.”

“In the meantime, the British were mobilizing their troops with guns and tanks and were taken aback when the Japanese suddenly landed on the East Coast of Malaya just hours before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Over the next few days, these soldiers started moving across the country. What surprised everyone was that the Japanese were coming in hoards on bicycles! This was the first time anyone was seeing an army coming on bicycles. The British went to fight them and there were big fights in different places. For our families, it became very real very quickly. The Japanese bombed Penang on December 11th of 1941 which was the area where Aunty grew up, and then they bombed several towns in the state of Perak including Ipoh and my hometown, Batu Gajah. They continued on and captured areas further south in the country.” 

“This girl,” he said, again gently touching his wife’s arm, “was preparing for her School Certificate examination at the Penang Convent at the time. On that December 11th, when the siren went off indicating an emergency and planes overhead, she went and hid under the table in her classroom, just like the other girls. When the sirens stopped, the girls were told to go home. Everyone went off in different directions. Soon, there were no more cars waiting as parents had rushed to the school to collect their children.”

To be continued…


Author with Uncle and Aunty (Datuk and Datin Selvamany), circa 2017

About Prema Arasu:

Prema was formerly a student at the Ipoh Main Convent. She retired as a biomedical research scientist and professor from the U.S. academic system. She currently enjoys yoga, being out in nature, and doing short term projects related to science and global health.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Prema,
    I stumbled across your story on Ipoh at the start of WW2 and shared it with my friends in fb. Amazingly, one of my cousins who now resides in Kuantan, read it and sent me a message and said she was your former classmate in Ipoh. Not sure if you remembered Ng Wei Liam. What a coincident!

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