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Hew Chee Peng studied at the Victoria Institution from 1953 to 1959, from Form One to Form Six. He was the 1956 Nugent-Walsh Scholar and secured the third best results in the Overseas Cambridge School Certificate examination in 1957. He sat for the Sixth Form Entrance Exam in the same year and was third in position in the whole of Selangor.
He pursued his tertiary education at the University of Malaya on a Selangor State Scholarship and subsequently was in the Government Education Service in various capacities until 1995.
During his schooldays, Chee Peng was very involved in extra-curricular activities and was a prolific writer of essays, poems and short stories. When in Form Five, he produced a volume of his youthful poems with a foreword by his Form teacher, Mr John Doraisamy.
Chee Peng was the Chairman of the V.I. Historical Society and organized the school's historical exhibition during Speech day. He served as Vice-Chairman of the Senior Literary and Debating Society and represented the school in numerous inter-school quizzes as well as open quizzes organized by the private sector. He played an active role in the school's first Mock Elections in 1956. He took part in drama and acted in Lady Precious Stream which was staged at the old Town Hall in Kuala Lumpur. He was also on the editorial boards of the Seladang, the Analekta and the Tawarikh, a historical newspaper.
Chee Peng is dedicated to his writings and some of his poems and short stories have appeared in Focus (Singapore), The Second Tongue (Singapore), An Anthology of Contemporary Malaysian Poetry (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka) as well as in magazines and periodicals. He may be contacted at 03-9306139 or via e-mail at email@example.com
The following is a fraction of his enormous output.
THE NEW MILLENNIUM
This cactus in the new millennium is no different,
From the previous when it hurts,
Especially with its stubborn thorns,
That cannot distinguish one from the other.
Our life will again be lined up like a row of suspects,
To be identified by its victims and police,
Becoming strangers to one another,
Waiting in queue to collect our dole,
Even in our repentance.
Maybe there will be a recall,
A memory that irks,
We cannot shirk our duty,
That accompanies our maturity.
This time, unlike others, has been put,
The limits on the distance we can afford,
To run, nor curtail our journey,
On a prolonged pilgrimage.
There is also the temptation to delay,
To turn back, to retreat into our usual set of refuge,
Not scoring, undoing the long years,
Almost ending, as they listen to familiar tunes,
That have outlived their usefulness.
Again and again our feelings,
Are rolled up on the public pavements,
Falling from our brows of overwork,
Crushed beneath the heavy feet,
Of them whose crowd is unknown to us,
While we seek for the messages,
From a disappearing mist in the daylight,
Of the new millennium dawn.
LET IT BE
"You mean you've sold your house to finance your son's education in America?"
"Yes, that's right. It's nothing surprising; many parents are doing it."
"I know, but there's no need to send your son overseas to study. It's so expensive, you know. If you can afford it, it's okay.Your son could have joined a local University. Moreover........"
"You may be right in a way but then there're many other considerations. My younger son, King San, isn't that bright. Although he did apply for a place in a local University, he had been unsuccessful. You know, his STPM results weren't that good. It's not that easy to enter the local universities here. There's a lot of competition and there's also the quota conditions. Besides he had wanted to study telecommunications and advertising. Actually I don't understand what else he had told me."
"The local U's do offer Mass Media courses, so............."
"You see, I've only two sons. King San is my younger boy. It's not fair that his elder brother could go to America to study while he would have to work or be compelled to do something that he didn't like in Malaysia. I don't want my younger son to feel that his father is being unfair to him. I love both my sons too much to hurt them."
"But you must be fair to yourself, too!"
"What's being fair or unfair? Besides I'm an old man now and have retired. Maybe sometimes I do feel lonely, especially after their mother had passed away last year. I don't need a lot of money to survive. I'm a simple man and my needs are very few. What more do I wish for except to see my sons happy and be given the opportunity to get ahead in life. Of course I hope they'll be successful in their lives later on. If they are well and fine, so am I."
"True. Which parent won't sacrifice for the sake of their children? Fortunately, I've only one daughter and she's working already. She can take care of herself. I wouldn't know what I should do otherwise. I've no house worthy enough to be sold to finance her further education. The world is now so different from the old days when we were kids. Don't you think so? I myself had started out to work when I was sixteen."
"Come on, old friend, we can't compare our days with the young people today. We can't expect them to be that frugal and thoughtful as we had been then. Maybe we had been very foolish or stupid. We didn't know so many things and we're so ignorant."
"I guess that's life. Surely, we want the next generation to be better than ourselves, don't we?"
"Of course. People give birth to us and we in turn give life to our children. What more is there in life except that it's a cycle! I find life quite meaningless."
"Alright, alright. Let's not philosophize anymore. This Chinese tea has a very fragrant aroma. Do you know what tea this is?"
Lee was not that old actually. He was only fifty-four. He had opted for early retirement from the company in order that he could send his elder son to the United States of America for further studies. He had married rather late and that was why his two sons were still pursuing their studies and not yet financially independent. He had loved his job as a section supervisor with Malayan Enterprises Berhad but when the ownership of the company changed hands, the new management had offered him the option to retire early. As Lee was entitled to quite a substantial sum of money as gratuity payment, he decided to leave the company. Although he felt he was strong and healthy enough for another ten years of working life, Lee had found it an opportune time to "retire" because the timing coincided with the need for money to finance his elder son's education. It was better than to borrow. The other alternative was for the boy to start working.
He did not want his son to have a poor start in life. His son did not mind working for the boy knew that his parents could ill afford to send him overseas and he was unsuccessful in his application to join a local university. However, his father had told him that working was for a lifetime whereas studying was once in a lifetime. Lee had preferred his son to continue his studies until such time when he would not wish to study anymore. To this his wife had agreed and so it came about that King Ming, his elder son, was already in his second year in an American University, pursuing a course in Business Information Technology.
"But what about you and mother?" King Ming had asked, before he had decided to follow his father's advice.
"Oh, don't worry about us. Your mother and I are still hale and hearty. Moreover our needs are little. The most important thing you must remember is to study hard and acquire the necessary qualifications that'll secure you a good job and career. Please remember that you've a younger brother to take care of. Complete your studies quickly and don't play around like some other students. Your mother and I, we'll manage somehow and be able to take care of ourselves. So, son, you go and come back to make us proud of you!"
"Sure, dad, I promise. Maybe I can work part-time."
"No, no, no. Please don't do that! It's not that easy. Besides, it's illegal to work in the U.S. while you're a student. I don't want you to work and study at the same time. That's precisely why I don't want you to stay here. Your father didn't have much education and I want to give the best education you and your brother deserve. So, now you go with an easy heart and don't worry about money. That's my worry, okay?"
A year had passed and with it a life had passed away. King Ming's mother died from a severe bout of pneumonia. It was a tragic blow to Lee. Although he was stoical in accepting the fact, it took him many months before he could get over the death of his beloved wife. He could not hold back his tears as he embraced his elder son, King Ming, who had flown home from the U.S. to perform the last rites at his mother's funeral.
Lee had no choice but to be strong and stoical for the sake of his two sons. The younger boy was still at school then. Both the sons had been badly shaken by the grave loss, especially King Ming, because he remembered the last time when he saw his mother. That had been on the night when he had departed from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport at Sepang. He was indeed very shocked and upset. Worse still, he had to face an important examination in a fortnight's time.
"Everything's fated," Lee told his son, as the latter prepared to return to the U.S. There's nothing one can do about it and there's no need to cry. You're a grown man now and your father will be alright."
Nothing could be further from the truth as Lee spoke those words for inside him, he had felt one part of his world had collapsed and he was not sure whether he could hold on to the other part.
"Eldest brother, you can't go on like this. You must think of yourself too. No doubt you love your two sons but you mustn't give everything away to them. First you had sold your only house when King Ming went to the U.S. And now....."
"Please say no more dear sister. Part of the gratuity money had been used up when your sister-in-law fell ill and then she passed away. I can't blame my sons for spending my money. What have I got left in this world if not my two sons. I'll be willing to give up my life for them; so what more only my money. Ever since your sister-in-law died, I no longer cared what happens to me. But my sons," and tears began to well up in his eyes.
"I'm sorry if I'd hurt your feelings but I want to make you realize that you'll have nothing left that you can call your own very soon. More than RM100,000 you've spent on your sons already and this last bit of money from your E.P.F., you're going to give it all away to them. Don't they know what they're doing to their father? Don't you ever tell them? What if you were to fall sick? Frankly speaking, you can't depend on me much because I don't have much savings."
"Why do you always talk about money, sister? I sold my house and moved in to stay with you. I did so because I'd thought you're agreeable to the idea, knowing that you're unmarried and live alone. Moreover, I don't stay in this house for free. I do pay you, don't I?"
"Now, brother, please don't misunderstand me. I welcome your coming to stay with me in my house. Even if you don't pay me a cent, you'll be most welcome to stay here. I'm not greedy for money. And what's money between brother and sister? What I want you to understand is that you can't just let your money go the way I see it's going! Of course I know you don't care a lot for money; all your life you've been very generous and kind to others. Even I'm grateful for your help at one time in the past. But money is money. One has to leave some for old age. Like myself, who's going to take care of me when I'm old and infirm or sick and paralysed?"
"You don't have children because you're not married but I've two sons. I trust King Ming and King San won't disappoint their father and neglect their old man, when the time comes. Especially after your dead sister-in-law's taught them how to be good filial children. Like the saying goes, which parent who gives life doesn't know his offsprings?"
"Very true. Ken Ming and King San are good sons. I agree with you. I like both of them too and they've been thoughtful and filial until now. But have you thought about the future? They won't be boys forever. When the time comes, they'll marry. How do you know your daughters-in-law will be as good and filial as your sons? For all you know, they maybe bad people. They may influence your sons against you. People say, when a daughter marries, you gain a son but when your son marries, you lose your son."
"How can you be so pessimistic? No wonder you never got married! It's lucky you aren't. Otherwise your husband must be dead fed up with you! I'm talking about my sons and you talk about no good daugthers-in-law!"
"Maybe so, maybe so. But life has its twists and turns. All right, you say you're talking about King Ming and King San. How do you know that they won't change? People change, you know, with time and circumstance. Now, you tell me, brother, how often do you receive letters from your two sons, except perhaps when they write to ask for more money? I'm not only talking about your sons but generally speaking, young people who've gone to a foreign country for many years, they do change!"
"Please don't bother me, sister, will you? What I do and what I don't do is my business. How many letters I receive from my sons and how many letters I write to them is my business. What I want to do with money or with myself is my business. So will you please stop bothering me?"
"Of course! Of course! I'll not bother you. After all, as you say, it's entirely your business. But don't say I didn't warn you!"
"If at all what you say does come true, then it's all fated. If the ancestors permit it to happen, so be it. I don't wish to continue with this conversation anymore."
Lee reached out for the newspapers on the table. He sat back as he put on his reading glasses and started to read the paper, making sure the newspaper covered his face from his sister, who now went into the kitchen to cook dinner.
The postman roared away from the gate of the house on his motorcycle. There must be a letter. Lee had waited long and anxiously for a letter from his son King Ming. The previous occasion he had received any news from him was more than two months ago. That was when King Ming wrote to his father to inform that he would be sitting for his finals and that he would not have the time to write. Since then there had been no letter; not even from his younger son, King San. The latter had practically forgotten his promise to write regularly to his father.
The absence of communication from his sons had caused Lee much anxiety and worry. He had grown accustomed to the habit of getting letters from either of his sons to cheer him up. Most of the time he did hardly anything, mostly being alone in his sister's house. At times he did make an effort to help his sister at her mee-stall.
"My dear father, I'm happy to inform you that I've passed my final examinations and will be graduating in five weeks' time. I hope you're still in good health and spirits. I'm now touring the west coast of America with some of my friends........"
"Good boy! Good boy! That's my boy! Lee was heard muttering to himself, almost trembling with excitement and happiness.
Since his retirement, Lee had aged significantly. His face which had used to be taut and having a robust glow, now appeared to look weathered and sallow. The years of retirement had taken their toll. The death of his wife, already four years ago, had only accentuated his gradually sinking spirits. On top of that he had lost many of his close friends, who had either migrated, died or had lost touch with him. By and by he became more and more of a recluse, even refusing to attend obligatory social functions such as weddings and birthdays.
Depression often set in. Most of his money was gone and recently he had become pretty worried about his financial standing because his sons had to resit for their examinations on two occasions. That had meant extra money for examination fees. King Ming's letter announcing his academic success came as a big relief and joy to Lee, who had just a short while ago, begun to have doubts on his wisdom in letting his two sons to study abroad.
Now, he wanted to celebrate but he found that he had no friends to share his happiness. His old buddies had all disappeared. It was all his fault. As time passed he had become more and more anti-social. His previous generosity had been replaced by stingy caution as his financial resources kept on depleting. A man without money and without friends, never mind. But a man with no sons..... he had become dependent on news from his sons to continue his living with a meaning.
He lit the joss sticks and placed them on the ancestral altar. Next he started talking to his dead wife's picture. He searched for the old albums and looked at the photographs. He stared hard at each and everyone of the photos, reminiscing, smiling occasionally and commenting aloud to himself. He was journeying through old times and was too engrossed with them and did not hear the door bell rang. He soon got exhausted and fell asleep.
Another three years went by. Lee pined for the return of his two sons. Still they did not come back. He was getting old, he told them, and would very much like to have them by his side. Moreover, it was time they got married and gave him grandsons.
Ever since his elder son, King Ming, had left the country, Lee had only seen him twice. Once he had returned to Malaysia for his mother's funeral. The second time was when Lee had flown to America to attend his son's convocation. On that occasion, Lee had also met his second son, King San, who was also present for the graduation ceremony. King San had known his father would be there. It had been a very proud moment for Lee. Lee wanted both his sons to return to Malaysia upon their graduation but somehow they did not. They had wanted to work in the U.S. and also to take their Masters. Lee could not do anything to change their minds.
"Times have changed, father," it was King Ming writing to his father. "I shan't be coming back to Malaysia as you've wanted me to and I don't think King San will either. I've applied for the Green card and permanent residence. I don't foresee any problem. Why don't you come over and stay with me? America's a great place to stay and work in. I've got a job with a consultant firm here. King San says he has been offered a job with CNN and won't be going back for some time. He hasn't told you yet because he knows you'll be very unhappy with the news but he'll inform you himself eventually. We're indeed sorry if at all we've hurt your feelings......."
"Hurt my feelings? What feelings?" Lee exploded to himself. He stopped reading the rest of King Ming's letter. He was too disappointed and angry to continue. "My feelings! What does it matter with my feelings? As long as you 're happy what do you care for your father's feelings?" He chucked the letter on the floor and sank himself on the sofa. He was extremely angry and he felt pain in his heart.
Just then it started to rain. The thundering noise of the heavy downpour seemed to match the depth of his personal sadness. His nostrils breathed fire. He rose from his seat all of a sudden and stood in front of his wife's picture.
"What's happened to our sons? He snorted in despair. As if in answer to his lament, there was a great flash of lightning. Lee cowered in fear as a tumultuous clap of thunder tore through the dark, empty house. The fury of the storm increased with a ferocity never experienced before. It continued with a vengeance as though some subterranean force had been unleased and it could not be stopped!
Badly shakened, Lee groped for the joss sticks and tried to light them but his hands faltered. It was after some time that he succeeded. He at once held them up and prayed feverishly before the ancestral altar. He prayed very hard, asking for protection against the vehemence of the storm. The torrent was unrelenting and the whole house shook with each outburst of the deafening thunder. It appeared as though Armageddon had arrived with the end of the world. Lee kept on praying on bended knees. The more he prayed the louder the thunder roared. Nevertheless, he found his fears leaving him gradually. Then as the thunders quietened, the lightning ceased. Only the rain continued until it tapered into a pitter-patter outside in the wretched garden.
Lee found the strength to search for the letter he had thrown away. At last he found it and picked it up. He held it at arm's length to finish reading its contents. He had misplaced his reading glasses during the duration of confusion and terror. In his letter to his father, King Ming had explained everything. Lee seemed to be satisfied, finally.
"It must be as it is. I won't want to be an obstruction to my sons' plans. Maybe my sister is right. People change. If King Ming and King San wish to remain in the U.S. so be it. But I won't go over. I can't stand the weather there; it's too cold for me. Well, I guess times have changed. Expectations of young people are never the same as the older generation. I was born here in Malaysia, grew up here and will most likely, die here. For me there's no other place to go and I'm happy to remain where I am."
"I'm glad you've come to recognise the reality, elder brother," Lee's sister was talking to him, on the next day. "At least you still have your sons to look forward to in your final years of life. As for me, I've already planned to spend them in a temple; the temple authorities have agreed to take me in when the time comes."
"I'm sure you know best what you wish to do, sister. I've come to a stage when I won't say words unnecessarily nor make comments that I may not be qualified to do so. I shall remain silent."
"Perhaps that's the best stance one can take. For whatever plans man may have, it is insufficient when the heavens decide upon our fate."
"Yes. I can't compel my sons to be with me however much I wish they to be by my side. They have their own lives to lead. They're no longer small boys now. I've to let them go. When your sons are grown up, the world belongs to them. I think I've been selfish for being angry with them for not listening to my advice. If I love my sons I should set them free. If they do not come back, it wasn't meant to be. At least I know I've done my duty as a father."
Lee felt reconciled. He had the sudden terrifying storm the previous day to thank for. For his change of heart. It came across to him like the bolts of thunder beyond man's control. Man could not determine everything the way he wanted them to be. For the forces of Nature were mightier and held the key to the mysteries of life and death. Let it be; there's no other way.
Lee took up a pen and began to write a reply to his son's letter. His sister had left the room, upon his request to be alone. As dusk fell, Lee became more a picture of peace and tranquility, as he looked out of his window. From a distance, he could see people busy, setting up their stalls. It should be a very busy and profitable night because this was the last occasion the pasar malam was held before the Chinese New Year.
THE OLD RIVER
If you are the old abandoned river,
With your waters stolen and rocks removed,
Your bed is given to development,
Since no old folks home will welcome you,
There is no room for old rivers like you.
You labour along the pebbled ground,
Forgotten by a world,
Where people discard the useless fodder,
Set adrift the private ambitions,
While you're caught amongst the boulders, rock and crevice,
No need to feed,
This unlikely season of the weather,
It is not much of a treat.
Even so the spirit of the ancient river,
Will not give in like a dying breed,
Nor pretend that nothing's happened,
To society's massive greed.
There is therefore demand,
For passports to travel far,
To turn around the faces,
That look at you at a passing parade,
As a nation celebrates.
LOVE BEHIND BARS
"I've got to go and see him. I shan't be at rest if I don't go," said Maria.
"You're a fool if you do! I've always known that Yusof isn't good enough for you. Now that he's been arrested for drugs you're well rid of him," Maria's mother told her daughter.
"You don't understand, ma....."
"What do you mean I don't understand? I've been in love once, with your father. Look what he has done to me! The moment he learnt that I was pregnant with you, he walked out on me! Maria, mum has cared for you ever since you're born eighteen years ago. Please don't hurt your mum now. Please forget Yusof. There're plenty of nice, eligible young men around. Don't go and see him."
"No, ma. I'll go and see him at the police station. I know there must've been a mistake. Yusof wouldn't have done such a thing. He promised me. There must be an explanation."
"Well, go if you want to. I can't do anything about it if you don't wish listen to me. But I'm warning you, Maria. You're in for more trouble with Yusof. You'll get hurt. I don't want my daughter to suffer like her mother, you understand! I've suffered enough for these past twenty years. Don't do this to me."
Maria hailed a taxi and within half-an-hour she had arrived at the Dang Wangi police station. She asked to be allowed to see her boyfriend. No, it was regulations that a person arrested for drug offences wouldn't be permitted to have contact with anyone. He would remain in the lock-up for investigations until further notice.
A dejected Maria left the police station as rain fell. The whole sky was dark and the thunder rolled as though pronouncing an imminent doom. There was nothing Maria could do to plead her case. Tried as she did, the police had turned her down. No way.
She walked aimlessly in the rain, disappointed and confused. Her body became drenched and her wet hair clung on to her, refusing to let go. Maria didn't want to go home; it never occurred to her mind. She knew that mother would never approved of Yusof even though he had tried to win her favour by performing errands for her mum. She was a hard woman and harsh. Maria could not blame her mother for her attitude. After all, she did have to struggle in order to bring up her daughter single-handedly. She couldn't remember her mother telling her that she had relatives; neither had she asked. Maria only got to be acquainted with some of her mother's friends, that is the pakciks and the makciks.
Maria knew that her father had walked out on her before she was born. Why, she never succeeded in getting her mother to tell the truth. He was no good, that was all. Her mother was innocent and ignorant then and only 18 years old like herself now. Maria was born luar nikah or out of wedlock. When her mother's parents found out, she had been chased out from the home. She never returned. She had sworn never to trust anyone anymore and was determined to raise her unborn child without help from her family.
Not that she hadn't pleaded or begged to be forgiven and be accepted but they were adamant. She was a disgrace and became an outcast. She had brought shame to the family and the entire kampong knew about it. So Maria's mother had to leave and she came to the big city and learnt to survive.
That had been the brief story about her mother. Of course Maria was not carrying anybody's child. Maybe her only fault was that she had fallen in love with the wrong man, in her mother's eyes. But love was a spontaneous feeling and could not be curbed and struck most unsuspectingly. As if love had any design upon who and with whom. Love could never be a crime. Yet, was it a crime to be in love with someone not up to the expectations of your mother?
Maria didn't know the answer. She walked on and on forlornly along the road, which had now become jammed with traffic as the rain came down harder. Why did Yusof do such a foolish thing? It wasn't that he didn't know the penalty of involving himself with drugs; drug-trafficking in Malaysia meant the ultimate death penalty. He should know. Although he was a foreign worker from Indonesia, he had already been working here for five years and had had his work permit renewed according to the law. All she had heard from a mutual friend was that Yusof had been caught in possession of heroin on the previous night. She was not allowed to talk to him nor even just to see him. She had wanted to get Yusof to tell her the truth. There was no explanation and Maria didn't know what to think or what course of action she should take.
Yusof had come over to Malaysia after his parents died four years ago. He had been granted a red identity card by the Malaysian authorities and was therefore not an illegal immigrant. He worked as a contract labourer at the beginning. Then he decided to be a hawker at Jalan Chow Kit at Kuala Lumpur. He rented the gerai or stall from its owner, who had the license for trading for RM500 per month. He was already doing quite well in his small business when he met Maria one night while she was at the night market there.
That was about eight months ago. This initial meeting had led to subsequent encounters, usually after she had finished her work at The Mall as a sales promoter. Since then Chow Kit had been their rendezvous almost every night. She recalled her mother used to question her why she had been coming home late after work. At first she had given different excuses but eventually she had run out of them and was compelled to reveal the truth.
"I don't understand it! I can't understand!" Maria was still muttering to herself when she found she had unconsciously come close to her mother's house in Dato Kramat. She did not intend to go home but some instinct brought her back to the house.
Maria's mother was not completely an unfeeling woman. She might be hard and harsh because of her past but like any ordinary mother, she had a natural maternal instinct to protect her loved one. Besides Maria had no one apart from herself to look after her.
She was more than relieved when she opened the door in answer to someone knocking at it. She was actually overjoyed! She had thought Maria wouldn't be back that night, knowing that her daughter was equally strong-willed and stubborn like herself. The anger and perhaps the frustration she had felt earlier automatically disappeared when she saw her daughter all wet and crying. A gush of love and concern overwhelmed her and she embraced Maria like she was a baby. She poured the hot water for her daughter to bathe and kept on saying soothing words to Maria. For inside her, she knew the pain her daughter was undergoing just like she had had to undergo many, many years ago. No more the tirades she had pelted against her daughter! Not now; Maria needed her. She didn't want to repeat the same mistake as her own mother had done; her mother who had chased her out of the house!
After much had been exchanged between mother and daughter, Maria's mother understood and therefore relented. Yusof had no relatives or friends worthy to be called such. He was completely helpless and there would be no one to bail him out.
Maria's mother agreed to pose as her aunt and try to persuade the police authorities to at least get to see him and speak to him to get at the real truth. She wasn't doing this so much as a favour to Yusof but it was for her daughter's sake. After she got to know about Yusof's circumstances, she was a bit kinder in thought towards the young man. However deep in her heart she felt Yusof was still not good enough for her daughter. She had hoped that Maria would have a much better and more comfortable future than herself.
That very night, both mother and daughter ventured out into the vicinity of the police station. Fortunately, the rain had ceased. Otherwise Maria's mother would not have been that ready to go out of her house. After a great deal of begging and pleading and cajoling, they were allowed to talk to Yusof. The police could be kind and helpful should they find a situation that warranted humanitarian consideration. They could only bend the law that much and no more to accommodate and that too with a sense of responsibility.
Yusof was not a drug addict as the police believed him to be. He was a victim of circumstance. It was found out later that the police had raided the notorious Chow kit area and two drug abusers had run into Yusof's stall for shelter. In the midst of their operation, the police had also arrested Yusof, accusing him of providing protection for the two strangers.
He had wanted to marry Maria but his hawking didn't leave him anything much to be put aside as savings. He was also aware that his future mother-in-law had always looked down upon him for being poor and therefore unfit to be a son-in-law. He had wanted to give her a sum of money and buy her jewellery should he get married to Maria. Otherwise his chances of marrying Maria would be practically nil. These thoughts Yusof had never revealed to Maria. For a few months Yusof had been trying to find ways and means to secure the money to prove his worth. There was no way he could have saved up enough money to win over the mother. Hence when some friends had suggested to him a way to make some quick money, the temptation was too great for him to resist. Only once, he had thought, and he wouldn't want to be involved again.
He knew that around the Chow Kit area, a lot of drug addicts would come there to obtain their fix and that there were people who trafficked in drugs. He had thought about the serious consequences should he be caught. The police had been coming down hard on the illegal hawkers too. Many of his Indonesian friends who were illegal traders had been arrested and forced to give up their illegal trading. Yusof, himself, had been an illegal trader before he rented a stall. Before he turned legal, when he could not make ends meet, the promise of a few thousand ringgit was too attractive to be scorned. He had been lucky he had not been caught that one time. After he had become a legitimate trader some of his previous Indonesian comrades had grown jealous of him and fixed him up when the police came to raid the Chow Kit area. That was how he had come to be accused of sheltering the two drug addicts who had been instructed to run into his stall on that fateful night.
When the trial was over and the magistrate had pronounced the sentence, Yusof was let off with a one year imprisonment. Maria was thankful that he needn't die. Her mother understood and didn't prevent her daughter from seeing Yusof while he served out his prison term. She realised that in this world there was a great deal of hardship faced by very many people who had to endure the twists of an ugly fate. At times good people had been driven to do things that they wouldn't have done, had the circumstances been different and life had not been that harsh and seemingly hopeless. She thought of herself. She remembered the days she had to stalk the streets for customers late at night, and always fearful of being caught by the police! In order to survive and put some order into one's life, one could descend into the dark depths of depravity. That was a long time ago though not forgotten. And this had been her secret, a secret she had succeeded in hiding from her daughter. She would never reveal it to the one she loved most nor to anyone else. Like Yusof, she had been also put behind bars, although for different reasons. She wouldn't want a mother's sins to fall upon her daughter!
The world has not changed,
Only me, and the circumstances;
Having been suspended like a schoolboy,
For past mistakes,
For the time being.
And time is an empty period,
For thoughts to fill,
While waiting for a new assignment.
I have forgotten the joy in work,
Its hardships and its rewards,
My pride of place is now hung up,
Like a college frame,
Of that which has been claimed.
Come the day and night,
As the sound of a moving train,
Rumbles along the rails,
I fumble in an attempt to find,
The place I had used to sit,
Only that someone has taken over it,
With the odd pictures remaining,
For me to undertake.
AN INTERVAL OF TIME
Selamat datang. Welcome to Genting Highlands, the City Of Entertainment. The bold letters of Welcome greeted the visitor to the cool fresh hill resort. Genting Highlands promised a land of fantasy and entertainment different from the rest that could be found down on the lowlands in Kuala Lumpur city and its vicinity. Apart from the cool mountain air, the golf course at Awana and the sprawling grounds of Theme Park where were found the open air arena for musical and dance performances, a magnificent and large casino promised fortunes that Lady Luck might bestow upon those who liked to gamble.
Actually, Genting Casino consisted of several casinos with exotic names such as Monte Carlo, Hollywood, Circus Palace, Showboat, and numerous others which were all connected to one another. The casino area for gambling guests was so huge and spacious that many a first timer would find himself lost in the expansive enclaves of the casino. Even for the regulars, it would be near impossible for them to locate and meet up with their friends unless a predetermined time and place had been arranged before the separation. Otherwise a paging system might be of some help. The paging announcement would reach even the toilets and throughout the entire expanse of connexions. Even so, the likelihood of your companions hearing your earnest paging might fall on deaf ears especially if they were preoccupied with their betting and gambling at Roulette, Dai Sai, Caribbean Stud, Baccarat, Black Jack, Money Wheel, Pai Gau, Horse Derby and an enormous variety of slot machines that promised fantastic jackpots to the lucky.
Indeed when one was in the vicinity of the Genting Highlands Resort, and not necessarily within the maze of casinos, no one could believe that there were poor people in Malaysia. For everyone, from small kids to the aged souls that hobbled along the cold corridors and lounging in the luxurious hotels and restaurants, appeared to be well endowed with cash and more cash to be spent and flung away without a care. This then would be the impression one got, watching the well-dressed frolickers laughing and enjoying themselves in various fashions everywhere.
The young could ride on the roller-coasters, jam themselves at the video games, kiddies on the Merry-Go-Round, parents and aunties hog the sale stations of clothes, jewellery, food and countless expensive as well as ordinary ware. Bowling alleys, swimming pool, spas, health centres, discos, sports arena and a host of places where almost any kind of human activity could be found humming.
Of late great numbers of tourists from the People's Republic of China had been coming in droves and the tour buses continued to be in non-stop business, taking the cackling Chinamen and Chinawomen whose eyes were filled with amazement and wonder as they were being conducted in and around the entire set-up of the fun-filled hill resort. To them, it was probably heaven on earth, something they could not have possibly conceived in their peasant minds.
Alex Lee was not from the peasantry. Neither was he from the People's Republic of China. He was a lawyer and a third generation Malaysian Chinese. He was a reluctant debutante at Genting Highlands. His friends had dragged him along because his friends thought the trip would do him good.
The drive up to the hill resort was invigorating. It was less than an hour's journey from Kuala Lumpur City. The Karak Highway made for fast travel with a limit of 90 km per hour. Alex did not drive or else he would not have succumbed to his friends' exhortations. There was a new slip road that replaced the old one that had collapsed some years back. More than twenty people had died at that time The tragic incident had been described as an "act of God" by someone but it was really because of extensive development in that area which had coupled with relentless rain, caused the massive landslide.
In a jiffy, Alex found himself going through the mountain of greenery amidst breathtaking scenery that was in sharp contrast to the heat and polluted streets of the city where nothing stopped short of stifling the human spirit. During the short journey Alex could not but help feel glad that he had agreed to join his friends who were regulars at the Genting Casino. He had certainly been working very, very hard for years to build up his legal practice and now he had established several branch offices in Penang, Johor Baru and Seremban besides his main office in Kuala Lumpur. He felt whisked away from the excruciating heat and rat race he had been experiencing when he attended to matters of the law: preparing, planning and attending court. He had made a name for himself both as a solicitor and a barrister and was most popular among his clients who never failed to recommend their friends to consult him.
On the urging and scolding from his friends for working too hard, Alex abandoned the routine he had been used to and promised to let his hair down as it were. He knew Alan, Ron and Simon since they were kids and practically grew up together like brothers in the neighbourhood.
Alex's father had died when he was only five. He was the youngest of three brothers in the family. The brothers never made it in their studies. That was why his mother had been very proud of Alex when finally after a great deal of struggle, he had succeeded in becoming a lawyer. Her other two sons had disappointed her and naturally she was always full of praise for her youngest child, to the chagrin of his older siblings. That was many years ago and the spritely old lady had also passed away six years now. She only had one regret before she passed on, which was that she did not have the opportunity to see Alex settled down.
His external law degree from London University was acquired with a lot of sweat and tears on the backs of both mother and son. That was why Alex had remained always thrifty and hardworking to the point of people calling him stingy and miserly. He was very careful with his money, perhaps too careful, but it was understandable. His two brothers, very frequently, helped him to spend his money for they knew Alex had a soft heart. Alex was also aware that everything that their mother could afford, that is, time, attention and money had been given to him in preference to his two older brothers. Hence he had felt that he would want to make up to his brothers. This he did willingly although his brothers had their own jobs and families. After all, Alex felt he could do so since he was still a bachelor. He might think otherwise in the future when he had his own family. Right now his brothers and sisters-in-law and his nephews and nieces were his family.
Alex took in gasps of the fresh cool air as the Honda car wound its way quickly up to the Highlands Hotel, situated 6,000 feet high from Bukit Janda Baik. The rolling mist and languid tranquility no doubt lowered the body's blood pressure and a healing sensation to overworked minds. The majesty of the mountains and their luxuriant cover of green forests sitting in the middle of a sea of floating clouds caused Alex to feel the greatness of nature and the inconsequential status of man in the tapestry of creation. He somehow began to realise what he might have missed all these years while he had buried himself in work and more work. Living could not be postponed but he also thought that Alan, Ron and Simon had been living it up too much to the extent of being criminal in their extravagant ways.
Alex remembered the days when he had romped in the village's open fields and shrub lands when he was a small boy. Together with his brothers he had often brought lunch for their father and mother who tapped rubber for a living. They would stop by the streams that meandered through the fringes and interiors of jungle landscapes. But that had been so long ago and Alex had forgotten his affinity with nature when he started school and eventually he had to complete his academic pursuits in an urban school. He left his rural abode and his parents were left under the care of his two brothers who at that time were still unmarried.
Alex was still ruminating on his rural past in the precincts of these highlands when his friends shook him out of his reverie.
"Come on, Alex, we've arrived already! What's got into you, man?" Ron interrupted his musing. His friends slapped him on the back which jolted Alex back.
"Oh, I'm sorry. This is a beautiful place, isn't it?" Alex gestured with his hands.
"It's much more exciting and beautiful inside!" Alan interjected, pointing in the direction of the Casino that was located at the T3 level once the four buddies had got into the lift. They had already put on their jackets and coats. It was a regulation that gentlemen must be dressed formally or wear a long-sleeved batik shirt if they wished to enter the casino. Something like maintaining a kind of standard code of attire, especially when foreigners too were frequent visitors to the casino. Good for the image.
The moment when the lift opened, Alex's three friends had disappeared into the casino so quickly that Alex was left standing alone on the patterned flooring near the entrance to the Hollywood casino. They would all be staying the night at Highlands Hotel. His three friends had told their wives that they were going out of town on a business trip and would not be back until the following day. All three had made some hot money at the share market which had been surging ahead in a bull run prior to the Chinese New Year season. It was their usual practice to band together to go up to Genting whenever they could find some excuse to leave their families behind. After all they had been married for five, six or seven years already and they were not irresponsible husbands nor did they neglect their duties as fathers. As businessmen they gave the excuse that they needed some excitement now and again to recharge their battered batteries for new exploits. Unlike Alex who was almost always conscientious and hardworking, Alan, Ron and Simon preferred to live it up and be carefree whenever they could seize the opportunity to do so. Well, Alex thought to himself, that's their choice and lifestyle although he did not subscribe to his friends' ways. "It wouldn't be that bad," he told himself, "if I could be a bit more like them."
Even as he was about to enter the casino, Ron came from the exit and patted him on his right shoulder, wondering what was holding Alex up. "We're worried for you. I thought you didn't know your way, old boy!"
"Oh, yes, I've been here before all right. You needn't have worried." Alex tried to assure his friend and put on a cheerful front. His friends were aware that Alex was not the gambling type and it was they who had cajoled him to join them for some fun and excitement.
Alex and Ron were walking along the open space leading to the gaming tables when the grinning faces of Alan and Simon beckoned them to go to the roulette table where both of them were sitting. Alex had hardly come close enough before Simon dragged him literally towards him and made Alex to sit next to him.
"Newcomers always bring good luck," he exclaimed. Alex gasped in disbelief. He seldom if ever did try his hand invoking Lady Luck. However he had promised himself not to be a spoil sport that evening and started pulling out several RM50.00 notes to be changed for betting chips. Alex was still figuring out what numbers to place his bets on when the roulette spinner cast the tiny metal ball onto the rotating roulette wheel while the croupier pressed on an immaculate shiny bell and announced in a loud manner, "No more bets, please!"
In his hurry, Alex accidentally dropped two RM25 green cash chips on the number 36 as he was seated at the lower end of the gaming table. Before he could retrieve the chips, the metal ball had rolled into a sunken hole on the roulette wheel which continued to turn. "Winning number, 36, Red" the spinner called out.
"There I told you so! Newcomer luck!" Simon shook Alex's arm. Alex was stunned but nevertheless glad that his mistake brought him close to RM2000 richer. He had wanted to stop but his friend Simon prevented him from leaving, saying that luck was on Alex's side. Therefore he should continue to play and win more. Okay, Alex had no choice but to stay on. He never liked gambling but he would not want to let Simon down.
The evening wore on and Alex continued to lay his bets on a few numbers. He played cautiously and did not place heavy bets like his friend Simon. Meanwhile Ron and Alan had gone away to look for better pastures because both of them weren't doing well at the roulette table. They would most probably have moved to Baccarat or Caribbean Stud to try their luck. Simon too did not have it good at the same table as Alex. Now and again Simon took some of Alex's chips that were placed in front on the table, to put substantial bets on those numbers of his choice. Alex did not mind Simon using his chips because it was foreign capital anyway.
One peculiar feature inside the casino was that one would not know whether it was day or night because the entire casino was enclosed and the bright lights could be misleading. One could never tell the time of day. There were no clocks or time pieces to indicate anything. Probably it was intentional. One should not be constrained by time in this timeless zone. Moreover most of the gamblers were so much engrossed that they never really looked at their watches. Perhaps only when one's stomach felt hungry or one began to feel tired that one took a quick glance to check out the time. The hours just went too quickly to be perceived. Soon it was night and then it became late at night. Alex felt hungry and wanted to have something to eat. Simon had lost heavily and did not wish to get up. Alex was forced to excuse himself and left with the intention to go to the Studio Buffet to have supper. It was located next to the Celebrity Lounge and Alex moved towards that eating place.
As he was walking there, Alex began to think how silly it had been for him to have spent that much of time sitting at the roulette table, staring at the numbers and the other gamblers who seemed not bothered about anything but to play and play. When they lost money, they drew out more cash from their wallets, and kept on at it, almost mechanically and unthinkingly. He somehow felt he had also been like that a while ago. Moreover, most times he did not strike any number and his pile of chips dwindled with the passing of time. What more with Simon pinching his chips from time to time! He thought he had had enough and was glad to have got up to forage for food. "Imagine," he went over in his mind, "Simon just couldn't be bothered to eat even though he must be hungry. It had been at least six hours since they last ate in Kuala Lumpur, before they started their drive up Genting. And where were Alan and Ron?"
Alex tried looking for his other two friends at Hollywood and also at Circus Palace. He went to the gaming tables that offered Caribbean Stud and Dai Sai but Ron and Alan could not be found. It was not easy to locate one's friends in this amazingly huge expanse of Genting casino with its myriad gaming stalls and crowds of people moving about like those moving in a pasar malam. Most of the men were in rented batik shirts and there were just as many women as there were men. Some of the gamblers were very young men, barely more than the 21 years permissible age for entering the casino. Many of the young people were girls and there were large numbers of middle-aged women and quite a few very old men and old ladies who needed to be accompanied.
All around him Alex could hear the jingling sounds of one-arm bandits or slot machines making funny noises and occasionally giving out loud sounds of coins falling out from the machines. There were constant screams of joy when somebody struck a mini jackpot of sorts. Many of these slot-machine players queued to change notes into coins at the coin cashier counters or at the auto coin-changers that were strategically placed for the convenience of the players.
Alex felt that he would not want to carry on after his supper. Feeling disappointed and nearly exhausted from searching for his friends, Alex landed himself at Studio Buffet for a bite. He glanced at his watch. It was 12.45, way past midnight. Usually at this hour he would be asleep at home if he was not busy with his paperwork.
While he was eating his food, he decided he would retire to his hotel room and sleep. He did not wish to continue to gamble anymore unlike his friends who would very likely make it a marathon session.
"No wonder the Chinese described Genting Highlands as At the Top of the Clouds. People who come here are certainly transported into a world where nothing matters but to enjoy themselves in whatever form or manner they like. Good or bad, moral or amoral; there's no distinction."
Alex had his interval of time. He had his interval of time to enable him to gain a better perspective of what made the world go round, apart from the legal entanglements that human beings got themselves into and the battles he had to fight in and outside court. The human passage on earth was in truth only an interval of time!
Last update on 11 January 2006.
PageKeeper: Ooi Boon Kheng