To get to the lush Cameron Highlands – home of Malaysia’s best-known tea plantations – you go through the old tin-mining town of Ipoh. And to get to Ipoh, you used to have to go through my dad, who was stationed there as a conscripted National Serviceman in the early 1950s. What an exotic posting for white-limbed sons of a post-war austerity England – the old British colony of Malaya, with its handsome colonial architecture, languid heat, old-town coffee shops and fiery noodles. Oh yes lads, and the Communist guerrillas, forgot to mention them, sure it will be fine, don’t worry about it.
This was the ‘Malayan Emergency’ that started in 1948, and probably didn’t sound too bad if you were a raw conscript from Cambridge (“slight emergency in Malaya lads, just need a bit of help”). Of course, if you’d been able to have a chat with one of the Communist guerrillas, you’d have discovered that your ‘emergency’ (“really lads, nothing to worry about”) was their National Liberation War. And you weren’t going to Malaya to have a chat with them. Rather, you were being sent there to try and kill them. Or at least to try and not be killed by them. Which, in turn, rather puts a different perspective on my journey through Ipoh to get to the Cameron Highlands many decades later.
I was on my way to look at the emerald-green tea plantations that hug the contoured hills, and relax in the cooler climes of one of Malaysia’s most attractive tourist destinations. And while Ipoh was only a name on the map and a change of buses for me, it takes dad back forty years when I tell him I’ve been there. Not that he recognised today’s Ipoh of boutique hotels, backpacker cafés, cave temples and colonial buildings. Ipoh had once been a prosperous tin-mining town, which was why the guerrillas were blowing bits of it up, and the impoverished local population – hacked off by the Brits who owned and ran everything– supported the Communist rebels as they melted back into the surrounding, densely-packed tree-clad hills. The point being that Ipoh, during the war of liberation, was not the charming, welcoming place it is now.
“We were sent out on patrol once”, says dad, “into the jungle”. This apparently was unusual, given that dad’s assigned corp was REME, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who basically fixed stuff, or scratched their chins and sucked in their breath and pretended to try and fix stuff so as not to have to go on patrol in the jungle.
I’d seen the trees, through the bus window. Not perhaps as close to Ipoh now as back in the 1950s, but still, enough to suggest some pretty dark and dense forest areas as the bus had left the city behind and slowly climbed towards the Cameron Highlands. The sort of places it would be easy for a guerrilla force, with expert local knowledge, to lay in wait as novice British soldiers blundered about in the undergrowth.
“We got caught in an ambush” said dad, matter-of-factly. “Came under fire while we were in our truck”.
I already knew about this truck. It formed the basis of another of his stories, the one about how the army basically gave him a truck and told him to get on with it, without any lessons or test requirements. Which, come to think of it, explained much about his future driving, notably a propensity to step on the accelerator when approaching speed bumps.
In this story, dad was, amazingly, in charge of his unit – only briefly it has to be said, because he was later busted down to the ranks for organising a rickshaw race on the parade ground – but when the bullets started flying, the other National Servicemen all looked to him.
“So I told everyone to get out quickly and dive under the truck”, he said, “like we were taught in training. Plenty of cover, good defensive position, easy to get a line of sight on the trees”. Which is where they lay, and waited, and lay, and waited, and looked at each other, until someone said,
“So where are the rifles?”
“Up in the truck”, laughed dad forty years later, which really didn’t seem anything to laugh about at the time, with bullets still pinging about the place. But miraculously, the guerrillas – ‘bandits’ to dad and his men – mistook this enormous stupidity as a Cunning Plan because the firing suddenly stopped and they disappeared off into the forest. Dad’s unit made it back to base safely, and never mentioned the incident – why would you? Some officer would only do some shouting – and, eventually, their tour of duty was over and they returned to Britain and civilian life. The fighting continued until 1957, when Malaysia became an independent country, and the ‘emergency’ was declared to be over completely in 1960.
All of which seemed a very long time ago as I sat on the terrace of a guest house in the Cameron Highlands, looking down on sculpted terraces of tea bushes as the last light leached from the sky. Tomorrow I’d tour gentle hills, explore quiet back-country roads and take tea in a faded colonial-era hotel, but right now I was having a beer and thanking Malaysia for not killing dad near Ipoh when it had the chance. Partly because that would have been catastrophic all round – no dad, no me, I know how this works – but mostly because it would have deprived the world of someone who added greatly to the sum of human happiness but who really, really shouldn’t have been put in charge of weaponry, whatever the emergency.