September 2015 - Malayan Memories: Life in a Multicultural Malaysia and the Transition to Modern Day Malaysia - Jagdev Kaur Pretap Singh

Jagdev Kaur Pretap Singh is from a Punjabi Sikh family and she is a first generation Malaysian as her parents migrated to Malaya from India before the Second World War.  Jagdev’s father came initially to Taiping in Perak as an employee of the British Army. He was a highly regarded tailor and when his contract with the Army came to an end the Sultan of Perak’s wife requested him to relocate to Kuala Kangsar where the Palace is located to this day.  This was where in 1951 Jagdev was born before Malaya gained its independence from Britain.


A rare treat awaited members who attended Jagdev’s aptly timed talk (between Merdeka Day and National Day) about life in a multicultural Malaya and its transition to modern day Malaysia. Her oral anecdotes and stories were enlivened with a fascinating presentation of personal photographs and readings from the draft of her book about the experiences of her family and community.  Jagdev painted a vivid picture of her early childhood, her education and her early work experience as a teacher in rural areas of Pahang and Perak.  


Beginning with a family photo from 1954 (taken in her home town of Kuala Kangsar) we saw Jagdev in the middle of a big family of 11 children.  The family’s modest attap-roofed home was surrounded by a spacious 3 acres of land with fruit trees, a sugar cane grove, a chicken coop and a cowshed. 

 Jagdev recalled taking her mother’s talc and powdering the hens and calves in exactly the same way that her mother powdered her and her siblings.  The nearest neighbours were Malay who were treated like family – no racial barriers existed at that time. 


Jagdev grew up in a vibrant multiracial community amongst Malay padi farmers and Indian estate workers.  The community was serviced by a host of mobile vendors accompanied by a cacophony of calls – the “kelapa kelapa” of the coconut man, the “chee chong fun” call of the noodle seller, the ting ting of the bread man.  She regaled us with fondly remembered tales of trying to climb trees with the coconut pickers rings and of being entertained by the coconut man’s monkey. 


Generally her father had a policy of “no eating out” and insisted on the observance of Sikh dietary restrictions. So beef and any food possibly contaminated with buffalo bones, including laksa, was forbidden.  Whilst the the delights of the bread man were allowed the wares of the nasi kandar food vendor, the cendol man, the Chinese herbal drink man were off limits.  Jagdev didn’t taste laksa until she was in her 20’s and discovered it was made from fish stock!

The first family home was a meeting point for all the local children regardless of race and colour.  They had bicycle tyre races and played marbles and hide and seek.  On one occasion a neighbour’s son was stung by bees whilst hiding in the sugar cane grove.  His father was not happy and an open fight with Jagdev’s parents ensued in which heated “blue” words were exchanged and the boy’s mother exposed herself by pulling down her sarong!.  Nothing was kept bottled up so, with any displeasure out in the open, relations quickly reconciled. 


As a young child Jagdev also has recollections of the Emergency and the first Merdeka day celebrations.  During the Emergency she went with her parents by bus to Ipoh where amongst other things they had bought some apples. On the way home the police stopped the bus and everyone had to get off so they could check to see if anyone had food supplies for the Communists. Jagdev was worried about losing the apples from Ipoh.  The first Merdeka celebrations were when Jagdev was 6 and, whilst she didn’t understand what it was about, she remembers her father’s excitement and being taken to the balloon decorated padang for the celebrations.  


After Merdeka the nature of the community changed.  The Chinese were moved into the new villages to cut them off from the Communists.  The situation changed for Jagdev and her family too. The Government resumed her family home, with its spacious compound, for a school and road building project. With the minimal compensation paid the family could not afford to buy a new house and had to move to a small rented house in another place. 


Jagdev had more Chinese neighbours in this area.  Before moving here Jagdev and her brother had observed a wealthy Chinese lady with bound feet.  In similar fashion to the talcum powder exploit, they went home and tied their own feet up.  Needless to say her father was not impressed and put a stop to it.  Jagdev and her family participated fully in the life of their community – attending weddings of friends and neighbours regardless of race and creed – Malay, Indian, Chinese, Tamil, Punjabi Sikh – the only restriction being her father’s dictate to avoid any foodstuffs which could be contaminated by those buffalo bones!

School days were a happy time for Jagdev. She attended the Government English Girls School in Kuala Kangsar Perak. This was in the former residence of the colonial administrator Hugh Low.  Her English medium education included the study of English Literature and poetry. 


We saw her pictured, with her long plaits, amongst a gaggle of Malay school girl friends (all in the same school uniform with hair uncovered), in the Girl Guides troupe, as one of the “taller girls being a boy” in the school folk dancing group and with her Chinese friends on a Geography field trip to the Kinta Valley. 

 After school, college life began in the form of a two year teacher training course at MPTI.  An active social life ensued for Jagdev and her friends of all races - fancy dress competitions, dancing, freshers’ balls!  Such activities are not so common at public universities these days.


Her first teaching post was an eye-opener for Jagdev.  Stationed in the Sungai Ruan area of Ruab in Pahang she found herself immersed in the rugged and rough Konsai culture of the Chinese working in tobacco and rubber estates.  Fluency in Malay and English didn’t cut the mustard in this Chinese speaking area!  Raub was a melting pot of young Malaysian professionals and the American Peace Corp staff.  Loud music and parties were the order of the day.  With her multiracial and multinational circle of friends Jagdev became the talk of the town.  Not all members of the community were so accepting of this fraternising.


A senior lady scolded Jagdev claiming that her reputation was in tatters and no one would want to marry her. (She remains single to this day!).  The ability to slip easily into other cultures stayed with Jagdev.  Imagine a Punjabi Sikh girl performing prayers at the house shrines of a Hakka Chinese woman.  This was Jagdev in her next posting in Bentong as she lived like a daughter with this lady in her home.  A surprised neighbour asked her why she was praying and she just said that “Aunty” had asked her to take care of the shrines in her absence.  

During this period the Communist insurgents were still active.  One of Jagdev’s friends, Rashid, was an army intelligence officer who wasn’t above trying to involve his friends in his intel gathering exploits.  The students of a teacher such as Jagdev could be a useful source of information about the insurgents.  Her good looks could be used to tempt an Orang Asli elder to let slip something useful in an unguarded moment.  An uncooperative Jagdev still remained friendly with Rashid.


Rashid was the focus of one of Jagdev’s saddest stories.  He fell in love with one of her Chinese friends, Mei Ching.  In the 1970s such liaisons were frowned upon.  On discovering the matter Mei Ching’s parents whisked her away and locked her up in the family home in Kuantan.  A heartbroken Rashid persuaded Jagdev to accompany him to Mei Ching’s parent’s home.  But to no avail no contact was allowed and to this day Jagdev doesn’t know what became of her friend.  Sadly we found out what happened to Rashid – he was killed in an insurgent’s bomb blast in Fraser’s Hill.

Interracial marriage has not been a problem in Jagdev’s family. Her brother married a Chinese lady in the 1980s.  She remains very close to her in-laws despite the sad passing away of her husband.  The deep love of multiculturalism experienced in her childhood has stayed with Jagdev over the years.  An accepting and loyal friend, she has attended many multicultural weddings over the years and still has lunch dates with her old school friends.  She surprised us with a recent photo of the same Malay school girls we had seen earlier – only a single uncovered head remains. 


On a recent trip down memory lane in her childhood home of Kuala Kangsar, Jagdev visited her former Chinese neighbours and caught up with some Malay guys that she grew up with.  She finished with fond memories of the way these folk featured in her life without any concern for racial differences.  Jagdev’s mother used to give tea to one Malay friend’s disabled father when he was working nearby and he in turn used to see Jagdev off at the station when she went off to college.

Another one’s mother sold kueh wrapped in banana leaf and Jagdev used to help (not always successfully) with that.  Yet another one had a fair “sibling” who was the child of a Malay relative and her British employer born out of wedlock and given to his family to bring up.  With friends and acquaintances, underneath the visible changes there is no polarisation and the acceptance remains.


Thanks Jagdev for painting such a vivid picture of the beauty of your life in a multicultural Malaysia.  Whilst things may seem to be becoming more polarised at the moment, let’s hope it gets back on track and moves forward in the same spirit of tolerance and acceptance.  You have whetted our appetite for more insightful and heart-warming tales. So we eagerly await the completion of your book “Across the Dark Waters” to find out more about the experiences of your family and community.




Susan Sawyer