Datuk Shaari Harun gave me a glimpse into the Kuala Kangsar of old, and the country before and after ‘Merdeka!’
DATUK Shaari Harun is 93 years old. Sprightly, enthusiastic and inquisitive, he wields a walking stick though he doesn’t seem to need it.
He was my companion last week – and quite by chance – on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Denpasar.
As a tukang cerita (or story-teller), I’m only as good as the stories I hear and with Datuk Shaari I was in Oscar-winning territory.
Imagine sharing two hours with a man whose recollections ranged over decades, eight decades to be exact – stretching from Kuala Kangsar in the 1930s to Ipoh during the Second World War, his work as an elite Malayan Civil Service (MCS, later known as PTD) officer, London in the 60s and the Treasury under Tun Tan Siew Sin.
As the son of a Perakian, I especially enjoyed his stories about the “Silver” state.
Datuk Shaari described how he first moved from Bota Kanan to Kuala Kangsar (my father’s hometown) in order to study at Clifford College.
“I have to thank my father, for his determination,” he explained: “He wanted me to have an English language education. Had I stayed in Bota, I would have lived and died a kampung chap!
“The Malays in those days were afraid of letting their children leave home – afraid to break up the family. Of course, many were worried that if you went to an English school you’d become a kafir!
“I was the first from my kampung. But after me, many young people wanted to follow my example.
“I’ve had a fantastic time. I’ve travelled the world, been invited to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, studied in Birmingham and all five of my children and 13 of my grandchildren are qualified. I’ve also got nine great-grandchildren.
“My only sadness is that I lost my wife earlier this year. We’d been together sixty-seven years.
“I’m proud to say that I worked under both Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tun Hussein Onn.
“The two men were tough taskmasters: honest and parsimonious. There was no room for error.
“Tun Hussein once said to us that if an uncle, brother or cousin of his were to come to the office we weren’t to entertain them. In fact he said he’d sack any of us, if he found out otherwise. I had great respect for Tun Hussein: he was a real stickler.”
The trim and smartly attired Perakian was travelling to Bali with his family.
“In the past, I would have take them on holiday; now they take me!
“Next month I’m off to Hong Kong and then to Seattle to see my newest cicit (or great-grandchild)”.
Luckily we were seated next to one another. As such we were able to spend almost the entire two-and-a-half hour flight in conversation, with me pulling out my notebook periodically to write things down.
The encounter was made all the meaningful (at least for me) when he told me how he’d started off in Kuala Kangsar at my great-grandfather’s house, opposite the Railway Station.
“Karim, the 1930s were tough economically. The price of rubber had collapsed: it was only one to three cents a kati or US$3 (RM9.80) a pikul.
“It had fallen so much that my family didn’t really have the money to send me away to school.
“Still, my father sorted out for me to stay with your great-grandfather, Tok Setia Mohamad Noordin, and study at Clifford College.
“Fortunately,” he added, “I was a hard-working boy and I managed to win a scholarship so I had US$10 (RM32) a month, a princely sum in those days. US$7 (RM23) was enough for my food and lodgings and I had another US$3 (RM9.80) for my pocket-money.”
“Back then, there was no electricity in KK and Sanitation Board labourers would go around town at dusk lighting the street lamps. Then when the Kinta Electricity Distribution Board came to town we had electricity. It was a marvellous moment.”
“The rivalry between Clifford and Malay College was legendary. But we had brilliant students such as Tun Suffian [Hashim] and a superb hockey team. Our headmaster, Mr Preedy MA (Oxon) was an excellent man.”
“Kuala Kangsar was a quiet town but I can still remember watching the Sultan playing polo and once there was a famous lady aviator (though I can’t remember her name) who landed her plane on the polo field!
“I was back in Kuala Kangsar about two months ago.
“The chicken chop at Yat Lai is the same now as it was when I was a young boy. Even the ambience is the same and the steamed pau is delicious.”
Datuk Shaari shook his head unhappily as I asked him what he thought of contemporary Malaysia, as if asking himself: ‘where are the Tun Husseins and Tun Tans?’
“I’m particularly unhappy with the way people talk about race. That wasn’t how we were back when I was a young man – we were all united.
“Why do people insist on saying ‘Malaysian Chinese’ and ‘Malaysian Indian’? Don’t they realise that they should be saying ‘Chinese Malaysian’ or ‘Indian Malaysian’?
“In the present formulation, ‘Malaysian’ is an adjective and ‘Chinese’ the object. It should be the other way around. They should all be proud of being Malaysian.”
Needless to say, Datuk Shaari was unimpressed when I interjected to say that few Malaysians would understand the grammatical nuances that he was pointing out.
So, as I took leave of Datuk Shaari and his exuberant family, I remembered thinking how privileged I’d just been to have travelled through time with such an entertaining and thoughtful ‘guide’: I’d sampled satay at two cents a stick, steamy pau and nasi kandar before being whisked off to a Japanese school, ‘Merdeka!’ and the 60s whilst also receiving a quick master-class on English language grammar – all part of an elite MCS civil servant’s arsenal of skills.
So, Datuk Shaari, enjoy the rest of your travels and thanks for sharing the time with me: I learnt a great deal.
Karim Raslan views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. The STAR Online Home News Columnist 31/12/2013