Uncategorized · May 7, 2020

Ninety years Young.

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Celebrating 90 years on this earth with her first Zoom call. (Photo Credit: Joe Samad)

When my mother was born 90 years ago, a telegram would have been the way to wish a far-flung family member a Happy Birthday. On my mother’s 90th birthday (4 May 2020), my mother received birthday wishes in real-time via Zoom.

Curious to know how she would remember her past 89 years on this earth, we asked her how it feels like being 90. She proceeded to list down all the aches and pains she is currently experiencing, her sleeping difficulties and challenges with the Stay at Home rule due to Covid-19.

We should have formulated our question better.

However, based on the stories she has shared of her life so far, if we played back her life like a movie, I believe it would look like this.

Born in Kuching, Sarawak before there was even a Malaysia, she got to experience what life was under the “White Rajah” Rajah Brooke. Her father was a policeman based across the Kuching River and on occasion, they would see the Rajah crossing the river in his magnificent boat.

She experienced life during the Japanese occupation of North Borneo as she and her family were in Tuaran, North Borneo, during WWII. Tales of the harsh life under the Japanese Imperial Army, how her father refused to help them in rounding up “rebels”, running to bomb shelters and the sad events of double 10.

After the war, she completed her schooling and followed friends to an interview for a nursing position. She was ahead of her time as being an only child and girl and wanting to have an independent career at that time, was mostly unheard of.

The compromise was that her Police Constable father would keep an eye on her and with that understanding in place, she managed to start work as a nurse and lived somewhat independently at the nursing hostel with other nurses.

Her nursing career was curtailed when she met the love of her life. Dating then consisted of chaperones and communicating by letter. Letters from him would be first opened and read by her father before she could read it. Replies would be dictated by her father. It was not all censorship and chaperones though as she has shared times when there was also romantic serenading with a ukelele.

Then came life in Labuan, raising a family and adjusting to the departure of the British North Borneo Company from these shores and the beginnings of the formation of a country to be called, Malaya, then Malaysia.

A move to Brunei followed as her husband took up a post in Royal Dutch Shell in Brunei. As he moved up the ranks, this girl from Sungei Bedil Kecil, Kuching, Sarawak/Tuaran, North Borneo, learned to mingle and socialize with the British and Dutch population in Seria.

It was also a time of upheaval as the Brunei revoltand the Confrontation (or Konfrantasi) was heating up at that time. That period brought about stories of police stations under attack and curfews.

The 1970s brought a new experience for her. Moving from Brunei back to Sabah. Here, she transformed from socialite to entrepreneur. Having been exposed to western dishes, she started to produce potato chips in her kitchen, ably assisted by her two youngest, who also doubled up as delivery and collection boys. Her potato chips could be found in the Likas shops in front of All Saints school and in the canteens of her children’s schools. She later added on curry puff to her product line.

Although her life in Sabah tended to focus more on family life, cooking, baking and learning to speak Japanese, it was not without incident.

She worried through the Sabah riots of 1986 as bombs went off near the offices where her husband and eldest son were working. (In 2012 her granddaughter Nadira Illana produced a documentary called The Silent Riot on this incident.)

She’s seen a challenge for Sabah CM by two individuals, twice. (1985 and 2018). She’s seen Bersih and joked about what color t-shirts we can wear out. And she’s seen the end of UMNO-BN rule in Malaya, Malaysia.

As her family grew larger and spread out across the country and globe, she has learned to embrace technology from phone calls, to email, to instant messaging, to facetime and this week, to Zoom.

When the Stay at Home ruling was announced, I asked if she would be ok. She replied that she has seen worse. Occupation by a foreign army, revolts, riots and curfews. A little bug called Covid-19 is not going to scare her.

This is what happens when you have lived through 9 decades. And this is why she is the rock to her family.

Happy Birthday mum and many more to come.