July 13, 2018
Note: I will away from Phnom Penh from July 14- 17 and being outstation, where I will not have access to a computer, I am taking a break from blogging. But I will back soon enough.–Din Merican
History: From a Burmese prison to Tunku’s home
MALAYSIANS KINI | In 1977, the Bangkok-based photojournalist Kim Gooi was sentenced to a year in a Burmese prison.
He was said to have violated immigration laws after he slipped into the rebellious Shan State. He thought he would die in jail.
Death was common in Burmese prisons, the “hell on Earth” he describes in “The Poet of Keng Tung Jail,” published in 2013. The book chronicles the horrors he faced on the inside, along with poems written by a fellow inmate and some of Kim’s photographs.
Yet prison was also the place where Kim would meet those who would eventually lead him to Tunku Abdul Rahman, the Father of Independence.
To Kim, the encounter with Tunku in 1978 was “a gift from above,” one of many recollections which he contributes to “Dialog: Thoughts on Tunku’s Timeless Thinking,” a 270-page compilation of anecdotes and essays by Malaysians about the country’s first prime minister.
While in prison, Kim was asked to pass a message to Tunku by a Burmese Muslim leader from Rangoon. At the time, 200,000 Muslims had just fled to Bangladesh due to persecution by Burmese authorities. It was also when Tunku served as the secretary-general of the World Islamic Council.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haji is No. 1 and will always be Numero Uno in our pantheon of Malaysian Leaders
Kim was uncertain if Tunku would meet a “nobody” like him, but he took his chances and wrote to Malaysian Islamic Welfare Organisation (Perkim) anyway, as Tunku was head of the Penang branch.
“To my surprise, Perkim replied after a few days. They even asked for my mugshot as they wanted to print my letter to Tunku which detailed the plight of the Burmese Muslims,” Kim said in an interview with Malaysiakini.
He then managed to get the phone number of Tunku’s secretary, and fixed a date for a meeting.
“These are all very happy occurrences. I felt rewarded. A small occurrence, but this was something that filled my heart (with joy),” Kim recalls.
“I didn’t know what to expect as I’d never met Tunku before. There was a bit of apprehension on my part as I waited for him in his office,” said Kim, who has written for various news outlets in the US, UK, Australia and Malaysia, including New Straits Times, Harakah and Malaysiakini.
Kim couldn’t take his eyes off the mementos and gifts in Tunku’s office, including several tongkats and a tiger skin rug.
“Then Tunku came down, shook my hand and offered me coffee and cigarettes. I realised it was so easy to talk to him, there were no airs about him.”
Tunku was a “gold mine of information” and had a talent for making people feel at home. As Kim recalls, Tunku was generous, and had great empathy for common folk.
And so it was to his delight that soon after, he got the chance to meet Tunku again.
Kim’s passport was still under Malaysian custody. He had a new job waiting for him in Bangkok, but he knew it could be months, maybe years, before he’d get his passport back, as a friend in a similar situation said it would.
An officer at the Penang Immigration Department suggested that he ask Tunku for help. It didn’t occur to Kim that Tunku still wielded a lot of influence in the government.
And true enough, Tunku issued him with a letter of support. With that letter, Kim was able to get his passport from Immigration. His career was saved.
“Tunku was my saviour, redeemer, he saved my life and career and gave me a second chance.”
Since then, Kim has had a special bond with Tunku. When the Kedah prince visited Bangkok, Kim helped to round up a host of local and foreign journalists to attend his press conference.
Kim loved attending events organised by Tunku, like his birthdays, which he said was a real “sight to behold.”
“There were lots of Malaysian delicacies, but there were also a multiracial mix of guests at his parties, and lots of children, Tunku loved children. He was more than just a politician.”
Today, Kim lives in a modest terrace house in Tanjung Bungah with his family. He’s maintained a bit of his “hippie” lifestyle. Books and photographs lay scattered on the floor of his living room. His tiny garden is overgrown with plants and grass.
Dressed in a flowery orange shirt and sarong, he gives off the vibe of someone who’s seen it all. Now 70, Kim is an ardent practitioner of Chinese art and health. He still plays the blues on his harmonica, and still lives by his Taoist beliefs.
Here, in his own words, Kim talks about how certain world events shaped his life and career.
I AM INSPIRED BY TAOISM AND CHINESE SCHOLARSHIP AND CULTURE. Some may call me a “Chinese chauvinist,” but behind all these teachings is a universal humanitarianism. It is the only philosophy that can save mankind.
I STARTED MY CAREER IN JOURNALISM during the height of the hippie era. It was an incredible time of hope and optimism for the world.
MY CAREER WAS VERY MUCH INFLUENCED BY MUSIC, POETRY, PHILOSOPHY, AND DRUGS. It was all things combined. The hip word then was that these things were “groovy” and “cool.” I was called a hippie since my days at the polytechnic in Singapore, as I often wore blue jeans.
IN MY CAREER, I HAVE MET MANY WRITERS, SINGERS, POETS who introduced me to the world of photojournalism. They read a lot, and I learned from them. They also taught me how to travel the world, take photos, and get paid for it.
HIPPIES WERE FANTASTIC. They were highly educated and thoughtful people, and totally disillusioned with American culture, which we should emulate today, as it is the most rotten culture.
PEOPLE OF MY GENERATION ADORED THE USA. But from the hippies I learned the other side of the story. Look what they have done to the whole world, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and with the secret bombings in Laos.
BEING A JOURNALIST INTENSIFIED ALL THESE FEELINGS. I came face to face with American hypocrisy and lies, but at the same time, my experiences also led me to see that they have the “best” and “worst” the world has to offer.
THESE DAYS, JOURNALISM IN THIS COUNTRY IS VERY SAD. The world of journalism which I grew up with is no more. In my time, evidence mattered, and statements published were real, but today, you don’t know what is, with all the fake news on the internet.
From Merdeka Day to Malaysia Day, Malaysians Kini will feature personalities known to Tunku, as well as their memories about him. Their detailed recollections are featured in the book “Dialog: Thoughts on Tunku’s Timeless Thinking.”
MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.