Saturday, April 08, 2006

Colombo Plan scholarship

When I finished sixth form at the end of 1964 I found temporary work as a teacher with Father Keogan at St Joseph’s secondary school. Liaw Aik Hon, a class mate, now living in Perth, was also teaching in St. Columba’s as a temporary teacher. We shared a rented room in a house opposite the old community hall. After two school terms I left Miri in September 1965 and went to Kuching to work for Sesco. I was squatting with a friend, Chen Jun Siong in a rented room on Nanas road. Ah Siong was previously from Pujut. His brother was one of two Pujut people who played golf and his nick name was ‘sultan’ because he drove a Mercedes Benz.

The reason being that the sultan of Brunei had many Mercedes , so amongst his friends, Chen's name became "sultan" in Miri. Later I discovered that one of the reasons that Chen drove a Mercedes was because he needed the extra large booth for carrying all the long handled changkol and rakes used by his workers. He transported his workers to the work site, the Miri Golf Course in his Mercedes. The other Pujut golfer was Kam Soon Kee, a wealthy contractor whose family held the monopoly of the grass cutting contract with the Miri Golf Club for the last 40 years!

One time a Foochow business man under-cut Kam by tendering a  much lower bid. He won and lost the contract all in a day, because he could not start mowing the fairway and greens for the coming weekend competition because he did not have the special equipment needed or the trained staff. Kam refused to sell him any old machinery or let him have his landscaping, green-keeping staff. He got the contract back at his higher bid price and he is still mowing our greens and fairways today. No one tried to win this contract from him after that incidence. It would be stupid to jump the gun by buying a whole lot of expensive new machinery, just in case you won the golf course maintenance contract next year and had to start mowing the greens yourself. It does not compute!

In Kuching, I cycled every morning all the way from Nanas road, passed the golf course, Tabuan road and Padungan road and all the way along Pending Road to sungei Priok power station. Jun Siong and I had our evening meals together at the open air market opposite the Electra house. He worked at Land and Surveys and owned a very old 50 cc Suzuki motor bike which he took apart almost weekly to repair the engine. On the golf links road, the pillion rider, me, has to jump down very often to push the motor bike up the hill! It was great fun and we had a great time together in Kuching. The rest of our room mates were Chin Fook Leong, Yong Soo, Leong Ka Wan and Lim Peng Huat. I hardly saw them at all as they were surveyors working in the Sarawak jungles with theodolites and chains and they all contributed a share to the rent just to store their stuff in town and also to save on hotel costs on their infrequent trips to Kuching. They visited every two months or so to report back to HQ and also to stock up on provisions. Then it was back into the jungle again for another few weeks.

I went to Kuching because a friend in Miri informed me that Sesco was looking for applicants for scholarships to study overseas for diplomas in mechanical engineering. They needed three people with sixth form  certificates to take up these bonded offers. On completion of the 5 year course, the candidates must work for at least five years with Sesco as generation engineers in charge of the power stations in Kuching, Sibu and Miri. It was perfect. Bonded means there was even a guarantee of a job with Sesco when we return with our diplomas. However it also meant that we pay back $5000 for each year spent overseas if we gave up the course half way. Of course if we didn't "give up" and continued studying...

Alphonsus Sia, Sylvester Lim and I were awarded these Sesco sponsored scholarships funded by the Australian government under the Colombo Plan scheme. These schemes were provided by rich nations to help under developed countries in the British Commonwealth. Every year Australian technical colleges and universities set aside some places for these overseas students to come to study. The external affairs department met our planes, arranged home stays for us, took care of enrolments and arranged regular outings for us to visit the countryside to get to know some real Ozzies. Most important of all: they paid all our fees and gave us a generous living allowance for four years. Scholarship holders were each paid a fortnightly living allowance of AUD126, quite a generous sum in the 60's. My friend, who was a private student, received about 45 AUD per week from his father in Sibu. During the long x'mas holidays we were all  encouraged to find a job to earn some money for buying our text books required each year.

Ten young men from Sarawak, flew to Singapore in early February 1966, stayed a night at the Raffles hotel and caught a Qantas Boeing 707 flight for Sydney the next day.  My sister, Rose was right. I did need a suit! Without one, I would not be able to come down for dinner at the Raffles hotel in Singapore. They allowed people inside the dining room with minimum dress code of: coat and tie only. I have no jacket until Rose brought me to a Padungan tailor and bought me a new suit. Later I wore this suit at her convocation in Armidale. After that I wore it to go to Sunday mass in Melbourne. Later, I wore a jumper in winter. That suit must be still hanging in a cupboard somewhere.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Raffles hotel, Singapore

Some students in my group did not have a coat. They ordered room service while I enjoyed my 5 course English dinner down stairs in the grand dining room with real chandeliers and uniformed waiters. It was quite an experience. I saved enough face there to buy three suits! Ha-ha!
On the plane from Singapore to Sydney, there were African students from Nigeria, Somalia, Zambia and other African Commonwealth countries. All were going to Australia to study. We arrived at night and were put up at the Bondi Beach Hotel. The next morning, imagine our surprise when we woke up and looked out the windows! There, was Bondi Beach just a few yards away. It was early February. The weather was almost as warm as in Malaysia and the beaches were very crowded with semi nude sunbathers and surfers! A fleet of black limousines with uniformed chauffeurs picked us up after breakfast and we attended a two day orientation course for new arrivals. Those of us who own suits were wearing them! Must not lose face among the international group of students and the orang putih tourists.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bondi beach, Sydney

Opera house

El Alamein fountain
All this was arranged by the External Affairs Dept in the Commonwealth Office in Sydney. They gave us talks about Australian culture, brought us to the Commonwealth Bank, opened savings account for each student and deposited some money for us to use during settling-in time, until our regular allowance arrived fortnightly through the mail, a princely sum of 126AUD per fortnight. We were also taken to Myers store to buy thick woollen jumpers and cardigans. I would have fared much better wearing track suits or lazy Joe at home because I felt the cold very badly during that first winter in Melbourne.

Any way, we arrived in summer and it was warm. I have never felt so rich in my life! What with bank accounts and cash in my pockets for shopping. It is getting better and better! All of us were exceedingly happy except for one Malaysian student who complained to me that he could not get a shower for three days because one water tap was scalding hot and the other one was freezing cold. Apparently he did not have running hot and cold taps at home in Penang and did not know how to mix the hot water with the cold! Another complained that he could not sleep at night because it was very cold and he had no blankets. He was sleeping as usual on top of his bed, like in Sarikei. All the blankets were underneath the bed cover! That first week in Australia, I sat down on the edge of the gutter while waiting for a bus and ate a whole pound of grapes. I had severe diarrhea! It was clear that all of us, including me, were behaving like Sakai! Ha-ha!

From Sydney we were sent onwards to other parts of Australia: Brisbane, Adelaide, Tasmania and Melbourne. Kong Ai Tiing, the other Sesco candidate flew to Adelaide and I caught the night train, the Southern Aurora for Melbourne. On arrival at Spencer Street station I was again met by a Limousine which sent me directly to a guest house in  the suburb of Richmond. Mrs Henderson was the landlady of the guest house Most Colombo Plan students were advised to go into home stays or full board with Australian families during the first year. Then we were allowed to go flatting with friends and do our own cooking. No one was staying at residential colleges in Melbourne because they were too expensive and not included in our allowance which was quite meagre @ AUD 163 per fortnight.

A new friend, Wong Ngie Tiong was a private student from Sibu. He got about 40AUD per week from his father. So, he must work during school holidays to supplement his study expenses for books and train fares. His father was a taxi driver in Sibu and was unable to afford to send more money as he had other younger brothers. Some times we went ten pin bowling at the Camberwells Bowls. He caught the train from Nanawading and met me there. After the game he usually came to my bed-sitter in Hawthorn and I belanja him fried rice or curry dinner. We also visited some friends from Sarawak staying at Camberwell: Ting Chong Seek, Awang Ahmad and Sylvester Lim were flatting just next to Safeway Stores, a super market. Their landlord was a German migrant.