My time volunteering

I was a cadet volunteer teaching in a well established secondary school in East Malaysia.

The impact of my placement

I like to think that my students benefited from having a natural English speaking teacher whose youth and enthusiasm made up for his complete lack of teaching experience.

I think they also benefited from my introduction of new curricular and after-school sports and activities.

I was dismayed when VSO discontinued cadet volunteering as the benefit to both volunteers and their hosts was surely enormous.

My unforgettable moments

Here follows an extract from my autobiography, The Accidental Prawn - Interesting Times, (my Chinese wife could never correctly describe her accident prone husband), available on Kindle:

Chapter 2 - Voluntary Service Overseas

Although I had been interested in police work and the army from an early age, I had always loved animals and decided that I should become a veterinary surgeon. But after experiencing life at the sharp end working unpaid for my local vet in Moseley (I was always given the rear end of suffering animals to hold and suffered the consequences at least once; useful preparation for service in the Royal Hong Kong Police perhaps!) by the time I had taken my "A" Levels in Biology and Chemistry, I had cooled on the idea.

In any case, I had been forced to give up Physics because my Maths was not up to it and the tuition was hopeless. So by the time I had been offered a place at Edinburgh to study veterinary science for seven years, I had decided that I had had enough of study and applied to Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) to become a cadet volunteer. I was quite surprised and very pleased to be accepted when others from Bromsgrove School failed but was somewhat disconcerted to find that my intended posting was somewhere I had never heard of (despite passing "O" Level geography), namely Sarawak.

John Hedley DSO, my Gordon Housemaster, quickly put me straight and told me that it was NOT pronounced "SARAWACK" but "SARAAWAK".

By this time, my last days at Bromsgrove were approaching and despite having a horrible ear ache, I managed to win all the backstroke races in the swimming sports on the last day before my brother took me off for a boozy lunch. When the alcohol wore off at home, however, I was in agony and my mother took me in the car to the Birmingham ENT hospital in the middle of the night. Here the Indian doctor did what the fraud of a school doctor should have done two weeks earlier; diagnosed a serious inner ear infection and treated me accordingly.

Luckily, I was able to attend the residential volunteer training course and my flight out to Sarawak was one of the last confirmed. Instead of suffering on the VSO charter flight, visiting all countries en route, four of us were booked onto a BOAC flight to Singapore. So with my arm still sore from all the jabs and a suitcase and rucksack crammed with what I thought was suitable "jungle" kit, I set off on my first great adventure overseas.

My destination was Saint Columba's School, Miri, Sarawak. I had hoped that I would be sent miles up river to some remote head hunters’ long house to teach young children in a wooden hut. But here my luck ran out, or so I then thought. Miri was the second town of Sarawak after the capital, Kuching and its main activity centred around the offshore oil industry. The school was a well established Anglican secondary school with a feeder primary school which received a government subsidy. My predecessor wrote to me and warned me of the dangers of being drawn too much into expatriate society and VSO warned me not to fall into the same traps that he had. What was I getting myself into?

The flight itself was fairly dramatic. We stopped at Rome and then at Baghdad where it was 45C at 10 PM and we were all herded into a Nissen hut guarded by soldiers with old Lee Enfield rifles; no duty free here! Later we landed at Colombo and the local youths all started screaming at us yelling "Beatles" and, in my case, "Ringo"; I suppose the four of us did have rather long hair and some Carnaby Street gear; and I do have a beaky nose. Then we were hit by a tremendous thunderstorm on our approach to Kuala Lumpur and the plane was pitching and rolling and all I could see was flashes of jungle not very far below through the driving rain. This delayed our arrival in Singapore and we missed our connection to Kuching. Then the fun started.

BOAC very kindly, but quite routinely, sent us to the Raffles Hotel, made famous by Somerset Maugham , the Long Bar and the Singapore Sling. They gave us two rooms in the Palm Court on the ground floor bordering the central garden with its ponds and palm trees and we settled down in air-conditioned comfort.

We then went in search of food, wearing our smartest jungle kit. The dining room was closed, it being late in the evening, and we entered the very grand Elizabethan Grill. Here we were seated by four waiters and given large leather bound menus. Then I saw the prices and, feeling like Oliver Twist, plaintively inquired whether or not we had to pay? On receiving a somewhat pompous reply in the affirmative, we beat a hasty retreat to our rooms and ordered in sandwiches.

The next morning, after checking our VSO handbooks, we called the British Council to report our presence. "Where are you?" some matron-like madam asked. "The Raffles" we replied. "What?! We can't have that; check out now and we'll send a van for you!" So we were unceremoniously moved to the Seaman’s Rest Home which was in a much less salubrious part of town. Our rooms had large shutters without glass and creaking and dusty ceiling fans. There was, however, a 50 meter pool and a bloke in a trishaw outside the font door offering dirty pictures for sale! This was not all; the other inhabitants, not surprisingly, were seaman from all over the world who knew Singapore and its more seedy environs backwards.

However, I managed to survive Bugis Street and its various attractions without getting gypy tummy or the clap or getting taken in by the gorgeous looking transvestites. In fact, I retained my virtue somehow all the way to Sarawak and back to the UK until I arrived in Hong Kong. Boys Public Schoolboy randiness, it seams, is not a guarantee of sexual success. Co-educational schools are probably better!

So, after a week of sunning ourselves and spending what little money we had, we finally flew out to Kuching on a Malaysian Airways Fokker Friendship turbo-prop. Here we were accommodated overnight in the Government Rest House. My memories of this place are fond; it was a gorgeous bungalow covered in bougainvillea not far from the famous Sarawak Museum. It was cool and comfortable and there were some really hip local girls living opposite who played Beatles discs all day long and made me feel quite at home, though I never got to meet them. (Sadly, the rest house has now been demolished and a Malay museum occupies the site although the bougainvillea plants survive.)

On our first night we had a meal at the open air bazaar with the local VSO. Not long after we had left, though, a grenade was thrown into the bazaar and several people were injured. Some other unfortunate using the public facilities at the museum was also blown off a booby trapped toilet seat. Thus it was that we first heard of the "Konfrontasi" with Indonesia, a quiet little war being waged between Indonesian invaders from Kalimantan east Borneo and Malaysian, British, Australian and New Zealand troops defending Sabah (formerly British North Borneo), Brunei and Sarawak in west Borneo.

In the end, I spent a full week in Kuching because the airstrip at Miri was waterlogged by heavy rain. I finally made it up there in an ageing Dakota and was met by the Australian headmaster, Hayward and his Indian deputy, Varghese.

They took me back into town and my home for the next fourteen months. This turned out to be a Public Works Department junior quarter, a small wooden bungalow on stilts comprising two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a toilet/shower room and a back balcony. My own room, overlooking a grass area next to the main road, had its own small balcony. The whole place was filthy and the headmaster explained that my predecessor had let himself degenerate to living in squalor by the time he had left. I assured him that this would not happen to me.

Because of the state of the place, he took me back to his own home, a lovely house in the grounds of the school and next to another occupied by the deputy. The school was a mixture of old wooden buildings and modern, two storied classroom blocks adjacent to the beautiful old wooden St.Columba's church. The grounds were enhanced by several fragrant frangipani trees, bougainvillea and a lily pond. There were playing fields next door and the two Sarawak Shell clubs, the junior ranks Miri Recreation Club (MRC) and the rather posh Gymkhana Club with its swimming pool, were nearby. Hayward told me that I could use both, but advised against using the latter too much in case I got spoiled. Once again I assured him that I intended to get on with my job and get to know the children and the local customs as best I could.

The next day the school clerk  took me into town where I bought shorts, long socks and shirts for teaching. Hayward later told me that the shorts were too short (his own reached to the knee) and might excite the girls. I kept them! I also opened an account with the Chartered Bank and met the Scots manager, “Drunken” Duncan. He was not very exited when I deposited my advance monthly pay of M$175! (About HK$400).

Then Varghese took me back to my hut where I was introduced to my fellow lodger and teacher, a Canadian University Volunteer (CUSO) who had been at the school for a year already. Unfortunately, he and I were not to get on; he was older than I, loved to talk, tugging furiously at his ginger beard and bouncing his leg up and down as he did so, and hardly ever washed. He dressed like a slob for school and in a dirty sarong at home. His bedroom stank because he never changed his sheets. He left the bathroom and the kitchen in a filthy state whenever he used them. In short, he was the co-lodger from Hell and he ignored all my pleas to clean up his act. None of the staff or children could stand him.

After the introduction, I set about my room. The mosquito screens, the ceiling fan and the room itself were caked in grime and I cleaned every inch. I then had a go at the kitchen and bathroom and by the time I had finished, felt confident enough to move in the next day. This I did and then went shopping on the ancient bicycle lent to me by the school.

I soon discovered that bicycling in Sarawak could be dangerous. The roads are bounded by deep open storm drains and on one trip home when my attention was distracted by a pretty girl, I rode straight off the road into one and ended up riding along in it for several yards with only the top of my head above the lip. Screams of laughter went up from the local kids and after that, I regularly took to crashing my bike near the house just to amuse them.

They obviously found the "orang puteh" (white man) living next door highly amusing; they took to lining up in front of my bathroom to watch me shave in the mornings and used to enjoy provoking me into mock rage and pursuits by chucking large snails onto our roof.

My first night in my new bed was not a success. I itched all over and in the morning was covered in bites. Some were from mosquitoes but not all. I discovered to my horror that the bed and mattress were infested with hidden bed bugs. So I took the whole lot outside and set fire to the frame after soaking it in paraffin. The mattress I sprayed with Shelltox and left both in the hot sun all day. Then I closed all the screens (there were no windows, only shutters) and sprayed the whole room to get rid of any hidden mosquitoes.

This became a nightly routine. I soon discovered that I had to leave the screens and both doors to my room open during the day to keep it as cool as possible. The mosquitoes would hide in dark corners, under the bed, the desk, in the cupboard. But at dusk, they would emerge. I would close everything and blast them with my flit gun as they flew onto the inside of the screens to get to the dying daylight. It proved very effective and I had no more problems from then on.

My first week or so, I tried cooking a full breakfasts but soon gave up. It wasted too much time and the school shop sold very tasty peanut snacks. The kitchen was curious in one respect, though; the gas supply was free because enormous quantities were produced by the offshore oil wells and the Lutong refinery. So the locals used to leave the gas burning continuously, to save money on matches!

Anyway, because I didn't need to get up so early to cook, I used to stay in bed as long as I could. I would shower last thing before turning in, to cool off, and hang my towel on a line on the front balcony. At night I slept naked under a thin sheet with the fan turning gently; any faster and it would heat up alarmingly and blow hot air everywhere. On awaking, I would nip out smartly, but still bollock naked, grab my towel and head for the shower.

After a few mornings of this, I thought I could hear giggling. So I then risked a quick look around as I retrieved my towel but could see nothing. But I was sure that I could hear giggling. Then one morning, I glanced down. To my horror, several grinning female faces stared back at me and then burst into unrestrained laughter as I attempted to conceal myself and bolted for my room. What I had not realised was that the bus stop was nearby and several girls would shelter from the morning sun under the overhanging eaves of our hut just below my balcony. Once the word had spread that this was a prime location for viewing a naked young male orang puteh, the number of girls using this particular bus stop had grown rapidly and the giggle volume along with it. Thereafter I disappointed them by wearing a second towel but still enjoyed greeting them daily.

My meagre pay was banked at the Chartered Bank where the manager recruited me into the Miri Hash House Harriers, the local “Drinking Club with a Running Problem”, the 7th H3 ever formed after the 1st in Kuala Lumpur in 1938. Known as “Drunken Duncan” he was one of a small select group of like-minded expats in government, military and commerce who met every Monday evening for a run and a few beers followed usually by what we called a 1000 Year Old Chicken Curry at the Miri Hotel. Torn up Shell computer punch cards were used to lay a trail through the farms and jungle and on one notable occasion, through a remote brothel in the woods.

I think it was on my first night in my own house that I was sitting alone in the Miri Recreation Club that I was invited upstairs by a member of the Royal Tank Corps to join their party. Their camp was very close by and on another occasion they threw a curry party to which just about everyone was invited, including the most senior government official in the Division, the Resident, one Julian Drake-Brockman. I spent a large part of the evening drinking Tiger beer with him and piling the empties into a huge pyramid which eventually collapsed.

Someone then suggested music and a someone else suggested that we borrow the piano from the Gymkhana Club. A Land Rover was then commandeered, crammed with volunteers, and we somehow gained access to the locked club and drove back to camp with our trophy. Another time I was playing football in their camp and went to retrieve a lost ball. Clambering foolishly over the rusting barbed wire fence, it broke leaving me embarbed by my leg and hanging upside down while the squaddies cheered. The hospital stitched me up but I still have some interesting scars. Accidental Prawn strike one!

The Royal Tank Corps detachment, which charged around in Rolls-Royce powered Ferret scout cars, was commanded briefly by a dopey subaltern whose name I forget. One day, travelling back from a Lutong date on the bus, I saw a burnt-out car by the roadside. The newspapers reported that the driver had hit a tree and died when the car exploded into flames. Later, however, my friend the FINCO (Field Intelligence NCO from the Intelligence Corps attached to the local Special Branch) told me that they had given the subaltern the task of setting up a road block to intercept a car suspected of carrying documents of interest to the security forces. The ambush was poorly designed and when the car attempted to escape, someone blew it away with a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) roasting the occupants and their documents. I believe the subaltern was swiftly and appropriately posted to the Catering Corps.

My career as the Accidental Prawn was furthered again when I was assisting Varghese to preserve a large iguana road kill for a biology display. He showed me how to use a syringe to methodically inject the carcass with formaldehyde before we bottled it in the stuff. I suppose I must have injected a load of it into its urethra because it cam straight back out into my eyes. Varghese quickly washed them out under a running tap but I still left the hospital later with the best pair of preserved eyeballs they had ever seen.

I was planning an up-river trip over Christmas when some 5th form students asked if I would like to join them on a trip to their home outside Kuching, a Land Dyak kampong called Quop. I accepted and we all boarded the coastal steamer, the Rajah Brooke, as ordinary passengers. I slept on deck with the students and others who preferred the fresh air but sneaked into the 1st Class bathrooms to wash. There was a choice of Chinese or Malay food, the former kitchen being in the stern so that the smell of cooking pork would not offend the Muslims in the bow.

We steamed in past Santubong to Pending (pending what?) and then bussed up to the 10th mile where we walked a couple of miles to the village. It was beautiful, a village of dozens of solid wooden individual houses, all provided with an amazing overhead bamboo piped water system running from a stream a few hundred yards away in the forest.

I was made extremely welcome, and everyone turned out to see the visiting orang puteh. It being Christmas Eve, I was then dragged off on a tour of most of the houses where I was plied with tuak and arak. I eventually made it back to the students’ home but passed out. I missed Christmas Day completely and woke on Boxing Day to find myself surrounded by several giggling young girls flapping me with towels to cool me down.

I took my teaching duties seriously and quickly discovered that the key was preparation and an ability to keep things interesting and preferably amusing. I taught an amazing list of subjects: English, History, Geography, Scripture, Maths (I think) and , to the 5th Form, Nutrition, a very practical subject designed to educate children to in their turn educate their parents about such things as the benefits of brown instead of polished rice.

The “children” in the 5th Form were in some cases older than me! However, my own form was the 2nd Form, about 30 mixed boys and girls; Chinese, Malay, Indian and various indigenous children including Iban, Land Dyak and Kelabit. Their ages ranged from twelve to sixteen! The youngest was a very cute little thing called Janice Yap, a doctor’s daughter. After she was forced to have a short haircut by her mother, she hid for a week behind a pile of books on her desk. Another very attractive girl was Hajji Shekiah Hajji Shadan, about fourteen and the daughter of a hotel owner. Both she and her father had done the Mecca pilgrimage, hence the Hajji title. Amongst the boys were two scallywags called Sarakawi and Matthew, both Iban and trouble! My experience as a Gordon House Jout (prefect) came in handy here and they quickly learned not to push me too far.

I don’t think any of them had seen hairy legs close up before. On patrol between the desks one day, Sarakawi couldn’t resist grabbing a handful. I took him on a punishment run. In fact, I introduced cross-country running to the school and donated a cup for a competition. I think Sarakawi won it; he got in plenty of practice from me!

Something else they were unused to was the European habit of using a handkerchief to blow one’s nose. They collapsed in uncontrollable mirth when I first used one. Thereafter, if the class ever appeared to be down in the dumps, all I had to do was pull out my handkerchief and pretend to loudly blow my nose and cheer them up.

There was very little sport apart from hockey when I arrived so I started the cross-country, volleyball and softball and livened up the PT sessions with British Bulldog, Grandmother’s Footsteps and other traditional activities which they enjoyed immensely. I also introduced a Chess Ladder, tarted up the Library and held Photographic and Art Competitions.

Playing hockey in Miri was a nightmare; the grass was so thick that the ball would hardly travel at all if hit. The only solution was to flick, push or lift it. Astroturf had not been invented. Varghese got me involved with the Miri Hockey Association and I was the Secretary for several months.

We had an away school coach trip to Seria for an athletics and sports competition one term. The coast road via Lutong, across the Baram river at Kuala Baram by ferry and on into Brunei, was mostly deeply rutted sand. The driver’s solution was to drive on the beach most of the way! I remember little of the event except my entry into the 1500 meters. I sat on the heels of the front runners until the final bend and then struck. I remember everyone in the stands leaping to their feet and going wild at this display of brilliant tactical finishing and I lapped it up. I never again won another race that I can remember though.

My other away trips were during the Spring and Summer holidays, both up the Baram River as far as the Konfrontasi would allow me. I would travel first by bus to Kuala Baram and then by Chinese launch up the wide, meandering river for several hours to Marudi. Here, another VSO, Jill Currie, taught in a boarding secondary school, a rather lonely existence as the only expatriate female for hundreds of miles. Marudi was famous for its annual Baram Regatta, first introduced by Rajah Brooke as an alternative to head-hunting. Fiercely competitive, the regatta comprised a weekend of longboat races between longhouses from all over the Ulu Baram and 4th Division.

From here I travelled by longboat, with outboard engine, upriver to Long Lama bazaar and Long Laput. In the former, I slept under a mosquito net in the old Kubu or fort, built by the British as a police post. In the latter, I slept on the Kenyah longhouse veranda after drinking too much borak (rice beer).

I was impressed with the skulls of human heads taken in a previous era’s hunting excursions to rival longhouses and from Japanese in WW2 and the old photographs proudly displayed of the Queen and Duke and all the White Rajahs. Apparently, the headman or Tua Kampong would politely accept the photographs of the latest Malaysian King and Queen from visiting officials every five years and then chuck them straight in the river as soon as they had left.

Before I departed Sarawak, I was given and traded some wonderful examples of native art work and weaponry; a Punan blowpipe and darts, three parangs, one quite antique and supposedly “blooded”, hats, mats and beads. I also had a tape of some beautiful, haunting Sapai (a Dayak guitar-like instrument, probably of Chinese origin?) music, later borrowed and never returned in Hong Kong.

Although I spent most of my spare term time preparing lessons and marking school work, I did socialise a little. Mostly I went to the MRC for dinner where there was a dining room serving local and European food. The operator was a wizened old Chinese bloke whose food was tasty, plentiful and cheap. However, he eventually complained about the amount of tomato “catsup” I slopped onto my nasi goring  and started charging me an extra 50 cents for it! I retaliated by bringing in my own bottle!!

Other times I frequented a little Chinese cafe which rented a space to a Malay chef. Here I had very cheap and tasty curries and watched the World go by. I would also go, without fail, to the very posh Shell Gymkhana Club for the Sunday curry lunch. I would often go hungry on Saturday, stuff myself silly on the wondrous buffet on Sunday and be unable to eat anything at all on Monday. Very occasionally, I would have a steak dinner at the GC, consuming it in the air-conditioned luxury of the TV room.

I used to spend quite bit of time with two other expatriates when I could. One was the Field Intelligence NCO attached to Special Branch, Jake. Still a great friend who rose to Major in the Intelligence Corps, serving twice in HK, and then joining the SIS in UK after retiring from a brilliant Army career. He taught me to shoot a Browning Hi-power semi-auto 9mm pistol and generally kept me out of too much trouble. Another character was Dez Hadhazy, an American Peace Corps graduate teacher who was probably CIA.

A third was a Brit, Dave Stephens, who worked for Caterpillar Tractors and owned an amazing open sports car. In reality a five litre Allard, he had registered it as a half litre Morris or something, the Miri Transport department being a little naive. He took me for a couple of breathtaking spins in his infernal machine which, of course, had no seat belts and was capable of a least 180 mph. I survived, and so did a couple of unsuspecting junior members of the Tank Corps sitting on the back of the back seat one evening. They parted company with the car as it bucked over a Bailey bridge at about 80 mph. Luckily, they were so drunk when they hit the bridge’s wooden boards that they were merely bounced and bruised a bit.

So, after a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable time, I eventually left Miri and Kuching on 15 August 1966 and returned to the UK  via Singapore, Bangkok, Karachi, New Delhi and Istanbul four days later with no money whatsoever (I gave my last change to the toilet attendant at Bangkok Airport who all but zipped me up after I had finished). I presented myself at HM Customs in a highly dishevelled state after my final thirty-six hour flight on the crammed VSO turbo-prop charter flight.

“Anything to declare?” the Gatwick customs man asked. I produced six packets of rotting and worm eaten Sabah cheroots and a Clorox bleach bottle full of tuak (native rice beer). He sniffed the contents of the latter, retreated in disgust and waved me through. I did not produce the parangs, kukris and blow-pipe darts just in case he had a fit. I was puzzled that the throngs of tourists ignored us completely despite the fact that we were all wearing all kinds of exotic far eastern clothing. Then I realised, this is was the  real UK. Luckily, my elder brother, David was there to meet me and take me home.

The impact my placement has had on me

I returned to my home in Edgbaston, Birmingham wearing Kayan beads around my neck and wrists, long hair, streaked blond by the sun, tanned and gaunt. My mother threatened to feed me up. I was frozen despite the “heat wave”; I can remember wearing a duffle coat, scarf and cap to go shopping; this time, I was noticed but presumably dismissed as a mentally deficient street bum.

I did not last long in the UK. I went to the Crown Agents in Millbank, filled out an application to join the Hong Kong Police, was later interviewed and accepted as a Probationary Inspector and was on a plane with other new recruits on 6th January 1967, just in time for another Confrontation, this time the communist insurgency inspired by Mao's Cultural Revolution.

Here I served in what in 1969 became the Royal Hong Kong Police Force until 30th June 1997, choosing early retirement rather than another five years service under PRC sovereignty. I found work in the Home Office for a while, then became self-employed in the security industry before returning to Hong Kong where I still reside with my wife of 53 years and two rescued dogs.

I remain very grateful to VSO for giving me such a start in life and I look back on my time in what was, then, a wonderful country, sadly now raped of much of its pristine rainforest by corrupt officials who may never be brought to book.

St. Columba's School

P.O.Box 97
Jalan Dato Abang Indeh
98009 Miri

4.3842384, 113.9837972