Blessed to be a witness

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Thursday, April 28th

Muthu's story


Our mate Muthu

Muthu is a 73-year-old, teetotal Hindu who works as the managing supervisor for the bar we were in, to supplement his relatively meagre government pension. Despite his white moustache and hair, his clear, dark skin and trim figure make him look twenty years younger. The bar is almost customerless, the place above having taken all its customers, and only has one member of staff, so his job is a little redundant. Nonetheless, he's in the bar every night, soberly watching the occasional Chinese customers gam bei themselves into oblivion as they slur their way through karaoke numbers. He engaged me with the usual "where did you come from" question; I told him we'd come from Ireland, and instead of the expected "ah, Island?" response, he said "Oh, I've just come back from there - I was in Waterford at my nephew's wedding", which surprised me greatly. "And in Dublin I went to a pub that was two hundred years old. Can you imagine that!" It turns out that this was the Gravediggers', just round the corner from the house we sold.

He has led a fascinating life, and loves to talk about it. In fact, he likes to talk about it perhaps a little too much, and I'm not sure how many of his stories are entirely true, and he is a little prone to self-aggrandisement ("I was a maverick. The management were scared of me."), but he is so kind and charming that I forgive him. After our first encounter with him, he invited us back to the bar the next day for dinner, and told us more of his story.

He was born in KL, to Sri Lankan parents, in the 1930s. He remembers the Japanese invasion clearly. "The first thing I knew about the invasion was this: I was eight years old, and my mother sent me on an errand to the shop to buy something. I approached the local roundabout, and saw a lot of people standing around. I got closer, and there on the roundabout were about fifteen or sixteen severed heads. I remember one head was cut badly, they missed the neck the first time, and I'll never forget that this head still had a cigarette behind its ear."

Despite the harshness of the Japanese occupation, he said it made him "into a man". Aged 8, he was taught Japanese for two years, then when he was ten, he was made to work a morse code operator, in Japanese. "I was only slapped once by the supervisor. And I apologised and kept my head down, and it never happened again." He said he personally bears the Japanese no ill-will, and when he visited the country in 1971, he started to remember the language he'd been forced to learn. And then the liberation - the British bombers over KL, and his father making the entire family huddle in one room, because if one should die, then they should all die. I asked him what had happened when the Japanese left. "We went back to school. Except we had lost a lot of our education, and many people were too old for school then, but still we finished our education."

He emigrated to Singapore in 1952, and got a job in the prison service. He worked in the maximum-security Changi for only two weeks and hated it, and ended up working in the open prison there. He rose through the ranks, and ended up running the show. "At one point I was in charge of all Singapore's druggies, all 700 of them!" His treatment of the inmates was unconventional. They were on forced rehabilitation programmes, but he used to take them to night clubs. "I was firm but fair. They knew they'd have a good time with me, but if they pushed me, I would punish them." One junkie couldn't speak English - an unbelievable state of affairs for a Singaporean - so Muthu bought him a tape recorder and Linguaphone tapes. "525 dollars. From my own pocket!" Three months later, the man approached him and said in English "Let's sort this out, once and for all." They remained in touch after the inmate left, and the man now owns his own building firm. "He does the best work for me at a fair price; there is mutual respect there."

Muthu's attitude is the flipside of the bad things that happened to my friends. "Order, order is all. Corruption must be eliminated. Only by knowing the harshness of the punishment can people be deterred from crime." He approves of mandatory sentencing. I asked if this was like the "three strikes and you're out" policy in the States, but he misheard me, saying "yes yes, three strokes of the cane, that sort of thing". Despite this, he criticised his collegaues' harsh treatment of prisoners, though it struck me that this was less from compassion than pragmatism: "I told him - if you don't stop flogging the inmates there will be a riot - and there was." As he told us these things, he was prone to drop his high status into conversation: "when I was presenting a paper to the UN...", "whenever we went to international conferences, all the other countries went sightseeing; only the Singaporeans stayed for every minute. This meant we were always in charge of writing up the papers..." He worked for the service for thirty years, then took early retirement in 1982. "I could see people were resenting my methods, so I thought it best to leave before they turned against me."

"I have been under four governments," he said. "British Malaya, Japanese, British Singapore, independent Singapore." I asked him, given his Sri Lankan roots and Malaysian birth, what nationality he considers himself. "Oh, Singaporean, definitely." And what race does Singapore consider him? "Indian. They group by sub-continent." And it's clear which government he respects the most: he is in awe of Lee Kuan Yew's achievement, which he watched as it happened. And he doesn't feel that it's wrong for Lee's son to be in charge now. "People say it's a dynasty, but he isn't stupid. 9 As at O level, 4 As at A level, a first from Cambridge, a degree from Stanford. He's a switched-on chap."

Amazingly, he drove us back to our hotel - for the second time - and this time invited us to his family home for Saturday lunch with his wife, children and grandchildren. "This is so kind of you," said M. "To what do we owe the honour?" Again the karmic thing - "I want to make sure you have a good time. And you pay me back by doing the same for someone else."

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To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.