KUALA LUMPUR: They grew up together, cycled the length of Malaya during the curfew days together and, on Aug 31, 1957, not only did they witness Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj declaring the country’s independence together, but they were also part of the parade on the historic day.
Sixty-one years on, Dr Jaswant Singh and Datuk Dr M. Mohinder Singh still light up when talking about the historic day and how they were smack in the middle of the action as Tunku Abdul Rahman shouted the words, “Merdeka, Merdeka, Merdeka”, in Stadium Merdeka.
“I remember it was the greatest day for us,” Dr Jaswant, 82, said.
“There was excitement all around. I was leading the Red Cross (second platoon) from the railway station in Kuala Lumpur to Batu Road. Mohinder was also part of the second platoon.
“There were thousands of people all over the place — Ma-lays, Chinese, Indians. Everyone was united in celebrating the occasion and seeing this country enter a new chapter.”
He said he owed his diligence to Malaysia.
“We struggled hard during the Japanese occupation. My dad had a farm with 15 cows. We had to feed and milk them, and sell the milk to the customers. That was how we managed.
“After Merdeka, my dad ran a shop in Melaka. I left for India and returned with a medical degree. I joined the Health Ministry and was posted in several states as a director for dental services. I retired in 1992. I was later hired to set up a dental department at Universiti Kebangsaan Malay-sia. I was there for 12 years.
“Malaysia is my life. I can go anywhere in the world but Malay-sia will always be my home. Back then, communists attacked the rural areas, but all that are things of the past. Malaysia has kept them (rural areas) safe and developed well in less than 61 years.”
Mohinder, 81, who went on to become one of the country’s first scientists, related how he and his closest friend saw the country progress from its pre-independence days to what it is now.
He said they were fortunate to have embarked on a cycling trip from Melaka to Penang in 1956, despite warnings about how unsafe it was back then due to communists.
Dr Jaswant Singh (second from left) and Datuk Dr Mohinder Singh (second from right) cycled from Melaka to Penang in 1956. PIC COURTESY OF JASWANT SINGH
“There was a lot of insecurity, but we put all that at the back of our minds as we were only 19 and itching for some adventure.
“We formed a cycling group and plotted a trip to Penang. Initially, 20 of us, all classmates, agreed to go, but everyone, except me and Jaswant, backed out when the day came,” he said, adding that they sneaked out of their houses one day without telling their parents.
The cycling trip became the biggest eye-opener for the two friends as they witnessed first-hand how the curfew was imposed around the country.
“At 6pm every day, we stopped at wherever we were. We looked for the nearest town, and stayed in either gurdwaras (Sikh temples) or slept at police stations.
“Lucky for us, there was always a Sikh policeman at every police station we entered. They gave us a place to stay... Fortunately, it was not the lock-up.
“One time, when we were in Tapah to head to Ipoh, there was a curfew and we cycled as fast as we could to reach Ipoh.
“That was dangerous, but it ended well for us.”
For Mohinder, the rise of Malay-sia with a new chapter in August 1957 brought hope and confidence to Malaysians.
The former chemist said the government opened up opportunities for Malaysians and launched programmes to Malay-sian-ise the people and uplift their living standards.
“I was born at the right time, as I benefited from this programme. When I joined the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) as a research officer in 1964, 80 per cent of the workforce were expatriates.
“The government sent me to Oxford to be trained as a specialist in soil chemistry. When I returned in 1966, I was made a specialist in RRI and in 1971, I was promoted to head of department.
“I benefited a lot after Merdeka, as the country wanted to develop. The government created a Science Department in the Ministry of Science and Technology, and I was made a director.
“Since independence, Malaysia has developed well in terms of building and infrastructure. The period between 1957 and 1989 was when this country grew as a nation. Back then, we had only one top university in Malaysia — Universiti Malaya. Today, we have more than 60 public and private universities. There were also few research institutes back then, compared with so many established ones today.
“This generation is benefiting from the nation’s progress. My children have benefited. They are all doing well in their respective fields.”
Mohinder retired as director of Science in the Science and Technology Ministry in 1992, and is focusing on charity work.
He is the honorary director of the Spastic Children’s Association of Selangor & Federal Territory in Petaling Jaya. The complex in which the association is located houses 30 non-government organisations. © New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd