On Trengganuspeak and the Spirit of Trengganu

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Eid Mubarak - Eid al Adha

May you be blessed with His bounty on this wonderful day. Selamat Hari Raya Haji to all my readers.

The Lord Laughs Last

In the deep, dark crevasse of Trengganu history is a letter that got me baffled for a while. It has, in fact, baffled many people too, some of them historians, by the tone of its supplication. Or is it an assertion – of rights, of obeisance, of authority on the slide?

Many people now forget that in the interim between Japanese invasion and British return was a period of administration by Siam of the four northern Malay States Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Trengganu. They were handed to Thailand in return for their cooperation in paving the way for a Japanese invasion of the peninsula. From 1943-1945 Trengganu was effectively Thai, using Thai-issued stamps for its postal service and having Thai-speaking Malay dignitaries in the day-to-day administration.

That control was also asserted in other ways, using that mystical symbolism of cannons form instance. The Malays have always had attachments to these heavyweight weapons, giving them names and mystical significance. On Bukit Puteri were several, with names like Sri Jamlur, Sri Buih, Sri Johor, Laila Majnun and then there was a pair - little and large - one said to have begotten the other: the mother Che Selamah and the daughter Che Safiah. You can probably still see them on Bukit Puteri, but many were taken away to Thailand during this brief administration. The point may have been that a state deprived of its mystical symbolism had lost everything, but of course I am only guessing.

In 1945, after the Japanese surrender, the British came back to reassert their claim, and for a while, Trengganu, like other states were under British Military Administration (BMA). Thai stamps were withdrawn and new ones, with the BMA overprint, were sold at the post office.

In this interregnum between Thai and colonial rule as before the war, a man in the village of Ladang in Kuala Trengganu took out his typewriter and thumped out a note to D. Headley, a man he knew as the Lieutenant Commander and Chief Commander Civil Affairs, Trengganu.

If Headley had an imposing title, the man had a higher one. He was ‘Lord of Thailand’ residing in Kuala Trengganu, in ‘Ladang School’s Vllge’, which I take to be Kampung Ladang Sekolah in ordinary parlance. I knew the place well as I went to school there, two schools in fact, one alongside the other. This Lord of Thailand revealed himself as Tengku Abdullah Osman.

The purpose of this letter was baffling as I could not fathom what he was trying to convey to Mr Headley, and I suspect Mr Headley too would not have been able to make head or tail of his mission. It was polite in tone, full of Malay style salutations, too full in fact as to create a haze over the content. I even suspected that it was originally written in Malay and then translated – very literally – by someone else with a Malay-English dictionary at hand.

It spoke, probably of two comrades in arms (“Brother-Army”) who died (as I gathered from the phrase “Death corpse”), and the letter writer, in all earnestness, prayed that they be despatched to “Soul-Heaven”. And he also – I think – wanted the British army to dress in mourning for two days or perhaps in “two days time” after his letter.

Some people have guessed from the desperate note that this was a former Thai local dignitary seeking to ingratiate himself to the new overlords. And I thought they could well have been right for it is not unusual for old coat-hangers to seek new apparels.

And then, last week in Facebook, my friend Wan M Yusoff posted about his meeting with his ‘favourite storyteller’ in Kuala Trengganu, Pak Wan Abas, a man long in the tooth but with a very clear mind still for events in the past. I asked Wan Yusoff to record his conversation(s) for future generations. And then, there was this throwaway line in his post: “I did not know that Trengganu was under Thai rule during the Japanese occupation.”

Yes, Trengganu was indeed ruled by Siam, I commented, and to prove that I attached a picture of Thai-issued stamps with the ‘Trengganu’ postmark [see below]. And then, I added, there was something strange: when the British came back, a man who styled himself ‘Lord of Thailand’ wrote a letter to one Mr Headley with content that I found hard to understand. Could he ask Pak Wan Abas if he knew who this Tengku Abdullah Osman of ‘Ladang School’s Vllge’ was?

Wan Yusoff visited the ailing Pak Wan Abas again. And what laughter it brought me on a very wet Saturday afternoon in London, and in Kuala Trengganu, in the home of the venerable story-telling gentleman as Wan Yusoff broached the question. History and a man who we had always regarded as a figure of fun was having the last laugh on us and I - like a madman – could no longer control laughter spewing from my mouth with the tea that I was enjoying by myself in the Great Court of the British Museum. We were communicating in real time through the medium of FB.

Things that had been torn apart were now falling back in place. It brought us back to childhood times, to Kampung Ladang, and to a man I often wrote about in my blogs as Ku Löh Nayar, the deranged townsman. As Ku is the Trengganu dimunitive for Tengku, and Löh, the shortened Abdullah, there you have him before your eyes and in your mind, the Lord of Thailand Tengku Abdullah Osman was none other than our Ku Löh Nayar, the disturbed man who terrified us for almost our entire Trengganu schooldays, a local character and the eminently unhinged.

His letter to Mr Headley is now in the safekeeping of the National Archives of Australia, indexed under the item ‘Letter of congratulations of Tengku Abdullah Osman 21 October 1945’.

All this happened during the short reign of Sultan Ali who was installed Sultan when his father, Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah of the Istana Kolam died. Sultan Ali was later removed from the throne by the British perhaps because he was put on the throne by the Japanese or maybe there were other reasons that we are not yet privy to. [See his latter day attempt at recognition and recompense in the New Straits Times,Feb 28, 1995; above, right column]

Thank you Pak Wan Abas, may Allah preserve you, and to Wan M Yusoff for helping to solve this long (and hilarious) mystery. Thank you to the blogger Le Minh Khai for having brought this letter to my attention.