The Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.  

vol. lxxiii part 1, 2000, pp. 126-129.

Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen K.T. Yong: A Life Twice Lived: a Memoir. Kuching, Sarawak, 1997. ISBN 983-99457-0-X. [enquiries: 55 Main Bazaar, 93000 Kuching, Sarawak. Fax: 082-422626]
Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Ong Kee Hui: Footprints in Sarawak: Memoirs of Tan Sri Datuk (Dr) Ong Kee Hui, 1914 to 1963. Kuching, Sarawak: Research and Resource Centre, SUPP Headquarters, 1998. ISBN 983-99257-1-7 (hardcover) 983-99257-2-5 (paper).

Reviewed by Otto Steinmayer, Ph.D.
Honourary Research Fellow, Institute of East Asian Studies, UNIMAS.

Sarawak literature—in the sense of published books—began with the memoir, and over a century and a half later the memoir remains a favored genre. Though most of the early memoirists were Englishmen, in recent decades Sarawakians too have been writing. Sarawak is at least as interesting a place to be born in as it is to visit, and we are fortunate that two such distinguished men as Tan Sri Stephen Yong and Tan Sri Ong Kee Hui have made the effort to record their lives and times and share them with us.

    These two books complement each other. Both Yong and Ong rose through their professions, the former a lawyer, the latter an agriculturalist and businessman, to become close associates and figures of influence in politics at the beginning of Sarawak’s modern era. As colleagues and guiding lights in Sarawak’s first political party, SUPP (Sarawak United People’s Party), it is natural to find many of their aims and attitudes similar, and both, when they come to the SUPP era, cover much the same ground. However, the two men came from backgrounds as far apart as can be imagined. Ong was born a member of the highest stratum of the Sarawak society, grandson of Ong Tiang Swee, Kapitan Cina of Kuching for many decades. Yong’s father, though of distinguished descent, kept shop in Gedong, a place of mud, flies, crocodiles, and cholera, “like the end of the earth,” as Yong describes it.

    Fortunately, Yong’s father had (barely) enough money and, more importantly, his mother had more than enough determination to send her son to school. She had always worked hard for the family, ironing shirts at 5¢ apiece. When she needed money for her son’s schooling, she sold her wedding ring for $11.00. That Ong would enter St. Thomas’s was a matter of course. Yet both Yong and Ong, even as children, understood the value of education. Both were keenly self-motivated, worked hard, and excelled. Yong, during a three year hiatus back in Gedong, taught himself to read. English-educated Ong learned Chinese at the advanced age of thirty.

    Education was a rare commodity in pre-war Sarawak. Those who while still young grasped its value and applied themselves ended up doing well in later years. One might expect this of Chinese, as it is a trait embedded in their traditions; but Sarawakians of other races, Ibans perhaps in particular, also aggressively sought education and prospered by it.

    Education, education, education, then, is a theme that runs through both books. Yong and Ong view their whole lives as an education, echoing Solon, the reformer of Athens, another who turned to politics later in life:
“I grow old always learning many things.”

    Only with that kind of mind can a person live a life that can result in a memoir.

    In 1941, Stephen Yong was teaching and studying at St. Thomas’s school. There met Gin Yian, a young woman also teaching there. Yong delicately tells the story of how Gin Yian visited him in his boarding house and discovered he had no mosquito net over his bed. Gin Yian instantly offered to make him one. The cloth was not cheap, “But,” says Yong, “it was a worthwhile expenditure. Gin Yian and I became better acquainted and the mosquito net served me well.” [p. 63]

    In Gin Yian Yong found his wife-to-be and at the same made connections that furthered his career. Gin Yian’s father was Ong Seng Chai (not related to Ong Tiang Swee), a businessman who had suffered during the depression but had recouped his wealth by a lucky find of gold in Bau. In December Yong learned he had passed the Senior Cambridge examinations, and then the Japanese invaded. Seng Chai took Yong under his wing, and he remained with the Ong family for the period of the occupation, formally marrying Gin Yian in 1944.

    Seng Chai introduced Yong to business by giving him the management of a boat service between Kuching and Siniawan. A year into the occupation, the Japanese firm Koksai requisitioned all private vessels. Yong transferred along with his boat, and was put in charge of nine more. This led to other business ventures as well as adventures--- everybody’s career followed a winding path during the occupation.

    After the war Yong managed the Borneo Shipping Corporation. His brushes with the British colonial administration gave him an interest in law. After, as lay counsel, successfully arguing a case in behalf of two of his wife’s brothers, Yong put aside his business interests and set out again to study. By 1954 he had graduated from Nottingham University, and was established as Sarawak’s first local lawyer.

    Meantime, Ong Kee Hui had received his diploma in agricultural science from Serdang College and entered Sarawak government service in 1935. He spent a busy and productive time dealing with problems of farming, often travelling in the ulu, until the Japanese invaded.

    The rigors of the occupation propelled Ong too into business. Ong’s grandfather, the patriarch Tiang Swee, counted on him to help run the factory and farm in those difficult times. Ong’s scientific training came in handy in devising substitutes for wheat from processed maize and tapioca, making soap from local materials, and brewing arak from sweet potatoes. Coconut oil proved to have myriad uses, including as fuel for diesel engines, and the Ong concern supplied itself steadily with the oil, bringing copra from the Natuna Islands by sailing ship. At one time Ong tried his hand at practical farming of padi, tapioca, and maize in the rough-and-tough Iban manner. Alas, much of his crop succumbed to monkeys, rats, bugs, and wild pigs, as Ong the Agricultural Officer notes not without irony.

    After the war Ong rejoined the Agriculture Department, this time under military administration, and helped in the first steps of rebuilding Sarawak’s shattered padi schemes. Leaving government service in 1946, Ong entered business again, this time under the tutelage of Wee Kheng Chiang, his father-in-law, who appointed him manager of the family’s Bian Chiang Bank. At this point his life took an easier turn. He resumed activities with the Kuching Rotary Club, was elected a member of the Hokkien Association, and joined the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

    Civic work brought Ong gradually into politics. Ong was general secretary of the Chamber when traders across the state staged a hartal to protest against the colonial government’s new fees for business licences. Ong was so successful in mediating a amicable solution to this crisis that the governor appointed him an unofficial member of the Council Negri

    Meantime, the Chinese community was involved in a dispute with the government concerning the future of Chinese-medium education. The government regarded Chinese schools as hotbeds of communism; the Chinese community were committed to preserving their language and culture. Furthermore, there was a generational struggle between students and an unpopular school administration. Here the streams of Ong’s and Yong’s careers finally met. Ong Kee Hui had served on the Chinese School Board alongside Stephen Yong, and both shared much of the responsibility for calming this conflict.

    Both Yong and Ong now entered onto their true career, the advocacy of the rights of the Sarawak people. There were a number of perceived threats. Decolonization was proceeding apace, and the British were anxious to manage it in a way that would profit them best. The Brooke dynasty had employed “divide and rule,” but they were locals and their interests the same with Sarawak’s. The British colonial regime also used “divide and rule” to keep the Sarawak people fragmented and pliable. Their aims, however, were much different than the Brookes’. By now the Cold War was raging. Sarawak inevitably became a pawn in global Realpolitik, in which scheme of things popular rights were always discounted. The Cession of Sarawak to Britain had involved measures whose legality was questionable; with the universal bogey of communism at hand, the British were willing again to interpret the constitution flexibly in order to keep Sarawak under their influence. After reading these memoirs, and other studies of the time, I doubt that Britain ever sincerely intended granting Sarawak complete independence as the constitution stipulated.

    “Divide and rule” encouraged the communal polarization of Sarawak politics, something that Ong and Yong, among others, viewed with alarm as boding ill for future Sarawak democracy. To counter this trend, Yong, Ong, and their colleagues met at Yong’s house in 1959 and formed Sarawak’s first political party, the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP).

    There were 34 founder members: 24 Chinese, five Iban, two Melanau, two Bidayuh, and one Malay. Ong was elected Chairman, Yong Secretary-General. Despite the heavy Chinese representation, SUPP was intended to be a multiracial party based on issues, not on communal interests. Its two highest officers were sympathetic to native peoples and their interests. Yong had made friends with Ibans while he was a boy in Gedong, and defended members of every race in his legal career; Ong had gained a good knowledge of Malay and Dayak life during his many travels outstation when he was working with Agriculture.

    The main point of debate facing Sarawakians, and SUPP, in the early 60s was Sarawak’s impending exit from British control, and what would be its fate thereafter. SUPP took the reasonable stand that Sarawak should first enjoy independence and sovereignty, so the people could elect a truly representative government to decide their future. However, Britain, Malaya, and Singapore had already agreed that Sarawak should join the two latter to form Malaysia, a plan that was fait accompli even before it actually happened.

    Both Yong and Ong held socialist views. Yong, as a poor student at St. Thomas’s, reflected on the disparity of rich and poor, and the way the social system allowed the poor to be exploited [p. 53]. Ong is not as clear about his views, but from the weight he gives his involvement in civic and charitable activities, it’s natural to believe that he felt a sense of responsibility towards others not as well off as himself.

    SUPP then, ended up being described, in the papers and by the government, as a “left” party. At this late date it is hard to tell just how left was left in those days. However, many of leftist leanings joined the party, and some members held extreme opinions. SUPP had come into being during the cold war and on the eve of Sukarno’s konfrontasi. With mostly imaginary—but a few real—Reds lurking in every bush, it was easy to demonize SUPP as a mere communist front. “Divide and rule” again went to work. Other parties were formed, with government support, along communal lines. They attracted members away from SUPP, and drew attention away from the issues, where SUPP had wanted to place the emphasis. SUPP was relegated to an opposition role, and Malaysia happened as planned.

    Ong ends his memoir at this point. He has promised another volume dealing with his life after Malaysia. Yong continues his story through to 1996 and deals with Sarawak politics within Malaysia and with his own later career as a Federal minister. The most interesting part of both books for me was the beginnings of Sarawak party-politics, and the lead-up to Sarawak’s union within Malaysia, as these momentous events were recalled by people who had witnessed them and acted large parts in them. Clearly, Ong and Yong wrote their memoirs in part as apologies for their political views and actions. It is not for me, the literary reviewer, but for the historian to judge them and their candor. Yet, as with every memoir written by people of public affairs, these too will be ransacked for information by scholars and others seeking to reconstruct the past.

    Both Yong and Ong write clearly and gracefully. Yong is the better storyteller of the two, and can even tell an anecdote revolving around the dirtiest word in English so that it becomes innocent and amusing [p. 121]. Both narratives are packed with social history, and draw, from differing perspectives, a vivid picture of life in the last Rajah’s reign before the war. This is a time that has been relatively neglected by historians, and we hope that Ong’s and Yong’s example will encourage others to write down their reminiscences. The well-written memoir of a life vigorously lived, even if that person has not shone in great affairs, will always teach us and touch us. For that very reason at the least Yong and Ong should be applauded for their efforts.