My husband was transferred to Tawau, Sabah in November 1998. I had very little time to get a transfer to Tawau for myself and my ten year old son. I had to get a release from my school first, then the District Office, after which the State has to release me and finally Kuala Lumpur approves me leaving Kedah and going to Sabah. I was working in Kedah at that time, which was really a blessing for me, because the officers in the Education Department in Kedah were very helpful and obliging. By the end of November, two days before school reopened in December we landed in Tawau. Someone met us at the airport and took us to Sri Kunak Estate, which would be our official home for the next five years. Sri Kunak Estate was an oil palm plantation owned by the company my husband worked for.
That transfer was a promotion for my husabnd who was a planter. He went to Sabah as a Planting Advisor. I was a secondary school English teacher. My new school was SMK Tawau, 56 miles away from Sri Kunak. That meant I had to drive 112 miles everyday. All our lives changed somewhat. We were no longer staying in an estate managed by my husband. That was the first big change. Roy my son, went to school by school bus, since he was in the afternoon session, another first for us.
My Principal was a wonderful lady, Pn Zaharah bt Mohd Kassim. Within a year, I applied for and was given one of the government houses next to my school. Our immediate neighbour was Huessein Perumal, his wife Noraini Chong and their four children. Next to Hussein's house lived Zainal and his wife from Kelantan. In front of Hussein's house lived Jimmy Cheng, his wife and two children. In front of our house, lived four bachelors and their neighbours were two single ladies, all teachers, except for Mrs Cheng, a housewife.
We had great fun doing up this tiny house. Roy was especially pleased, because we had neighbours, no fences or gates and after the loneliness of life in the manager's bungalow of a plantation, it was a change to have people with children, living so close to you.
Herma a young Indonesian girl from Sulawesi, who incidentally was one of the thousands of illegal immigrants in Tawau, became my maid for the five years that we were stationed in Tawau. After living in the teachers' quarters for about a year, our house was burgled in the wee hours of the morning. That burglary shocked us, the neighbourhood, and destroyed our feeling of security. It was a violation of our lives. Word went around that I was looking for a security guard. A number of people applied to become our personal security guard. I finally employed a Filipino man, Haji, a retired soldier. I must say that he did a good job of guarding my house, giving us back our feeling of security and sound sleep every night.
The enterprising Haji helped himself to all the mangoes, the jackfruit and anything else growing in the garden. I did not grudge him that. He then set about making himself comfortable while at work. First he went to the school and found a couple of old desks and chairs, which he said he needed for sitting and writing the daily report. Then he found some sheets of zinc from somewhere and put up a roof. Then he found planks of wood and had three walls, the fourth wall was the wall of my porch. He got an extension wire and plugged it into the socket in my house and got electricity. A hose and he had water from the garden tap. He was happy with his home away from his home, especially after he came with a roll of carpet for the floor.
Three years later, my feeling of great security was shaken when Haji told me that he had got a very good offer in West Malaysia and he would be leaving. He assured me that he would get me a good replacement. He brought the man the following morning. The new man was short, dark skinned, had curly hair, a strange odour, spoke softly, looked about 55 years of age and did not have the commanding personality of my Filipino Haji. Haji assured me that the new guard Johanes, was trustworthy.
Johanes started work and never skipped a day. He did not write reports, did his work diligently and soon my family and the neighbourhood enjoyed good undisturbed sleep once again. Months passed and Johanes began to put little paper bags around the mangoes and then he began to harvest them. We got hundreds of mangoes. He took his share and so did the neighbours. I then found out that the neighbours had thought all along I had been keeping all the mangoes for myself. Then one day Johanes brought a huge jackfruit from the garden. I had always been told that the jackfruit was rotten and had to be thrown far away!
One day my maid Ima told me that she would have to take leave urgently and be away in Indonesia for a month. She could not wait for my school holidays. She could not find a replacement for me. I was in a dilema. Roy was in the afternoon school, I was in the morning. My husband was in Sri Kunak and came back only in the evening.
I approached Johanes.
"Do you have any daugters? I asked him casually.
"Yes, I have a daughter," he replied.
"Can she work in my house for a month?"
Johanes looked away, he looked around and then his gaze met mine and moved to my feet. "She cannot. She is young," he replied softly.
I did not push the matter and left it.
A few days passed and we could not get anyone. I approached Johanes again.
"Johanes, can your daughter come to my house? She does not have to do any work. I will be kind to her. She just has to be here."
Again he looked at me, and his gaze scanned the entire area around before returning to my feet. "Sorry Ma'am. Forgive me. She is young."
"Is she schooling?"
"No. She is staying at home." I felt frustrated but let the matter drop.
My husband told me to tell him that after I returned from school, the girl could go home. I tried for one last time.
"Johanes, can your daughter be here for just two hours? She does not have to do any work. She can just sit in the house and watch television."
He was hesitant and then said, "Sorry Ma'am. She is young."
I became quite irritated. It must have shown on my face for he looked very uncomfortable and began to move around.
"Johanes! How old is your daughter?"
"Six months old," he said.
"Yes. She is very young."