How the First KL's 30 year search for their Scout Master ended with ....
A Magical Holiday
John Anthony Frank Lever, a corporal with the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (REME) maintained aircraft for the 656 Squadron of the Army Air Corp in Malaya from August 1959 to February 1962 and was based in the Squadron’s workshop at Jalan Gurney, fortuitously next to Castle Camp. It was during this time that he became associated with the First KL Senior Scout Troop. He had arrived at a time when interest in Scouting in the V.I. (and in the rest of the country) was waning. Most schools had no active Scoutmasters and some had only senior students as Assistant Scoutmasters. The First KL was lucky in having the likes of Lee Choong Looi (a Sixth Former), Wong Peng Kong (an old Scouter) and Nasir Ibrahim (another old Scouter) returning to help out. And, of course, there was John Lever.
John gave the inspiration, guidance and financial help that got the Troop going. He solicited from his mates in the 656 Squadron a $1,000 donation. With that money the First KL scouts bought tarpaulins, ropes, hurricane lamps, parangs, pots, pans and other Scouting paraphernalia.
After Malaya, John returned to the U.K., and with most of the First KL Scouters busy pursuing their respective studies and careers, both sides soon lost touch with each other. On John's part, he, too, was busy with his own career, pausing long enough to get married in 1965. In the ensuing years John saw active duty in Cyprus under the United Nations and Northern Ireland before calling it a day in July 1978. But well before that Koh Tong Bak had already been trying to trace him.
In 1963, Tong Bak wrote a letter from his medical college in Singapore, giving John's details to the British tabloid The Daily Mirror in London. Eager for a story, The Mirror assigned a young lady reporter called Maggie to the job. Incredibly, she managed to trace John and actually got him to record a message on a cassette tape that he was to send to Tong Bak's student hostel in Singapore. Maggie called Tong Bak all the way from London, over a radio telephone - a luxury in those days - to tell him about the all important cassette tape winging its way to Singapore. Unfortunately, the tape never arrived for some reason and so Tong Bak never got John's address. Again, John Lever seemed to have slipped from First KL's grasp.
There was an interesting follow-up to this. In 1970, Tong Bak, by then a doctor, was en route to the United States for his speciality training in Milwaukee. Stopping over in London, he met with The Mirror's Maggie over tea and sought her help again but, unfortunately, this time round she was unsuccessful. John still seemed as untraceable as ever.
This challenge was next taken up by Yee Sek Kum who travelled frequently at that time to U.K. on business for the Dunlop Group. He approached the British Armed Forces for help but their policy was never to aid in tracing an enlisted person, presumably for fear of potential reprisals and so Sek Kum was thwarted. Still no John Lever. In the early 1980s he tried again. He contacted the Military Attaché of the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur but was very disappointed with their tidak apa response. John seemed as good as lost....
Very soon ten years went by and now it was the early 1990s and Sek Kum was by then working in Hong Kong. One day in 1993 he was having a drink in a pub with a British expat, Bill, who not only had worked in Malaya but also had married a V.I. Old Girl. During the usual pub chat, he chanced to mention the Army Air Corp to Bill who said that there was still a detachment in Hong Kong but that it would soon be demobilized as Hong Kong moved towards the 1997 reunification with China. When Sek Kum began to lament about the futile efforts of First KL to locate John over the years, Bill asked him for more details of John.
That same evening the phone rang in Sek Kum's apartment. It was John Lever on the line! He had responded to a ‘signal’ from his old regiment about the First KL search for him. Apparently, Bill had contacted the AAC in Hong Kong who in turn had sent out a ‘signal’ to the U.K. So, in the end it was just that simple. The thirty-year search for John Lever was finally over. After speaking with John, Sek Kum immediately phoned Chong Sze Nen in Kuala Lumpur suggesting that the First K.L Scouts start a fund to bring John and his wife, Jan, over to Malaysia and, if possible, to have them join in the August V.I. Centennial Celebrations as well. The response among the First KL Scouts was spontaneous with almost every one contacted chipping in.
Below is John Lever's account of his 1993 trip to Malaysia to be reunited with his V.I. charges. It is a heart-warming story of genuine friendship and gratitude that transcends time, race, class and national boundaries. [CCM]
t was late Friday evening on August 6 that Jan and I boarded the Singapore Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur and in a mere twelve hours were transported to a different land and culture to enjoy a magical holiday in the Orient. Following a brief stopover in Singapore to transfer to a local flight we arrived in Kuala Lumpur at around 8 p.m. local time. There we were met by Chong Sze Nen, his brothers Sze Khean and Sze Foo and Frank, all ex-members of the First Kuala Lumpur Scout Troop which I had run some thirty years previously. Sze Nen had been a Troop Leader during my 2½ year stay in Kuala Lumpur as well as being a very good friend.
From the airport we were whisked to Chinatown, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, booked into our hotel and then off into the night. The bustle of the night market, the calls of the vendors selling their wares, the smell of the Orient, along with the high humidity, all served to bring back nostalgic memories of years gone by. We finally made it to a street restaurant where we had our first authentic Chinese meal, several cool beers and the opportunity to reminisce over the "lost years" until the small hours of the morning.
The following morning, Sunday, we were collected from the hotel bright and early to meet more old Scouting acquaintances and their families before being taken in a convoy of six vehicles to Templer Park to be reunited with Bukit Takun. This was a large rock outcrop rising above the jungle down which, in 1961, I had the misfortune to suffer a nasty fall on one of its rock faces. (I still carry the scar!) A short scramble up the lower jungle slope to the base of the climbing area proved sufficient on this occasion as the heat and effects of jet lag rapidly took their toll.
From Templer Park the convoy headed north some 20 km. to pick up another old Scout who is a teacher in a small Malay town. He took us all for lunch to the local Government Rest House and afterwards, still in convoy, we paid a visit to the local durian farmer. Fortunately all the fruits had been picked so we did not have to suffer the overpowering smell normally associated with the fruit. Proceeding onward, we left the roads and took to the logging trails for another trip to the jungle - this time to relax in the heat of the afternoon by, and in, a cool mountain river tumbling over the rocks. Then back to the Rest House for dinner, followed by a cool glass or two of draught Anchor beer - a drink I had missed over the years. A tiring day!!
Monday morning saw yet another early rise in preparation for a return to the airport en route to Langkawi Island. This trip had been laid on to help us catch up with our internal clocks in readiness for later activities. Langkawi is situated off the northwest coast of Malaya, adjacent to the Thai border, and has been heavily sponsored by the Government as a holiday resort. We had been booked into the Delima resort where we had a comfortable air-conditioned room in a two-storey "H" Block – one of the 1,500 rooms available at the complex. All the usual facilities were available – lovely swimming pool, dancing, shows, etc., along with island tours and boat trips. Meals were provided by independent stall holders serving a wide variety of food around an open air dining area.
This brief stopover enabled us to unwind, become a little acclimatized and explore a different area of Malaysia as well as to learn some of the local legends.
On Wednesday evening we returned to Kuala Lumpur with the intention of overnighting in another chalet in the Malaysia Agriculture Park which is to the southwest of Kuala Lumpur. However, it transpired that the facilities, albeit in an idyllic setting some two km. into the jungle, were not as Sze Nen had been led to believe or the brochure portrayed. The chalet was only equipped with a bed and blankets without the means of preparing a meal, let alone serving or eating it. The mosquitos were the size of moths and it had all the prospects of being a long night!! Nevertheless, help was at hand. We were rescued and spent the night, comfortably, at Petaling Jaya, at the home of one of the younger "Old Scouts", Meng Teck (he hadn’t been a member of the Troop in my day). The rescue was timely as Jan had begun to suffer from the bites.
The following morning we were taken back to the Park in time to see the sun rise and spent the remainder of the morning meandering around. The Park was intended as an agricultural show case to display the country’s agricultural achievements as well as providing a training and research centre. By opening it to visitors, the general public were enabled to get a better appreciation of agriculture generally and enjoy its holiday facilities. It provided an insight into the whole rural scene of the country, ranging from jungle board walks to mini-plantations of rubber, cocoa, palm oil, etc., to progressive planting of rice fields to show growth at all stages, displays of insect life, orchids, birds, etc., thus providing a delightful setting for a day out alongside sound educational facilities.
By the afternoon we both felt quite fagged out but, fortunately, we were picked up by Sze Nen and taken back to Kuala Lumpur in order to meet the current generation of of First Kuala Lumpur Scouts. It was rather a humbling experience to find, that despite thirty years having passed, these young boys were aware of who I was and what contributions I had made to the Group during the 1960s. They had even given up part of their day off to meet me and to satisfy their curiosity!!
Despite the changes in attitude and aspirations of the boys, the Troop still appeared to be in good heart, albeit they were not, in my opinion, the same sort of rebellious group that I had the pleasure of running. However, we spent a very pleasant couple of hours with them and I hope I managed to contribute something towards making them a little more enthusiastic.
Later that evening we were entertained to a BBQ at the Lake Club where we were able to meet up with Sek Kum, over from Hong Kong, who had made the initial invitation for the trip and Tong Bak, who, along with Sek Kum, had been persistent in the search for me over the years. There were also many more of my Old Scouts with their wives, some of whom had travelled from America, Australia, Borneo, as well as the states of Malaysia, to be present at the Victoria Institution Centenary celebration.
The following day saw us back at the Lake Gardens with Robert as our guide, this time to see the Butterfly, Bird and Orchid Farms, all of which had their own special charms – but of which the orchid displays were the most beautiful. We could have spent a long time there but Batu Caves, which is the site of an Indian religious shrine and temple to the north of Kuala Lumpur, beckoned.
Before climbing the 272 steps to the main cave we had lunch at a small Indian restaurant. Imagine Jan’s surprise when her plate comprised a banana leaf and her only utensils were her fingers!! Nonetheless it was a good curry. And then to the top - whew - what a climb!!
During the 1960s there had been a five-legged cow in the grounds and when it died they commemorated it in the form of a statue but we were unable to find it.
Later we went to visit Wong Peng Kong who had been the District Commissioner during my Scouting Days and who contributed very largely to my becoming involved with District Scouting matters in the form of running training courses, badge examinations, etc. Despite ill-health, he still had the same fire and desire burning in him and was strongly against moves within the country to change Scouting generally. So albeit he was now outside the movement, he was still fighting to retain the old principles he believed in.
That evening, after being dined out, we were taken back to the Victoria Institution to join in the Countdown entertainment in the school quadrangle – as twelve midnight recorded the official One Hundredth Birthday of the School. The pupils, parents and Old Boys poured in to take advantage of the stage show and general celebrations. A very festive atmosphere prevailed particularly amongst the Old Boys as they tested each other for superiority. For example, group in car, boastfully, to our host: "Hi, are you an Old Boy? We have just travelled all the way from Ipoh and are a '68’s group". "Really? I’m with the '58 group and have come in from Hong Kong!" was the response. What a put down! So off they went to try and find some juniors.
Once the Countdown had begun in earnest, we retired to the Old Boys Club House to avoid the crush, await the bewitching hour and do justice to their stock of beer.
The following day we had a quiet period – if shopping or looking around shops happened to be your forte. Nevertheless we visited several large modern shopping complexes which comprised literally hundreds of small units under one roof, on multiple floor levels, selling almost anything you could wish for.
That evening was the highlight of the trip – the Centenary Dinner. This took place in the Shangrila Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, in the main banqueting hall and was attended by about 1,500 people. The hotel was about the best in town, sumptuously decorated and providing an excellent service. In the reception the red carpet was down to receive the Guest of Honour – the Sultan of Brunei – himself an Old V.I. boy, along with a group of government ministers.
In the banqueting hall tradition, round tables were laid with ten people to a table. Of the 150 tables occupied, the boys of the First Kuala Lumpur and their wives occupied nine, making them the largest single group in the room. Many of the boys had themselves not met for many years so the renewal of old Scouting friends and school colleagues created a great deal of excitement and noise.
After the speeches of welcome to the principal guest and proposals for the future, we were treated to the delights of a ten-course Chinese meal. Each table was catered for by its own waitress/waiter and our young lady ensured we were adequately provided for. The meal was sumptuous and washed down by the finest brandy courtesy of Goh Poh Teck – the M.D. of Remy Martin – an ex-First Kuala Lumpur Senior Patrol Leader.
Following the revelries, the more hardy of us visited a downtown hostelry to continue exchanging yarns and to enjoy an additional drink or two. By 3 a.m. Jan was really tired, so we left them to it and returned to our hotel.
The next morning, despite the late night, saw us on the road to Port Dickson with Sek Kum who had the loan of his company’s bungalow for the weekend. It was sited right on the beach, which provided an ideal opportunity to swim in warm water and relax from the rigours of the week. During the afternoon, more of the group came down, with their families, which provided an ideal excuse to continue with the previous day’s celebration and to enjoy an evening BBQ.
Having had a much needed rest overnight, the following day we moved further south to the old historic town of Malacca. Malacca figures very heavily in the history of Malaysia – being a port in which the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British have taken an interest over the centuries. It was, I believe, the place where Merdeka ( freedom) was announced in 1956 by the first Prime Minister when he returned from successful independence talks with Britain. Although we only managed a whistle stop tour and visited the principal tourist spots, we were very impressed by the quality of museums, cultural displays and general facilities provided. It was the sort of town in which you needed to spend a great deal of time to become familiar with the culture and history, of which there is so much.
After a late lunch it was back to Kuala Lumpur, stopping en route to visit a crocodile farm which, despite having some fine specimens, was rather jaded and lacked care and attention. An evening meal of satay washed down with Anchor beer brought the day to a delightful close.
Our itinerary at this stage should have included a trip up the East Coast, along the Thai border and back to Kuala Lumpur via the west coast. But having considered the distance involved between ports of call we decided to opt out, preferring to remain in Kuala Lumpur to take every opportunity available to meet up with the old gang.
From then on our days consisted of being picked either after or for breakfast – being shown the local sites or taken anywhere we fancied – taking lunch with more visits afterwards – returning to the hotel for a wash and brush up prior to another outing in the evening. The evening meals were a social gathering and attended by up to twenty people which gave us a further opportunity to meet those who were not free during the day. Following the meal a walk or a visit to a club seemed to be the order of the day.
Our day trips included a visit to a bird sanctuary in a reclaimed swamp area, art and craft exhibitions where the skillful way in which batik is painted was wonderful to watch, a variety of temples and the inevitable trip to the shops. All courtesy of Frank, Robert and Tuck Yen.
On our penultimate evening, about twenty of us gathered for our last mini-banquet, in an effort by Jan and I to express our gartitude to those that had taken such wonderful care of us during our visit. From there we moved to a private club and enjoyed our Karaoke session until closing time.
All too soon we were packing our suitcases for the last time and being conveyed to the airport for the return trip. But before our departure we had our final meal – alongside the runway – at a restaurant that specialized in sea food. It was delicious!
They say parting is sweet sorrow – but I can assure you it was with a heavy heart that we bade farewell to a group of very special people. People who, by keeping the Scouting Spirit burning in them, had taken the trouble to locate us after some 30 years, taken us to their country and given us a magical two weeks holiday. It is something that neither Jan nor I will ever forget – or the fine group of men and their wives who made it so enjoyable.
We are deeply indebted to them.
[John Lever is now happily retired in the Bay of Plenty, North Island, New Zealand. He and Jan revisited Malaysia in February, 2002, and again spent some time with his former Scouts.]
Last update on 26 January 2004.