Being locked up by the British Military Police at the Kinrara Detention Camp just outside of Kuala Lumpur for one night is still fresh in the memory of 82-year-old Fred Simpson, a Queenslander who recently made an annual journey to Ipoh to participate in Remembrance Day. Simpson, in his early twenties then, was a motor body builder attached with the Royal Australian Air Force based in Butterworth from 1958 to 1960. He remembers vividly waking up the next morning with the sun beating down through the metal bars that kept the tiny cell secured.
“It was tumultuous times then. My drinking mate, a Kiwi who was with the 1st New Zealand Regiment based in Taiping, and I were in Kuala Lumpur, waiting for transport up north. Somehow, after partying Saturday night away, we found that we had broken the curfew. The British Military Police illegally detained us purportedly ‘for our own safety’. It was not the best experience but we can certainly laugh about it now,” he shared.
Simpson is the Australian chapter President of the National Malaya & Borneo Veterans Association (NMBVAA). In early June, Simpson led a group of twenty odd Australians from all over the country, comprising veterans and their spouses, to Ipoh. One of them was Ken McNeill, the association’s International Liaison Officer.
Like Simpson, McNeill, 78, has been making this trip for more than ten consecutive years. “The total travelling duration from my home in Beauty Point, Tasmania to Ipoh is about ten hours, and I will continue this annual trip as long as health permits,” McNeill said.
McNeill, who was based out of the same station as Simpson but from 1962 to 1964 as an electrician on Canberra bombers, recalled the days of little atap houses. He added, “Today’s kampungs are far improved from those of the 1960s. Even as early as 2000s, going from Ipoh to Batu Gajah took our bus 1.5 hours. Now it takes just 30 minutes. I enjoy seeing how progressive Malaysia is. Despite many limitations, people continue to move forward. It is amazing to note the development of the country’s infrastructure, from the North-South Expressway to Penang Bridge, high-speed rail link and Kuala Lumpur International Airport.”
The Australian chapter of NMBVAA arranges annual trips to Ipoh to participate in Remembrance Day, which is organised locally by the Warriors’ Association Malaysia (WIRA). Founded by Dato’ R. Thambipillay, the initiation of WIRA were based on awareness of the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in the defence of Malaya as well as his personal experience of those days of hardship and sufferings during turbulent times. Having been involved in the Malayan Emergency while he was serving in the police force, not only did he go through harsh jungle life, he also witnessed the tragedies that touched both civilians and service personnel.
Remembrance Day’s three-day activities, which were participated by both Simpson and McNeill among others of the Australian chapter of NMBVAA, included a remembrance service at the Kamunting Road Christian Cemetery in Taiping where the remains of 28 Australian and more than 100 British soldiers are interred.
Other similar services were conducted at Ipoh Cenotaph War Memorial, God’s Little Acre in Batu Gajah as well as Gurkhas’ cemetery at the 2nd Royal Ranger Regiment, Syed Putra Camp in Ipoh.
In previous years, after the remembrance services wrapped up, McNeill would extend his stay for a Malaysian holiday. This year, he and some of his travel mates decided to take a flight to Kuching, Sarawak to visit the site of the Japanese internment camp during 1943 to 1945 in Batu Lintang. “Some of us visited this site for the first time five years ago. It has been transformed into a teacher’s college. The only reminder of World War II here is the Japanese flagpole. Oh, there is also a small museum,” shared McNeill.
After that, the group travelled on to Labuan to pay tribute to those who died as Prisoners of War at the Sandakan Camp. “There were 2428 POWs and only six survived. The World War II cemetery is maintained by the Office of Australian War Graves. With age catching up on us, we have no idea when we will be able to make this trip if we do not do so this year,” he said.
Coming to Malaysia again after last year’s Remembrance Day trip had brought to mind for McNeill the opportunity to visit Laos in 1963. He recalled, “We flew in to Pol Pot’s camp and the then Australian Ambassador to Laos even had lunch with Pol Pot. Then, the world did not know yet what a cruel dictator Pol Pot was.”
As for Simpson, he missed the call of the mobile food vendors that used to make rounds at his housing quarters in Butterworth. “Kuey teow (flat noodles), kai chap (chicken offal), bee hoon (vermicelli)…..We never had to eat processed food then!” he reminisced.
Note: An edited version of this article [In memory of fellow fighters] was published on 17th June, 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.