A Small Step to Immortality for Ali
Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – We finally met the Chief Minister of Sarawak. (See my picture on Facebook) The story is long and involved. If you are ready, here goes.
We first met with the last Chief Minister, who recently passed away due to a heart attack. He wasn't Chief Minister then, he was "Minister without Portfolio" in the Chief Minister’s office. We presented him with our theory about Ali, Wallace's assistant. He said we needed to find more information and to come back when we had it. He was particularly interested in the guns which were given to Ali by Wallace. (We later learned they were taken by the Japanese during the occupation.)
As you have read in my previous columns, we finally found Ali, his biography and where he was laid to rest. Meanwhile, the Minister without Portfolio became Chief Minister, and then died of a heart attack. The new Chief Minister, Abang Jo (he has 13 names so we will abbreviate it to Abang Jo) was also interested in the history of Sarawak.
We spent over three years trying to contact him. We were supposed to contact him through his private secretary. We emailed, sent phone messages and had word of mouth carried to him. Finally, we sent an email to him, but this time had it spread around to other members of his staff. That got results.
Suriani, my wife, received a phone call that told us the Chief Minister would meet with us. We were elated. As tradition dictates, we had to bring a gift, and I thought what better gift than a framed and signed copy of our comic book, "Borneo Boys." We took our comic book, signed it on the cover and found a person who frames such things. Of course, there was a debate on the type of frame. My wife and the framer wanted a staid dark frame while I wanted a gold one...because...well...it was a comic book. I won.
On the appointed day, I dressed in my batik pants, white shirt and shoes. The batik pants are not part of the national dress but a whimsical piece of clothing I had made to make my students, when I was teaching, to not take anything too seriously. Besides, they are fun.
We decided to take Dzul (my six-year-old son) because we thought it was going to be a meeting with the Chief Minister and maybe one or two of his friends. He brought along a copy of a book on dinosaurs which he was to read while we chatted.
We took Uber to the Chief Minister’s office, the elevator to the 22nd floor and stepped out. There were about 20 reporters there with cameras. I thought they were coming out of his office because of some previous dignitary who had been there. We walked into the office, shook hands with the Chief Minister and the next thing I knew, someone had gently pushed me into a line and all 20 of the press came in and started taking pictures. We were blinded by the flash bulbs popping. Then, on some mysterious cue, they all left.
Stunned, I sat down next to the Chief Minister with a table and flowers between us. I started into my pitch about him making Ali an integral part of Sarawak's history. With my loud voice, well loud by Asian standards, I presented my case.
The Chief Minister said he would have to wait and see. I then turned things over to my wife, who then explained in a mixture of English and Sarawak Malay the same thing.
The Chief Minister was still unsure until I whispered to my wife about the pontoon. She took the hint and went into elaborate detail about the verses and its hidden meaning in the Malay world. For people who can neither read nor write, the pontoon is four lines of poetry that are handed down from one generation to the next. They are memorized. The Chief Minister was hooked, as was I, when I first heard it.
The Chief Minister understood and told the Director of the Sarawak Museum, a Mr. Ipoi, to go to the grave and to somehow date it. How they were going to accomplish that I was not sure as the grave had been flooded over many times.
After an hour, the Chief Minister presented us with a picture, taken an hour before with all of us together. I was so surprised and said it was a wonderful gift. We presented him with a framed copy of "Borneo Boys."
We walked out to the lifts and the reporters were still there wondering what we had talked about. My wife and I told them that it was long past due that Ali receive recognition along with Wallace. We also suggested that wing in the new museum be named for him and that the new building in Santubong also be called the Ali Wallace building. Newspaper articles and TV press followed the next day.
I am very happy that we were able to move Ali one step closer to making him a national hero, which he deserves.
...Life is good. . . . .