My father was fond of taking drives up what he used to refer to as “the Federation”, a throwback I guess to the days when Malaysia was known as the Federation of Malayan States. It was good to have both parents as teachers, as that gave us many opportunities, provided by the school holidays, for my father to venture beyond the causeway, first in his trusty Austin 1100, and later in a Ford Escort and Morris Marina.
In the late 1960s and in the 1970s, the trip to Kuala Lumpur would take the better part of the day, through the main trunk road, which for most part was a single lane road that meandered through the heart of Johor, Malacca, Negri Sembilan, and Selangor, passing though towns such as Segamat, Yong Peng, Seremban and Kajang along the way. An alternative was to take the coastal route which would bring you through Muar, Batu Pahat, and Malacca. Often we would start our journey early in the morning across the Causeway to Johor Baharu, to be greeted by the streams of school children – schoolgirls in bright turquoise uniforms would catch one’s eye, making their way to school. Somehow, it always felt different, even back then, as if one had taken a step back in time …
I somehow enjoyed the long drives in my younger day, often peering out of the open window (we did not have many air-conditioned cars in those days), marvelling at the changing landscape, whilst my sister slept on the back seat beside me to escape from car sickness and the monotony of the long drive. In particular, I enjoyed the landscape around Malacca, with its padi fields, water buffaloes, and distinctive styled wooden houses on stilts. We were also able to see bullock carts back then, and whilst on the look out for bullock carts, my parents would recite a verse that began with the line: “Napoleon Bonaparte went to Batu Pahat, Riding on a Bullock Cart”. I don’t remember the rest of it … but it was pretty amusing to us children at that time …
The road though Negri Sembilan was different prospect altogether, the winding roads that we encountered, went on for miles and miles through rubber and oil palm plantations, weren’t particularly interesting. More often than not, we would be stuck behind a convoy of vehicles moving at snail’s pace, held up by a slow vehicle, crawling its way through the long and winding road – the bends making it difficult for the vehicles behind to overtake the slower vehicles.
The winding stretches of the roads on occasion, did provide us with some hair-raising experiences. Following the slow convoy of vehicles for miles on end often resulted in drivers losing their patience, and more often than not, drivers would attempt to overtake at the first hint of an opportunity, often misjudging the distance and speed of the oncoming vehicle. On more than one occasion, we would the car sitting at the side of the road, having had to move out of the way of an overtaking vehicle coming in the opposite direction.
My father was fond of driving along the coastal route as well, stopping in Muar for a breakfast of Roti Canai … the Roti Telur was good value for money – double the size of that in Singapore for roughly the same price – the Malaysian Ringgit and Singapore Dollar being almost on par in value in those days. On one trip, for reasons which has escaped me, the road from Batu Pahat to Muar was closed and we had to take a detour to Yong Peng through the minor Parit Sulong road, which was poorly maintained and full of large pot holes. We could see that the driver of the car ahead of us, was attempting to thread a path through the road between the pot holes. After some miles of the dizzying manoeuvring between the pot holes, the driver made and abrupt stop at the side of the road, and as we got close, a door opened on the passenger side and out stuck a head, discharging the contents of the nauseous stomach of the car-sick passenger.
There was another time when on the leg back to Singapore, we stopped by some watermelon vendors along the road, where my mother bought a a few large juicy sounding watermelons. The road back was particularly bumpy as that was during the monsoon season, where the rain damaged roads were often left in a state of disrepair as the weather would make any attempt at repair futile. When we got home and opened the boot of the car, we found bruised melons and much of the contents of the boot covered in watermelon juice!
The many trips we took twice a year brought us as far as Penang and Kota Bahru. For a while, we would take trips once a year to Kemaman on the East Coast during the dry months, and to the West Coast, stopping over at Port Dickson and Kuala Lumpur, sometimes on the way to the hill top resorts of Fraser’s Hill or Cameron Highlands, where we would stay in the chalets for members of the Singapore Civil Service.