Lest we forget!

Sarawakians should count their blessings that the haze is over and must thank Mother Nature as she prepares to send the annual northeast monsoon (landas season locally) our direction starting November.

I first arrived in Kuching in December, at the height of the landas, 52 years ago.

My younger brother and I were sent to Sarawak from Port Klang by ship, where we were shacked up in the lower deck for three days, two nights.

As tough as we thought we were, we had to ride out the stormy South China Sea, surviving on an apple and water throughout the journey.

A few days before Christmas 1967, a marine police speedboat with my parents and senior officers approached our ship that had arrived near Santubong. We hopped on hoping to take a ride back to our new home next to Fort Margherita.

However, my mother challenged me and said: “Sandy (my nickname), let’s swim to Santubong village,” and dived into the sea heading for the beach 150 yards away.

I followed suit in my underpants and as I reached the shore, I was stung by a jellyfish.

My father’s right hand, Iban officer Supt Ramsay Jitam, came to my rescue — he urinated on my burning black and blue leg, this being the antidote since vinegar was not available!

I was fortunate to be born into a family with a compassionate father, who was the posthumous child of Scottish miner Alexander Hector Ritchie from Aberdeen.

The oldest son of a wealthy cattle ranch owner from Old Meldrum, William Ritchie owned 146 acres of land and had six servants. Alexander was the oldest in a family of 14 siblings.

In 1901, Alexander left Scotland to seek his fortune in Malaya but fell ill 13 years later and died at the age of 36.

Grandfather was buried at the Batu Gajah Christian cemetery on Sept 14, 1914 where expatriates and colonial war heroes such as Iban tracker Unggat Ujom from Baleh were buried — Unggat’s remains were later reinterred at the Heroes Cemetery in Kuching in 2011.

My father John George Ritchie was raised by his mother Tan Kim Phoon in a Thai-Chinese village in Ipoh.

But when my father was 12, another tragedy occurred when his mother contracted bubonic plague and died.

Twice orphaned, my father was adopted into a Scottish family and sent to Anglo Chinese School in Ipoh.

After leaving school with a Senior Cambridge certificate, he started work as a teacher for a monthly salary of $20.

In 1935, he left with a few dollars in his pocket to seek his fortune in Singapore.

It was here that he became a police inspector and after serving 30 years, became Sarawak’s first Malaysian commissioner of police.

A champion of the underdog, my father was fair to all communities. He recalled an incident when he was asked by the federal government to terminate the services of several hundred Kelabit Border Scouts from Bario, but refused.

Though he was later sidelined by the federal government for “speaking the truth”, the Sarawak government honoured him for his services with the title ‘Dato Sri’, albeit 20 years later.

During the Communist Insurgency between 1963 and 1990, many of the officers and men were largely neglected by the government, namely the Border Scouts.

At least 100 police personnel, half of whom were Border Scouts, were either killed or injured.

During the late 90s, Veterans Association of Malaysia, Sarawak branch headed by police hero, the late ASP Wilfred Gomez Malong, and I as honorary secretary, worked very hard to help the forgotten Border Scouts without success.

We travelled to various parts of Sarawak and met with their families and made promises, hoping for government intervention. But none came.

Several months ago, my father’s close aide and commander of the Sarawak Police Field Force, Supt Johnny Mustapha, who was killed in a communist ambush in Sibu in 1975, was posthumously given the title ‘Datuk Amar’ — 44 years later.

Similarly, another hero Awang Raweng, 87, recipient of the United Kingdom’s George Cross in 1950, has not been recognised by Kuala Lumpur.

Awang was only given a state title at the same time as Datuk Amar Johnny Mustapha — 69 years later.

In the meantime, two of Sarawak’s sole survivors of Malaysia’s Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa, Sgt Ngalinuh Bala and Cpl Itim Bijam, who fought off dozens of armed terrorists near Sibu and saved the lives of half a dozen men, have been forgotten for their part in the epic battle in 1972.

Ngalinuh, who was badly injured, was honoured by the Kelabit community last year and given a menial state award. He is now wheelchair-bound.

Itim, who is partially deaf, can only hope the Iban community will do the same for him.

The time has come for us to honour our unsung heroes. And as the saying goes, better late than never.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.

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