Keeping quiet was the best option when I heard my two colleagues talking about the latest car models in the market, both locally and internationally. Their enthusiasm for cars was really inspiring but certainly not infectious.
If I were to open my mouth they might not believe that I had driven the likes of Mercedes, BMW (3 and 7 series), Volvo, Saab, Fiat, Ford, Rover, Hyundai, Daewoo, Toyota, Nissan, Madza and most of our own local makes many of which were not my own.
Call it a piece of luck when my arrears were overpaid after serving for four months in 1979 as lecturer in then Maktab Perguruan Rajang (MPR) in Bintangor (now IPG Rajang), for by such mistake I was richer by RM3,000 and was able to get my first wheel, an old Ford Cortina 2.000 c.c. This historic purchase reminded me of another car of the same model belonging to a friend the late Temenggong Bangau Renang – he was the first Iban to visit China (for the Canton Trade Fair in 1960) – which I drove in 1975. His pale blue Ford Cortina used the plate number 7D 4 whereas mine (with orange body and black rooftop) carried 7D 5 (now 7D 5 Q).
After the Ford, many more cars registered in my name were to follow such as a brand new Datsun 120 Y, an old sporty Fiat, a second hand Ford Laser (acquired in lieu of a gambling debt), a reconditioned Honda Ballade, a new Proton Saga Megavalve (the first of any make with remote etc etc in the rural town where I served), a 28-year-old Nissan Skyline, a Suzuki Esteem, a Daewoo Racer2, an old Nissan Pulsar Coupe, a Proton Iswara Aeroback, a Proton Wira and now a Viva Elite (bought brand new eight years ago).
Back in 1974 while studying in Upper Six Art in Methodist Secondary Sibu a group of us ‘experimented’ with a Volkswagen courtesy of a friend who studied in Lower Six at the same school. The car belonged to his father who was an agriculture officer. One Saturday afternoon, thanks to my ‘driving skill’, we all landed at a shallow drain in Jalan Ulu Lanang which was totally different 40 years ago. A lorry driver lent a helping hand to get the Beetle out of the drain. Two years later I had no problem driving the same model in Penang, courtesy of the late ‘Dr’ Benedict Sandin (that was how his name was written on his door) who was Senior Fellow at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre of Policy Research. His white Beetle carried the number PH4841 – once in Batu Feringghi beach Sandin, a former Sarawak Museum Curator, was mistaken for then serving Thai PM Kukrit Pramoj but knew he was not Kukrit when they saw us going into the pitiful vehicle that had seen better times.
The Volvo experience was in the months of 1981 and 1982. It belonged to a wealthy admirer and companion whose family was among the pioneer plastic manufacturers in Sibu – then I was still attached to MPR Bintangor. While in Sibu I would leave my Ford Cortina at their stately mansion and used her wheels (bearing the number SB19XX) to move around town.
It was in Kuala Belait (KB) and Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), Brunei Darussalam as we inched closer to the new millennium that I had the opportunity to drive the aforementioned car models. During my three-month stint in KB, I drove a BMW 318 allocated to me by the company I was attached too – it was a car passed its prime by the sultanate’s standard. At times, for long distant travel they allowed me to use the Range Rover, a four-wheeled vehicle. On other days I would be driving a Toyota Prado belonging to a friend with whom I stayed. The first time I drove it was when playing his errand boy paying on his behalf a monthly installment of B$1,128 at a KB bank, an amount that was more than my monthly pay at a local forwarding company there.
In early December 1997 I got a job at Brunei Press in BSB and lodged with an Iban mechanic who was related to the Prado owner in KB. As luck had it, he had a car, a Nissan Skyline 1978 model available, repainted and certainly looked nothing like a vehicle nearing 30. Nevertheless I managed to go from BSB to Kuching at least three times using the 29-year-old wheel and served me well.
While staying with the Iban mechanic whose wife was an Iban from Temburong, Brunei, I also helped him to deliver repaired cars. These included two Mercedes, few BMWs (one was a seven series), Kijang, Rover and many more Continental, Japanese, Korean and an Indian model (Tata). I departed ways with the mechanic in 1999.
At one time I had three cars while in BSB namely a three-year-old Suzuki Esteem, the old Nissan Skyline (that I kept to the end) and a two-year-old Daewoo Racer2. At the same time, courtesy of a live-in partner, we used to go by her SAAB that she rented for B$750 a month. For many months my three wheels were shared by my Filipino colleague and gang.
Two of my wheels ended up totally damaged in crashes, with the one involving my Honda Ballade (with concealed headlights and open rooftop) which I was driving in 1990 taking the lives of my five-year-old daughter and my niece, 9. The Daewoo Racer2 almost caused me my life in BSB in 2001 – plus a B$2,000 bond with the police which remained status quo to my last day in the sultanate in early 2002.
Some cars are acronyms for something a friend suggested when we talked wheels sometimes ago. For example FIAT stands for Failure in Automotive Technology; FORD is For Only Rough Drivers; HYUNDAI stands for Hope You Understand Nothing’s Drivable And Inexpensive; VOLVO stands for Very Odd Looking Vehicular Object; PORSHE is Proof Of Rich Spoiled Children; OPEL means Old People Enjoying Life; TOYOTA stands for The Only One You Only Trust Always; HONDA refers to Happy Owner Now Driving Away – certainly this wasn’t true in 1990; BMW Big Money Waste (some say Be My Wife if it is given as a present to an eligible lady); AUDI represents An Unwanted Debt Invitation; MERCEDES is referring to Maximum Enthusiasm, Recurring Cost, Ego Developed, Expensive Style whereas PROTON stands for Potential Risk of Tingkap Otomatik Non-functional. These may be put as jokes but some do reflect the car models truthfully. Nevertheless readers should not take offence to any of the descriptions as they mean to lighten up the day’s reading.
While in BSB I had the opportunity to enjoy a backseat ride in a Lexus that could go up to 180km per hour on the good road between BSB and Tutong. It belonged to a son of a Brunei minister. A son-in-law of the Sultan came twice in his Lamborghini for an engine check to my housemate’s workshop. I came close but dared not go inside. But I did go inside a Porsche that was on show and took photo. At a traffic light stop I exchanged friendly nods with Crown Prince Almutadee Billah who was alone in his sports Merc. Take note that his father the Sultan drove his princes in a five-series BMW to the world’s most expensive mosque on Fridays. Once while having lunch together – by chance meeting – with the ruler’s chief mechanic, a Malaysian Chinese, I tried to ascertain whether it was true that there was a golden car kept at the underground floor of Istana Nurul Iman. He said, “Tia boleh cakap.” A Fortune magazine that I read earlier (smuggled from Manila) stated that there was such a car kept in the palace. Only the tyres were not gold, the article claimed. So I left Brunei without obtaining the answer. My instinct keeps on saying, knowing the sultanate’s penchant for gold – there were few mosques with golden, really golden domes – the car story was probably true.