The Journey of a Journalist (Part 5B) -GLOBAL CITIZEN: TEACHING JOURNALISM AND GETTING MARRIED IN MALAYSIA
Posted on September 29th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009

Vincent Lowe, Dean Sharom Ahmat’s emissary from the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia, welcomed me at the Penang airport. He took me to the campus and gave me some idea of the university’s communication program. I stayed the first three nights at the colonial seaside hotel, the Eastern & Orient. Then I found lodging at the university guest house on campus until I moved to Island Park a month later to share a house with an American couple.

E&O was an old colonial building with huge rooms. From my room overlooking the swimming pool I could see Kedah across the water. It was beautiful scenery. On my first night, a thunderstorm struck the E&O and blacked out the lights for a couple of hours.

 Row with Lowe

A thunderstorm hit my life as well at the beginning of my Malaysian sojourn. Lowe (who had been instrumental in ousting Lent, according to reliable sources) was an inexperienced administrator. Don Guimary, a faculty member from Portland, Ore., had submitted his resignation, and was getting ready to leave in June. Marvin Bowman, another American on the faculty, was grumbling. The USM communications program was in disarray.

 I had my first clash with Lowe in mid-June when I expressed displeasure at his attending the editors and publishers’ seminar in Kuala Lumpur without informing the communication faculty about the event. Lowe sent me a note incorporating an immense lot of invective. So when I received a job offer from journalism head LeRoy Carl at Temple University””‚a one-year assistant professorship with a pay of $13,500″”‚on condition that I accept the job in September, I almost quit USM to return to America.

On reflection, such a job change would have increased my dukkha. For it would have been unethical for me to break my contract with USM by not giving adequate notice. It would also have disrupted my commitment to serve a developing country for a meaningful period. Moreover, I was thinking of finding an Asian woman to be my life’s partner. The outcome of these multiple considerations was that I stayed in Malaysia for more than two years knowing full well the truth of ti-lakkhana.

I also received a job offer””‚a senior lectureship at a salary of Rs. 13,800 per year effective Nov. 1, 1974″”‚from the president of the University of Sri Lanka, Vidyalankara campus. I believe that former Dinamina editor M.A. de Silva, who subsequently became the publicity director of the Ministry of Planning and Development, had something to do with this.[Note: Mervyn Aloysius de Silva died in late January 2002 and cremated in Kurunegala. The last time I saw him was when he stopped by at the Lodge on Aug. 11, 1993, together with D.C. Ranatunga, to pick up me and my son for dinner with the Ranatunga family.  I saw him once during my Lake House internship as well””‚at lunch with Harold Peiris at a Marga Institute seminar on mass media and development Aug. 14, 1991.] He wrote me in May 1973 soliciting my interest in the attempt by Vidyalankara campus to organize a course in mass communication. Again in December 1973, he wrote:

Sri Lanka should provide a fertile field for research for scholars like you. So come back as soon as possible. The country needs you and you can gain from what you see and learn here.

But that was not to be. Apart from the ethics related to breaking my contract with USM, I was not ready to be a political football of the power players in Sri Lanka. I saw little merit in the United Front’s legislation to take-over Lake House. It seemed to me an act of political revenge that deviated from the middle path.

Besides, I had started to enjoy my job with the departure of Lowe for the United States in late-August to do graduate studies, and the recruitment of UNESCO consultant Leslie W. Sargent to coordinate the communication program.[Note: Lowe got a Ph.D. in political science from MIT in 1978. He retired from USM in 1996 after serving as a professor of communications and dean of the Institute of Post-Graduate Studies.]

Unlike at the CMSU in Warrensburg, USM gave me ample time to prepare and three courses to teach””‚Communication and Culture, Advanced Reporting and Writing, and Public Relations. I had two months to get over the “blues” before the first teaching session began in June. Although the university required all expatriate faculty members to learn Bahasa Malaysia, it was realistic enough to make tutors available to assist with translating student work.

 Adjusting to Penang

Early June, I bought a 1964 Triumph Spitfire for M$3,070 on bad advice from the Schopfs with whom I shared the Island Park home. It was prone to frequent mechanical failure, and many a time those individuals who received rides from me had to swallow their pride and push my car to get it started again. The racing-car image I had created for myself on campus was unashamedly spurious.

I used this contraption to visit with the monks at the Mahindarama Buddhist Temple in Penang””‚Pemaratana Nayaka Thero, Sumanatissa Thero and Sarada Thero. It became part of my routine to chat with the monks over afternoon tea. The temple became the center of social activities where I was introduced to many local and visiting Sri Lankans. The temple’s devotees were primarily Chinese Malaysians. When the monks learned that I was looking for an Asian woman for marriage, they warned me that I should not compromise my religion by initiating a romance with a Malay Muslim or an Indian Hindu. My option would be limited to a Buddhist Chinese or a Buddhist Sinhalese.

[Venerable P. Pemaratana was the author of several booklets on Buddhist issues published by the Mahindarama Sunday Pali School. I assisted him with the booklet titled To be reborn? (1976); and my future wife Yoke Sim assisted him with the booklet titled Religion and drug abuse (c. 1976)]

So when my father and mother arrived in Penang on Oct. 25, 1974, for a three-week tour of Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, they lodged and cooked with me at my Island Park home. I transported them to the temple premises in my Spitfire at times when I had to work in my campus office. Sarada Thero was instrumental in arranging their visits to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.  My parents returned to Colombo from KL on Nov. 19.

I found my future wife in the Public Relations class I taught in the second term. My diary entry for Nov. 30 reads: “In the morning, I had discussions with two students””‚Susong Pang and Chia Yoke Sim.” The entry for Feb. 10, 1975, reads: “I had a lengthy discussion with Chia Yoke Sim in the afternoon.”

I became romantically involved with Chia Yoke Sim, 12 years younger than I, early in 1975. A social science major, she came from a large Hakka-speaking family of three sisters and four brothers. Her father was a greengrocer in Kuala Lumpur. She expected to graduate in 1975 and work as a graduate research assistant.

We started dating in mid-February with a visit to Mahindarama Temple, where I introduced her to the monks. Then we visited the botanic gardens and ate dinner at the esplanade. The next day, we ate lunch at Sungei Dua. From then onwards, Yoke Sim and I got to know each other with frequent visits to restaurants in Tanjong Tokong, Batu Ferrenghi and other places. We continued with our regular visits to the temple for Ceylon tea.

 Brief Return to Sri Lanka

My father never saw the nƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa of my future wife. He died of a fatal heart attack in the wee hours on Sunday, March 23, 1975, just four months after he visited me in Malaysia. A retired postmaster, he was almost 66. [My mother, who turned 96 in 2009, lives in Brisbane, Australia.] I returned to our Mount Lavinia home on Friday to see and say good bye to his embalmed body. My diary entry reads:

So I came home … to see my father’s dead body. I was very sad to see my “ƒ”¹…”good friend’ dead. I could not contain tears. I talked to mother for a while as I composed myself.

My father’s cremation took place on Saturday (March 28) evening at the Galkissa cemetery.

I spent the next month in Sri Lanka on this unexpected visit. It gave me time to introduce my future wife to my friends and relatives.

Yoke Sim flew into Sri Lanka on March 30 and bravely faced scrutiny by the members of my family””‚younger brother Asoka (who eventually settled down in Germany), older sister Rani (who still lives in Sri Lanka), younger sister Kanthi (who, subsequent to her American sojourn, migrated to Australia), and my youngest sister Nayana (who married an Englishman and settled down in London). My mother, who had turned cosmopolitan after her overseas visit to see me, showed no objection to hosting the stranger I brought from Malaysia.

We made arrangements to give our Malaysian guest a quick tour of a sample of Sri Lanka.

Yoke Sim and I took a train trip from Colombo to Kaduruwela, where my younger brother Asoka and a friend of his, Siri, were waiting to guide us on a tour of the ruins of Polonnaruwa. The second day, they took us to Sigiriya, Dambulla and Kandy. The third day, they took us to Nuwara Eliya, Hakgala Botanical Gardens and Badulla. On the fourth day, they took us to see Dunhinda Falls, and brought us back to Mount Lavinia via Diyatalawa, Belihuloya and Ratnapura.

Yoke Sim also joined me to visit with Opposition Leader J. R. Jayewardene [after whom our son Junius, born in 1980, was named], Press Commissioner Chandra Wijeyawardene, former Lake House colleagues D. C. Ranatunga and Harold Peiris, as well as my relatives in Kandy and Kelaniya. The second visit to Kandy was to attend the Amic conference on information imbalance. In Peradeniya, we visited the botanic gardens and went to see Jayatilaka Hall, where I lived as an undergraduate. In Kelaniya, we visited the Vidyalankara campus.

Thus my father’s unexpected death (anicca) that caused us sorrow (dukkha) provided a short cut to introduce to all and sundry in Sri Lanka the woman who would become my life partner. We returned to Malaysia on April 27, 1975.

[Note: At the USM Convocation at Dewan Sri Penang on June 7, 1975, Chia Yoke Sim was awarded the Bachelor of Social Sciences. Her mother and her youngest sister flew in from Kuala Lumpur to attend the two-hour ceremony. We took them for lunch at a restaurant and spent some time at a studio to take Yoke Sim’s graduation photos. Then we headed for Mahindarama Temple to introduce them to the monks who were able to converse with them in Hokkien. They returned to KL in the evening.

Yoke Sim and I got married 14 months later, on Sept. 11, 1976, at the marriage registry in Penang, where I stopped on my way back from a conference in Leicester, England, to Rockhampton, Queensland, where I had taken up a new teaching position in mid-1976.]

 Father’s predictions

Back in Penang, I read over a letter dated March 23 that my father, who dabbled in astrology as well, had written probably just a few hours before his death. He asked me for a copy of my forthcoming journalism monograph (“The Taming of the Press in Sri Lanka”) and also made the following predictions:

I find that your future prospects will be very bright from February 1975 … Your brain will work very smoothly without any strain on you, and that also for the betterment of yourself and your family … You also will get information regarding a better job in America [although it turned out to be Australia] before February 1976. If these things come true, you should record them in some extremely important place for your future reference and for the reference of posterity.

 Next: Part 5C””‚Global Citizen: From Penang to Down Under

[The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He dedicates this installment to the memory of the late Ven. Pandit P. Pemaratana Nayaka Thero of the Mahindarama Temple, Penang.]

 

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