Friday, 4 November 2011

A Servant Of Sarawak

Among the heroes and other personalities who served the country in the days before and after independence were some orang putih who have grown to love Tanah Melayu and made it their second home.

Like the bloke who wrote this memoir. What a wonderful piece of history it was.

The next book is a bit different.

A Servant of Sarawak is Dato' Dr Sir Peter Mooney's memoirs about his Crown Counsel days in Sarawak, but touches lightly on his childhood back in Ireland, his youth in Scotland and his army days.

I'd say that the remarkable life of Irishman Peter Mooney began when, while he was in the army, dodging German bombs in Glasgow, he learnt that he was adopted. His first experience of the East was during the War in India and Burma. He had no idea he'd go east again later.

Upon his return, Mooney went to university and obtained a law degree. After some time practising law in Edinburgh, he was given the chance to become Crown Counsel in far-away Sarawak. He jumped at it.

Mooney arrived in Kuching in 1953 and would preside over a number of cases and immerse himself in the local cultures, eventually becoming Attorney-General. Among several memorable encounters include courtroom tussles with David Marshall (quite an actor, according to Mooney's accounts), who would become Chief Minister of Singapore; and Lee Kuan Yew, the future Prime Minister of Singapore.

He left Sarawak in the early Sixties and went to KL to start a law firm. He'd been busy since. In 1986, he was appointed Honorary Consul of Ireland in Malaysia, and was appointed of Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by the late Pope John Paul II in 2003.

Could be richer
One word: terse. ...Okay, perhaps several more: subdued, unremarkable, flat. A less diplomatic reaction would be boring, droning and dry. Which does not, at all, describe his life and the times he lived in. I felt it such a pity.

I could only guess that the colourless tone came from his life-long practice of law, which requires one to be neutral when conveying one's thoughts or opinions. Many chapters feel too brief. I'm sure lots more happened, but for whatever reasons, were omitted.

It's not as if it was all law, law, court, court, law in Sarawak. He'd gone into the interior, stayed at a longhouse and even spoke to a possible witness of the Krakatoa eruption. He'd attended weddings and a pubic Quran reading by a nine-year-old.

He'd even participated in the Kuching Regatta, though his boat took water and the team never finished the race. There was also a visit to a Melanau fishing village where he sampled (but didn't quite like) the Teredo worm or shipworm. I don't think anybody asked him about sago worm.

This rather sparse memoir by a servant of Sarawak leaves us hungry for more tales of a time where the occasional journalist would wander into the state and find "no beggars, no malnutrition, no smoking factories, no drug addiction and no crime" and "wrote lyrical articles on the last paradise" or the once-common practice of headhunting.

And what a time it was. "I thought that I had come to civilise the people," writes Mooney. "It was they who civilised me. They were friendly, warm and most hospitable, ever willing to share what little they had. Moral standards were high. It was hardly necessary to close windows or doors at night. Theft was almost unknown."

Oh, wow. Mooney's Sarawak sounds like a much better place.

This review was based on a complimentary copy from Monsoon Books.

A Servant of Sarawak
Reminiscences of a Crown Counsel in 1950s Borneo

Peter Mooney
Monsoon Books (2011)
272 pages
ISBN: 978-981-4358-37-8


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