Kids Corner

Photos of plantations, by author.


A Planter's Tales




Many long years ago, in April of 1957, I took a leisurely and unhurried night train out of Singapore. It arrived at an almost deserted Seremban railway station in the wee hours of the morning.

I was to start a new career as a Cadet Planter at Guthrie’s Siliau Estate, Siliau, Malaysia. A charted taxi for RM 5.00 conveyed me to the Estate where I was expected, but mostly as a novelty. I was to be the first Sikh to breach the tightly closed and controlled compartmental citadel as a professional planter.

My partner was to be a 'Jana Menon' who had arrived a month earlier.

We were to be conjoined for the two-year stint while learning the ropes. Within minutes of our shaking hands, Jana advised me rather condescendingly that he knew all that was to be known about rubber. He had spent some two years on the Central Paloh Estate in Johor under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, Vishwanathan Nair, then, an Assistant Manager. He was eventually to own a large estate himself with a private 9-hole golf course.

In my case, I was starting with a clean slate, and had to be shown, for example, what lallang -  a noxious weed -  looked like.

But, first I had to equip myself with a couple of short pants -  which was regulation attire. In the meantime, I earned the appendage of a “planter in Dacron trousers".

The estate manager was Rodney A. White and, once allowed a suitable gestation period, we were to be presented to him before long. He was a big, heavy man in crumpled drill trousers and short sleeved shirt. He had a bush of disordered hair, an aggressive nose, and the eyes of an old man. He appeared easy to like - a good start, I would think.

We were to be the understudies of a K. Krishnasamy, a recently promoted assistant manager, himself from the ranks. The first thing that struck me about Krishnasamy was his effortless and beautiful cursive handwriting. He usually hovered around the main office and was always within earshot of the manager.

Mr. Rodney White appeared to be a benign gentleman and was mostly found in the office, deeply engrossed in writing some sort of a journal. He always had, beside him, a liter bottle of foul looking black coffee to fuel him. It later transpired that the journal was actually a workbook to determine the paltry average daily wages of the workers, revised weekly. There was no labour union (such as NUPW) then and, the workers were largely at the mercy of the manager.

For transport, we were supplied with spanking new Norton 350 cc motorcycles. Mine was NA 798 and Jana’s NA 797. We were soon to hold the dubious honour as dare devil speedster menaces on the dusty ochre roads. On reflection, I've often wondered since, as to how we managed stay alive.

Our education began in good earnest. The first lesson we learnt through osmosis was to develop a degree of gruffness of manner and speech. This was believed to reflect executive competence and authority. I was soon to learn that the 4-letter word used in different configurations, with suitable inflection, could be made to cover a lot of territory. For some planters it appeared to be the extent of their vocabulary and copiously applied for any and every situation.

Apart from the field work that started with muster at about 0500,.and the usual rounds to check the tapping and weeding which involved a lot of legwork, we were required to pass some professional examinations conducted by the Incorporated Society of Planters , or ISP for short. To become an Associate and have an AISP, the coveted badge for a planter, meaning that he could now also read and write, in addition to wield the aforementioned gruff speech, while maintaining a menacing look.

I started to study in earnest and cleared the examinations within 18 months. The last paper - on Estate Practice - could only be taken after 4 years of service, which I cleared on the dot, and had the respectable distinction of an AISP added to my name. I was told not to be cocky about it, as most of the ‘White’ Planters hadn’t passed the various examinations.

Drinking a case of beer was considered mandatory, a qualification which brought you to be known as a ’piss artist’. I told them at the very outset that drinking was against my religion and was thus spared for the next 40 years.

But, I still had to pass the Malay language examination for further promotions. That proved difficult for most of us. There was one particular Assistant Manager by the name of Bob Thomas who sat for the Malay exam 8 times and happily failed in each attempt. When he failed for the ninth time and I mentioned the tragedy to another colleague, Eddie Rudge, that poor Bob, his reply was that poor Bob would have failed the English examination too, if given the opportunity.

For social niceties, we were invited to the Manager’s bungalow once in a while for some party. All had to be suitably attired and announced as they arrived. This was ceremoniously done by the manager himself who, with a flourish, would announce, for example:  “Mr. & Mrs. Dunlop, Serkam Estate!” The ladies would invariably drift into small clutches, to suitably analyze and comment on each arrival, especially on the accompanying ladyships.

Once in a while an Indian planter would arrive and swould be uitably announced.

“O dear, here comes Mr. Menon! One must put on a cheerful face, I suppose, but really, what a bore Indians can be! ... Oh,  Mr. Menon ... how nice to see you and Leela. And how are those sweet children of yours?”

Having made the perfunctory remarks to each other, the bored 'ladies' would always revert to being nice and kind at heart. They were not arrogant by nature, the Empire had merely made them so, so that they would remain loyal to the system, and stick to the guide-lines and conform to its preferences.

After dinner, the men would get together to smoke their cigars and nurse snifters of Cognac and swap bawdy tales in one corner. The ladies would caucus in another corner to swap the latest gossip, mostly of who had run away with whom.

In those days, there were some estate managers who had some special skills, apart from being a planter. One such particular manager, Frank Fullerton, had studied a great deal about penguins and was regaling the gathering about their peculiar traits. Just then a lady asked him to tell them more about the penguins. Frank hesitated and apologized for monopolizing the conversation with boring details. When the ladies left the table, his host said “Come now, what was it you funked telling the ladies?”

Frank proceeded to tell them of a peculiar habit that the male penguin has vis-a-vis the female of the species. When the male penguin wants her, he merely stands still, he explained, and makes a distinctive honking noise.

"Something like this,” Frank said, and then proceeded to demonstrate with a loud honking noise.

At that moment, the door swung open and Mrs. Fullerton peeped in, saying: “Did you call me, Frank dear?”


August 28, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Jasjit (New Zealand), August 28, 2011, 10:43 PM.

Thanks for sharing your lovely story with us. It is nice to see what life was like when you first moved to Malaysia. With regard to you surviving the experience of riding a motorbike, I am sure it is largely due to you following the speed limit and the road code to effect. Furthermore, Mr A. Radhakrishna and I were fortunate enough to hear portions of this story from yourself whilst we stayed at your abode a few months ago. This article serves as an excellent supplement to those stories.

2: Tejpreet (Penang, Malaysia), August 29, 2011, 6:30 AM.

What a riveting and witty expose of a Planter's life. Armed with your skills, literary and otherwise,and reserves of Sikhi charm, I'm sure the fairer skinned Planters found you a formidable force to be reckoned with. As for the 'menacing look', yes it was, with a 'Capital M'... there we were, in the music room of the bungalow, deep within the estate, our hair loose and flowing, the lights switched off at dusk, our twilight zone ... where Boney M filled the room with their catchy melodies and we were gyrating, heads swinging from side to side, hair everywhere, having the time of our lives ... when, suddenly, the music abruptly ended, bright lights blinded us temporarily ... then we saw Uncle Sangat (or papa for some of us), standing by the audio system. He was silent but if looks could kill, we would have danced our last dance that fateful evening. Quietly as mice, we headed to the door, eyes downcast and straight to our dorm. Henceforth, we conspired that we'd only listen to kirtan and shabads when uncle/ papa was around. Yes, true to form till today, you're a force to be reckoned with.

3: Simran Gupta  (Kolkata, Bengal, India), August 29, 2011, 11:03 AM.

Lovely memories of our childhood days ... and, Tejpreet, it was "Illusion by Imagination" we were gyrating to. And till this day, when I hear that song, I have flashbacks of Papa barging into our home-made "disco".

4: Ravinder Singh (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), August 31, 2011, 10:06 AM.

Sangat Singh ji's account of landing in Singapore in 1957 transported me back to my old stomping grounds. Singapore was where I spent the first ten years of my life - wonderful and magical days. I must confess that I have only gone as far up as Penang and Kuala Lumpur, not to an actual plantation. Terima Kasih, Tuan.

5: Harjit Nanua (Subang Jaya, Malaysia), September 01, 2011, 1:16 AM.

By far, among all the articles, I love this one. Uncle Sangat took me back to my childhood. It was a Danish plantation I was in, and the culture was the same. Bunglow houses, club house, kids calling the bosses "Sir" and "ma'am", table manners, etc., etc. It was another world. However, I believe, this is just a tip of the iceberg from Uncle Sangat. To hear more, drop by Malaysia!

6: Aravind (Malaysia), December 22, 2011, 10:36 PM.

Loved your flashback, sir. I grew up in the estates too ... in Kedah, to be exact, where my Dad worked as an Hospital Asstistant. I still hold fond memories of my childhood days at the estate and though much of it has changed since the colonial era, I do visit the estate once in a while (read 'once in a couple of years') to relive my childhood. Thank you again, sir.

7: Martin White (London, United Kingdom), August 14, 2013, 6:21 PM.

I was fascinated by this informative and humorous account. I'm interested because Rodney Arthur White was a cousin of my father and until recently I knew nothing about him at all. Then I picked up that he had worked in rubber in Malaya - so this description of him and of the strange society of the plantation managers has been very helpful. So if Sangat Singh can provide any more memories of Rodney White and the plantation he managed, I would be delighted. Thank you very much.

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A Planter's Tales"

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