Public transportation in Muar town of the 50s were the town buses, beca (rickshaw) and few taxis for those wishing to travel a little bit further into the small villages. Muar district has quite a number of small villages some as small as just a kilometer in length. These villages are demarcated by the muddy drains and during those days each village would have one chieftain. ‘Drain’ in the Malay language is ‘Parit’ and most of these villages will have the ‘Parit’ tag before their names. So we have many ‘Parits’; Parit Kadi, Parit Korma, Parit Bakar, Parit Pinang Seribu, Parit Jawa and many many more. Some of these ‘Parits’ were quite far and the only transport available are the taxis. Most of these taxis are not licensed to transport passengers, hence we call these taxis in the Malay language as kereta sapu. In my hometown of the 50s and 60s, we called these unlicensed taxis as pawancah.
For commercial use, we have small lorries to carry heavy items such as steel, cement, and some other hardware products. During the days when I was growing, there was another mode of transportation called Kereta Lembu (The Bullock Cart). These carts were made of woods and the roof from dried palm leaves the Malays called atap nipah. By the sides of this cart was a huge round wheel of steel. Two bulls (oxen) would be employed to make this cart movable. The bullock carts were widely used in areas where infrastructures were not favourable. These carts were used to carry chopped rubber woods for sale. Most houses, even the ones in town, were still using chopped rubber woods to do their cooking. It was only towards the late 50s that some houses had begun to use the kerosene to cook. In those days it was thought to be modern. Sometimes, these carts were used to carry lighter building materials to remote areas.
The bullock cart would be in great demand during the Malay festivals particularly the Hari Raya Aidilfitri, a Muslim day of celebration after a month long of fasting. Most Malays would begin their preparation a week before the festival day. Most of the Malay delicacies during the Hari Raya would be cooked on a big pot placed on top of bricks and underneath the pot was where the chopped rubber woods would be placed and lighted to make the fire. Examples of these Malay delicacies are the dodol, halwa maskat and wajik. Sometime even boiling the ketupat would use the same method.
Whenever my grandparents wanted to cook some of these Malay delicacies, grandpa would cycle to look for the bullock-cart man. In most cases, this man would act as an agent for the rubber wood sellers. When the time for the wood to be delivered to our house, grandma would tell me to sit at the tembok and to watch our for the arrival of the bullock-cart. When the sight of the bullock-cart appeared at the junction before reaching our house, I would immediately run home to inform grandma. Cycling time between the junction to our house would be hardly a minute or two but it took the bullock-cart fifteen minutes to arrive. The two bulls pulling the cart would take their own sweet time. Sometime one of the bull would want to shit and it would stop for a while to ease itself. The cow dung was useful to some people especially farmers. So every time the bull eased itself, the town board people need not worry to clean it because these farmers would do the service.
So during every Hari Raya festival, we could see quite a number of kereta lembu passing by the housing areas. Most, if not all of these kereta lembu were owned by the Malays.
Besides the rubber woods, some bullock-carts would pass around the housing areas selling coconuts. As most Malay dishes used coconut milk, these products could be easily sold in no time. In some cases, the mamak sundry shops would order these coconuts in great number to cater for their daily customers.
Once grandpa wanted to do some minor renovation at the kitchen and some cement and sand were needed. Because the quantity of the cement and sand was small, he would ask the bullock-cart man to have them delivered. The transportation cost would be very small compared to using a commercial vehicle like a small lorry. Of course, time factor would obviously be a cost factor for today’s commercial projects but in those day we had plenty of time and was never a contributing cost factor.
Every time when the bullock-cart appeared in front of our house to deliver the rubber woods, my three ‘sisters’ and I would play with the bulls. We would take some sticks and beat the two bulls at their tough bodies but they just stared at us. Whenever the bullock-cart was stationary, the owner would bring some grasses and gave these bulls to eat and so we would look for some grasses around our house and gave the bulls to eat too and they would stare at us without eating our grasses. Maybe these bulls thought that we were trying to poison them.
Seeing a bullock-cart in the 50s was a joyful moment for kids like me. Sometime we would follow the cart and we needed only to walk as these bulls walked very slowly. But we had to be very sure not to step on their dungs, it could be very messy.
As years passed and technology began to improve tremendously, the services of the bullock-carts began to fade. By the mid sixties, many houses had their cooking utensils using the kerosene and the chopped rubber woods would no longer be needed. As their services slowly began to decrease, many owners felt it was time for these carts to be docked into oblivion and the bulls were made to do other services in the villages. By and by these bullock-carts began to completely disappear from the scene. Today we could hardly see a bullock-cart passing by not only in the town areas, even in the villages too they have become scarce.
There was no shame in being a bullock-cart puller. One very good example is the life of a very respectable academician who hail from Muar; Tan Sri Arshad Ayub. During his growing days, Tan Sri led a very poor life in his village of Parit Korma. His father was a rubber tapper and in the evening he would sell some rubber woods using the bullock-cart. Being poor, Tan Sri would help his father tapped the rubber trees before the break of dawn and in the afternoon after school he would go around his village and the nearby villages of Parit Raja and Parit Bakar to sell cakes cooked by his mother. When his father passed away, Tan Sri became the eldest male in the family and shouldered the burden of looking after the family. To earn extra, he would peddle the rickshaw and sell coconuts to the villages. Most of the time he would walk bare-footed. From these honest earnings, the family managed to pull through and even supplemented the costs of his education. Today he is one of the most respected academician in the country.
The bullock-carts played a significant role in the transportation industry in the 40s and 50s. I had the privilege to witness the roles played by these bullock-carts in shaping the fabrics of our society back then. The past has left me with many memorable events that will always be a part of my growing days and the kereta lembu will surely be written in some pages from my past.