Hari Raya was the most celebrated festival during my growing years in Muar town and I believe it is still the most celebrated festival until today as the Malay population is still dominant. The Chinese New Year celebration came second followed by Deepavali of the Indian Light Festival. We didn’t have any Sikh festival back then and I noticed some of them celebrated the Deepavali together with our local Indian population.
We always looked forward to celebrate these festivals. Around Muar town, the population of the Chinese was almost ninety percent. Muar town during my growing years had quite a number of Indians and within the vicinity of my kampung we had three Indian families. We referred these festivals as ‘Hari Raya” too but according to the ethnicity. Thus we called the Chinese New Year as Hari Raya Cina and Deepavali as Hari Raya India. Hari is ‘Day’ in the English language while Raya is ‘Big’; thus Hari Raya means ‘Big Day’. However, there was another festival which was less celebrated and this was Christmas. This is understandable as there weren’t many Christians living in Muar town of the fifties and sixties. However, there were three families who lived quite close to our kampung that celebrated Christmas. I still remember their names; Mr. Desmond Pereira, Mr. F.A. Johns and Terrence Smith.
It took us quite a while to finally realize that there was another festival we called Hari Raya Omputih (Big Day for the white people). We were then taught that this festival was a celebration for the Christian people. We were also told that this festival was to celebrate the birthday of a great prophet and messenger of God named Isa (Jesus) and this day was known as Christmas Day. So all these while we only knew that only the English people celebrated Christmas. Even after we gained our independence in 1957, there were still many English people in our country and they would celebrate their Christmas day at the Tanjung Club. During the night, we would cycle around the area where the Tanjung Club was and stopped by the roadside to watch the English dancing and celebrating their Christmas eve.
It was only when I was in Standard Six that I knew that Christmas was a day celebrated by Christians irrespective of their race. During my primary schooling we had one teacher who was a Christian named Mr. Edward who was an Indian by race. He was our Singing class teacher and was very good at playing the piano. Mr. Edward later married our class teacher Miss Sundram and since then we called her Mrs. Edward.
Along the same road where I lived in Jalan Omri, there was a Christian family of Indian descent. The head of the family was Mr. F. A. Johns. Mr. Johns worked with the Central Electricity Board (now Tenaga Nasional) and he was fond of cars. He was driving a Jaguar E-Type at that time. He had a son slightly older than me and had many Chinese and Malay friends. On the eve of every Christmas, their house was the only house that would be lighted brightly. We could see the Christmas tree nicely decorated at the front portion of the house.
Sometime in the early sixties, perhaps in 1961, Mr. Johns participated in the Johor Grand Prix. Johor state was perhaps the first Malayan state to organize a Grand Prix participated by few international drivers and riders. I remember few Japanese motor cycle riders participated but I remember only one name; Tanaka, who was the winner in the motor cycles category. It was in this Grand Prix that Mr. Johns died. The circuit started from Jalan Yahaya Awal in front of the Prison building with a sharp bend a few yards away to Jalan Air Molek. From here it would lead to the road along the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque which was on top of a hill. From here the road descended towards Jalan Lido and it was from this road that Mr. Johns crashed into the Johor river. It seemed that he was leading all the way but as fate had it written, sadly Mr. Johns died instantly when the accident occurred.
His death brought shock waves in Muar town and everyone was talking about it. It was a sad moment for Muar town for it had lost a courageous son. But the name F. A. Johns will be remembered for a long time by Muarians particularly my contemporaries.
When I started schooling at the Muar High School in 1963, I had three classmates who were Christians; Thomas Eapen an Indian, Alfred Walter Lopez a Portuguese descent and Alber Lim a Chinese. As Christmas would be celebrated during the long school holidays, we hardly celebrate Christmas with them. However, our school headmaster Mr. Desmond Pereira was very much a Christian.
Mr. Pereira became the headmaster of the Muar High School in 1957 until his retirement in May 1973. He took over from Mr. E. A. Balshaw, the last Englishman of the school thus making Mr. Pereira the first Malayan to be the school’s headmaster. He was born in Malacca in 1922 and was believed to be a Portuguese descent. He was a member of the Muar Rotary Club which started the Interact Club. He encourage all schools in town to be involved in joint activities like debates, oratorical contests and even musical performances.
Mr. Pereira must be the best Headmaster the school ever had. He died peacefully on the 17th December 2016 at the age of 94 in Johor Bahru.
My classmate Walter Alfred Lopez who looked like a younger version of Triny Lopez was among my best friends. He was a Portuguese and very proud of his ancestral heritage. I liked to tease him by asking “Are you related to Alfonso D’ Albuquerque? Lopez was a jovial person and very friendly. It was through him that I learned a lot about the Christmas festival.
Along the Police Barracks which was a few yards away from my house there once lived the Smith family. They were believed to be a mixture of Indian and Portuguese. They had a son who was a year older than me named Terrance. Together with his younger sister, they would frequently walk by my house in the evening. It was routine for me to play my acoustic guitar during this time at the tembok (concrete bench) of my house. One evening while walking passed my house Terrence noticed me playing my guitar and he waved at me and smiled. I waved back and invited him to sit with me which he obliged. Apparently I discovered that he was a very good guitarist. From then on we became close friends and we would sit together playing our guitars. We would sing Beatles songs together and played some instrumentals of The Shadows. Later I introduced him to my cousin Ajs who was an excellent guitarist too.
One day we received an invitation to perform as a guest artiste at the Cathay cinema where a Talent Time show was to be staged. Terrence was very excited about it and immediately excepted the offer. We invited another friend named Yem (Sheikh Ibrahim) to be the drummer. We practiced few songs in my room with Terrence playing the lead guitar, Ajis the bass guitar and me playing the rhythm guitar. On that night we performed well and the audience gave us a thunderous applause and it was such a memorable night for us who were only about sixteen years old at that time.
Once Terrence invited us to his house for a Christmas lunch. We were introduced to his parents and family and we had a great lunch cooked by his mother. Terrence however did not stay long in Muar town as his father was transferred to other district. Since then I have lost contact of him.
Although Muar town of my growing years did not celebrate Christmas as we usually did during the Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Deepavali, the spirit of Christmas was instilled inside me by these Christian friends of mine. Those were the years when race, colour and creed had no boundary and we respected each other’s religions and cultures greatly. It was a time when we learned so many things about the diversity of our great multi-racial society. I miss those wonderful years when my Chinese and Indian friends could simply walk into my house without needing any reason. Sadly these good values seem to slowly fade away. We seem to have lost trust in our own people.
To all my Christian friends and readers, Merry X’mas. May the good Lord’s blessings be upon us all.