Towards the end of my first year in university, in 1975, an interesting announcement appeared on the notice board of University Malaya’s Science Faculty.
It asked for volunteers for a project in Terengganu. But it had a caveat: you had to be able to swim.
I could. There was no reason for this except dumb luck. When I entered Form 1 in King George V in Seremban, the school was in the midst of building a functional pool, egged on by an energetic Headmaster and public donations.
By the time I was in Form Three, swimming was an integral part of Physical Education and by the time we finished Form 6, most of us could swim reasonably decently.
It was Akbar who said we should go. He was my roommate and, like me, aimed to major in Biochemistry. He argued that there would be only few swimmers among the Science undergrads. As such, we would almost certainly be chosen if we volunteered.
He was right. The project headed by Professor Jonathan Green, an American expert on marine biology, called for the first ever marine survey of the reefs off an island situated off Kuala Terengganu.
It was called Pulau Redang. Neither Akbar nor I had heard of it.
I was a callow 20 at the time and thought I knew the sea because, like all kids from Seremban, I’d swum off Port Dickson.
But the South China Sea is an ocean, full of enormous, foam-flecked waves that crash and heave. All the braggadocio drained out of us when we saw the waves and we listened soberly to Dr Green’s advice, and warning, about handling ourselves in the water.
We were ferried over to Redang by trawler on a sunny April day and were ordered to jump in when we were still 200 yards offshore. I guess it was Dr Green’s way of ensuring that we could, indeed, all hack it.
The government wanted to know what exactly was down there and Dr Green, and the other lecturers, made us do an actual survey using precise areas. We all were assigned an area and, using snorkels, we tried to identify the fauna on the seabed. It was a coral reef so it was shallow and you rarely had to dive over 10 feet. With flippers, it was pretty easy.
That was a very long time ago. But I still remember the absolute beauty of the reef, its blue-green waters, the colours of its creatures: sea horses, the thousands of sea cucumbers, tossed about carelessly; the brilliant anemones.
And I learnt to be careful. Once it was rough, and I was over-confident until a wave just picked me up and tossed me on to the coral. It was sharp and it hurt like hell but I learnt my lesson.
We befriended Mohd, then 8, who was from the only fishing village on the island. He’d been drawn by the smells of our dinner and Akbar and I fed him chicken rice which must have been a treat for him as he came most nights.
Mohd and his brother Hassan – 15, I’d guess – were endlessly fascinated by our snorkels and flippers. We let them try it out but, truth be told, they didn’t need them. They could free-dive 20 feet with ease and once showed us where we might find giant clams. That earned us serious brownie points with Dr Green.
They invited us back to their kampung and so, one night, we went. Hassan must have said something because the whole kampung turned out in our honour.
Once you got past the thick Terengganu dialect, they were lovely people, humble and down to earth.
They invited us to participate in what seemed to be the village youth’s favourite pastime – stick fighting. We were hopelessly inept and they were mercifully kind.
But I sensed a certain seriousness to the whole thing and, over thick, black coffee, I asked Mohd’s mother, the village matriarch, why they seemed so intent on the “game” (the word I used).
She looked nonplussed by my question but answered so matter-of-factly that it was chilling.
“Sooner or later, we have to fight them so we might as well be prepared,” she replied. She was referring to the Chinese, the irony of half our university group being Chinese, notwithstanding. The spectre of May 13 still hung in the air, it seemed.
As I said, it was a long time ago.
Note: Dr Green’s work on the island through the 70’s ultimately led to the creation of Pulau Redang Marine Park, a gazetted area protected by law.