Gunshots kept me awake at night

This newstory under the "I remember when..." column was published, two days ago, in New Sunday Times.

BOON Weng Siew was in his 30s when he was offered a job as an estate manager in Malacca. It was during the height of the communist insurgency and estates were not a safe place to raise a family.

But the offer was good. Boon took it up, leaving his wife and 8-year-old daughter back in Malacca town, and moved to the Malaka Pinda rubber estate.

"Life was difficult back then as the communist threat was very real. I was driven around in a steel-plated armoured car, escorted by special constables (SC) all the time, whether in the office or in the bungalow at night."

Boon said the armoured car was one of the three purchased in November 1951 after insurgents shot a senior estate manager.

"The estate was in the fringes of the so-called 'hot area' stretching from Machap to Salandar and Batang Melaka," Boon, now 87, added.

"There were many nights when I heard the sound of gunshots by the SCs who guarded me. Sometimes, they would wake me up in the middle of the night when I was fast asleep because they feared for my safety. They would inform me when it was safe to go back to sleep."

He said the SCs would tell him that it was just shadows they had fired at in the dark. "But I believe they could have been communists who tried to break into the estate. Looking back today, I am grateful for their service as without them I might not be alive to see United Malacca Bhd (UMB) as a 100-year-old company.

"I am also lucky that I never had an encounter with the communists," he added, although in 1951, the communists launched an attack on the Selandar division, surrounding the estate quarters and burned down all the buildings.

"They tricked the SCs, who were inside, into surrendering by promising to spare their lives. But they were all executed as soon as they stepped outside."

He recalled that 99 planters, mainly expatriates, were killed in ambushes during the Emergency. But Boon, himself the son of a planter, was not deterred. He said he never faced problems with the estate workers but had to struggle with a shortage of manpower from 1980 onwards as locals were not prepared "to get dirt in their nails".

"I remember that I never had to lend money to the estate workers. I believe people back then knew how to live within their means, unlike today," Boon said when met at the launch of UMB's coffee table book, The United Malacca Berhad Story: Thriving Through A Century of Changes, recently.

The book was launched in conjunction with the company's 100th year anniversary. Boon is now the independent non-executive director of UMB, which was founded by the late Tun Tan Cheng Lock, who was also the founder of MCA.

Cheng Lock's grand-daughter, Tan Siok Choo, who was also at the function, said she did not step into the company's vast estate until she was about 20 years old when the rubber trees had been replaced with oil palm. "I was impressed with how the oil palm trees were planted in a straight row within the same distance from one another."

She insisted that she did not receive any special treatment because no one recognised her as the daughter of the big boss (Tun Tan Siew Sin) and the grand-daughter of the founder. Her first visit to a rubber estate, however, was during a school-organised excursion. "It was not my father's estate. I remember people telling me to keep a lookout for snakes as there were many in estates. Everyone was busy looking down throughout the trip!"

Looking back, she said her family did not allow family members to work in the company until they had proven themselves. "My father discouraged female family members from getting involved in the plantation business."

But she went on to become a non-executive director, the only one in the family still actively involved in the business. She said her father, Siew Sin, set up the Women's Aid Organisation in 1979. "He did this with the RM30,000 he received from the Tun Razak Award, for his invaluable contributions to the country."

Siok Choo, 58, said her grandfather was a teacher at the Raffles Institution in Singapore, his alma mater, when he decided to go into the plantation business.

"His dad wouldn't let him leave the security of a teaching job, but his mum was a far-sighted woman who insisted he take up the offer. I am really proud of my grandfather. The company is now in the oil palm plantation business, with 60,000 acres of land both in the peninsula and Sabah, when it started out with just 460 acres."

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