Author Archives: wongchunwai

Johor Ruler: I’m above politics

Sultan Ibrahim posing for a wefie with members of the public.

Sultan Ibrahim posing for a wefie with members of the public.


JOHOR BARU: Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar has made it clear that he is above politics and does not favour any politician.

He also feels that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak should be given a chance as every Malaysian prime minister had also made mistakes in the past.

During an hour-long exclusive interview to wrap up the year, the Johor Ruler spoke emotionally on an array of issues, including his late son Tunku Laksamana Tunku Abdul Jalil, as well as his relations with the Prime Minister and former deputy prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

He also spoke on the dangers of vaping and why it had to be banned immediately, describing it as a “technology drug” which was threatening the society.

The Sultan also touched on religious issues, including the huge budget for the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim).

The Star: Tuanku, we wish to express our condolences on the recent demise of His Highness Tunku Laksamana Tunku Abdul Jalil. How has the family coped with the event of the past weeks, if we may ask?

Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar: This has been a roller-coaster year for the family and me. The high points have been the coronation in March this year when I became the state’s fifth Sultan in the history of modern Johor. The last time a coronation ceremony took place was 55 years ago.

I also conferred the new title of Permaisuri Johor on my consort Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah at the coronation ceremony, which was another historic occasion.

In October last year, my eldest son, the Tunku Mahkota of Johor Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim ended his bachelorhood when he married Che’ Puan Khaleeda Bustamam.

But all these events took place against the backdrop of the difficulties the family was going through as we joined Tunku Jalil in his fight against his illness.

He was diagnosed while he was on a holiday with us in the United Kingdom in August last year. He was truly a fighter and a man of steel. While it was painful for him during the medical treatment, it was equally painful for us.

We are, after all, ordinary human beings too. I am a father like other parents in Johor. It crushed my heart each time I saw my son suffer, especially when I knew that he was dying. I had to be strong for him until the end.

But as my wife penned in a heartfelt letter which she has shared with Malaysians, sometimes things don’t go as we plan. No matter how painful, one needs to accept reality with an open heart.

(Tunku Abdul Jalil passed away on Dec 5. He had been diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer.)

I have kept all the text messages that he had sent to me. These are precious memories, which are very important to my family and me.

But we must accept fate and destiny. Allah has His reasons. I wish to take this opportunity to thank Malaysians, especially Johoreans, from all walks of life, races and religions who opened up their hearts in pouring out their support for my son.

I truly wish to thank them from the bottom of my heart. I am deeply touched.

Even until this day, there are people still visiting the royal mausoleum to pay their last respects.

On the ban of vaping

Q: Tuanku, on the subject of health, Your Royal Highness has ordered the ban on the sale of all vaping products in the state. What prompted Your Royal Highness to be so decisive?

A: I did my research and this is not our custom. Neither is shisha. I was shocked and disgusted when I saw women in headscarves and even children puffing away.

I realised that this was the beginning of a disaster and had to put my foot down as soon as possible. To me, this is a technology drug that will be harmful. Unlike drugs, this is difficult to detect.

I was fed up of the various authorities at both the state and federal levels, which could not decide on what to do. They were dragging their feet and some politicians were making silly remarks such as vaping should not be banned because a million votes would be lost and bumiputra interest would be affected.

I know what is good and I am firm that all this has to stop beginning Jan 1 next year. So far, all those opposing are doing it from a business stand. Do you not care about people’s health?

There are also those who oppose, including a “comedian in red” who has jumped into the issue to give their comments.

(Right-wing activist Abdul Rani Kulup Abdullah or Kipidap is a quirky character who is often seen wearing a red beret, and has made headlines for lodging more than 1,000 police reports against opposition politicians and NGO leaders.

He recently joined other Malay-based NGOs to say that Barisan Nasional risks losing a million votes in the next general election if the authorities continue the crackdown on e-cigarettes and vaporisers.)

It is purely a health issue and some mindless politicians are talking about politics and race, it’s incredible.

The media, including The Star, has been highlighting how even primary schoolchildren were spending their pocket money on vape products.

What I feared has taken place. The police have now arrested people who sold “ganja vape”. What is more worrying is that the syndicate has been in operation since August and has catered to its clientele via the Internet and sent their products via courier.

This is underground business. What would be the effects if Johor allows open sales in shopping malls, shoplots and pasar malam?

I can show the many e-mails and letters I have received from all over Malaysia, especially from parents, expressing their support for Johor’s decision to lead.

Now other states are also following suit and even the National Fatwa Council has declared vaping as haram.

To me, education and health should not be politicised.

Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar

The Ruler dining at a restaurant in Muar, Johor. He later paid for his own food and also paid for all customers who ate at the restaurant that day.

On the strong remarks by Tunku Mahkota of Johor on social media

Q: Tuanku, this has also been a year when Johor found itself in the spotlight. The Tunku Mahkota of Johor has made strong statements on issues affecting the leadership and the country.

A: Yes, the TMJ has spoken up on the need to be transparent, accountable and credible but it was never directed at anyone.

He has his points. Whoever consumes chilli will surely rasa pedas (feel the heat). I do not argue with the TMJ about his comments as I do ask him about them and once he explains, I am fine with it.

But I always advise him not to hurt anyone. Based on his success in football, I think he has changed the face of football in the country. Not many people are happy with his success. His comments and hints seem to get support from the people. I go through Facebook and see the comments.

On the role of a Ruler and his authority

Q: Would that lead to the perception by some politicians that Tuanku has gone beyond your authority?

A: I am not a puppet in Johor. I have the right to call my mentri besar to tegur (advise) him at any time and others in my government as well. I am the one who appoints the state government. I have always put my rakyat’s interest first.

Let me give a history lesson here as it was my great-grandfather, the late Sultan Ibrahim, who gave money to start Umno and the first meeting was actually held at the palace in Johor.

Subsequently, his son, the late Sultan Ismail, as the regent of Johor at the time, inaugurated the Malay Congress on May 11, 1946 at Istana Besar in Johor Baru that led to the setting up of Umno.

Let me remind politicians who do not know history or are too lazy to read history books – Umno was born in the Johor palace grounds.

Where Umno is today began at the very palace grounds we are sitting on now. That’s the party history.

Sultan Ismail’s role was also recognised during a large parade held on June 8, 1946 to celebrate Britain’s success in regaining Malaya after Japan’s surrender.

That’s how the palace has taken up its responsibilities at crucial points of the nation’s history.

On Rulers as the custodians of Islam and Jakim

Q: Can Tuanku talk about the role of the Rulers as the custodians of Islam, given recent debate that some federal religious agencies appear to exert influence and authority onto this religious space?

A: We are the heads of religion in our own states. The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) can give advice or propose guidelines but it is up to us (Sultans) whether we want to accept it.

I have appointed a panel in the Johor Islamic Council. They come up with fatwas (decrees) for me to approve it. The fatwa cannot be effective without my approval. Sometimes I do question a fatwa and I want them to explain it, but Jakim has no right to interfere in the state.

Do you know that Islamic schools started in Johor before they were introduced to other states? We never had sekolah pondok but instead organised religious schools. Others are actually using our syllabus too.

Jakim reports to the Conference of Rulers and they usually advise the Federal Government.

I am curious to know – if it is true – why do they need a RM1bil budget? Does it include allocations to all the states? During my next Conference of Rulers, I want them to show me their breakdown for expenses. I want to know if they are financing our religious schools here.

On the Johor palace, the Prime Minister and ex-deputy prime minister

Q: Your Royal Highness, forgive us for asking this sensitive and delicate question, given the fact that Johor is now a political hotbed. The Johor palace statement, whether official or casually made on social media, has given the impression that you are critical of the Prime Minister or even not in favour of him.

A: No, I do not favour anyone. I never said I do not favour the Prime Minister. He is the Prime Minister whether you like it or not.

I must say that every prime minister has made his mistakes. To me, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin is my former mentri besar and former deputy prime minister. He comes to see me via appointments. I allow this but I try to avoid talking about politics. He came to see me twice.

He does express his unhappiness. I listen and keep it to myself. I have also met up with the Prime Minister and avoid speaking to him about politics. Let the politician handle politics. I am above politics. If he (Prime Minister) needs advice, I am here as a friend.

The issue of whether you are from Johor does not arise.

Yes, I am outspoken. I speak my mind and I am happy that the message gets across.

The palace grants audiences to many leaders but it does not mean that after these visits, we are meant to endorse their leadership.

They are politicians but please do not abuse or misuse the good name of the palace. I am very proud of being a Johorean but that does not mean I must blindly support anyone from Johor. The people should also not make such deductions.

The Prime Minister is from Pahang, but he has also regularly updated me on development issues affecting the state. There are official visits by him which are widely reported in the press, but we also have quiet, informal meetings.

He is deeply concerned about issues affecting Johor because of our proximity to Singapore, which is a strategic partner to Johor. Both of us believe that Johor and Malaysia will benefit from the ongoing development and when the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore fast train is built, the benefits will be enormous.

I do not want to dig up the past nor do I wish to take a swipe at any politician, active or retired, but the Prime Minister understands and appreciates the need to work closely and not to repeat the past.

I find it hard to understand the rationale or irrationality of any Malaysian leader who wants Malay­sia to quarrel with Singapore. It’s what I called crooked thinking.

There is so much we can learn from Singapore. They have done well, let’s be honest here. We don’t have to go on expensive study trips to Europe or the United States – just go across the Causeway to Singapore, they have done so many things that are correct and efficient.

I know the Prime Minister has come under much criticism but I say give him a chance. The year has come to an end, we must move on. It has been a challenging year for everyone, including myself. There are issues that still need to be tackled, that need to convince the people, that need answers, but I must say that they also need closure.

Every one of us makes mistakes but we must be prepared to learn from them, make amends and do what is right. Right what is wrong.

English, the universal currency

Straight talk: Sultan Ibrahim speaking to The Star Media Group managing director and chief executive officer Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai and The Star Johor bureau chief Nelson Benjamin at Istana Bukit Serene.

Straight talk: Sultan Ibrahim speaking to The Star Media Group managing director and chief executive officer Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai and The Star Johor bureau chief Nelson Benjamin at Istana Bukit Serene.

JOHOR BARU: Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar is known to be an outspoken advocate of English-medium education. Meeting with scholarship recipients recently, he asked them point blank whether their English fluency was good enough for them to deserve the awards. He is also fond of equating the English language to the US dollar, saying “it’s accepted everywhere and used everywhere, even in countries where the people don’t speak English well.”

English advances and unites

Q: Tuanku, in your address at the opening of the Johor State Legislative Assembly recently, you suggested that Malaysia should adopt Singapore’s education policy that uses English as a medium of instruction, especially to forge unity. Could you elaborate?

A: Singapore is our closest neighbour. We don’t have to go very far; we should emulate them as the island republic has achieved development way ahead of us.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Singapore has done well as a country. Their students have fared very well in Mathematics and Science. The prominent use of English has set them ahead of us.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves. We have politicians in Malaysia who are in self-denial or choose to play politics with education. They want to be heroes of their races. They talk about nationalism but at the end, do they send their children to boarding schools in Australia and the United Kingdom to learn in Malay medium?

I also know of so-called Chinese educationists who champion Chinese education, even insisting non-Mandarin speaking teachers should not be allowed to teach in Chinese primary schools. These are the extremists. I know one such leader had tertiary education in Western countries. We have many such hypocrites.

One thing that we can learn from Singapore is their way of forging national unity via their education system. The use of English as a medium of instruction has been effective in the development of the country and uniting their people regardless of race or religion.

English schools are neutral grounds. We used to have such schools in Malaysia until it was changed. Was there any problem then?

The proficiency of English is bad among children, and our children do not mix among themselves. The Malays go to national schools where the Chinese feel alienated, while the Indians go to Tamil schools. Where is the unity?

Then some people also want Chinese and Indian universities. All this is driving the races apart. Yet we say we are all 1Malaysia. Unfortunately, I see all this as 5Malaysian.

Sultan Ibrahim: ‘Education is the foundation to create the country’s future generation’

The richer Malaysians send their children to private and international schools where English is the medium of instruction. So, who says there are no English-medium schools? But they are only available to the middle and upper-middle class from urban areas.

So, soon we will also have a class issue. This is all due to the myopic planning and thinking of our politicians.

For me, education is the foundation to create the country’s future generation.

As such, I hope Johoreans will start to open up their minds. I have sent the signals across and I hope they start thinking now with regard to the country’s education system and are willing to change for the benefit of the people and long-term development.

I am confident if we have an education system based on a single stream for students from a young age, we will be able to create a community which is more harmonious and can work together to face challenges in the future.

Anyway, we can also teach Bahasa Malaysia in schools as it is the country’s national language. You can still have English as the medium of instruction but BM and Chinese or Tamil are compulsory.

Don’t forget, when English was used as a medium of instruction in schools in the 1950s and 1960s, a pass in BM was compulsory. Even a pass in Mathematics was compulsory to pass the Form 3 exam but now you don’t even have to pass your Maths test!

GST implementation needs to be reviewed

>Tuanku, you were against the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) for the public and after it was introduced, the Johor Government decided to absorb the GST amount. Since then, other state governments have followed suit. Your comments?

I understand that detailed study was done before the Government decided to implement GST nationwide. Until now I have been hearing about the many problems faced by not just the people but businesses with regards to its implementation.

I have heard complaints from businessmen that April was their worst business month. They suffered huge losses with some retail shops reporting zero sales for days.

I am aware of these ground sentiments. I hope our leaders are listening too. Be honest. Listen to the people.

However, its implementation needs to be reviewed, as it does not make sense if services provided by the Government for the people are also subjected to GST. This will further burden the people.

Someone who comes to pay house assessment will be subject to double taxes.

That is the reason why I asked the State government to review it. I commend the Johor government for taking the first bold step by absorbing the fees, which has since been followed by other State governments nationwide, including Penang, Terengganu and Sarawak.

Housing, development and maintenance

> Tuanku, there seems to be a slowdown in the property market, especially with too many high-rise buildings within Iskandar Malaysia. To make matters worse, banks are also tightening regulations when it comes to giving out loans and this can be a problem for first-time homebuyers. What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, the State’s property market, which has spiked in the last three years, is a bit sluggish now but I am confident that the local property market has bright prospects and can handle this. I see that there is still more demand than supply, but there are other factors which are causing problems, especially difficulty in securing loans. So if banks do not provide loans to young people, when will they ever be able to own houses?

I hope the banks can give some leeway to overcome this. I also suggest that the Govern­ment intensify “lease and buy” schemes to help the low-income earners own homes in the State.

Right now, at least 40% of housing loan applications get rejected, so how does a house-buyer get to own a house? Developers have had to refund their deposits. We understand the need to prevent speculation, but the banks have over-reacted because of strict policies from the central bank.

Besides attracting local buyers, the Government should attract more foreign buyers to boost the property market, including speeding up the setting up of international zones which will surely attract foreign buyers.

I also feel that the State government should continue with its policy of building more affordable houses for the benefit of the people of Johor. More affordable homes need to be built jointly between developers and the State.

>Tuanku, cleanliness seems to be an issue that you have always been concerned about. However, is the cleanliness level in our towns up to the mark, especially with Ah Long posters put up everywhere? Also, many say that Johor Baru is badly lit with many streetlights not functioning. What are your thoughts on these issues?

I have always emphasised the need for cleanliness in our State, especially with Johor Baru so close to Singapore. That city is clean and well maintained. However, I notice that there are still irresponsible locals who litter everywhere, including throwing rubbish out of their vehicles without being embarrassed.

I hope the Government can be strict with such people, who give the State a bad name and image. I hope our Johor Baru City Council can learn from Singapore instead of spending public funds going on study tours to far away places.

I am also upset and disappointed when I see these Ah Long stickers or posters pasted around the city. I hope the authorities do not just go after those pasting the posters but also after those whose numbers are printed on the posters, and also cancel the business licences of the printers designing these posters and stickers.

Their numbers are printed on these posters, so why can’t the authorities go after them? Call the numbers on the posters and nab them and force them to pick up rubbish.

I also commend the local councils for putting up iconic structures in conjunction with my coronation in March and hope that the cleanliness of these structures will be maintained to ensure these places become tourist attractions.

I also hope for more enforcement to be carried out around Stulang in Johor Baru as there is too much rubbish after people litter the place at night.

On streetlights, the Public Works Department should immediately replace all faulty lights to ensure the streets are well lit and not just along protocol roads.

I also want the State’s local councils to standardise advertisement boards in all business outlets so that the boards do not cover the windows or the outlet’s façade.

Action should also be taken against those who put up billboards along pedestrian bridges or along roads with different sizes, which do not just become an eyesore, but also pose a danger to people.

> Tuanku, you have refused to sign the Johor Housing and Property Board Enactment and have even called for it to be reviewed. Will this not hamper the State’s property market or housing policy?

When the State government first prepared the Bill, they followed the enactment of the Johor Corporation Act and Yayasan Pelajaran Johor Act. There was only a bit of modification. It was brought to me by the Johor Mentri Besar and state legal advisor.

But when it went to the state assembly, something else happened. Outsiders started making statements. Then the State government bowed to outside pressure and made amendments.

As Ruler, it was my prerogative whether to sign or not. As long as the Ruler refuses to sign, the law cannot be implemented. Now I want them to discuss further.

Since I took the oath to become the Johor Ruler, it is my responsibility to take care of the people’s interest. It’s a kind of check and balance.

The Mentri Besar brings the people to the board. It is not that I take people from anywhere and put them there. I do not even know the background of some of them.

At least someone can call for the paper immediately when I hear complaints from the people. On the Bill, the Government can come back to me and I will see the contents again. I will just tell them to follow the original one and do not change due to outside pressure.

Here in Johor, we know what Johoreans want. That is why we started the Sultan Ibrahim Foundation, mainly to look into affordable homes for the rakyat. That means we do not take profit and the Government does not charge us premium for the land. We run this project and build the affordable homes at cost.

Anyway, the State government can continue with its plans to build more affordable houses for the people. I wanted the state to review it based on the feedback that I gathered from my people when I first asked the State government to explain the Bill to the people.

During the rule of my great-grandfather, Almarhum Sultan Ibrahim, the British government tried to interfere with the administration of the State government, but Almarhum was firmly against it and stood by the principle that Johor Must Remain as Johor (Johor Mesti Jadi Johor). As such, I want the same principles to be emphasised and to be the foundation of the State government and development in the State. Only Johoreans will know about the situation and the needs of locals. I do not want outsiders to interfere in the State’s affairs.

> Tuanku, in the 11th Malaysia Plan, Johor only got a new public hospital in Pasir Gudang while there were no announcements about major development projects for the State. What do you think about this?

As a State which contributes a huge amount towards the Federal Government’s coffers, more allocation should be channelled to the development of the State and not just money to the federal growth corridors alone. Yes, we got a hospital as there is a shortage but we also need more infrastructure in Johor.

I hope projects like the RTS are given priority as these will spur development not just for Johor but the country. I believe that more allocation is also needed to improve public transport and also improve flood mitigation projects. Allocation should also be channelled for the completion of infrastructure projects such as roads, including timely completion of road expansion projects such as Pasir Gudang, Muar and Segamat.

Illegal land clearing

> Tuanku, the issue of illegal land clearing activities, illegal logging and illegal mining seems to be still happening in the state. How bad is the situation?

I know Kahang and Mersing are the worst places for illegal logging. Everything is illegal and between 5,000ha to 6,000ha is planted with oil palm. Don’t tell me nobody sees it!

The same is also happening in Kluang and Bukit Kepong. Who are the culprits? The new OCPD of Mersing, who has been tasked with clearing up the district, has also received death threats.

Besides thousands of hectares of land cleared for oil palm, there is also a lot of illegal mining, especially illegal gold mines. The area between Gunung Tahan until Pungai in Johor in the east coast is a gold belt. You chase them away today, and they are back within three days.

I know that these things are still happening and the officers are giving me the same excuses — that they lack enforcement personnel and the land clearing is happening deep inside the jungle.

The Government loses between RM30mil and RM50mil per annum to such activities. Multiply that by 10 years. That adds up to huge losses for the Government.

The time has come for the Government to use new and effective methods, including using helicopters to carry out aerial surveillance and enforcement.

Do not lease but instead own one. It is still cheaper as a new aircraft is about RM15mil. Besides surveillance, it can also be used to help evacuate people in the islands off Johor during emergencies and during the monsoon season. We cannot just be relying on the air force and fire department all the time.

There is a need to make government machinery efficient to ensure more revenue for government coffers.

There should also be coordinated cooperation between state and federal agencies when it comes to taking action against such people who plunder the state’s resources instead of taking action separately.

Transport links

> Tuanku, both Singapore and Malaysia have agreed to delay the High-Speed Rail (HSR) project as more time is needed to study the project. However, talk about the Rapid Transit System (RTS) between Johor Baru and Singapore seems to have slowed down. Any comment on this?

If you ask me, there is an urgent need for the RTS project to be implemented to improve connectivity between both countries. Each day, thousands of Malaysians commute between both countries and the RTS will be an effective way to ease travel and traffic, especially on the Causeway.

That is why I have stressed that whatever policy is discussed between the Federal Government and Singapore, it should also take into consideration the sentiments of Johoreans before being implemented. This is because whatever policy is agreed, it will have a direct impact on the people of Johor. That is why I want the Johor government to play an active role when it comes to relations with Singapore, instead of just following what has been set at the federal level.

To me, if we give in on something to Singapore, they should reciprocate, especially with regards to the bridge project across the Causeway. If the HSR project needs more time, it is up to them, but I feel that the RTS will make Johor a more vibrant city for economic growth.

We are all Johoreans

> Tuanku, you seem to place a lot of emphasis on the need for unity and racial harmony in the State, and for politicians to always toe the line. What are your observations on this?

I have always believed that people in Johor should be united and not be divided by ideology or any political affiliation. I want my people to be loyal, obey the law, be courteous and respect each other. We are all Johoreans.

We must unite regardless of whether we are Malays, Chinese or Indians. We should be an example to other states, not just in our development projects but also our racial harmony. That is one reason why I announced the setting up of the Sultanah Fatimah Foundation and also donated RM1mil towards the foundation to help the needy, during an event organised by the Chinese community.

I am happy that the foundation has also got other private donors and has grown to RM2.68mil. I intend to give a similar donation of RM1mil to the Indian and Malay communities. I want to be fair to all my subjects.

On the Tunku Laksamana Cancer Founda­tion, we are waiting for the necessary approval before we carry on. Anyway, the money is already there.

I would also like to remind our politicians, including our assemblymen, that I am observing their debates at the State Assembly and I do not want leaders who try to cause break-ups among the people. I understand that there are assemblymen from different political parties, but I believe that everyone holds on to the belief that they are fighting for the people. Thus, they should always do it in a courteous manner without offending anyone or any particular race. Finally, I would like to say that I want what’s best for Johor and for Johor to move forward.

Land in Perth

> Tuanku, your business dealings have again raised eyebrows, especially your recent acquisition of a stake in Perth’s old Sunset Hospital. Any comments?

I did not buy any shares in the hospital. I bought a piece of freehold land about 20,000sq ft by the Swan River. It was a tender by the Western Australia Government. One lot was up for sale and the bidding started at A$12mil (RM33.64mil) and no takers. I submitted mine at A$8.5mil (RM23.82mil) and within a week I was told I was successful.

I bought this land to build a house for my family’s use, especially during holidays there. I will abide by all the regulations of the Australian Government when building my house.

I did not know that they planned to use the money to restore the hospital. I don’t know how it came out that I am investing in the hospital.

Anyway, this is my first purchase in Perth and I have been looking for the house for the past two years. I think Malaysians, especially Johoreans, should be proud that we have a Johor palace in Perth. It’s my money, not the people’s money.

Dangerous and on the loose

By Wong Chun Wai and Farik Zolkepli

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Abd Hir is not dead. He is alive and remains one of the world’s most wanted and elusive terrorists.

The United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation has put a RM16mil price on his head and security agencies have stepped up their operations in the hunt for this dangerous fugitive, especially in view of events in Syria and Iraq.

They fear a resurgence of terror following the call by Abu Bakar Baghdadi – now regarded as the most dangerous terrorist in the world – to radical Muslims worldwide to rise and fight for the Islamic State, the new foundation of a Caliphate.

Regional security agencies said they were now re-looking at the movements of Zulkifli “in the light of events in the Middle East and its impact on South-East Asia.”

Bukit Aman Special Branch’s Counter Terrorism Division principal assistant director Senior Asst Comm Datuk Ayob Khan confirmed that Zulkifli, also known as Marwan, was still alive – despite reports that he had been killed in an airstrike on Feb 2, 2012.

“We are aware of reports that said he was killed a few years ago. That is not true. We believe he is hiding in southern Philippines,” he said yesterday.

He added that his division was now tracking Marwan down and monitoring those close to him.

Asked if Zulkifli might be involved in the local militant movement and in sending fighters to Syria and Iraq, SAC Ayob said police have not ruled out such a possibility.

It is learnt that Muar-born Zulkifli had a wife in Malaysia but married three other Philippine nationals when he went into hiding.

The 48-year-old US trained engineer, who is a bomb making expert, has close links to the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group that is now active in the Philippines.

Intelligence sources said the Kumpulan Mujahiddin Malaysia (KMM) leader is regarded as a supplier of bombs for radical groups, and a trainer of their fighters.

“That is why his arrest is vital in our war against terror. He is part of the Jemaah Islamiyah group that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 200 people,” an analyst said.

His brother, Rahmat Abdhir, a US citizen, is now in detention in Guantanamo, following his arrest in California for conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.

Zulkifli, like other KMM members, had travelled in the late 1980s to Afghanistan to join the resistance against the Russians, according to reports.

On returning to Malaysia, he hooked up with other Malaysian Afghan veterans to form KMM, which aimed to form a regional Islamic state via violence.

KMM members have been linked to the murder of Lunas assemblyman Dr Joe Fernandez in 2002, the bombing of a church and a Hindu temple, and also the attack on the Guar Chempedak police station on Feb 4, 2001.

Those arrested under the Internal Security Act included several PAS grassroots leaders such as Zainon Ismail, Noorashid Sakid, Ahmad Tajuddin and Nik Adli Nik Aziz, the son of the then Kelantan Mentri Besar.

Terror link forged by armed jihadists

By Wong Chun Wai and Farik Zolkepli

Brothers in arms: Lotfi (second right) posing with unidentified mujahideen fighters.

Brothers in arms: Lotfi (second right) posing with unidentified mujahideen fighters.

KUALA LUMPUR: The terror link that is being forged between Malaysian militants and the other fighters from Middle Eastern groups, including off-shoots of al-Qaeda, has become the primary concern of intelligence agencies in the region.

While veteran fighters have joined in the Syrian civil war, which has now turned into a battle between the Sunnis and Syiahs, new radical groups have also emerged.

It is this trend that is worrying Bukit Aman and their regional counterparts, especially those from Indonesia

The battle in Syria to set up the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has become pivotal in bringing together like-minded militants who are sending out messages via social media that they are fighting a holy cause in the name of Islam.

Almost all the Malaysian militants, including former PAS Dewan Ulama central committee member and Kedah Youth information chief Lotfi Ariffin, have declared themselves as jihad fighters.

They have also projected themselves as defenders of the Sunni branch of Islam, to which the majority of Muslims in Malaysia as well as in Indonesia belong.

Militants supporting ISIS have seized vast territories in western and northern Iraq and captured groups of people. Reports have emerged about how the fighters would release the Sunnis but single out the Syiahs for execution.

ISIS is also referred as ISIL, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant. The Levant, or al-Sham, is sometimes called Greater Syria and encompasses Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.

ISIS - Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant

Iraqi Syiah fighters are in the Syrian civil war supposedly to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power. Many of them were trained by Hezbollah, the Syiahs’ Islamic militant group, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

But while the civil war rages on, intelligence agencies and the Ma­­lay­­sian police are said to be more concerned with the links that are being forged between Malaysian militants and foreign fighters, mostly linked to al-Qaeda, as they fight alongside one another.

“The terror network that would be forged would eventually have an impact on our Malaysian and regional security,” a security analyst said.

“The personal bonds, the arms training, and the use of powerful weapons by these Malaysians need to be seriously taken into ac­­count.”

A police source confirmed that Malaysian authorities were indeed concerned about the potential terror links being forged in Syria.

“Over there, they are meeting with militants from other countries, including those from Indo­nesia, the Philippines and even the United Kingdom,” the source said.

“The militants will still keep their ties with the other comba­tants, even after they return to Malaysia … in short, the battle in Syria gives the militants avenues to form new terror networks.”

Malaysia and other countries in the region, according to the source, might be future targets.

“The militants are coming back well trained, and have the network for weapons and other support. This must be clamped down before it gets worse,” the source said.

Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar said the police were aware of militant teachings being spread through social media platforms such as blogs and websites.

Bukit Aman is working closely with the Malaysian Communica-tion and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to track such sites.

“We are also intensifying our efforts to track and detain suspected militants in the country. Any threat to security will not be tolerated,” he said.

On the battlefront in Syria, it is likely that the Malaysians would link up with the ruthless Jabhat al-Nusra or Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot behind the decapitation of Syiahs and murders in Syria and Lebanon.

There is also the Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham Al Islami or the Islamic Movement of The Free Men of the Levant, comprising Islamist and Salafist fighters, with reportedly over 20,000 men. It operates under the Syrian Islamic Front.

Then there is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), set up at the start of the Syrian war, comprising mostly defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel and volunteers who are against Bashar.

The Star, in a report on Friday, quoted Syahrir Azfar, the coordinator of Malaysia Life Line in Syria (MLLFS), as saying an estimated 30 Malaysians are fighting in various militant groups, including the ISIL and with the FSA rebels.

He said a Malaysian, Ahmad Salman, and his commander, Lotfi, were part of a little known militant group called Ajnadusy Syam, which is trying to align itself with ISIL.

CNN has quoted the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm, which estimates that there are already thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, with around 700 from France, 800 from Russia, mostly Chechens, and almost 300 from Britain.

Last month, US officials said Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, a 22-year-old American known as Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki, drove a truck full of explosives into a Syrian army position and detona­ted it, killing himself in the pro­cess.

Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki has also reportedly become the first Malaysian suicide bomber, blowing up soldiers at Iraq’s SWAT headquarters in al-Anbar on May 26.

The conflict in Syria has also captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before, the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) has been quoted as saying.

IPAC said the conflict in Syria had sparked outrage in Indonesia because the atrocities of the Syrian government forces were widely covered in the Indonesian media.

The number of Indonesian combatants who have got involved, although still in the dozens, is likely to climb as it is relatively easy to get to Turkey from Indonesia and enter Syria from there.

According to IPAC director Sidney Jones, “Jihadi humanita­­rian assistance teams now appear to be facilitating the entry of fighters as well.”

IPAC further reported that the Indonesian organisation that had been most active in Syria since the conflict erupted has been Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the organisation responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that since 2007 has disengaged itself from violence in Indonesia.

JI leaders, who have been vilified in recent years by more militant groups for abandoning jihad, are now seeking to regain their prestige by venturing abroad. They argue that the “jihad expe­riment” in Indonesia is just a waste of energy and they could be better deployed in a war with global consequences.

They are militants – and flaunting it

By Wong Chun Wai, Sira Habibu, Farik Zolkepli, Nicholas Cheng, and Akil Yunus

KUALA LUMPUR: Unlike the mercenaries of old who fought shy of publicity, Malaysian militants joining the “jihadist” movement in Syria are openly boasting about their exploits, posting selfies and videos on Facebook and YouTube.

At least four of them are openly sharing their photographs and experiences on social media – proof that Malaysians are actively involved in a purported holy war.

They are believed to have been recruited by the ruthless Jabhat al-Nusra or Al Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot behind decapitations and murders in Syria and Lebanon.

A search on the Internet revealed websites in Bahasa Malaysia that glorify the exploits of these Malaysian militants, including Rakyat Malaysia Bersama Revolusi Islam and Uncle Syahid Insya Allah.

The most famous of them is former PAS Dewan Ulama committee member and Kedah PAS Youth information chief Ustaz Mohd Lotfi Ariffin, whose supporters also blog about his exploits.

The Pakistani-trained religious scholar from Baling, Kedah, who was detained under the Internal Security Act for six years from 2001, has also fought in Afghanistan.

The gun-toting radical politician is believed to be among 20 Malaysians confirmed by Bukit Aman to have taken part in the uprising in Syria.

Another Malaysian militant who has surfaced prominently on pro-militant websites and blogs is former 1990s Malay pop group drummer, Akil Ukays, whose band had a string of hit songs. He is said to be a Universiti Teknologi Mara graduate.

In one video clip, a man resembling Lotfi and sporting a goatee is in a trench together with other fighters, wielding an AK-47.

At one point, a man’s voice, speaking in Bahasa Malaysia, can be heard describing what was taking place but it could not be ascertained whether it was Lotfi or someone else beside him.

The Jabhat al-Nusra group, believed to have been set up in 2012, is described as the “most aggressive and successful terror group” with strong financial backing. It has been regarded as a terrorist group by the United Nations, United States, Australia and Britain.

Two other suspected Malaysian militants have appeared in a video clip on YouTube.

The two were introduced as one Mohamed Fauzi, who now calls himself Abu Dayyan, and Abu Naeem, on the banks of the Euphrates River.

In the video, there are three men, including one Abu Issa Al-Andalusi who does most of the talking and speaks of waging “jihad”.

The clip, posted by Rakyat Malaysia Bersama Revolusi Islam, titled “Mujahideen ISIS dari Malaysia,” has Bahasa Malaysia subtitles. ISIS refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. It is also referred to as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

British newspapers claimed that the third man, introduced as Abu Issa Al-Andalusi, was a purported Arsenal player. But an Arsenal spokesman said the club had no record of anyone by that name.

PAS leader among Malaysian jihadists in Syria

By Wong Chun Wai, Sira Habibu, and Nicholas Cheng

Ustaz Lotfi Ariffin (left) and Akil UK's (right) in Syria.

Ustaz Lotfi Ariffin (left) and Akil UK's (right) in Syria.

PETALING JAYA: PAS Dewan Ulama member and Kedah PAS Youth information chief Ustaz Lotfi Ariffin has been identified as one of the Malaysians who have travelled to Syria to join a militant movement.

An investigation by The Star found that Lotfi has openly uploaded photographs and video clip of himself in social media while his supporters have also blogged about his exploits.

Former 90s Malay pop group drummer, Akil UK’

Tomorrow The Star will run exclusive stories on Malaysians believed to have been recruited by the ruthless Jabhat al-Nusra or the Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda off shoot behind beheadings and murders, operating in Syria and Lebanon.

Another Malaysian militant, who has been featured prominently on pro-militant websites and blogs, is former 90s Malay pop group drummer, Akil UK’s, which had a string of hit songs.

He is said to have been influenced by Lotfi and had joined the latter in entering Syria, where both are seen heavily armed and in fatigues.

A chapter of good deeds

FOUR companies made bulk purchases of the book Penang’s History, My Story by Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, to be given to public libraries and school libraries.

They are Eastern and Oriental Berhad (E&O) which bought 500 copies, Ivory Properties Group Berhad which bought 250 copies, and 1881 Chong Tian Hotel and Lunarich Pizza and Pasta which jointly bought 200 copies.

The book, which is filled with personal anecdotes and factual gems about the history of Penang, was officially released on Friday.

E&O Group corporate strategy director Lyn Chai presented a copy of the book to Wong, who is also The Star managing director and chief executive officer, in a simple ceremony at E&O Hotel in Penang the same day as a symbolic gesture of the company’s contribution.

Ivory Associates Sdn Bhd director Ron Loh, 1881 Chong Tian Hotel managing director Seah Kok Heng and Lunarich Pizza and Pasta director Edward Ang presented a copy each to The Star senior regional manager (operations) David Yeoh at the ceremony.

The Star’s Circulation Department will distribute the books to the selected public libraries and school libraries.

Chai said E&O was delighted to sponsor the book which also featured the E&O hotel, a significant landmark in Penang.

“It is really apt for the book launch to be held at this hotel. We are very happy to be the venue sponsor,” she said.

Chai said the book was educational, especially to those who are not from Penang.

“It explains why Penangites are so passionate about their home state due to the rich history,” she added.

Loh said Ivory immediately agreed to the sponsorship upon learning about the good cause.

He said the book would be interesting and educational, especially for schoolchildren.

“It will surely help the people to pass on the stories from one generation to another,” he said, adding that Ivory was committed to promoting the state’s rich history since it is a Penang-based developer.

Seah said the book would surely stir interest among the public, especially those who were keen to know about Penang’s past.

“We are confident that many people would love to read this book. I believe it will even lure local and foreign tourists who would want to explore the state that is full of cultural diversity and tangible heritage,” he said.

Ang said the book provided insightful information about Penang.

He said the book was also inspiring and highly entertaining.

Passion for Penang

PERANAKAN dancers wowed guests with their graceful movements during the launch of Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai’s Penang’s History, My Story at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in George Town, Penang.

The performers from the Sayang Sayang Nyonyas group dazzled the crowd with their lively dances to the classical Peranakan tunes of Jingli Nona, Sapu Tangan and Nona Nona.

Another star of the evening was the Nada Irama Keroncong Band, whose members belted out several numbers to keep the guests entertained.

Wong said he was keen to keep the Peranakan tradition and dondang sayang alive.

“These performers have a strong and burning passion to keep the arts alive. In fact, one of the members, Annie Lim, who is 76 years old, has been practising on the dance floor here since 10am,” said Wong, who is The Star managing director and chief executive officer.

He thanked his friends who came from the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and Macau for the book launch.

“I thank the guest-of-honour Datuk Jimmy Choo, who despite his busy schedule, took time off to attend the launch of my book because of his love for Penang,” Wong said in his welcoming address on Friday.

The 326-page book includes reflections by Wong’s friends and colleagues in The Star who also hail from Penang.

On his reflections of old Penang, Choo said the Pearl of the Orient used to be very calm, quiet and had less traffic.

“It was relaxing then and we could play on the streets. One of my favourite spots was Gurney Drive, where I could go swimming and fishing,” said the international shoe icon and one of the most famous Penangites.

Choo, who studied at Shih Chung Primary School in Love Lane, also revealed that an English teacher used to call him ‘donkey’ then.

“I didn’t know what the word meant then. But now I wonder whether he would still call me a ‘donkey’ if he knows who I am,” he quipped.

Also present were some of the other famous sons of Penang — banker and academician Tan Sri Dr Munir Majid, lawyer-poet Cecil Rajendra, veteran consumer activist S.M. Mohamed Idris and historian-heritage entrepreneur Khoo Salma Nasution.

Others who turned up were Star Publications (M) Bhd executive director Tan Sri Kamal Hashim, Naza Euro Motors chief operating officer Datuk Samson Anand George, PKT Logistics Group Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Datuk Michael Tio, E&O group corporate strategy director Lyn Chai, Think City Sdn Bhd chairman Datuk Anwar Fazal, Public Investment Bank institutional and corporate business head Adrian Chen and Rafflesia The Pearl Centre director Winnie Sin.

The event sponsor was the E&O Group. Proceeds from the book will go to the Penang Heritage Trust and the Kenosis Home, a drug rehabilitation centre.

The book is available from Star Publications (M) Bhd via the Circulation Department at 03-79671388 ext 1026 (ask for Ankal Letchumanan or Andrew Lim).

It is also available at major bookstores nationwide.

A passion for Penang

Penang’s History, My Story

  • Author : Wong Chun Wai and Friends
  • Genre : non – Fiction
  • Publisher : Star Publications (M) Bhd


A new book takes readers on a captivating walk down memory lane with a collection of columns about Penang.

DID you know that Bayan Lepas, one of Penang’s most prominent industrial zones, used to be a giant padi field? And that it may have been named for an escaped parakeet?

Did you know that, at one point, Penang’s iconic Gurney Drive was going to be called “Casuarina Beach”? Or that the famous Kelawai Road got its name from a British transliteration of the term “Kuala Awal”?

Embark on an illuminating voyage through the streets of Penang in Penang’s History, My Story, a compilation of newspaper columns on the state’s history written by Star Publications (M) Bhd Group Managing Director/CEO Wong Chun Wai.

A delightful love letter to the Pearl of the Orient, this book will no doubt captivate readers with its fascinating stories and light, humorous style.

Wong’s column, which ran from Jan 5, 2013, to Jan 4, 2014, originated from his fascination with Penang’s street names. The book is not meant as a definitive historical work; rather, it is an attempt to make the streets of Penang come alive through the author’s personal stories.

“And it is through the names of our streets – whether retained or renamed – that many a story can be told,” Wong writes in the book’s foreword. “Where else but in my beloved Penang can we have a road called Love Lane? Isn’t that romantic, even if there are conflicting stories on why the road was so named?”

Penang’s History, My Story transports readers back to the glory days of the state, with about 60 short columns, each touching on a different area or aspect of life in Penang. “Roaring Times In Old Air Itam”, for example, covers the history of Air Itam. Did you know it used to have a swimming pool and zoo, and there was a notorious fire that broke out there in 1935?

“Allure Of The Silver Screen” tells of Penang’s old cinemas, where viewers in the old Majestic Cinema would litter the floor with kuaci shells while watching Hong Kong films at 40 sen a ticket!

But perhaps the most fascinating column is “A Cowboy Town That Was Old Penang”, which briefly touches on the guns and triads of the state’s heritage.

Younger readers will probably benefit most from reading this book. Learning how different things were in the past could well be a shock to them!

The stories behind many famous Penangites are also told, ranging from modern personalities like The Alleycats and Datuk Jimmy Choo, to historical figures such as the state’s first mayor, D.S. Ramanathan, and Dr Wu Lien Teh, the first Malaysian Chinese nominated for a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

From seedy Campbell Street, once known for its prostitutes, to the possibly haunted Vale of Tempe, Wong’s columns cover a great deal of Penang and explore the lesser-known parts of its past. I had no idea, for example, that there are places in Penang which have Armenian, Scottish, Burmese and Jewish legacies.

The book is well-researched, with noted local historians such as Khoo Salma Nasution and Dr Neil Khor, among others, offering their insights and knowledge. Oddly however, Wikipedia is occasionally cited: I am not sure why more credible sources were not used instead.

Also featured are many old photographs of Penang, which provide a wonderful window to days gone by.

Among all the local history, Wong also peppers the book with tales of his life growing up in Penang: the “My Story” of the title.

Whether describing his teenage years catching catfish in the rivers of Kampung Melayu, or carrying Karpal Singh’s bags to get onto Pulau Jerejak (a restricted island where prisoners were held), Wong’s stories are sweet and often amusing. His love for his home state comes out strong in his writing, which carries a subtle theme of the importance of preserving our heritage.

The most poignant piece, however, has to be “Remembering The Tunku”. There, Wong speaks of his personal experiences with the Father of Malaysian Independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who lived on what was once Ayer Rajah Road.

Penang’s History, My Story also includes articles by Wong’s friends, other senior members of The Star. My favourite piece has to be Dorairaj Nadason’s colourful anecdotes of Perak Road: what can you say about a story featuring psychiatric hospital inmates, rioters, and monkey trappers?

It would have been nice, however, if the book had come with some sort of street map or guide to Penang, which would help readers in planning visits to the places in the book.

All in all, Penang’s History, My Story has something for everyone. Pure-bred Penangites can enjoy this nostalgic journey through Penang’s colourful history and discover a new side to the places they know and love. And newcomers now have a handy guide to the state’s most fascinating areas.

It would be great if something similar to this book could be done for all the other states in Malaysia: it would certainly make history classes more entertaining!

Weaving a fascinating tale of Penang

by Sharmilla Ganesan

Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai’s passion for history prompted his Penang’s History, My Story columns that have now been compiled into a book. Proceeds from sales of the book will go to the Penang Heritage Trust and Kenosis Home, a drug rehabilitation centre. — KEVIN TAN/The Star

Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai’s passion for history prompted his Penang’s History, My Story columns that have now been compiled into a book. Proceeds from sales of the book will go to the Penang Heritage Trust and Kenosis Home, a drug rehabilitation centre. — KEVIN TAN/The Star

History and personal stories are woven together to tell a tale of the streets of Penang.

Ask Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai about Penang, and his face immediately lights up. A dyed-in-the-wool Penangite, he can’t hide the fondness in his eyes or the pep in his voice when he talks about his hometown.

For Wong, Star Publications (M) Bhd group managing director and chief executive officer, stories of the island and his own story are practically inseparable. Thus, taking on the task of penning a weekly column on the subject, called Penang’s History, My Story, in StarMetro was a natural progression of his passion for and interest in Penang’s places, people and history. 

The column made its debut on Jan 5, 2013, to great reception, and went on for a year – the last article was published on Jan 4 this year. Compiling them together is the Penang’s History, My Story book, which will be launched tomorrow.

The book zeroes in on street names in George Town as a means of exploring the stories of a particular area, diving into the island’s rich cultural and historical heritage along the way. In fact, it was his passion for history, and disappointment over the way it is usually imparted, that prompted the author to embark on the project.

“I love history, and I’ve always wondered how people can find it boring,” says Wong, a political science and history graduate from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. 

“I blame it on our teachers, because they are bad storytellers. Even the word itself is ‘his story’, you’re supposed to tell a story, but we end up memorising facts, figures and dates. History as it is taught now is all about leaders and politicians, but why should it be so? What about people like us? Why are there no stories about the people, about social history, popular history?”

Wanting to approach and write about history differently, Wong decided to tell Penang’s story in ways that the average person could relate to: through everyday experiences and memories that would strike a chord with the reader.

“Penang is known for its heritage (George Town is a Unesco World Heritage Site), and people take great pride in it, and yet, many aren’t aware that they are living right in the midst of history. I also feel that, over the years, the names of roads, not just in Penang but all over Malaysia, are disappearing, and being replaced by names that don’t have significance. And yet, these street names are living examples of history!” he explains.

He points to Cantonment Road in Penang, which was named after the military cantonment (or camp) established there during the colonial era, as an example. 

“Not far from Cantonment Road is Sepoy Lines Road, which is named after the Indian soldier barracks that used to be there, and next to that is Barrack Road. Obviously, there is a connection between these names, and they tell a story about the past,” he says.

(In the 1800s, that entire area – from Macalister Road to Dato Keramat Road – was part of the British military precinct, which included the present Penang Prison and the polo ground; the land now occupied by Penang General Hospital.)

Penang’s History, My Story is the result of five years of research, and Wong is quick to point out that the book wouldn’t have been possible if not for the books and articles written by others, including writer, social historian and heritage advocate Khoo Salma Nasution, and history blogger Timothy Tye.

“Using the street names gave my articles structure, allowing me to talk about both the location and the personality the street was named after. But I also wanted to give life to it. What was missing from existing research was the fun parts, the storytelling element. That is where my book comes in,” says Wong.

When talking about Armenian Street and the Armenian businessmen who made Penang their home, for instance, he first refers to reality TV celebrity Kim Kardashian (who is fourth-generation Armenian) before going on to talk about the community’s hand in shaping George Town’s history – the Sarkies brothers who set up the grand Eastern & Oriental Hotel, and trader/planter Arathoon Anthony (hence, Aratoon Road), who founded stockbroking firm A.A. Anthony and Co.

This storytelling element is most pronounced when Wong revisits his own story that played out on those Penang streets, a Penang that was very different from the one we know today. For Wong, who is 53 this year, spent his entire childhood and even the early years of his working life there, and every nook and cranny of the island holds memories that he treasures still.

Take the cover of the book, which features Wong astride a Vespa in Love Lane. “Nowhere in Malaysia is there a place called that, it’s beautiful!” he says, explaining that while the exact origins of the name is unknown, theories abound that sailors who came to port went there looking for love once – or more salaciously, that it was where the rich men living in adjacent Muntri Street kept their mistresses.

The lane, however, also holds a more personal significance for Wong. As a St Xavier’s Institution boy, he passed Love Lane every day on the way to school, and his father owned a hardware stall in Cheapside, off nearby Chulia Street.

Stories of the Gurney Drive (named after Sir Henry Gurney, High Commissioner of Malaya from 1950-1951) of his youth, meanwhile, strike one as completely idyllic, as he reminisces about the pristine sandy beach, dragon boat races and digging for bucketfuls of siput remis on Sundays.

Not to mention Wong’s food-related anecdotes, which present a very different “food scene” from the one that exists today.

“Food is very much what Penang is famous for, and I wanted to tell my readers that it was served quite differently then. The famous Penang char kway teow, for example, was served with sprinkles of crabmeat on top, and besides the essential prawns, they also gave you bamboo mussels. And wantan mee, used to be called tok tok mee, because the seller used to go around tapping bamboo sticks loudly to attract customers,” he describes.

Even his early days with The Star began in Penang, with Wong joining the newspaper in 1980 after Form Six, at the Pitt Street office. (Pitt Street, now known as Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, was named after William Pitt the Younger, who was British Prime Minister when Penang was founded.) 

Even here, there was no shortage of history, as he learnt that the office building used to be the Opium and Spirits Farm Office, where government tenders were given out for such “sinful” enterprises, with the British controlling and privatising the trades to establish a monopoly.

Undeniably a labour of love for Wong (whose previous book was a compilation of his Sunday Star column, On The Beat), Penang’s History, My Story also includes different perspectives on Penang by some of his colleagues at The Star.

“A lot of people at The Star also started their careers in Penang, and I felt that this book didn’t just belong to me, but to them too. They’ve each given very interesting insights into Penang, such as Lim Cheng Hoe (senior manager, group editorial business development), who wrote about clubbing in Penang in the 1980s, or Ivy Soon (Star2’s Women and Family editor), who wrote about living in a neighbourhood with multiracial neighbours,” he says.

Heartened by the response to his column – Wong shares that of all the columns and commentaries he has written, this one has been the most popular – he is planning a series on Penang’s iconic buildings.

“When you write something political, there will always be disputes and people who don’t share your beliefs or sentiments. But when I wrote this, everybody loved it, because they were of the same view.”

> Proceeds from the sales of Penang’s History, My Story will go to the Penang Heritage Trust and Kenosis Home, a drug rehabilitation centre. The book will be available at all major bookstores nationwide from tomorrow. It is also available from Star Publications (M) Bhd by calling the Circulation Department at 03-7967 1388 ext 1026 (ask for Ankal Letchumanan or Andrew Lim).