Like many international incidents, this story had a seemingly innocent beginning. It began with the meticulous 6 month planning of a class of forty independent minded 13 year olds. The objective was to have a week holiday in the island of Penang or the Pearl of the Orient as it was known with minimal supervision.
First, we had to find a suitable place to stay. We searched the classified adverts and found it. The place was an old Catholic clergy retreat facility. The advert said, plenty of beds in small dormitories, large kitchen facilities, space for outdoor games and a sea-view. On top of that all, it was exceedingly cheap. We booked it straight away.
Next we had to find suitable teacher advisors that would satisfy our parents and school regulations and yet allowed us to achieve our objective of minimal supervision. After some negotiations, we recruited Mr. X and Miss. Y. Both of them were from Penang and would rather spend time with family rather than babysit us and so an arrangement was made that Mr. X would meet us every other day in the morning and Ms. Y would keep in touch with us by telephone. That was our understanding, one which we kept secret from both our parents and the school.
We then booked the school bus and worked out our itinerary and all was set for the greatest minimally supervised adventure of our lives.
However, when we finally got to the old Catholic Retreat, we learnt a valuable lesson about the power of advertising and positive spin doctoring. The place was located on a hill and it did indeed have a sea-view from its lofty perch but the beach was in fact almost 30 minutes away by foot down an extremely steep hill. The place itself was a large old wooden mansion. Entry into the building was by the kitchen which occupied all of the ground floor and had tables and benches that could sit at least 60 people and functioning though ancient kitchen utensils. In fact the whole ground floor looked like it came out of a gothic horror movie.
Upstairs, we were pleasantly surprised by a large open hall which ran from the front to the back of the building. It was fantastic; cool and breezy and ideal for all the board games and card games that we wanted to play.
Next we realised that our accommodation was in rooms on either side of the main hall. Into these tiny rooms were packed so many double-decker bunk beds that the Black Hole of Calcutta came to mind. The bunk beds were so ancient that they creaked even if the wind blew. Worse, the springs on the beds were so badly mangled that it hardly gave any support and many of us believed they were custom built for the Hunchback of Notre Dame and apparently his 40 other siblings.
Although there was a small field at the front of the building, we had to be very careful when we played soccer. Just to the left of one of our goal posts was a shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary. Clearly, we would be in deep trouble if the shrine or statue was damaged. This led to some strange soccer games where the goalkeeper was more concerned about stopping volleys from hitting the shrine than protecting his goal. Also, being on the top of the hill meant that every time the ball was kicked out of bounds, there was a high probability that it would roll all the way down the hill.
It was when we tried to retrieve the ball that we discovered that there was an additional hazard in the form of a pack of stray dogs. If the pack saw only one of us try to retrieve the ball, they would snarl and threaten to attack. So retrieving the ball had to involve at least 3 -4 of us waving sticks which would cause the pack to retreat.
Despite all of these peculiarities, we loved it cause it was an opportunity for adventure without our parents. Just to complete the picture, something must be said about the surroundings. On one side of the hill, was a hospital and though the nurses quarters which was nearby gave us some ideas, it was protected by a barb wire fence and a sharp cliff face. On the other side and near the foot of the hill was a very large and expansive complex of low buildings which formed part of the Royal Australian Air Force Centre in Georgetown, Penang. The facility served the needs of the RAAF personnel based in nearby RAAF Butterworth who flew Mirages and Sabres as part of a South East Asia Treaty Organisation agreement which was meant to counter fears of the Vietnam conflict from spreading and causing a domino effect throughout South East Asia.
To get to this facility, one could take a long way around following the road down the hill but that approach was very closely guarded as it was near the main entrance of that facility. We soon found that there was a short-cut which was in the form of a stairway down the side of the hill from behind our kitchen facility. This was a broad covered cement stairway which had no lights and had dense vegetation at its sides which look like they would recolonise the structure within a couple of years. However, this led straight down to a block of single storey buildings near the heart of the RAAF base.
The scenario was all set. It was only a matter of time before there would be an outburst of hostilities between the 40 young hormonally maladjusted Malaysian school kids and the 5,000 foreign servicemen of the RAAF base. All that was needed was an incident to light the smoldering fuse and it did not take long for that to happen. (continued in next post)
Disclaimer: The names of people and places have been changed to protect the innocent, hide the guilty and because the memory of the author is suspect in certain cases. Other changes have also been made in the name of artistic license. Some facts and truths may have also been distorted or exaggerated in the same tradition as television docu-dramas. That leaves about 50% which are mostly true but I won’t swear by it!