I should have said to my cousin, “I don’t know why I am going to Singapore.” That was the truth. A frightening revelation. There was a vague notion I might be able to further my education there. Or was that my fantasy, the first item on my wish list! But who had the money to support me? Father had barely enough money to raise a new family. He was not young anymore. Opium business brought enough cash for him to pay the exorbitant bribes to stay out of trouble. I was beginning to think he was working for the police, fattening their pockets indefinitely.
Yes, I had plenty of time to think during this thirteen-plus-hour journey to Singapore. It was about five hundred miles from Kampong Koh (where I lived) to Singapore. We would trundle through some small and big towns: Ayer Tawar. Batu Gajah. Kampar. Tapah. Tanjong Malim. Kuala Lumpur (our first rest stop, for sure). Kajang. Seremban. Ayer Itam. Yong Peng. Kulai. Johor Bahru. All Malay names with the exception of Yong Peng. I was told many of the people in our area moved to Yong Peng years ago, encouraged by the government to move to less populated areas.
One time the government even held classes to teach the Malay language to the Chinese, a way to persuade them to move into Malay areas, away from the enclaves of their own people. This was one way the government schemed to solve the problem of overcrowding. The Chinese chose not to comply. They might have, it is safe to say, if the government had dangled more cash incentives or land in front of their noses. Lots of cash and land, I mean. Most Chinese lived on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. Few Chinese ventured to the extreme north or the east coast—dominated by small Malay kampongs. At least the classes did teach some Chinese to speak the Malay language, fluently.
I was also told some roads to Singapore meandered like some rivers because a contractor could squeeze more money from the government by constructing a longer road between two points. If we had a motorized sampan (a flat-bottomed skiff used by fishermen in our village normally propelled by two oars), we could easily slice through the waters from Pasir Panjang (a fishing village next to where we lived) via the Straits of Malacca to the island of Singapore, arriving at its southern tip where most Singaporeans lived. Fear of pirates or absence of technology could have hampered such an innovative proposition. Did anyone ever think about that? A viable alternate route to Singapore? By sea?
Because the car had no air-conditioning, it was better for the car and the passengers and the driver to travel in the dark. There was less traffic and it was cool during the night, according to the intrepid man who drove the car. The same route many times. I would not have been able to tolerate the heat during daylight hours without air-conditioning in the car. I was allergic to the tropical heat.
There was plenty of room to stretch with only three passengers. There was not much to see except distant dots of lights glowing faintly like fireflies on the horizon. As night deepened, we encountered fewer vehicles along the highway. He did say we might stop at a coffee shop somewhere for something hot to drink or a break to use the toilet. At the most two stops, he had said before we started on this trip. There was no radio except our own voices and the occasional sound of passing vehicles. And you always knew when we were crossing a bridge. Your best company was the sound of the car engine, its constant low monotonous humming…the best antidote to a good sleep.