|Francis at a Parang factory in Bidor, taking his time to choose something.|
The Spawn of Satan?
So after a short break for my birthday in May, we arrive in June. And the birthday of my 'Spawn of Satan' brother… Francis was born on the 6th day of the 6th month of the 6th year in the decade. Not quite the 666 sequence mentioned in the horror story ‘Damien’, which was the 6th hour of the 6th day of the 6th month, but it certainly gave us something to think about when the book and movie came out.
Francis didn’t help us dispel the creepy idea he had a Satanic streak by being a quiet sort of bloke. Like Joe, he had a change of trajectory, swapping accountancy for law and eventually ending up in London with Tony, and getting his degree there. He sat for the Bar in London but the legendary difficulty of passing the English Bar Finals proved to be true so he returned and was eventually admitted to the Bar here.
At first glance, Law seems to have been a weird choice of careers. As I said, Francis was usually rather quiet, keeping his thoughts to himself. I recall an uncle once even telling me he worried about Francis blowing up at the world one day, seeing as how he bottled everything up within himself.
Well, Francis didn’t bottle things up so much as simply take his time to ponder and consider. And he wasn’t cut off from the world at all. He was knowledgeable and well-read, and more importantly, he had a conscience.
And it was that conscience that led him to do a bunch of legal aid work and to get himself involved in activities aimed at protecting democracy and the rule of law. In post-Operation-Lalang Malaysia, there was a lot that needed work, and fortunately there was no shortage of activists who were dedicated to that work.
|Francis doing his best John Lennon impression.|
And so in between taking on cases of battered wives or abandoned families, he was also one of scores who helped with the families of ISA detainees, offering advice and support for the spouses and children torn from their partners or parents. He was also there when Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) was founded in 1989 to protect and promote human rights in a just, equal and democratic society.
I remember Francis flogging cassettes as part of a fund-raiser by SUARAM. This was an album of music by local artists singing songs with a human-rights angle, and one of those songs was by someone who would later be my friend, Paul Ponnudorai, who had put music to a Cecil Rajendra poem.
I had, by then, returned from Australia and when Francis found me to be quite sympathetic to the causes he was involved in, he roped me in to help out too and so I can now proudly say I did my little bit for democracy in late 80s Malaysia.
Not anywhere close to what Francis did though - to the extent he almost lost his life doing so.
|You couldn't say much about his fashion sense, but Francis was very comfortable in the jungle.|
The Hero of the Family
As part of efforts to ensure the Bakun Dam project did not unduly affect the natives of Sarawak, Francis took a trip to visit the Penan in the interior, a journey that involved a boat ride up one of Sarawak’s many rivers. The boat they were on had passed some rapids when a little while later, it suffered engine failure and was helplessly swept back to the rapids where it capsized. Everyone in it was flung into the water, including my dear unable-to-swim brother.
He managed to grab some empty plastic water containers and using them as makeshift floats, he began to paddle towards the river bank. He had almost made it when he heard the cries of a woman who had been on the same boat and so, despite not being able to swim, Francis turned back, away from the river bank and made his way towards her.
He reached her and the two clung to each other and the plastic floats, and tried to make it to the bank again but were swept instead by the current into a small whirlpool. He would later say they were fortunate it was not the rainy season for this whirlpool was neither very strong nor deep. They could not escape its clasp, however, and so they circled for hours.
By this time, wreckage of the boat had been swept back to a village downstream and the villagers quickly despatched another boat and so it was that Francis and the woman were eventually found, as were the rest of the crew and passengers. The lady whom Francis saved now heads the the organisation that's pursuing the case of the Scorpene Submarines with the French Government - a not insignificant person!
The one person they could not find was the video cameraman whose body was only found 3 days later - the only fatality.
A small story appeared in the newspapers, though if I recall correctly, the purpose of their trip was never disclosed. In fact, the whole story wasn’t initially mentioned to the family either and we only found out in bits and pieces over time.
About 10 years later, I was in a pub in SIngapore, listening to none other than Paul Ponnudorai. We had only recently become friends and at one point I casually mentioned that I liked the song he’d contributed to SUARAM’s album. He asked how I’d known about it and I mentioned that my brother was involved and dropped his name. Paul’s reaction was ‘I know your brother!’
A little surprised, I asked how and he said that Francis was on a boat in Sarawak which capsized. One of Paul’s relatives (I forget the exact relationship) was also on that boat and that is how I know the video guy drowned. He was Paul’s relative.
Legal Eagle Becomes Jungle Man
In the mid to late 90s, Francis finally stopped practising law and made a career change that would alter the course of his life. He worked briefly for the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, then joined The Malayan Nature Society and worked under Heah Hock Heng who had been given the contract to build a visitors’ centre in the Endau Rompin National Park in Johor. Heah was coincidentally my best friend’s brother-in-law.
Francis was never one for extravagance. Working in Endau though, he brought this modesty to a whole new level, or should I say, depth. We visited once, in 1998, when it was still a worker’s campsite in the middle of the jungle. We had a fantastic time sleeping in makeshift campbeds, walking 20m to the toilets/showers and fighting off leeches and worse, the last remnants of an infestation of Furry Caterpillars whose delicate fur were highly toxic, the contact with which would result in scores of huge welts on the body, requiring a quick dose of anti histamines to deal with.
Eventually, the visitors’ Centre was completed and when the project was handed over to the Johor National Parks Board, Francis went along too and became a Park Manager. Over the next few years, the centre grew into the Nature Education and Research Centre and had chalets, a hall and more.
|The workcamp when we visited in 1998.|
|Here is where we fought leeches, furry caterpillars and the fear of shadows at night.|
|Part of The NERC a few years later.|
In those days, the NERC took a few hours to reach and had no mobile phone coverage. They did have a satellite phone and that was how we could contact him if needed.
One day though, he turned up at the PJ house complaining of a bad tummy. When it seemed to be more serious than just an upset stomach, he was carted off to the hospital and was immediately scheduled for an operation - he had appendicitis and it could very well have been much more serious considering how long he’d put up with it.
The next day, my brother-in-law Yap, who had had to send Francis to hospital the day before, also started complaining of stomach pains and lo and behold, when examined by a doctor was also immediately sent for an appendectomy! What are the chances of this?
The Gears in His Head go Round and Round...
Good thing the two of them acted swiftly. Talking of which, one thing about Francis which has become legendary is that despite his ability to do his work well, in his personal life he can be rather less than swift when making certain decisions. Case in point, he once visited SIngapore and I brought him and his girlfriend then, Yen, to a camping gear shop. The two were suitably matched, as I discovered… Among things they were both looking for were water bottles and they began to check out the display. Half an hour later, they were both still checking out the display. Francis had two in his hands. I could almost hear the gears in his head turning as he deliberated ‘One is larger, which is good. Or is that not good as it might be too heavy? And the other might be a better plastic but is smaller which is not good. Or maybe it is good as it would be lighter? Which one to get?’
I, meanwhile was just thinking ‘Let’s just choose already!’
There is a picture here of him looking at two fire extinguishers… I can almost hear the gears in his head turning…
|Francis checking out two fire extinguishers. Guess how long he took?|
|In Endau in 1998, checkign out the size of an Elephant's footprints.|
After Endau, Francis was posted to the Gunung Ledang National Park where he was Park Manager for some years. Gunung Ledang or Mt Ophir, is a popular camping and hiking spot and the climb can be challenging with a few people getting lost each year, and a few more needing assistance on their hikes.
One stormy period, the Forestry Department had done their checks on trees in the camp site when Francis decided to do his own inspection. Coming up to the campsite, he cast an eye over the location and, feeling uneasy despite the Forestry Department’s assurances, he instructed his staff to clear the area of campers.
Later that day, some climbers who were away when Francis did his checks, came back and pitched their tent in the campsite, probably wondering where everyone was. That night, in the middle of a storm, a huge tree right across the river, one that had escaped the Forestry Department’s checks simply because it was deemed too far away, became uprooted and fell across the river right onto the campsite, killing one person.
No one could have expected it and if the site had not been cleared earlier in the day, more people than the latecomers would have been hurt or would have lost their lives. There really had been no real reason to clear the camp, but Francis responded to his unease by being cautious. And again, like in Sarawak, he ended up saving lives.
By this time, Francis had mostly stopped using his legal background and experience and was instead gaining valuable exposure and cementing his reputation in things flora and fauna. And despite his calm and quiet manner, he was tapping into the Cheong gene, that intrinsic quality we all share of being mischievously funny. As family we see this part of his character every now and then. We’d not realised that he exhibited it for others as well.
It was Heah’s sis-in-law who told me. The family was very much still involved with MNS and one day she mentioned that she’d been around when Francis was explaining something to some guests at one of the parks. With great seriousness but a twinkle in his eye, he cleverly worked some fibs in amongst the facts and figures and the guests were none the wiser for some time. I can well imagine park visitors being amazed that anacondas not only roamed these jungles but could fling themselves form tree to tree in pursuit of their prey… until Francis admitted they actually did not.
Nearing retirement age, Johor National Parks gave Francis a desk job centred around compliance and legal issues so he once again had to fall back on his legal training. After years in the field, living in the jungle or a modest house in a small town, making friends with the Orang Asli, getting close to the villagers around the area, and even receiving free fruit and other gifts from local smallholders, being stuck in an air conditioned office can’t have been easy.
Retirement eventually arrived but it was not long before he was once again making trips into the jungles of Johor. The World Wildlife Fund employed him to help with the Tiger Project.
So once again, my brother got into the business of saving lives. Not humans this time, but the critically endangered Tigers that roamed the jungles of the Peninsula. He’s still working there now.
If you took a step back and looked at his life, it’s often been about battles. He’s battled a legal system that was failing the poor and helpless. He’s battled the failings of a democratic system. He’s battled injustice and a law enforcement system that was made a tool of political leaders.
A little diversion here to relate a story about the founding of SUARAM and the fear that was inherent in society then. Francis had asked if I could design a logo for something or other and I was asked drop by at a meeting they were having one night, to show some sketches. That night happened to be the night after SUARAM was launched at the Chinese Assembly Hall. I had also been asked by Francis to take pictures of that event, which I did - armed with my Nikon and large flash, I roamed around snapping pictures of the event that day.
Late that night, I drove over to the house where their meeting was being held. Bear in mind that I didn’t know many of the activists and many, in turn, did not know me either. So when I knocked on the door in the dark of the night, the person who answered the door had never seen me before. Well, actually he had. Earlier that day. Armed with a Nikon and snapping pictures of them. In the same way the Special Branch always did.
He opened the door and his eyes were at first quizzical ‘Who could it be at this time?’ then the curiosity gave way to a flash of fear when he recognised my face as the one behind the camera that day, and wrongly assuming I was Special Branch, the expression on his face changed in an instant to ‘We’re being raided!’
In that little pause, I asked for Francis and said I was his brother and the man’s expression changed yet again and with a big laugh and a wipe of his brow he went ‘Bloody hell, you scared me there for a minute!’
This was how the times were then. And like how he would one day swim back to save a woman, or years later answer a gut instinct with a decision that saved tens of lives, my brother was fearless. Quiet, but fearless.
The battles continue to this day. Now it’s poachers and those in power who circumvent laws in order to line their own pockets. It seems that saving the Tigers is a noble but ultimately fruitless cause. The task seems too large, the odds too great. These have never really stopped Francis before, though. And though he would be the first to say he’s but a tiny cog in the whole apparatus, I would reply that it’s tiny cogs that keep the machinery going.
The personal battle that Francis continues to wage war against is Glaucoma. Diagnosed some years ago, he continues treatment of this and plugs on despite having lost 30% of his vision. We all worry. But we also figure this quiet and unassuming brother of ours is a hero and he will persevere and prevail. He always has.
Happy 63rd birthday, my hero brother.
[This blog post was updated to correct information about the person Francis saved in Sarawak.]
[This blog post was updated to correct information about the person Francis saved in Sarawak.]