My mother, the smuggler

My dear mother was small and petite. Before leaving for Perlis, she put on several loose kebaya tops and wrapped herself with layers of sarong sewn from “batek chop”, white cloth imprinted with simple black and white batek designs. In an instant she became fat and pudgy.

I had a fit of giggling. Hee! Hee! I rolled on the floor, then ran to give her a hug but my hands could barely encircle her legs, wee girl that I was then.

My 13 year old brother Mustapha, her travelling companion, had similarly grown fat from wearing many layers of “batek chop”. I ran round the house chanting, Tubby Mustapha! Tubby Mustapha!

My mother had accumulated “batek chop” from several suppliers in her village. For her trip, folded pieces of the batek were stashed in bags filled with clothes, and lay concealed beneath food in large tiffin carriers.

They caught the ferry from Penang to Prai on the mainland before hopping onto the train to Perlis, at the northern tip of the Malay Peninsula. My mother’s train permit stated she was visiting a sick relative.

At Sg. Petani everyone disembarked. Permits were scrutinised and bags examined by customs officials. My mother heaved a big sigh of relief. Her batek lay undetected. The train then chugged to its final destination, the royal town of Arau (where the Raja of Perlis lived), arriving there well after nightfall.

As soon as the train lurched to a stop, my mother and brother, who were in the last carriage, grabbed their belongings, opened the door on the side away from the prying eyes of the customs people and Japanese soldiers, and leapt down onto the undergrowth below. Moments later, my mother’s friend of many years, Mak Tuan, and her sons, met them and led them stealthily past the railway line to the winding kampong road and eventually to her house. Everyone then breathed easy.

Mak Tuan had many contacts with people north of the border, in Thailand. She knew how to cut the best deals so my mother could earn good money for her batek and herself a modest commission.

The serious shortage of food and money during the Japanese occupation had driven my mother to do what she did, so she could help my father, who worked at the Police barracks for a pittance, feed the family.

If smuggling batek into Perlis was fraught with risk, taking the big, bulky Japanese money out under the nose of the authorities posed an even bigger danger. So my mother devised several methods of concealment. She hid money in Mustapha’s canvas shoes, his wide belt with its many compartments, her own belt, beneath the food in the tiffin carriers and below the rice, eggs and dried fish she filled her bags with.

But her smartest move was to enclose money between two mats sewn together, which she rolled up and tucked under her arm.

A year passed before she took the bold step of acquiring an acre of padi land in Perlis which gave her a more plausible reason for visiting Perlis than tending to sick relatives. It yielded additional money, and also rice whenever the padi was harvested.

My eldest brother, 17 year old Idaham, occasionally travelled to Perlis with my mother. One night she returned home without him. Choking back her tears she told us he’d been detained. Customs had found money hidden beneath the rice, eggs, and dried fish in his bag. We were all in shock. Where was he? What would they do to him? Would they ever release him? Questions like these plagued our minds through the night while my mother wept.

The following morning my father hastened to Prai. Following tough negotiations, money exchanged hands, an understanding was reached and Idaham was freed.

My mother made a decision. She was no longer willing to put the lives of her sons, and her own life, in danger. Sadly, she sold her padi land and ceased her smuggling activities.


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