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Safri Awang Zaidell, 2009, Yesterday: A better tomorrow.

Safri Awang Zaidell, 2009, Yesterday: A better tomorrow. Sarawak, Malaysia: Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia. Pp xi+398. ISBN 978-983-44417-0-8.

Former Deputy State Secretary Dato Sri Safri Awang Zaidell, in his largely chronological autobiography, Yesterday: A better tomorrow, published in 2009, weaves his own personal history, together with that of his parents and grandparents, in an engaging account that also touches on events in Sarawak and the world that directly affected their lives. Dato Sri Safri was inspired by his father's memoir, Recollections, and quotes from it to illustrate the role that ordinary people, their moral character and opinions have had in the making of history.

To understand the story the author tells, the reader needs a working knowledge of recent Malaysian and Sarawakian history, plus some knowledge of the personalities of those who shaped the events he describes. However, the author's friendly writing style seems to invite the reader to seek clarification on his own. Despite the lack at times of needed contextual information, the present book is an important personal record of life that was, and of a world in which the foundations were laid for the one we live in. It charts the personal journey of a family and of one man who has played key roles and earned public recognition for his achievements. Dato Sri Safri joined the Sarawak Civil service in 1954. He taught in primary and secondary schools as well as at Batu Lintang Teachers' Training College in Kuching. In 1956 he joined the Secretariat as an Assistant Secretary. From here he held a number of posts including District Officer, Educational Attache at the Malaysian High Commission, Deputy Director of Education, Permanent Secretary and Deputy State Secretary of Sarawak. Dato Sri Safri was also active in a number of nongovernment organizations, most notably the Scouting movement.

Dato Sri Safri starts in Chapter 1, "In War-time Miri," with World War II and the Japanese invasion of Sarawak. His father, Haji Ahmad Zaidell, a police officer in Miri, remained at his post throughout the war. He, along with his wife, Fatemah, did all they could to protect their growing brood of children. Safri and his family befriended a Japanese officer, Yu, and his family also experienced something of the terrors of war, particularly in the last months of occupation, when the Allied Forces bombed Japanese strongholds in Miri, while Japanese soldiers sought cover in the surrounding jungle. The family had moved to a farm outside of Miri, but as the war drew to a close, they made a midnight escape back to Miri, which by then Australian forces had recaptured. Much to everyone's relief they arrived safely. At the end of the war Haji Ahmad Zaidell was posted back to Kuching and instructed to leave his family behind in Miri. He refused.

However, the entire family made the trip to Kuching once sea transportation was available. They were welcomed by Dato Sri Safri's family at his grandmother's house in Kampung Masjid in Kuching. This was a large traditional village house in which the author's family lived and where he had grown up. The Kampung residents were and are predominantly Malay. Kampung Masjid is situated along the Sarawak River, which runs through Kuching, and was established before the 19th century.

Like his father, Dato Sri Safri is devoted to his family, country, and religion and walks to the beat of his own drum. The tumultuous years after the war are dealt with in Chapter 3, "From Brooke Rule to British Colony." Dato Sri Safri walks the reader quickly through the political unrest that arose from opposition, including his father's, to cession and to Sarawak becoming a British Colony. His father, Haji Ahmad Zaidell, made a clear stand by resigning from his government post, as did 338 other government officers, despite the resulting loss of income. Dato Sri Safri wrote that the community "considered Vyner's cession of Sarawak as a gross breach of faith, a betrayal." Reasons cited for cession included finance and that few Sarawakian were well educated. Many did not support the cession plan and there was anger that the 1941 constitution that would have enabled Sarawakians to be self-governing was not being respected. The assassination of Duncan Stewart, the newly appointed Governor of Sarawak, set in motion the decline of the anti-cession movement that gradually became inactive.

In the next chapter, "Growing Up in the Kampung," with humor and perhaps a sense of longing, Dato Sri Safri transports the reader to his childhood. Along with the writer we go fishing, visit the cinema, participate in a traditional Hadrah band while enjoying life. Despite political turmoil and economic difficulties of the time, a sense of fun and play in life and childhood (lows from these pages.

The reader joins Dato Sri Safri on his educational journey in "Carrying on with my Education." He graduated from St. Joseph's Secondary School in Kuching, and then became a teacher at the Maderasah Melayu School, also in Kuching. Next he was offered scholarships to study first in England and then in New Zealand. He reached out to the world, embracing friends and diversity and making lasting friendships wherever he went.

His political awareness continued to grow and he expressed his views on education, social issues, economics and politics in the Kuching newspaper, The Sarawak Tribune. In his autobiography he wrote that upon re-reading his articles from this time he felt that he had been impulsive. He returned to his homeland during the birthing pains of Malaysia, which he had kept informed about through reading newspapers. In the next chapter, "The Pursuit of Independence," Dato Sri Safri put well-known facts in context, weaving an understandable narrative from the complexities. Like his father he has strong opinions about independence through the formation of Malaysia. During this eventful period, Dato Sri Safri was employed as a lecturer at Batu Lintang Teachers' Training college, but he continued to contribute to the Sarawak Tribune despite warnings from his supervisor. He also maintained his friendship with and was concerned for Tun Ahmad Zaidi, the former Governor, whom he had known for many years. At the time Tun Ahmad Zaidi, an officer with the Department of Education, was under observation for his political opinions. Tun Ahmad Zaidi left for Indonesia in 1963 where he remained during Confrontation, the undeclared war between Indonesia and Malaysia, only returning in 1968.

Dato Sri Safri applied to join the administrative side of the Sarawak public service as he felt he had little chance of promotion within the Department of Education. This provided an opportunity to travel to and work in many remote parts of Sarawak, including the Baram and Sri Aman Districts. He was posted to London as Student Welfare Officer or Education Attache. He enjoyed his work and relived fond memories of having been a student in England. While posted in London Dato Sri Safri was surprised and happy to learn that his friend and former colleague, Tun Ahmad Zaidi, had returned to Malaysia. During home leave, he married Liliah, fondly called Lilly, whom he had courted for many years. Commitments prevented them from marrying earlier. The time was right and he described their marriage as a "rush job." Together they traveled to England, but when Lily had to return to work in Sarawak Dato Sri Safri returned with her. They had decided they did not want to be separated.

Dato Sri Safri in the chapter, "The Coalition Government," describes his duties in the Chief Minister's office. The years in this chapter are aptly called "The Eventful 1970s," "The Explosive 1980s," and, the final section, "Peace, Unity and Progress." Dato Sri Safri outlines known political events of this era that culminated in over 30 years of Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib Muhamd being Chief Minister of Sarawak. Dato Sri Safri then describes, as his memoirs draw to a close, his extensive and long association with nongovernmental organizations in "Involvement in NGOs." Dato Sri Safri's social commitment and awareness spanned his lifetime. He had over the years been extensively involved with the Scouting movement. He was an inaugural member of SABERKAS (Sarawak United National Youth Organisation) and AZAM (Angktan Zaman Mansang) and held key positions in both organizations.

The penultimate chapter, "The Family," is one of personal highs and lows. He talks about the successes of his children as they charted their own journeys, his travels, the Hajj and other events. As we go through life we loose loved ones and Dato Sri Safri speaks of his loss, his pain and his acceptance.

Dato Sri Safri's remarkable journey continues. He notes that in 1995 he turned 60 and retired for a second time when he completed six terms as the executive head of the Sarawak Foundation (Yahasan Sarawak), after retiring at 55 as Deputy State Secretary. The Sarawak Foundation has as its main objective to promote development of Sarawak through education and provides, for example, scholarships and loans to students.

Dato Sri Safri Awang Zaidell's autobiography, Yesterday: a better tomorrow, is an account of his personal life within the context of the Sarawak's history and world events. His discussion of politics and personalities is discreet and based on published documents.

(M M Ann Armstrong

Lodge International School

Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia)
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Author:Armstrong, M.M. Ann
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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