The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 27, 2009


Former Peace Corps volunteers return to Malaysia


Malaysia consists of two parts. One is the peninsula extending out from Thailand. The other is the northwest side of the island of Borneo. (Map drawn by Marjorie Johnson)

From 1964 to 1966 we served as Peace Corps volunteers in Malaysia, primarily working as teachers. We recently left our home on Tophet Road to spend almost three months in that country, living and traveling with friends and former students. It was not our first trip back, but 14 years had passed since our last visit.

A few months before we were to be married in June 1963 Nancy’s dad passed on an application to volunteer for the Peace Corps. Nancy was about to get her M.A. from Yale in Southeast Asia Area Studies. Alyn was working as an electronics engineer. While we waited for a country assignment, Nancy was a speechwriter at the Indonesian Mission to the United Nations. We thought service in the Peace Corps would provide an adventurous and worthwhile opportunity as we started our lives together.

Malaysia today


Spectacular stainless steel Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur – second-tallest skyscraper in the world.

Malaysia consists of two parts. One is the peninsula extending out from Southeast Asia between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The other is the northwest side of the island of Borneo. Together the two landmasses are slightly larger than the state of New Mexico. The climate is tropical, except in the higher mountains running through the spine of the peninsula. The nation-state of Singapore, almost on the equator, is at the southernmost tip of the peninsula. Thailand is on the north.

Today’s population is about 27 million; about double what it was when we lived there. Of the 20 million living on the peninsula, Malays, who are Muslims, represent somewhat more than 60%. About 30% are ethnic Chinese, most of whom follow traditional Chinese religions. A third significant race is the Tamils, who are Hindus, originally from southern India. Additional ethnic groups on the peninsula include other Indians, Pakistanis, Thais, Indonesians and indigenous aborigines.

Our Malaysia in the 1960s

In the 1960s we lived and taught in secondary schools in the northwest corner of the country. Alor Star (a town, then of 45,000, capitol of the State of Kedah, located about 30 miles south of the border with Thailand) was our home. Alyn taught mathematics, physics, chemistry and general science, in English, in the state’s premier girl’s school. He coached softball, was a cubscoutmaster at another school, and was involved in a variety of community activities. Nancy taught English and “English as a Foreign Language” to students and teachers in a coed Chinese school that, by Malaysian government direction, had just phased from Chinese to English as the medium of instruction. She worked in a family planning clinic and was also involved in other community activities.

We were fortunate to be able to rent a new house in a new housing development that was racially integrated. Our neighbors were mainly teachers, civil servants and small businessmen. All of our neighbors had at least one servant, but Peace Corps regulations forbade us from having one. (We were allowed to pay someone to do our laundry, by hand.)

Our comfortable house consisted of an enclosed wooden living and sleeping area on stilts, and a contiguous cinderblock kitchen and bathroom facility on a concrete slab. Our windows had a wide mesh for security purposes, but no glass. We closed most of our shutters at night, and slept inside a mosquito net. We had electricity, reasonably pure running water and an indoor Asian flush toilet. Bottled gas had just been introduced in Alor Star (along with television), so we were able to rent a small two-burner stove and a refrigerator.

We used bicycles as our primary transportation. Our students and neighbors also used bicycles, but most of the latter were beginning to buy small motorcycles, or even cars, during our time. Three-wheeled carts (called trishaws in Malaysia), pedaled by a driver, were in common use. Other forms of transportation were local and long distance busses, taxis and the train that ran the length of the country. Most roads between cities and towns were well paved and usually well graded, but narrow. Dirt roads and paths connected villages to the main roads.

Our lives were centered around our schools, much of our social contact being with students, their families, and fellow teachers. We also enjoyed friendly relationships with our neighbors. In addition, because the government appreciated the work of Peace Corps Volunteers, we were continually invited to attend government and royal functions, receptions and dinners. These gave us the opportunities to socialize with state officials at levels all the way up to the Chief Minister and the Sultan.

Food and partying are important aspects of Malaysian culture. The net result of all this activity was the very large number of friends and acquaintances we acquired, many of whom we remain connected with to this day.

The 2008 reunion with some of Alyn’s former students. Many Malay women choose to wear colorful head scarves. Malaysian Chinese women do not.

Why did we go back?

It was not unusual, then, to receive an email in 2007 from one of Nancy’s former students saying, “Why don’t you come over for Chinese New Year?” “How long would you like us to stay?” we replied. The surprising answer was, “Oh, at least a month or two!” And so started a flurry of email and snail mail communication with many people, and out came the guidebooks, maps and language books.

How we find Malaysia now

We arrived at the new busy international airport for Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur (K.L.), at 1 a.m. on January 26, 2008. The 50-minute taxi ride to the home of a Malay friend, Hasbi Hassan, whom we knew when he studied at M.I.T., was almost entirely on well-lighted interstate-highway-quality roads. Even at that hour the temperature and humidity were a shock. Every time we go we have to be reminded how hot, humid and debilitating tropical weather can be. But the taxi and the home were air conditioned, so our exposure was limited.


The Foreign Ministry building (left) and the National Mosque in Putrajaya as seen in 2008.

We spent a week reacquainting ourselves with K.L. New, tall and architecturally interesting buildings (including the 1,483-foot tall Petronas Twin Towers, now second tallest building in the world) have sprouted, along with a system of light rapid trains and a monorail. An extensive system of elevated highways had been built, but they and the streets were clogged with car and motorcycle traffic. While there was clear evidence of air pollution, it did not appear to be as bad as in our previous visits. Perhaps more car pollution controls and butane-powered taxicabs have made a difference. The city and its suburbs now extend outward perhaps 15-20 miles in all directions. What is noticeable are large high-rise apartment buildings and extensive housing estates (subdivisions) with one-and two-story homes on nice plots of land.

Not far from K.L. are two completely planned cities – Cyberjaya and Putrajaya. The former is intended to be the center of high technology research and development for the country. A considerable number of global high tech companies have facilities there. Putrajya is the new administrative capitol. Built in an area where lakes were formed as the result of tin mining, the city is a spectacular collection of ultramodern buildings – government ministries, banks, mosques, hotels, homes – and bridges.

At a spacious home in a K.L. suburb we had our first reunion with a number of Alyn’s former students. Nearly all of them were married with families. Yet a good many of these women were either in, or had recently retired from, senior positions in medicine, scientific research, education and business. (Prior to Alyn’s arrival at the school there had been no one qualified to teach advanced mathematics and physics. His teaching enabled the school to start a “science stream,” which, under the Malaysian system, put students on a direct path to a university education.) The high level of respect and homage that this generation of students paid, and continue to pay, to their teachers is completely unparalleled here in the United States. This gathering, and the several others we had during our stay, continued to reinforce the bonds between teachers and students.

A few days before the Lunar New Year our Malaysian Chinese hosts, the Wais, picked us up in an S.U.V. and drove us to their home in the small town of Kampong Langkap, about 2 ½ hours north of K.L., via the multi-lane, limited- access North-South Highway. Along the way we passed thousands of acres of oil palm plantations. These had replaced the multitude of rubber plantations of our era. (Palm oil has many uses, including biodiesel, and the price is driven by the worldwide petroleum price.)

The Lunar New Year celebration took place over several days. It was full of feasting, drinking, karaoke singing, card playing, fireworks and good cheer. With full participation of the large extended family, it seemed to us like July 4th, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year combined.

Alyn Rovin (at left) stands over an irrigation ditch which supports neighbors’ extensive padi (rice) fields. The Wais’ home where the Rovins stayed is in the background.

Living in Kampong Langkap came close to what we had experienced four decades ago. While the “shop houses” of the big cities are being replaced by large shopping malls, business here was still conducted in small shops, where the family owners lived on the second floor. The marketplaces were still there, but they were substantially cleaner than what we remembered. Almost everything we ate came from within a radius of 25 miles. (The Wais have their own fish farm and fruit trees.) Langkap people enjoyed passing time, day after day, either by visiting friends in their homes, or enjoying a drink in a coffee shop. We no longer saw the intensive hand and water-buffalo labor required to plant, cultivate and harvest rice that we remembered from Alor Star. Instead, the large paddies across the road from the Wai house were seeded and fertilized with what we would call large leaf blowers, and the crop was harvested by small combines.

We returned to Alor Star, now a city of around 300,000 (estimates vary widely), for further reunions with our students. Again we were impressed by their successful careers in the professions, government and business. Our house was still there, but it and surrounding homes had expanded upward and outward. Unlike the neat yards we remembered in the neighborhood, everything was surrounded by lush tropical growth. The bicycle paths we had ridden on had given way to wider streets to handle the heavy automobile traffic. There were still shop houses but, also, several large shopping malls. While the tallest building in our day was the three-story bus terminal, there were now several 12-story buildings and a 543-foot-tall observation tower.

During our stay in Malaysia we traveled both on our own and with the Wais and their extended family and friends. (People there prefer to travel in groups.) We also enjoyed living in the relaxed and comfortable Hassan and Wai homes. Through our friendships we were able to gain insights into modern Malaysian life styles that we would not have experienced as tourists.

Many Kampong Langkaps, as well as small villages, remain in Malaysia, but the cities continue to modernize and grow, and take on both the advantages and disadvantages of economic progress. The people of Malaysia, as a whole, have seen substantial improvement in their quality of life. We are pleased to see that a considerable number of our students and other friends have been major contributors to this phenomenon. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito