Retired teacher living abroad reminisces about his days in Malaysia

Gobi and his wife Florence, cutting a cake at a reunion. (Gobinathan Nair pic)

PETALING JAYA: It has been 63 years since Malaysia achieved independence from British rule. During this period, many Malaysians have settled abroad for reasons of their own, but no doubt still miss a slice of home.

Whether it’s tucking into a humble packet of nasi lemak for breakfast, enjoying the warmth of sunshine every day of the year or dropping-by unannounced at the homes of family or friends, many left a piece of themselves in Malaysia despite being physically away.

One such Malaysian is Gobinathan Nair, a 75-year-old retired teacher who has been living in Australia for the past 29 years.

Speaking to FMT, he recalls with deep fondness his days growing up in Pasir Putih, Kelantan where he spent his free time watching in awe as farmers expertly flew huge colourful kites called “wau” across the evening skies.

A family photo circa 1946 taken in Penang. Gobi and his parents are on the extreme right. (Gobinathan Nair pic)

He also recalls the fascinating sight of villages working together to lift an entire “kampung” house on stilts, before proceeding to carry it to a new site. He says once this gargantuan task was completed, a huge “kenduri” or thanksgiving feast would be held where everyone would join in.

Gobi also has wonderful memories of school life in Penang. “Schooling in Penang was most enjoyable. I was with my friends and there were a variety of shops such as Robinsons, Whiteways Laidlaw and Cold Storage Creameries.

“I remember boarding a trolley bus to go to school and visiting the port which would be filled with ships coming in from different countries,” recalls Gobi.

Young Gobi, his wife Florence, and his friend’s kids in Mountbatten Road, Kuala Lumpur. The streets were decorated with lights to celebrate 10 years of Merdeka in August 1967. (Gobinathan Nair pic)

Upon completing school, Gobi trained as a teacher and was posted to Sungai Besar, Selangor to a newly established secondary English school there with just two classes.

Gobi laughs, saying that back then, Google Maps didn’t exist, so he had to fish out an atlas, spread it open and hunt down the location of Sungai Besar.

He remembers the years between 1965 and 1972 as among the most wonderful in his life. It was when he had completed his teacher’s training course, then married the love of his life, Florence, who was a teacher who coincidentally taught in the same school.

“Last year, my students organised a get-together for me and my wife,” he says.

The gathering was held in Malaysia and attended by many of his former students from Sungai Besar, students Gobi said, who had done remarkably well for themselves in the civil service, in private businesses and other professions.

“It was a very heart-warming gathering with much genuine warmth and affection,” Gobi recalls.

In 1991, he and his family made the heavy decision to migrate to Australia and took with them a one cubic metre crate of their most treasured possessions.

“Teaching has taken me from Malaysia to the United Kingdom, where I completed my Masters, then to Australia and China. Retired since January 2006, we have been fortunate to travel to different parts of the world until Covid-19 put a temporary halt to that,” Gobi says.

A 1968 class photo. Gobi is seated fourth from left with his wife Florence, seated next to him, third from left. (Gobinathan Nair pic)

What does he miss most about the old Malaysia?

Gobi admits that he misses Malaysia’s spirit of community the most. He says village folk treated everyone as their neighbour. Dropping by at someone’s home at a moment’s notice was common back then, as was exchanging plates of delicacies with each other during festive seasons.

He says that during his childhood days, the local shopkeeper was often regarded as the pillar of the community and treated with great respect.

“We had a little ‘555’ notebook which formed the record of our grocery purchases and at the end of the month, on payday, the dues were settled.

“If some relatives arrived unannounced, dad would ask me to go to the ‘Towkay’ and borrow a certain amount which was recorded as cash in the little book,” he recounts to FMT.

“With this, off I went to the market to purchase ingredients. The kindly shopkeeper always enquired about how the family was doing and once in a while he would give me a pep talk about the need to study diligently and to look after my parents in their old age,” Gobi says.

He explains that people back then were kinder and not envious of what others had or were given. And if someone was better off, then it was deemed to be their good fortune or blessing.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Gobi would often make visits back to Malaysia to visit relatives and friends and savour the food he so missed and loved.

Gobi and Florence at a reunion in Malaysia held in their honour by his former Sungai Besar students. (Gobinathan Nair pic)

He noted however that many of the traditional street food in Malaysia has lost its authenticity due to adulteration and substitution of core ingredients and the retirement and passing on of the old-timers.

“To enjoy old-time cuisine, we take a long drive through the back roads to the east coast passing through quaint little towns where one can sit in an open-air coffee shop and have a chin-wag with the stall owner.”

When asked what he would like to say to Malaysians this Merdeka Day, Gobi said, “Honour and cherish your wonderful diverse communities. Rejoice in being Malaysian and working together to make the country prosper, and stay peaceful and harmonious. Here’s wishing all Malaysians Selamat Hari Merdeka.”