How a young sailor’s stitch in time made sure Merdeka passed off without a hitch

Oliver Cuthbert Samuel lowered the British Union flag for the last time at midnight on Aug 31, 1957.

GEORGE TOWN: Sailors have always been proud of their sewing skills.

The days of mending sails were long gone in 1957, but most seafarers could still darn a sock when necessary, and Royal Malaysian Navy Chief Petty Officer Oliver Cuthbert Samuel proved to be a dab hand with a sewing needle just when it was needed.

When he was chosen to hoist the Federation of Malaya flag at the Merdeka Stadium, he had no idea he was about to avert a potential disaster happening at that historic ceremony on August 31.

Samuel hoisting the Malayan flag on Aug 31, 1957 at 8am at the Merdeka Stadium.

He was on duty at the Merdeka Stadium when the brand new flag was delivered with just three days to go. He opened the box and unfurled the flag to check it.

The young sailor immediately noticed there were manufacturing faults that would prevent it being successfully raised to the top of the flagpole and fluttering evenly. An unnecessary halyard was sticking out from the top of the flag, and a swivel cap was missing.

“I had to operate on the flag. I made a three-inch incision in the hoist edge, cut the halyard short, incorporated a wooden stave and added a swivel cap,” he told FMT in an interview at his home in Perai recently.

“I sewed it all back together and it looked perfect,” he recalled.

The flag CPO Samuel worked on that day was the original Federation of Malaya national flag, featuring 11 alternating red and white stripes along the fly, and a crescent and a 11-pointed star in a blue canton.

That design was modelled on the British East India Company flag and not, as is often assumed, the US Stars and Stripes. It was originally raised in the Sultan of Selangor’s palace by Sir Henry Gurney, the British High Commissioner of Malaya, in May 1950.

Back at the stadium, CPO Samuel had the honour of lowering the British Union flag for the last time at midnight. “After lowering the Union Jack, I folded it and handed it to a British military officer. We saluted each other and he said, ‘All the best to you.”

Samuel showing a picture of him at the Merdeka celebrations in KL last year. He was given the honour to carry the Jalur Gemilang.

“Then at 8am, the drums rolled to usher in the national anthem. At that moment, we hoisted the Malayan flag and as soon as it reached the top of the pole, it fluttered in the breeze.”

The two other officers, who raised the flag with him and ensured it reached the top at precisely the right moment were Lt Kom Mohd Sharif Kalam and the late Chief Petty Officer Johari Abd Samad.

“It was a proud moment for my country,” the 84-year-old Ipoh native said “And I was glad my makeshift repairs worked out.”

On that day, Samuel was not only in charge of the national flag hoisting in the Stadium Merdeka but also personally raised the flags of fifty countries with which Malaya had diplomatic relations.

Recalling what motivated him to join the Navy, Samuel said he was moved by the Tanjung Malim communist ambush in 1950.

“I was at school at that time and next to us was a hospital mortuary. I saw ten dead men wearing fatigues in there and that was when I thought I should serve my country,” he said.

Two years later, at the age of 18, he joined the Malayan Naval Force at HMMS Malaya, an ex-Royal Air Force radio base at Woodlands, Singapore.

The main function of the Malayan Naval Force (MNF) was coastal patrol to stop the communist terrorists receiving supplies from the sea.

Samuel remembers his salary at that time was 10 Malayan dollars.

Since then, he has served on many ships, patrolling the straits and the waters of Sabah and Sarawak.

During a period of leave in Penang, he met teacher Tan Gim Choo and married her. She and Samuel, who is part Indian and Eurasian, have three children now in their 50s and five grandchildren in their 20s.

At the age of 40, he retired after 22 years of loyal service in 1972.

After retiring from the Navy, Samuel joined a security company and worked for another 22 years before finally retiring for good.

As for the nation’s flag, Sabah and Sarawak were added in 1963 so the current flag has 14 stripes and a 14-point star known as the Bintang Persekutuan (Federal Star).

But it wasn’t until forty years later that this design got a name: the Jalur Gemilang (Stripes of Glory). The official naming ceremony was held on 31 August 1997 by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister, at Dataran Merdeka.

Samuel during his younger days as an instructor at the Armed Forces Signals Regiment school, seen here leading a march past.

These days, Samuel is concerned about dwindling patriotism.

“This Merdeka, I urge all of us to fly the flag to show our love for our country and our gratitude to the heroes who fell defending us.

“Our Jalur Gemilang is the pride of our nation. All of us should be putting up flags.”

His words echo those of the current very same prime minister, whose message for this year’s National Day celebration is, “Fly the Jalur Gemilang, Love Our Malaysia.”

Last year, to commemorate his 1957 hoisting, Samuel was honoured as a flag bearer at the Merdeka celebrations in KL, although this time he didn’t hoist the flag.

His emergency repairs leading up to the Merdeka ceremony in 1957 have had a permanent effect on the national record, for without his sharp eyes, quick wit and dexterity with a sewing needle, the archive footage of the Merdeka handover would not be as impressive as it is today.