History the way I saw it

Malaysia flagI don’t keep diaries. I’ve never had one but when I was clearing my storeroom recently, I came across a long-forgotten notebook from the 1970s in which I had jotted some of my early thoughts, impressions, chess games and other personal information. Well, I thought it would be good to read what was in my mind those 30-something years ago.

My Little Red BookYou know what? I found the notebook fascinating. It was a rediscovery and I had a good laugh. But then, I noticed an item tucked within the pages that could possibly turn out to be the most valuable piece of trivial information for the Malaysian Chess Federation.

I thought it will be so appropriate for me to write about it in the Malaysia Chess Festival souvenir book. Certainly, this article may yet become my most important contribution to Malaysian chess.

To get you into the mood, you’ll need to realise that Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s was not like Kuala Lumpur you see around you today. Imagine KL without many of today’s impressive sky-scraping buildings. Possibly, the UMBC building in downtown KL was one of the few landmarks any kampong boy could identify with on his first arrival in town.

Jalan Wang Dangi was still known as Jalan Campbell and it was here, in a little shop house known as the Yat Yuen Club, that my story begins.

I had arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Penang on 4 Aug 1974 with Fang Ewe Churh to attend a chess meeting. In case you don’t know him, Fang was the president of the Penang Chess Association. Dato Tan Chin Nam is known widely as the founder of Malaysian chess. In the same way, Fang was considered as the main mover of chess in Penang.

From the Yat Yuen Club, we took a taxi to the JKR Sports Club in Cheras. When we reached the sports club, Choo Min Wang was already there together with Victor Vijiarungam who, like Fang, was a headmaster. The others that came later included Lee Keng Cheong, JJ Singam, Atan Ahmad, Chan Mun Fye, Azmy Ariff, Wahid Karim, R Subramaniam and Ang Eng Chuan. I had known Choo, Lee and Wahid from some time back but the others were new faces to me then.

At 11.15am, with enough people in attendance, the meeting commenced with Fang as the pro-tem chairman and Victor as his pro-tem secretary. I was mildly surprised. Can you imagine me coming down to KL for a chess meeting and I didn’t even realize that my companion in the train – yes, we travelled mostly by train back in the 1970s as today’s inter-city bus coaches were practically unheard of – was so deeply involved in the formation of the MCF? But thinking back, I actually had no reason to be surprised. Even though Fang had been to the Skopje Olympiad in 1972, as far as I was concerned and I still hold the same opinion today, he was more of an organizer and administrator than a player.

I should mention that I had known Fang for three years prior to this meeting. He was a very jovial character and a great storyteller. But he never let on about this meeting. While in Penang or during the train journey, he only primed me on my attending it as a representative of the Penang Chess Association. He never ever disclosed what was going to happen. It was as if the whole meeting would be shrouded in deep secrecy, that letting the cat out of the bag would bring the whole project down.

So I realized when the meeting started that this wasn’t going to be any normal meeting. Looking back, I now view it as an historical and significant development in Malaysian chess. Gosh, and I was going to be a part of it! As a consequence of this meeting in 1974, you are here today to participate in the Malaysia Chess Festival.

I wonder how many of those people that I mentioned could recall this meeting, much less what went on in it? If not for my notebook, I certainly couldn’t.

But wait a minute. Wasn’t there an organization known as the Chess Association of Malaysia? I remembered reading a long article in the newspapers that a certain Dr Foo Lum Choon was its president. If the CAM existed, why were we trying to set up a rival body?

Everything was clarified at this meeting, even though it was meant only for the record. The CAM had been deregistered. Ah…so that explained everything! This meeting was to revive the headless chess movement in the country.

Tan Chin NamNow came the next surprise. A name, totally unknown to me, was being proposed as the president of this new Malaysian Chess Federation. Fang announced that Tan Chin Nam, a prominent property developer, had agreed to be nominated as the federation’s first president and this proposal was carried through unanimously. (I can’t remember whether I participated in the vote or not – it wasn’t mentioned in my notebook – but I suppose I must’ve because I was representing Penang at the meeting.)

Next, Fang and Azmy were chosen as the first vice-presidents of the newly formed chess federation, Victor was confirmed as the secretary and Singam from the Universiti Hospital’s radiology lab was the treasurer. Completing the picture were the elected committee members: Gong Wooi Mau, Atan and Ang. So there you are, the MCF’s first elections.

I thought that would be the end of the story but apparently, there were more surprises to come at the meeting. It was also announced that Malaysia’s second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak would be invited to be the federation’s honorary patron, while Datuk Hussein Onn (who was then the Minister of Education but later, he was to become the country’s third prime minister) and Dr Lim Chong Eu (Penang’s chief minister at that time) had agreed to become the patrons.

Impressed? I certainly was. How on earth could a new federation suddenly managed to reach so high up into the political hierarchy and get the bigwigs involved as patrons? Normally, you’ll need a lot of political connections. I doubt the people at this meeting had that sort of political clout. I’ll leave it to you to find the answer but I’ve a hint for you: go read Dato Tan’s absorbing memoirs “Never Say I Assume!”

Rounding up the extraordinary meeting were the appointments of Dr Foo Lum Choon as the MCF’s advisor and both Subramaniam and Choo as the auditors.

Following a short recess, the first council meeting of the fledgling MCF convened to discuss several issues, among them the plans for the inaugural Asian team chess championship and the Bureau Meeting of the World Chess Federation which would be held in Penang in December of the same year and the organising of the first Malaysian closed chess championship.

I won’t bore you with more details but let me just add as a footnote that with the official business concluded, all of us adjourned to the Coliseum Cafe for a very late lunch, friendly banter and yet more informal discussions about the MCF and the plans to take it forward. As an indication of the mood we were in, we only left this place at 10.30pm that night. For a kampong boy new to KL in the 1970s, spending eight hours at the legendary Coliseum Cafe was quite a memorable occasion to cherish.

Amidst all the joviality, I would dare say nobody – myself included – in 1974 would have been able to foresee the future of Malaysian chess and how the game would turn out 33 years later. It has been a long journey through many challenges but the MCF, thank God, has survived them all.

Here’s to the next 33 years!

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