I'd planned to stay home today and catch Khabi Kushe Khabi Gham on Vasantham. But with less than half an hour to 4pm, i got an sms from Mr. Jamal Anthony Green asking if i was around Kampong Glam. I just had to ditch watching the show.
About a month ago, i had been informed by a friend, sis Dorayuanna of the presence of Jamal Green within the office of MUIS. He was assisting them in a research involving waqaf in Singapore. She thought i should meet him. And so today, i did.
I first heard of Jamal Green at a talk organised by Masjid Ba'alawi more than a year ago. It was titled Kapal Haji - a look into the travel of pilgrims to Mecca who took the age old sea route to perform their Hajj pilgrimage. Jamal Green is an Englishman who now lives in New Zealand. He spent 18 years teaching in Singapore, speaks a fair bit of Malay and enjoys "Teh halia kurang manis" at the Anonymous Teh Sarabat Stall along Baghdad Street.
I was interested in meeting Jamal Green simply because i wanted to learn from his experiences. He isn't an academic nor is he a historian. Yet, he feels passionately for the preserving of history in Singapore, and telling the stories of Singaporeans whose experiences would be lost forever within one of two generations.
While sitting down enjoying our teh halia kurang manis, i explained to him the difficulties i faced in this research of mine - the difficulties in finding willing interviewees, of finding resources, of not being taken seriously enough. He assured me well that frustration was much part of the process.
Now that i try to think back about it, i can't really remember much about the conversation i had with Jamal Green. He professed on his own that he tends to go off tangents - that's right, more than one tangent. He'd digress to tell me something, then digress again, and sometimes, again. But that was what made talking to him so refreshing.
He was critical of the culture of history and education in Singapore - where we tend to calculate and quantify things. He said that the resources found in our archives are fragmentary at best, and no one seems to know completely what resources are available. In addition, it seems there always is alot of restrictions to what information you could look at. He told me that if i ever have a chance, i should visit the National Archives in the United Kingdom.
Midway through the conversation, he called up a friend of his by the name of Munir Shah, who happened to be the son of Syed Niyaz Mohammed Shah, a former high ranking senior officer in our police force. He passed the phone to me and we had a nice conversation. He told me that his father is already 89 years old and will not be as lucid in remembering certain details about the people of the past. Still, he told me to arrange a meet up with him soon amidst his busy schedule.
It was an afternoon that was beautifully spent, with one of the nicest people you can ever meet.
Serendipity - it's when someone finds something they weren't expecting to find. Mr. Jamal Green says most interviews are such. Sometimes you follow a lead and you come out of it with nothing, while most times, you find unexpected information when you're not looking for it.