By Dr. Ong Hwee Keng
I n my story “Long live the missionaries”, I mentioned Ursula Kohler and Irene Neville, who came to Serdang as missionaries in 1952. They had spent time studying Chinese until they could read the Chinese Bible. Upon their arrival in Serdang, they were unpleasantly surprised to find that the locals in the new village could not read Chinese or speak Mandarin; their lingua-franca was Hakka. Another round of learning began. They engaged a teacher at 50 Malayan cents an hour to teach them to read the Bible in Hakka. I remember Ursula mentioning a young man who had taught her to read the Bible in Hakka but he was a hardcore atheist, totally unmoved by the words of Scriptures despite her long and hard prayers for him.
Ferne Blair, the Canadian missionary who came to Serdang in the 1980s, used to inquire about Mr Chen, Monica’s father who lived next to the church. I remember Mr Chen was hostile to the church although all his children were believers. Some Serdang folks identified him as the teacher who taught the missionaries to read the Bible in Hakka.
He later regretted teaching the missionaries and became hostile to the church. It could be that there were two teachers, one teaching Ursula and Irene, and another teaching Ferne Blair. Whichever the case, I didn’t think much about the Hakka teacher since he was either a hardcore atheist or hostile to the church. Ursula told me she and Irene prayed very hard for their Hakka teacher. If it was Mr Chen, I wouldn’t want to tell her since he was still hostile to the church at the time of my visit to Ursula.
To continue this story, I have to tell my story. I was baptised by Elder Henry Philips of The Life Chapel (TLC) in Petaling Jaya in 1974 when I was a student at the University of Malaya.
At that time, TLC met on the first floor of a shop lot. After finding out that I studied agriculture, Elder Henry said to me, “Don’t try to come back to TLC. Never be attracted to the bright lights of the city here. Where God sends you to work after your graduation, you serve God there. If there is no church where God sends you to, you come back to see me. TLC will help you to plant a church there.”
After my baptism, I was on fire to serve the Lord. I actually pledged to God to do what Elder Henry had urged me to. I was psychologically prepared to live and serve God in a rural area since I was studying agriculture. However, when I graduated, I was sent to work at the headquarters of an agricultural research institute situated next to the then Agricultural University in Serdang.
I was in a dilemma. Serdang was neither a city nor a rural area. Riding my motorcycle, I would reach TLC from Serdang in half an hour. If I went back to TLC, Elder Henry might say, “You have come back to the bright lights of the city!” So I decided to take my bike for a survey of the area. I soon found out that the most densely populated area was Serdang Baru, the second largest new village in Malaysia then. Once, I rode so deep into the village that I got lost. While trying to come back to the main road, lo and behold, I found this little church named Serdang Baru Christian Church (SBCC). The rest is history.
I stayed with SBCC for 37 years. Many things happened and one day, it dawned on me that I had fulfilled my pledge to God. I was retired and no longer gainfully employed. It was time to let younger people take over.
One day, while sitting in my living room and staring at my bookshelf, I spotted a paperback book. It was “The Christian Workers’ Commentary on the Whole Bible” by James Gray. It had turned yellowish. On its inside front cover was a type-written note dated Oct. 6, 1974. It was my baptism gift from TLC on my unforgettable day.
So, 40 years after my baptism, I returned to TLC, armed with my baptism gift. To everyone who asked me why I had come to TLC, I showed my book. I was now well-qualified to be a senior citizen, so naturally I joined the Senior Members’ Fellowship (SMF) of TLC. At the SMF, whenever there was an invited speaker, there would be a subsequent group discussion based on the topic that day.
At one meeting, there was an 80-year old brother named Wong Pak Leong in my group. Upon learning that I came from Serdang, he talked incessantly about Serdang Baru. No matter what question the group leader asked, he would turn to me and talk about his Serdang days! Finally, the leader had no choice but to ask him to keep quiet and talk to me privately later!
This is what Wong Pak Leong told me: “I was a 17-year-old student when Ursula Kohler and Irene Neville came to Serdang Baru in 1952. I studied at the Confucian High School in the morning and the nearby Methodist Afternoon School in the afternoon. So I know both Chinese and English languages. But I was influenced more deeply by my Chinese education than my Western one. I had some knowledge of the Bible but only in my head and not in my heart. My parents were Hakka and I grew up in a Hakka kampong near Serdang. With my background I was recommended to earn some needed money by teaching two missionaries, Ursula Kohler from Switzerland and Irene Neville from Australia, to read the Bible in Hakka. I did that only for money. In those days, 50 cents an hour was very good money for a youth like me.
“They always prayed for me and urged me to become a Christian by accepting Jesus as my personal saviour. I never wanted to oblige them. I often had to work in my family rambutan cum star fruit orchard. In the isolation of the orchard full of trees, members of CPM (Communist Party of Malaya) would come to brainwash me. I would not say I was a communist, but my sympathy lay with them. I disliked what the British were doing in Malaya and I thought that the Christian churches were helping to fulfill the British agenda because the Bible taught people to obey the authorities of the day.
“The so-called new villages were settlements to keep the Chinese under control since the British suspected them to be either communists or communist sympathisers. The scheme was planned and implemented by General Briggs. We were rounded up within a fenced area. Food was rationed and entry and exit needed special passes. I was hunted down by a Special Branch officer and was on the point of being detained for interrogation when the Serdang MCA (Malayan Chinese Association) chairman came to my aid. He asked the Special Branch officer how this young man could be a communist when he was always helping out in the clinic run by two foreign nurses in the local church.
“’You see, I am the Chairman of Serdang Branch St. John Ambulance and he is my Secretary. Further, he is teaching the two foreign ladies in the church how to speak Hakka!’” The Special Branch officer decided to close the file on me, after confirming I was indeed teaching two missionaries in the church. He had himself also attended a mission school and was a self-confessed Christian.
Probably he mistook me to be a Christian too! So my part-time job with the church not only earned me money but also saved me from potential detention. “After I finished Senior Middle Three, I continued my studies at Nanyang University in Singapore.
Upon graduating from Nanyang University, I was a confirmed hardcore atheist with a socialist mindset. But to make sure my children are bilingual like me, I sent them to English mission schools. To my shock, all of them became devoted Christians. When they started working, I was very upset to discover that they gave one-tenth of their earnings, not to me but to their church! They frequently prayed for me and invited me to go to church. But I never showed any interest, until I retired at 55 years of age. My children challenged me to go to church and see for myself that Christians were not what I thought.
“One day after my retirement, I decided to follow my children to Full Gospel Tabernacle (FGT), where there were many old boys from Bukit Bintang Boys’ School. True enough, I realised that Christians were not what I thought. By that time, nobody, including myself, had any animosity with the British as coloniser. I began to read the Bible, and my spiritual insight was heightened when I read about Christ’s saying that His Kingdom is not of this world. I realised that this world is in a mess. Neither communism nor capitalism means anything. There is corruption everywhere in the world.
It is a matter of degree. The world is evil due to the sinful nature of every man. There is eternity and I need salvation. Finally, I accepted Jesus as my personal Saviour and Lord, at a late age of 57. I was baptised by Rev. Eu Hong Seng who soon became my spiritual leader. After some time, I moved to stay in S S 2 area in Petaling Jaya, and going to FGT became inconveniently far for me. Rev. Eu then graciously recommended me to attend The Life Chapel (TLC) in Petaling Jaya, where there are many retired people like me in the Senior Member Fellowship. I have been a regular worshipper in TLC ever since.”
After listening to his testimony, I said to him, “Don’t get me wrong. Just take it as a joke. When you get to heaven one day, Ursula and Irene will ask you, ‘What took you so long?'” He laughed and said, “You must remember it is very difficult for a hardcore atheist with an anticolonialistic mindset to believe in God. In fact, I later realised how difficult it was for Ursula and Irene to literally survive in Serdang in those days.
People hated the British for keeping them in detention in the so-called New Village. I had believed that the British government supplied the clinic with medicine to the foreign nurses so that they could provide the free medical care for the locals. I was wrong. It was provided by China Inland Mission that collected donations from Christians. They actually worked under hostile circumstances but they persevered and won the hearts of many locals for their care and concern.
Anyway, to answer that question, I will say, ‘It is better late than never’!” As we bade goodbye that afternoon at TLC, I asked myself whether I would have met Ursula and Irene’s Hakka teacher if I had not returned to TLC. Irene went to be with the Lord in 1988. Ursula was called home in 2012, without knowing about Pak Leong’s conversion. If Pak Leong was 17 years old in 1952 and came to Christ at the age of 57, the year of his spiritual birth must have been 1992, four years after the home-calling of Irene Neville. I got to hear Pak Leong’s testimony only in 2015. Was it God’s way of telling me that He had answered the missionaries’ long and hard prayers, even though it had seemed very late? END
Dr Ong Hwee Keng worked as a research officer at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute in Serdang, where he served for 38 years. After retirement he serves as Executive Administrator of Migrant Ministry in Klang Malaysia. Hwee Keng is married to Helen and they have two sons, Evangel and Ernest. He is active in literature ministry.
This article is reprinted by permission from Asian Beacon 49.1 (2017)
Asian Beacon: 49#1 | April-June 2017 | page 32 & page 33 | asianbeacon.org