Where have all the padang gone?

In my little town,

I never meant nothing.

I was just my father’s son

(Paul Simon, 1975)

AND so it was for most of us growing up in Seremban in the 1960’s and early 70’s.

Padang seemed to loom large in our lives back then. One of my earliest memories came on a night when, perched on the shoulders of my father, I heard a man address a rally at the Seremban Town padang, the town’s largest. He spoke energetically and with great conviction – in both English and Bahasa - but I didn’t understand a word of it.

It was 1964 and my father informed me that I had just listened to Lee Kuan Yew.

The times were different then. We did not , for example, have Prime Ministers who felt the need to sacrifice everything on the altar of development. And so Seremban retained its padangs and there seemed to be a field everywhere you looked in our little town back then.

For me, it was Rahang Square. We lived atop a hill beside a road appropriately named Jalan Atas, from whose apex one could, if one was brave enough to apply the least resistance, freewheel all the way to the field.

In my memory, it was a large field ringed by houses on four sides, all of which were inhabited by families of government servants, and all of whom contained at least one person you either knew or went to school with.

It was even used at dusk, those soft, tropical, mosquito-ridden nights before the advent of television when Film Negara set up shop on the field to inform the masses of goings-on in Kuala Lumpur, a mysterious place where, it was enviously speculated, everyone was so rich that they all had cars. More glamorously, they did not have bullock carts – a commonality in downtown Seremban - and even boasted traffic jams.

Imagine that!

On those Film Negara nights, whole families would occupy portions of the field, complete with mats, peanuts, soft drinks and, most importantly, mosquito coils. The kids would first be treated to some cartoon fillers and then the adults would learn that Indonesia wanted to “hang” Malaysia or some such thing. And we would leave leaving a mess of stuff on the field, all of which would be cleared up by the Town Council by the time festivities began the next evening.

Rahang Square always came alive in the evenings where a bewildering number of games – hockey, football, cricket, athletics- were played by opposing sides generally made up on the spot and largely depending on whoever was present at the time of roll-call as it were. And because everyone knew everyone else, a forgiving spirit generally prevailed even in the face of rank incompetence on the part of people such as me.

But we were always conscious of ourselves as a community; of our place, however small, in the larger realm of country and the world. I vividly remember the evening Jeevajothy, a son of the Maniams’ who lived three doors away from us, returned from Mexico where he had just represented the country at field-hockey in the 1968 Olympic Games. He was, oh-so-casually, wearing a tracksuit with the word “Malaysia” emblazoned on its back.

It was breathtaking: of course, he was given a standing ovation.

The Rahang Square padang only exists today as a memory. The same can be said of other, smaller padangs in Seremban. That, apparently, is the case up and down Peninsular Malaysia with the exception of the island of Penang and, quite possibly, Ipoh. It is, one is told, the price one pays for progress.

To our younger generations, it’s an inheritance of loss. And that’s a pity.

One hates to leap to conclusions, of course, but one can’t help but wonder if it might have anything to do with the deteriorating quality of sport in the country.

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