I'm writing this close to National Day on Aug 31, which means it’s nearly time for more instalments of the documentary series Road To Nationhood. It’s a series of projects I’ve been involved with for the last few years, telling the story of how Malaya achieved independence, and subsequently became Malaysia.
This year, you get not one but two documentaries. Late September will see a history of Sarawak, and before that we get to tell the story of Konfrontasi (Confrontation).
This was in the 1960s when Indonesian, Malaysian, and British soldiers (aided by forces from other Commonwealth nations) clashed in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. It will be an hour-long documentary, but even then there were things we left out.
In a previous column, I talked about how we sometimes intentionally don’t include everything in the documentary. It’s estimated that for each hundred hours of interview that we’ve recorded on video, only about an hour makes it into the final cut.
For the latest project, however, there were some very interesting stories that we couldn’t include because we couldn’t get them on tape. In particular, the story of Sukarno and a Radio Malaya announcer named Norlidar Saidi.
It’s 1963 and Indonesia has just declared “Konfrontasi” against Malaya. There was tension mainly because Malaya’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had proposed that Malaysia be formed with Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo (Sabah) and Brunei – all without consulting Indonesia and its first President, Sukarno.
It wasn’t just demagoguery and fiery speeches. The failed Brunei Revolt of December 1962 led to insurgents running across the Sarawak border into south Kalimantan, and these men continued to be a source of distress for Sarawakians. In a six-month period from April 1963, there were 34 cross-border attacks from Indonesia into Sarawak.
With the Malaysia project at risk, the hope was that cooler heads and calmer talk would prevail, and in June 1963, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Sukarno and Philippine President Diosdado P. Macapagal convened in Manila to figure out how to defuse tensions in the region.
Except that Sukarno’s idea of releasing tension was somewhat different: According to lore (tinyurl.com/star2-sukarno), Sukarno had noticed the presence of a very attractive young lady in a striking red kebaya during a press conference. Sukarno loudly asked if this young lady was from Indonesia (“Adakah wanita muda itu dari Indonesia?”), to which Tunku sharply replied that she was from Radio Malaya.
The woman’s name was Norlidar Saidi, and she was a popular radio announcer. She must have been quite attractive because, as the story goes, Sukarno attempted to woo her, and in the process almost created an international incident, ironically at an event where the objective was to prevent such things.
I find this story interesting and not just because it’s a titillating tale of gossip more suited for a teen drama than a political documentary about world leaders. For me, it gives us an insight into how Sukarno viewed the meeting in Manila, and on a broader note, Konfrontasi as a whole.
That you would jeopardise international diplomatic negotiations – already a delicate thing – just because a pretty girl in a red dress caught your eye implies that to Sukarno the meeting wasn’t that delicate or balanced. I believe it supports the idea he was just there to make it clear that he opposed the formation of Malaysia. His idea of “peace” would be if he could prove Tunku wrong.
However, as interesting as this story was, we didn’t feature it in the documentary. Although it has previously been widely reported – not the least by Tunku himself in his column, As I See It, in The Star (“Sukarno’s lust for an R.T.M. girl”, March 17, 1980) – it still had a flavour of “urban legend” rather than “stone cold documentary fact”.
But we almost did. We managed to find somebody who was witness to these events. This person saw the interaction with Sukarno (although not specifically at the press conference), and they also saw how Tunku reacted when alone with the Malayan delegation after that (unsurprisingly, he wasn’t pleased at all).
To make things worse, it seems that the next day, Sukarno turned up at the hotel with an aide holding a bouquet of red and white roses. Perhaps the flowers were for Tunku, but I doubt it. It took a little bit of diplomacy to persuade them that this perhaps was not the best idea.
Later, when Norlidar wanted to go shopping in Manila, Tunku ensured that one of his bodyguards was always with her, “just in case”. And in the end, she was flown back to Kuala Lumpur before the end of the conference.
This was all told to us in a pre-interview that we, fortunately, managed to record on audio. Unfortunately, between then and the actual planned video interview, the people involved decided that they didn’t want to appear on TV.
This is, of course, their right. But it feels like it’s a shame that this knowledge is not somehow captured and shared, not as entertainment, but as a record of things that once were and now have come to pass.
My producer and I have discussed what we should do with the 99% of the video that we don’t use in the documentary. One idea is to repurpose it in short five-minute snippets, done aside from the main documentary.
But there is some value in just leaving it there in its raw form for people to peruse as an archive. For those that have passed since we recorded them, it would be a form of legacy, a record of the history they were part of.