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Great and tragic love story

New Straits Times logo New Straits Times 6/7/2018 Ahmad Izham Omar

I SLUMPED on the floor, unable to peel my eyes away from the Pulang movie poster. Suddenly, all these years of work was becoming real.

Pulang is about a man who left his poor village life to work on merchant ships, travelling the world. His wife waits for his promised return. For 61 years.

Pulang is about my grandfather.

The whole journey of this movie has been an emotional one. And, it all started with a story my father told me.

Around 1946 my grandfather Othman from Serkam brought his wife and son (my father) to Singapore. There he said he was going to work on a ship, leaving that very night. He promised to return. But he never did.

My father grew up without a father. But when he attended the Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman boarding school he began receiving postcards from around the world. New York City, Sri Lanka, Japan, Hong Kong, etc. And they all came from his father.

He couldn’t reply. There was no forwarding address. My grandfather was going from ship to ship, from adventure to adventure.

In 1966, my father received a scholarship to study in London. And by that time he knew my grandfather had settled in Liverpool.

So in June 1966, a week after arriving in London, my father went to Liverpool to find his father. He went with two friends to Liverpool Malay Sailors’ Club (there were so many of them they even had a club). The three of them walked right up and stood in front of my grandfather.

a group of people posing for the camera: ‘Pulang’ is about the writer’s grandfather, of how he had gone to work on a ship, promising to return, but never did. © Provided by Media Prima ‘Pulang’ is about the writer’s grandfather, of how he had gone to work on a ship, promising to return, but never did.

My grandfather looked at them slowly and then rested his eyes on my father. He knew instantly. “Omar, anak aku!”, he sputtered. And after nearly 20 years, they hugged.

That night, my father asked his father why he never returned. His answer: I don’t want to trouble anyone. My father was shocked at the answer. He knew there was more to it. But he didn’t want to argue in that first meeting so he didn’t press on.


But when my father said, “Mak masih tunggu Abah” (mother is still waiting for you), my grandfather was visibly shocked. After their meeting in 1966, something tragic happened. And all these years, nobody really talked about it.

In 2008 I decided to find out the truth. I went to Liverpool.

Even though I am a Liverpool FC fan and a self-professed Beatle-logist, in Liverpool my mind was only about finding the truth. In my search I found incredible stories of Malay sailors especially in the writings of New Straits Times columnist, Zaharah Othman. They were really something else.

Malay sailors worked on many international ships. They travelled the world. They were favoured

seamen, good at their work, and used by international shipping lines.

In one of her blog jottings (, Zaharah tells the story of Pakcik Hamid Carpenter, whose ship was struck by a German U-boat. As he was hanging onto a plank for dear life in the middle of the Atlantic he was rescued by a passing ship. Who pulled him up? Another sailor from Malacca.

Malay sailors were everywhere. Some became extras in British movies. One went to jail.

In my continued search I came across this paper written by Prof. Tim Bunnell called “Post-Maritime Nationalisation: Malay seafarers in Liverpool”. I remember thinking, “Are. You. Kidding. Me.”.

I emailed Dr Bunnell. He gave me clues which led me to the truth. Now, I can’t tell you what I found. That would be giving the movie away.

But after the whole adventure,

I realised this is a story that

must be told. Multi-generation. The mystery. The wait. The anguish. The love story between my grandparents. The fact that Malay sailors were a big part of our history.

I started writing.

After a few drafts I realised I was too close to the story. We brought in Mira Mustaffa who turned the script into a truly compelling piece of work. We got in Kabir Bhatia who then turned those words on paper into a piece of art.

With a great ensemble of actors led by Remy Ishak, a wonderful production crew, outstanding CGI from Peter Riel, Tommy Mansur’s production design and an astounding music score from Aubrey Suwito, we felt that maybe we were on to something.

A great and tragic love story that everyone would enjoy, but pieced in a way that just might appeal to the hardest of critics.

I learnt a lot through all this. I learnt about our sailors. I learnt about love and understanding. I learnt about sacrifice. I learnt more about my father.

In the end though, what I learnt most was the message of Pulang itself — no matter what adventures life takes you on, it all means nothing if you don’t have a family to come home to.

We all hope you will enjoy the movie as much we have enjoyed making it.

Pulang is out in cinemas on July 26. Bring tissues.

The writer works in the production of TV, film and music content

and gets panicky trying to figure

out his next tweet

© New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd

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