Mr John Skrine – In His Own Words

MUCH CAN BE read online about the late Mr John Skrine (22 July 1922 – 13 April 1993), a prominent lawyer and the law firm in his name Skrine & Co. He was also known to be a nature lover and a keen horseman and polo player.

I had the privilege to meet him 26 years ago on this date 8 November. At that time I did not realise what an illustrious gentleman he was. I only knew him as the distinguished Chairman of the Board of Governors of my school, Pudu English Girls School or Sekolah Menengah Perempuan Pudu, and in the year that I met him, he was retiring from that position which he had held for years.

Mr Skrine was the Guest-of-Honour on the School’s Speech and Prize-giving Day that year. The School Senior Assistant Mrs Irene Teoh delivered a tribute to him. As the School Captain, I was given the honour to present a momento to Mr Skrine on behalf of the school. It was a copper tooling depicting the school which served as a fitting reminder of Mr Skrine’s 25 years’ association with the school.

(Left) Guest-of-Honour, Mr John Skrine with (L-R) Mr Jimmy Chee, the Chairman-designate of the Board of Governors, Mr Chong Chin Nam, PTA Chairman and Mrs G. Rajendran, the School Principal; (Right) Presenting a momento to Mr Skrine on behalf of the school while the Lord Bishop of West Malaysia, the Rt Rev Tan Sri JG Savarimuthu looks on.

Recently I found a copy of his brief autobiography which must have been given to the school, which I now realised gave an insight into his life as a young man before he went into legal practice. I hereby re-produce his three-page type-written autobiography.

“My father was born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) around 1890 while my grandfather was a tea planter there. My father was a soldier in the British Army in the 1914 War and came to Malaysia after the war. He was a parishioner in St. Mary’s Church and a lawyer and Chairman of the Board of Governors of the PuduEnglishGirlsSchool in Ms Foss’s time in the 1930s. He retired as senior partner of the legal firm of Bannon & Bailey in Kuala Lumpur in 1937 or 1938.

I was born in the Bangsar Hospital, Kuala Lumpur, on the 2nd July 1922. I was christianed in St. Mary’s Church, Kuala Lumpur, as indeed where all my five daughters who were also all born in Kuala Lumpur, four of them in the Bangsar Hospital. I went to England with my parents in about 1928 and very soon afterwards sent to a boarding school in England. I eventually left Uppingham School where my father and grandfather were also educated in June 1940 after the last War had started. I became an articled clerk to a firm of Solicitors in Bath, England, and left them to join the British Army in 1941 before my 19th birthday. I joined the Royal Armoured Corps and spent over a year training to fight in armoured vehicles, first of all as a trooper in Bovington in Dorset and latterly as an officer cadet in Sandhurst, the British Military College in Hampshire. I passed out in the early autumn of 1942 as a Second Lieutenant.

I sailed from Grennock in Scotland down to Clyde outside Glasgow in a big convoy of troop-ships for the Middle East in 1942. We sailed across the Atlantic to Bahia in Brazil and then crossed the Atlantic Ocean again to South Africa and skirted round Cape Town and finished up in Durban. Going into DurbanHarbour we saw the wreckage of ships that had been sunk by German submarines but our convoy was fortunate.

From Durban I went by ship to Cairo and was then posted to the 7th Hussars, an armoured regiment stationed near Baghdad in Iraq. The regiment has seen service in Burma where it took part in a rearguard action out of Burma into India where the Japanese advance was stopped at Imphal.

From Baghdad, the Regiment moved in May 1943 to Syria and Isreal and the Lebanon and I can well remember arriving on my 21st birthday in July in the middle of the night in a stony sandy valley in a sandstorm on the road between Baalbek and Homs in Syria with the Lebanon mountains on the one side and anti-Lebanon on the other.

Baalbek has some wonderful old ruins from Roman times and Syria itself has many old crusader castles which are places of great interest and in some instances well preserved.

In the latter part of 1943 or early 1944 we sailed from Alexandria for Italy and landed in Sicily. From 1943 the Regiment advanced slowly up the leg of Italy through Ancona and Rimini and finished up in Trieste when the War in Europe ended in 1945. It sounds peculiar but in fact it was a very happy period of my life. While on leave in Rome I had my first introduction opera. Having had a splendid dinner beforehand, I have to admit that I slept to most of the Cavalier Rusticana, which I have since heard and realised what I missed. I also watched my first performance of ballet, Les Sylphides, in Rome and the contrast between the grace and beauty of the ballet and the carnage of the battlefield I had recently been in made a considerable impression on me.

When the War was over, I spent a delightful period of about five months waiting to be demobilised doing little other than looking after a lot of horses which the 7th   Hussars had acquired at the end of the War, mostly from the Germans, who still had a lot of horse-drawn transport and horses for officers to ride. I was responsible for the Regimental racing stables and was lucky to be allowed to ride in races in Northern Italy and Austria over fences, which were called steeple-chases of about 2 ½ miles long. I was fortunate enough to travel to Vienna in an armoured car on one occasion in the winter time of 1946 and took part in the race in Vienna. At that time the Russian army was in control of Vienna, but it was a wonderful city and I remember seeing the (Blue) Danube which runs through Vienna.

When I was finally demobilised from the Army, I passed my law finals in England and came to Malaya. In Malaya I have always practised as a lawyer and joined the legal firm of Bannon & Bailey in April 1948, the firm my father left in 1937/38. As a result of a disagreement with our senior partner, the firm of Bannon & Bailey dissolved in 1963 and the firm of Skrine & Co. was set up. Nearly all the lawyers in Bannon & Bailey started practising again as Skrine & Co. and my name was chosen because it was the shortest, and I was the most senior lawyer of three in my group who started practising again together.

I have been a member of the Bar Council for about 15 years and took my exercise, until about 8 years ago when I gave it all up, playing polo. I was also involved in amateur horse racing. I remember well visiting the Polo Club to see if the horses were all right and being fed during the 1969 Emergency when there was a curfew on in Kuala Lumpur and a soldier took a shot at me while I was in my car. He missed.

In 1971 I went to the Philippines with a team captained by the former Agong, the Sultan of Pahang, and played polo in Manila and was introduced to President Marcos.

Besides this School and polo and the law, I have always been very interested in natural history and have been a member of the Malayan Nature Society for many years and more recently became a Trustee of the World Wildlife Fund. I have been involved on more than one occasion in trying to ensure that the National Park – Taman Negara – remains intact as a National Park. There was an attempt to flood it some years ago in connection with a hydro-electric scheme, which would have buried a lot of the remaining unspoilt lowland forest. Fortunately the Government gave up the idea.

My hobbies now are gardening and trying to learn a bit more about the jungle and the birds and animals in it and I have from time to time taken girls from the School on walks up Bunga Buah which is on the way to Genting. I hope to walk up there again when my youngest daughter comes out next summer.”

Advertisements

Enchanting Yangtze River

(Forward View magazine, 1997)

THE RIVER GOES down in history as the longest river in China and the third longest in the world. But for the next decade, the mighty Yangtze will probably be remembered for the construction of the world’s biggest dam project that will force 1.2 million people from their homes, destroy villages and flood historic sites.

A year before trucks poured huge boulders into the river on November 8, 1997 to mark the inauguration of the ambitious $24.5 billion dam project, I was on board German cruise ship Princess Elaine enjoying the spectacular view of China’s famed river, while fully aware of the fact that the very same river is the cause of deadly floods that have taken the lives of at least half a million people this century alone.

The river flows from the glaciers of Tibet and travels over 6,000 km into the East China Sea at Shanghai, dividing China into north and south. Our journey began halfway, from Wuhan to Chongqing, which is about 1,400 km. It’s an upstream journey that takes more than 100 hours which otherwise would take just 57 hours if one travels downstream.

Boarding Princess Elaine in the late afternoon, we were met by our tour guide Kent, a University of Nanjing graduate. Kent, who spoke good English, briefed on what to expect throughout our journey. While on board, I got myself “An Illustrated Guide To Yangtze River”, a book by Judy Bonavia which came in handy.

That very night, we stayed up to witness the ship passed through the locks of the Gezhouba Dam, a massive 70-m high dam which is the first and biggest dam thus far on the Yangtze River, which will come second after the Three Gorges Dam is completed.

My first real glimpse of the river (apart from the time we boarded the ship), which nestled between the hills, towering peaks and misty mountain tops, was the following morning. Every now and then, we’d come across human activities on the terraced slopes.

It helped that we were given a daily itinerary and what were the attractions to expect. The famous Three Gorges was of course the highlight. The Three Gorges, consisting of Xiling Gorge, Wu Gorge and Qutang Gorge, are famed for their breathtaking beauty, steep cliffs and whirling rapids. The Three Gorges which runs about 118 km takes a whole day’s journey, entering the Xiling Gorge in the morning of the third day, the Wu Gorge by the afternoon and finally the Qutang Gorge by sunrise the following morning.

A friend commented, “You see one, you see them all” with reference to the scenery along the journey. However, I beg to differ. I’d sit on the open deck and imagine myself being transported back in time when the Xiling Gorge was the most dangerous passage of the three gorges and how boatmen had to have great skills to navigate the narrow channel and fierce rapids.

Upon entering the Wu Gorge, a series of 12 peaks kept my head up in the sky. Among the notable ones are the Climbing Dragon Peak, named for the obvious reason and the Goddess Peak, which resembles a maiden kneeling in front of a pillar.

After lunch, we were transferred onto a motorised sampan for an excursion on the Daning River where the Mini Three Gorges boast of dramatic scenery of rocks and caves. Interesting sights like coffins in the precipice crevices and a rock that resembles the back of a horse hanging in the air kept us in awe. Children were seen bathing in the shallow river. Two of them even ran alongside our sampan extending their hands and they weren’t disappointed as a few passengers dug out a couple of renmenbi coins for them.

By sunrise the next day, we had entered the Qutang Gorge – the shortest, narrowest and the most interesting passage of all. It’s just 8 km long and the widest portion is only about 150 m. It was a busy 20-min journey as we were reminded to be on the lookout for historic sites such as the Bellow Gorge, Meng Liang Stairway, Hanging Monk Rock and the White King Town, reputed to be the most ancient town in the Three Gorges.

It wasn’t difficult to see why the Three Gorges have inspired poets and painters for centuries. For me, it was a thrilling yet sombre experience. It was like walking through an art gallery and feeling a mysterious presence. It was peaceful yet disturbing at the thought of how such an enthralling natural beauty could also be the killer of thousands of lives.

Throughout the journey, the construction of the dam was one of the main topics of conversation. We learnt that the ambitious construction project was first proposed by revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen way back in 1919, but was shelved for more than 60 years due to technical and social problems.

A day before our journey ended in Chongqing, we went on shore to Fengdu, also known as “The Ghost City”. Tourists flocked to this town were the landmarks are full will horrific names, like Ghost Torturing Pass and Last Glance At  Home Tower. A cable car ride to the hilltop led us to more temples and shrines dedicated to the Gods of the Underworld. There were just so many superstitions that I wonder why I went up in the first place.

I suppose I was one of the many tourists who flocked the Yangtze River to be a part of the last few to witness the awesome scenery before the river is dammed and the scenery gone forever. However according to some reports, that may not be entirely true as the construction of the dam will create new sites of interest. God willing, I may make a trip there again in 2009. (Forward View magazine, 1997)

Postscript:

1) Information available online stated that the dam project was finally completed and fully functional in July this year. Part of Fengdu town is reportedly now submerged in water.

2)  Unfortunately, I did not make that trip down Yangtze River again, even though I was based in Hong Kong between 2008-2010. I went on the cruise in September 1996 with my parents and it just wouldn’t be the same without them. By 2009, dad was no longer able to travel long distance.