Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
So the 48-year-old new member became one of MNS's most active and enthusiastic members. "Every weekend I would join whatever excursion or field trip they had." Raja clearly remembers a day trip up the scenic Sedili River in Johore that I had organised back in the early '80s, and which he had thoroughly enjoyed. There does not seem to be any trip that Raja had not enjoyedhis enthusiasm really stands out.
And it was his enthusiasm that caught the eye of the then Chairman of the MNS (Singapore branch), Dr Rexon Ngim. Within six months of the school teacher being noticed by the doctor, he received a phone call. It was Dr Ngim telling him that he was stepping down and inviting Raja to become the next Chairman.
Raja, after recovering from this surprising news, said with both modesty and honesty: "No, I am only a layman, just a primary school teacher. I haven't got a university degree. All the other committee members have a degree." That was when Dr Ngim replied, "We want Enthusiasm, not just a Degree."
Six months passed and then Dr Ngim rang again. This time he told Raja that he was going on sabbatical and the committee would give him (Raja) all the backing, if he accepted. Raja met Ilsa Sharp and also Dr Avadhani (who was a Past Chairman) and they said they would be very happy to welcome him. So he was appointed Chairman.
The trip leader does not talk about his days as the Chairman (he was chairman for 3 years) and its probably because he "found it rather boring, attending meetings, I was doing very little... so one day I said, why don't I lead trips?" The offer was taken up and to date, Raja has led 19 trips into the rainforest of Taman Negaraand to many other placeswith no plans whatever of slowing down.
But when Raja stepped down as Chairman, he was elected Treasurer and he held this honorary post (usually a thankless and onerous one in any non-profit organisation) for five years. "I used to stay up till 2 am to do the accounts." He would, no doubt, have much preferred staying up till 2 am or more in one of Taman Negara's hides watching out for animals.
Today, having paid his dues, Raja is just an ordinary member (albeit a life member), but though he is not serving on any committee, he says he is actively promoting membership. "You must become a member before you can come on my trips. It's my way of encouraging membership." And it is very effective. Almost every trip that Raja organises to Malaysia's national parks and other nature areas is fulland he gamely leads 30-40 members on each trip. "My recent Lake Chim trip had 40, my trip to Kuala Selangor had 34 and my Taman Negara trips have between 35 to 40.
Is getting a "free trip" the incentive for you to lead these tours, especially to faraway places like Turkey, Brazil and Sikkim? Raja laughs good-naturedly. "Not at all, I don't go free to these (exotic) places, I pay my full fare," he explains. While it is true that travel agencies give trip leaders a free ticket, it is only when there are 15 trip members. While all the local trips have twice this number, Raja discloses that he'd be lucky to get half a dozen NSS members to go with him to places beyond peninsular Malaysia. It was only once, on a trip to Sikkim, that he managed to get 15 people. So Raja either goes alone and joins up with others on these tours or his companion would he his wife, Sarojini.
What is surprising (but a bonus for the NSS) is that even though this intrepid traveller has gone on jungle safari in Brazil, journeyed to the Antarctica and also retraced the Silk Route, his enthusiasm is not the least bit dampened as he prepares to lead NSS members to neighbouring Pangkor or Kota Tinggi. Why?
Raja puts it simply. "When members enjoy a trip, they make me feel I'm doing a very good job. They are getting their moneys worth." As for going to the same nature areas over and over again, Raja says. "Each time it is a different group, with slightly different interests. Besides the usual singles, I have now got young couples on my trips, I have also got some families with children. I am able to teach a little, to find different plants to show them."
Even though Raja is now a fund of nature information for these newcomers, he always welcomes the opportunity to learn from others on the trip who are more knowledgeable than he. Like dental surgeon Dr Chua Ee Kiam who knows a lot about insects and avid birder Clive Briffet who led the first NSS group to Batam. He says he has also picked up a lot over the years from the rangers and superintendents in the forests.
After leading so many groups, from such diverse backgrounds, Raja says that he has not once encountered such "disinterest" as happened on his safari in Brazil. It was supposed to be a nature group and the guide was explaining about the flora and fauna. But two girls on the trip were not at all interested. They chatted and took turns photographing one anotherto the disgust of the guide and everyone else.
Says Raja. "This has not happened on any of the NSS trips. Even the chap who just came out of curiosity ends up showing more interest in nature. Raja also says he leads groups to places that commercial operators do not usually undertake. This is the reason he has not led any groups to Lake Kenyir.
So how long does the indefatigable trip leader stay home between trips? Not at all long and its not just because he's got another trip he has to lead but the Rajamanikam's son and daughter and grandchildren are living abroad in the USA and that is another reason why they are constantly on the move.
But I manage to catch up with Raja (whom I remember as the wiry, friendly and enthusiastic man with a black Morris Minor) and his hospitable wife at their homea comfortable Bukit Timah bungalow with a gardenin Upper Bukit Timah. "This bungalow is a 'gift' from Miss Mary Boswell," Raja happily tells me. She was his senior colleague in Bukit Panjang Primary School back in 1951 and she had insisted he buy the house and had insisted on lending him the money for the down payment. Raja thanks her both for her foresight and her generosity. She has been their neighbour (a few roads away) for the past 40 something years!
But while the bungalow and well kept garden are intact, recent developments have almost destroyed all of the wild nature area behind their house. Raja is sad but resigned. He brings me to the back of the house and shows me the devastated area and tells me of the birds (many migratory) that used to visit. Besides water birds, he has been watching a particular flock of Black Bazas (a bird of prey) numbering 16 to 24 birds.
"I believe they are from Northern Asia. They would come in mid November and they would arrive between 4.45 and 5 pm. Every day they would come to the same tree and join the others and they would fly around, sit on a branch and fly onto another branch. By 6 PM, they would be sitting right on the top of the Albizia tree, bobbing up and down. If it rains, they would put their heads under their wings, otherwise they would sit, shoulder to shoulder, and 7.20 PM, on the dot, the next day, they would fly up, fly around once and then off to the reservoir." But now their favourite tree is under threat and perhaps there would be no reason for their coming back. Perhaps this will give Raja yet more reason for leading yet more trips to Taman Negara?
Whatever, if you have not been on one of Raja's trips, you are strongly urged to join up and join in the fun, camaraderie and adventure with a most affable and always "enthusiastic" leader.
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