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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
Enthusiasm more important
than U Degree

That's how primary school teacher S Rajamanikam, the NSS's intrepid trip leader became the society's Chairman back in 1983. But he found it "very boring" and said, "why don't I lead trips?" Interview by Betty L Khoo who met enthusiastic Raja on several MNS day trips back in 1981 and caught up with him again in March this year.

There is a saying among management gurus, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." "And the tougher it is, the more I like it," says S Rajamanikam, the NSS's best known trip leader. And its been tough alright—trekking through leech-infested forest, climbing up steep 'pinnacles' and braving icy minus 20 deg C temperatures.

But sometimes the intrepid Raja gets more adventure than he bargained for. One time in Istanbul he had slipped on icy terrain and fallen heavily, breaking his wrist. He landed in hospital.

Another time he took a much more spectacular tumble but luckily had a softer landing. This happened when Raja, on an NSS trip to the Pinnacles in Sarawak with Dr Ivan Polunin and others, missed a foothold coming down Mount Api and fell "about 15 feet". "I flew over Dr Ivan Polunin and landed on soft moss, then bounced up again and landed once more, this time sitting beside a tree root, stunned!"

Three doctors who were on that trip rushed up to examine their leader and fortunately found nothing broken. He managed to walk back to the trekkers' hut. He is tough indeed —especially when one notes that Raja is not all muscle-mass—he is very slim and slightly built.

But happily such misadventures are rare. Most times, even on treks that NSS novices exclaim as "tough", Raja is most relaxed. Wrote one member of his leadership of one trip into Malaysia's Taman Negara, "while we struggled through the evil-smelling cave, our indefatigable team leader was no doubt relaxing somewhere above us in the cool breeze of the rainforest". But of course this member, Nirmal Ghosh, had a memorable enriching experience of the "overwhelming power of the rainforest" and this is what really keeps Raja going. Seeing others enjoy and learn from nature, even as he continues to learn. "Adventure, camaraderie, education, this is what I get out of leading trips," says the retired school teacher.

It would be hard to find any active NSS member who has not met Raja on a day excursion or not been on one of his nature adventure trips. But not many know that the NSS's popular trip leader was also once its Chairman! In fact, he assumed the Chairmanship not too long after he joined the then Malayan Nature Society (Singapore branch) in 1981. It happened this way. Raja had heard Ilsa Sharp (then the Society's PR officer) talk on the radio about an MNS trip to Mt Ophir. That got him interested and he joined up. "I'd always wanted to become a member but did not know how to join."

Raja on Gunung API in
Sarawak with the Pinnacles
in the background

Group shot on a high hide
in Taman Negara

Crossing a suspension
bridge in Sabah

MNS trip in Burma

With guide taking shelter
in a tribal hut in Tasik Chini

By the rapids in Taman Negara
It was not the school teacher's first introduction to nature. Born in Pontian, Johore in 1932, this small-town boy was familiar with nature in his backyard and when he got married and became a father, (the Rajamanikams have a son and a daughter and three grandchildren), he would "take the kids to the many farms that were around in those days, and up Bukit Timah Hill."

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 enjoyed—his 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 Negara—and to many other places—with 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 full—and 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 another—to 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 home—a comfortable Bukit Timah bungalow with a garden—in 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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