Personal letters by Jean Marshall, compiled in new book, shed light on life during the Malayan Emergency

Originally letters to her family, Jean Marshall's accounts of her time in British Malaya were recently rediscovered after more than 60 years and published as historical records.
Originally letters to her family, Jean Marshall's accounts of her time in British Malaya were recently rediscovered after more than 60 years and published as historical records.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Jean Marshall's daughter (left) and the book's editor, Ms Mandakini Arora, at the launch of Pahang Letters, 1953-54: Sidelights On Malaya During The Emergency at The Arts House on Nov 14, 2017.
Jean Marshall's daughter (left) and the book's editor, Ms Mandakini Arora, at the launch of Pahang Letters, 1953-54: Sidelights On Malaya During The Emergency at The Arts House on Nov 14, 2017.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Responding to a Red Cross advertisement for field officers in rural Malaya, medical social worker Jean Mary Gray crossed the oceans in 1953 and found herself in Pahang - in the thick of the Malayan Emergency, a guerilla war fought by communist insurgents against state forces.

Leaving her job in London's Brompton Chest Hospital, the plucky 27-year-old, who later married Singapore's first elected chief minister David Marshall, was hired to be part of a mobile medical team.

Her year in Pahang was documented in letters to her family in Kent, England. These were recently rediscovered and have been published in a new book titled Jean Marshall's Pahang Letters, 1953-54: Sidelights On Malaya During The Emergency.

The book, which was launched on Tuesday (Nov 14), sheds more light on the life of Mrs Marshall, who is 91, as well as an era long gone, said historian and the book's editor, Dr Mandakini Arora.

Dr Arora had been interviewing Mrs Marshall for an ongoing project on English women who moved to colonial Singapore and stayed on to make it home when she learnt about the letters. They had been in the possession of Mrs Marshall's father and were returned to her when he died in 1979.

Reading them, their historical significance struck Dr Arora, 55. She said: "They serve as historical fragments shedding light on the 1950s as the colonial state prepared for independence."

She said Mrs Marshall wrote in "anthropological, sociological and geographical detail, painting pictures in words".

Her work in Pahang was rugged. Over time, the authorities had moved half a million people from the fringes of the jungle into guarded villages, resulting in an urgent need for support.

Though it put her at risk of attacks from insurgents, Mrs Marshall said her role in the Red Cross was to help civilians and "provide medical aid and social services".

Speaking to The Straits Times, she noted that it was a pivotal year in other ways. "I came to this part of the world for a year and it became 64 years," she said. Mrs Marshall became a Singapore citizen in 1960 and married a year later.

She and Mr Marshall, who died in 1995, had four children.

Dr Arora said: "The book is really about the intersections of histories - individual microscopic ones and bigger histories."

The weekly letters had been saved by her father along with accompanying newspaper cuttings and photographs.

They were full of her daily observations and experiences, capturing the sounds and colours of a totally foreign land, her light-hearted encounters with locals and their language as well as her frustrations with administrative obligations that sometimes hampered her work with the people.

Mrs Marshall also wrote about endemic issues such as malnutrition. In one letter, she said people in the area mostly had a "rooted objection to hospitals and any medical work meets with little response".

She further noted that the children were sickly and malnourished because of their consumption of the "criminally ubiquitous condensed milk", which kept well without refrigeration.

The letters also showed how the young Jean had to go beyond her role as social worker, with a large chunk of her time spent raising funds when the Malayan Chinese Association stopped funding the work of the Red Cross there.

To raise money, she organised concerts and other events. This work earned her a congratulatory letter from the Red Cross' London headquarters.