Man at his best: Man of note
Even if you don’t know who Michael Wong Swee Lin is, you probably already do.
Michael Wong Swee Lin’s role in pivotal moments of Malaysian history is in itself worth documenting.
Turning 90, nestled snugly in a chair, in a house lived in since 1969, that’s shielded from the fury of rush-hour traffic, it’s easy to see legendary photographer Michael Wong Swee Lin as a vanguard of a distant and shrinking past.
But when going through his greatest hits—the stacks of old photographs with meticulous handwritten notes on the back—wong doesn’t give in to historical nostalgia, doesn’t bemoan whatever mangled thing has emerged from the promise of Malaysia’s birth.
Not that he wouldn’t have every right to. Probably more than anyone else alive, Wong is responsible for us even having a sense of history, because we’re seeing what he saw through his viewfinder first. But when describing each photograph, Wong doesn’t resort to sentimentality. Like all the hard faces captured in his pictures, he’s made of sterner stuff.
Every Merdeka, Wong’s iconic photos are wheeled out—often without credit—for the rest of us to indulge in the mystic exoticism of Malaysia’s past. Exotic, because it was a time of figures looming larger than circumstances allowed. We’re told Malaysians are soft-bellied clockwork orang, forgetting that we’re descendants of Tunku, Hussein Onn, Razak, Tun Tan, Boestamam, Shamsiah, Ganapathy, revolutionaries and freedom fighters.
Which insurgents in any other colony just straight up assassinated the British High Commissioner? Wong was there on that October weekend in 1951, assigned to follow Henry Gurney around, but escaped the ambush because his convoy had the good fortune to go up Fraser’s Hill earlier. “He waved at me,” Wong recalls matter-of-factly, as if putting a bullet in the highest-ranking colonial administrator was just the way things were back then.
Like many of that age, the hardness comes from being forced to come to terms with the war. Ambitions of becoming a doctor thwarted when Japan invaded Malaya, Wong found employment at the Tokyo Bus Company after finishing school. When the British sauntered back in after the Japanese surrender, Wong became an English teacher. He took a pay cut to join the Information Department as a clerk in 1948, despite having many mouths to feed on his RM120 salary. Wong joined the Department’s Photo Section two years later after taking a special photography examination.
Wong is perhaps best known for the oft-trotted out picture of Tunku, the one with arm raised, announcing the date of Merdeka in Bandar Hilir. In a newspaper interview eight years ago, he could still remember the licence plate of the car that Tunku rode in from the Batu Berendam airport to make the announcement to a crowd of 100,000, and said that the picture would still be “used even after 1,000 years”.
Of course, once Malaya was an independent country, there came the routine business of politicians being politicians. Wong went from tailing colonial officers—most notably, the last High Commissioner of Malaya, Donald Macgillivray, who wrote Wong a personal thank-you note—to taking photos of Tunku, Razak and Hussein Onn on official business.
To anyone else, it would seem like a poor substitute. Wong had seen action; and to trade the sweat and the blood of guns, guerrillas and the fight for independence for official handshakes and forced smiles must have seemed the height of mundanity. But not to Wong; poring over pictures of Macgillivray walking past schoolchildren, Tunku shaking hands with Temenggong Jugah, and Razak visiting China, he almost allows himself a certain wistfulness.
He knew these titans as men, foremost. There is a lovely picture of Razak, blown up to an 8R. The composition is near perfect; it is almost surreal, like an old-timey stock photo of a nuclear family. Razak, in a safari suit, stands magisterial in the garden of his home, gazing down proudly at his four eldest on a turnstile, with Tun Rahah looking on lovingly in the background. This wasn’t official business—wong didn’t have to take this picture—but it’s one that he treasures.
Ask those who know him, and they’ll tell you that Wong—living up to every “Greatest Generation” stereotype—is no less a titan than those he was tasked to photograph. The trouble is, too few people do. The photos will pop up again at the end of the month, to allow for another daylong immersion in a mythologised past, after which we can scuttle back into everyday torpor. Many won’t know those photos are Wong’s.
Wong remains living proof that that mythologised past isn’t mythical. They did things differently, but it wasn’t a different country.