In the 1950s, when the British started to leave the country, the pharmacy business at Kedah Medical Hall was gradually on the decline. The self-governing Federation of Malaya, under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj ibni Almarhum Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah as its first elected Chief Minister, was bracing for Independence.

The spirit of patriotism was high. Although originally from Kerala, India, as far as Petsy recalls later in life, John Kuruvilla became very patriotic for this new nation which was in the making. “In those days, when people came to Malaya, it was with one single thing in mind: their own economic well-being. They would send money back to India. Their hearts were always with India. Their hopes and dreams were for India. They were always preparing to go back to India. In the case of my Father, after living and working in Malaya, he had ceased to think of India as his home. He kept telling us that this is our home and our country. We must honour the country that feeds us. We grew up being very patriotic and we were always taught to love our country. Maybe, this is why most of my siblings including myself and my husband are in some form of public service,” recalls Petsy.

In the meantime, the situation in the country was becoming uncertain when Malaya was undergoing the Independence process. In 1954, the Tunku had led a delegation to London to petition for independence for Malaya. To Tunku’s disappointment, the British were reluctant to grant independence. There had to be evidence that the different races in Malaya were able to work together in a new and independent country before they would relinquish their powers.

Tunku was a prince from the State of Kedah, who formed a political alliance with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and became known as the Alliance Party. In 1955, the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), where John Kuruvilla was a founding member for MIC Kedah, joined the Alliance Party. The three-party Alliance, which represented all three major races in Malaya, won 51 out of 52 seats contested during the first election to the Federal Legislative Assembly in 1955. John Kuruvilla was representing the Indian community. When the Tunku went to file his nomination papers for the Sungai Petani Constituency at the Sungai Petani District Office, John Kuruvilla was one of the supporters who went along.

This time, after becoming the Chief Minister, Tunku was able to prove to the British rulers that there was racial harmony amongst the races. Wasting no time, he led another delegation to London to negotiate Malayan Independence. This time around, the British gave their consent and set the date for Independence on August 31, 1957. When the day came, again, John Kuruvilla played a significant role by reading out aloud the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the Indian community when the declaration was made at the Sungai Petani Public Padang. He was then the acting chairman of the Indian Association. Probably one of the best kept secret was that, although the Merdeka declaration was read out in Tamil, John Kuruvilla had written it in Malayalam alphabets. “To me and my family, Malaya was now an independent nation, belonging to the people and ruled by the people instead of some colonial masters.” John Kuruvilla had earlier founded the Sungai Petani MIC branch in 1954.

Although he had always been cordial towards the Europeans, John Kuruvilla had never invited them to his house. This was despite of his special gift of hospitality. The reason was obvious: he saw them as the “colonial masters, and his bosses.”  Most of his friends were people who were his political allies.  The British expatriates and other older Malayans, whom he knew, were the ones who “nurtured and helped him grow” as a pharmacist and as a first grade dresser.  To him, the generosity extended by the Europeans was probably only an extension of their political agenda within the then Malaya. They wanted to control both the political and economic resources of the nation. 

Although a Malayalee by birth, he was a fighter for the sake of the bigger Indian community comprising also the Tamils, the Telugus, the Sikhs and other Indian ethnic minorities. John Kuruvilla was initially involved with the Central Kedah Indian Association (CKIA) as a committee member. When Mammen John became President in 1954, John Kuruvilla was elected as Treasurer. In 1957, John Kuruvilla became the acting chairman of the association when V. Subramaniam resigned as chairman. That same year, when the South Kedah Branch of MIC was formed in Kulim, Sungai Petani and Kulim branches together with Alor Star branch formed the State MIC Committee, comprising K.K. Nair as president, S.M. Vellayappa as Secretary, and both K.R. Soma Sundram and John Kuruvilla became its two Vice Presidents.

When UMNO and MCA won the general elections in 1955, they were fielding their candidates to the Town Council Election for Sungai Petani. Since the MIC had not formed its branch in Central or South Kedah, the Central Kedah Indian Association approached John Kuruvilla to stand as an independent candidate for Pekan Lama Ward of Sungai Petani. He defeated seven other candidates, including an UMNO candidate, to become the new Town Councillor in 1953, where he served for one year, before being nominated by the State Government for another two years to continue his service as a Town Councillor. He was re-elected for three terms of three years each, under the Alliance flag until 1962. There was no salary paid for the role of a councillor and the election expenses of M$1,500 had to be borne by himself, which even CKIA did not help financially. In return, John Kuruvilla received his Town Council Excellent Service Medal in 1959. Being an elected Indian, he was subsequently nominated to various social and voluntary organisations, which were all unpaid jobs. Such was the spirit of voluntarism in the spirits of our country’s pioneers!

Being the first elected Indian councillor and an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, John Kuruvilla was able to get the approval from the Sungai Petani Town Council to approve the building plan of Gandhi Memorial Hall in 1954, a project which saw the construction of the hall in 1955. Gandhi had been assassinated on 30 January 1950.

In 1959, immediately after the Independence, when the General Election was concluded, a congratulatory dinner was organized by John Kuruvilla. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who had become the Prime Minister of Malaya, was invited together with other candidates who had won the Kedah State in both Federal and State constituencies. Datuk (later Tun) Sambanthan, who was the then MIC President, also attended the function. The dinner was held at Gandhi Memorial Hall with some 500 guests attending. Apparently, Tunku was very pleased with the event. Being a Malaysian of Indian descent, John Kuruvilla delivered his speech in Malay – an impressive achievement indeed for someone who had migrated to the new Malaya from the Indian subcontinent. In the next 12 years, John Kuruvilla served the MIC in various capacities – including Branch Secretary, Chairman of Branch, Treasurer for Kedah State, Vice President for the State MIC, and also in the Central Working Committee during the chairmanship of K.L. Devassar. As an ordinary member, John Kuruvilla had been in the MIC under all the National Presidents, from J.A. Thivy to Dato’ Seri S. Samy Vellu. In 1967, His Royal Highness the Sultan of Kedah, Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah gave the consent to appoint John Kuruvilla as a Justice of Peace for the State of Kedah. This post was recommended by the District Officer of Kuala Muda, Datuk Syed Osman Idid.

In that same year of 1959, John Kuruvilla was able to bring his family back to Kerala to visit their relatives. Ravi’s vivid memories of the trip live on till this day:


“I remember our trip to India in 1959; I was nine years old.  It was a week-long ride on the ship, S.S. Rajula.  Everyday, they served DhalRasam, Sambar and Papadam. It was fun, especially when we reached Madras, and I saw many small boats coming up to the Rajula before we berthed.  I remember the boats bobbing up and down in the turbulent waters of the Indian Ocean.  I am not sure why they all gathered around the Rajula, but they were there.


“At Grandma’s house (by this time, Grandpa was gone), I remember that she scolded me for leaving one grain of rice on the plate after finishing my meal.  She told me that “in a rich country like Malaya, you can waste food but here we do not waste good food.”  On hindsight, I now know why we, as a family, have learned to be frugal and thrifty.  This has become a value which we also try hard to teach the children now.”         

In the 1964 General Elections, John Kuruvilla’s name was nominated by the State MIC as a candidate for the Sungai Petani parliamentary seat. However, for political reasons, the seat was given to MCA, as they were fighting for additional seats within the National Front Alliance. John Kuruvilla, a well-known political figure in Sungai Petani, could have won the election easily had he been picked to represent the Alliance. 

Recognition was the call of the day after years of sacrificial services. MIC president, Tun Sambanthan had recommended that he be awarded Pingat Peringatan Malaysia (PPM) in 1963. Later, at the recommendation of the Mentri Besar of Kedah, he was awarded the Ahli Mangku Kedah and Bintang Muazzam Shah by Sultan Abdul Halim of Kedah. In 2001, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad recommended that John Kuruvilla be conferred the Pingat Jasa Negara, which carries the title of Datuk Class One by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong XI, Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Al-Haj Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Hisamuddin Alam Shah Al-Haj. It was in honour of his numerous social and political contributions. He was also honoured with the Golden Shawls.

All these activities were distracting him from his pharmacy business. When the bad times hit, his business took the beating.






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