When Malaya achieved Independence, many of the big European estates were going through management buyouts. Fragmentation of these formerly big estates had meant that, what was formerly one big entity, had become smaller estates belonging to individuals, who did not have the ability to maintain the health requirements for estate workers. Business at Kedah Medical Hall was badly affected.

            Mammen John, who was the Manager of Bukit Lembu Estate, lost his job. He then decided to sell his share and resign as the Senior Director and Chairman of Kedah Medical Hall Limited, leaving the medical hall to John Kuruvilla to manage. Mammen left for Kerala to settle down there. The majority share of the Limited Company was bought over by John Kuruvilla at that time, while the other shareholders remained.

Unlike the first ten years of Kedah Medical Hall, business had dropped substantially. Soon, it was difficult to operate the business as the cash flow was running low. Due to poor sales turnover, the stock of medicine was piling up. Kedah Medical Hall soon went into the financial doldrums. It soon became a problem to settle the sundry creditors. It was a tough time for John Kuruvilla being the Managing Partner of Kedah Medical Hall now, as he had to pay off the debts and at the same time have sufficient funds to see through his children’s education. His ambition was to send all his children to university. Vijayan was studying in India at that stage, while the others were at some stage making preparations to enter university. Yet, John Kuruvilla was one who never gave up easily in life. He writes in his journal a precious lesson which he wishes to impart to the younger generation:

 

“In ups and downs in life, one must strive on and in desperate moments, practical steps have to be taken.”

 

 

Absent Father Not By Choice


In 1967, when Petsy was about 12 years old and studying Form One at Father Barre’s Convent in Sungai Petani, John Kuruvilla had to work in Kuala Lumpur as a pharmacist with Liang Hai Trading Co. While he worked in Kuala Lumpur for the next six years, Kedah Medical Hall was being managed by Gracy. This was also the toughest time for Gracy, who had to manage both the home and the family business. “I remember him as an absent father who only came back every fortnight, and then he had to return to Kuala Lumpur to work. This happened for seven years until he returned to work in Penang. I could see that he was struggling financially. Mother had to manage Kedah Medical Hall. The family car was already sold and the telephone line was disconnected, but never once did he show that he was unable to support us with our education,” Petsy remembers.

 

 

 

Gracy passed the test as a mother and the manager of Kedah Medical Hall, as Ravi later recalls:

 

“It was interesting to see Mom run a tight ship.  She appeared to do a very capable job managing both the business and the home. At home she was always the teacher and guide for all of us as kids.  She also taught us the Bible as she read from it.”

 

            During the tough times, Petsy recalls the kindness that her father received. “The Chinese and the Malays helped him a lot. When they saw that he was struggling with his business, some of the Chinese businessmen would loan him some money. A personal friend of his, who was the District Officer of Sungai Petani, Dato’ Syed Osman Idid was also very helpful. He used to protect my father from any political discrimination.”

The sundry creditors were paid off slowly using his monthly salary. To make matters worse, the shop owner gave notice to vacate or pay a higher monthly rental. For years, he had refused to accept the original rental, which John Kuruvilla had difficulty even to pay although the arrears amounted to a hefty sum of M$4000. He used a friendly persuasion and a bit of political influence to get the owner to accept the rent along with the arrears, in monthly instalments extending to several months.

 

May 13 in Kuala Lumpur

 

 

When the nation was thrown into chaos on Tuesday, May 13, 1969, John Kuruvilla was on three days’ leave and had gone back to Sungai Petani to attend to some family matters. The family was at that time staying at 893A Taman Kampong Raja, Sungai Petani. John Kuruvilla was working as a pharmacist with Liang Hai Trading & Veterinary Pharmacy at 27 Jalan Yew, Pudu in Kuala Lumpur. The Sino-Malay riots had started three days after the nation’s third general election on Saturday May 10. John Kuruvilla did not return to Sungai Petani to campaign because he was busy at work, but took leave from May 12 – 14. News soon broke out that the country was going through a national crisis later to be known as May 13.

As he later recalls, John Kuruvilla writes: “Thank God that I was already with my family in Sungai Petani, and I did not see anything other than what I read in the newspapers those days. God’s protection was surrounding my family.” His son, Ravi, however, had just started classes at University of Malaya, when the riots took the city of Kuala Lumpur by surprise.

The full-scale rioting took place mainly in the Federal Capital due to political provocation and instigations by certain disgruntled political figures, while in smaller towns, race relations were normal. Civilian lives were sacrificed for the political gains of individuals who seized the moment to create chaos in the country. Immediately after the incident, the Tunku was forced to step down as the Prime Minister. Since then, in retrospect, Malaysians have learnt that racial tension is mainly the doing of certain political individuals who aspired to climb the ladder of success at the expense of civilian lives. According to police figures, 196 people died and 149 were wounded. There were 753 arson cases reported and 211 vehicles destroyed or severely damaged. These were only official figures, but some sources believed the real casualties could be much more! There was no sense of remorse for what these political individuals had done. To gain popularity, their political strategy was to harp on some controversial issues and harness the power of a mob to achieve their own selfish ends.

In smaller towns elsewhere, including Sungai Petani, where political agitation did not arise, the Indians, the Malays and the Chinese were friendly to each other. Many years down the road, during the 1990 and 1999 general elections, when the May 13 incident was cited during political campaigns, the late Tunku criticised the then Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad: "For the prime minister to repeat the story of the May 13 as a warning of what would have happened if the government had not taken appropriate action is like telling ghost stories to our children to prevent them from being naughty… The tale should not be repeated because it shows us to be politically immature…"

The more educated Malaysians today should have by now learnt a great lesson from its past history, and not allow politicians to stir up emotionally-charged debates over any controversial issues that destroy the delicate racial harmony in the country. John Kuruvilla, being an MIC politician himself, was particularly saddened with the political and social upheaval during the May 13 crisis, and the blood of innocent lives that have been shed.

Immediately after the riots, the government declared a State of Emergency throughout the country. John Kuruvilla did not return to work at Liang Hai until the situation returned to normal in the Federal Capital. There, he continued to work for another three years. In years to come, one testimony that John Kuruvilla always share with his children and grandchildren: “In my hard times, it is the Malays and the Chinese who used to help me a lot.”

 

God’s provision

 

After seven years in Kuala Lumpur, in 1972, John Kuruvilla was offered another job in Penang. This time, he was to work as a pharmacist in a retail and wholesale pharmacy business with Howe Cheang Medical Supply. With the relocation, he was able to travel almost daily to his house in Sungai Petani, instead of once every fortnight when he was working in Kuala Lumpur. Later, in 1977, he joined Pharmalaysia Sdn. Bhd. in Sungai Petani as a pharmacist until he retired in 1981. As John Kuruvilla was struggling with his job situation, four of his children were already studying in university. Vijayan was studying in India, while the other three were in University of Malaya in the Federal Capital. Nothing deterred him from supporting his children through university. In fact, he made it his vision and mission to provide his children with a good education.

            In the most difficult situations, John Kuruvilla could only look up to God as his Provider. As he reflects over the many incidents when he faced financial difficulties, he writes in his journal:

 

“Yes, God was a Father to me. Whenever I found myself in difficult times, He provided everything. While I know that God is the Final Judge in all situations, and that He would judge people according to their deeds, He is also kind and gentle. When I arrived in Penang, I had only one Rupee, but throughout the years, God has multiplied it, and provided all that I had ever needed. In some most difficult situations, I may have tried everything yet I failed! It didn’t take me long to realize that only God can open the door, He provided everything that my family needed. That’s the reason why I say, He is kind.”

 

When Petsy, the youngest daughter, completed her Form Six at Ibrahim Secondary School in Sungai Petani in 1974, she did not get to study at the local university where entry for non-Malays was a lot tougher. As she was also too late to apply to a foreign university, she decided to work for two years with the Government as an assistant valuation officer in Sungai Petani. The job was given at the recommendation of her brother, Ravi. Finally, her turn came for a tertiary education. In 1975, she received an offer letter from Newcastle Upon Tyne Polytechnic in UK (known now as the University of Northumbria) to pursue a Bachelor of Science in General Practice Surveying. It was a dream that came true!

A major decision had to be made – and, soon! It was a tough decision for John Kuruvilla, because financially, he was already having to pay for Mohan’s education, and at the same time find enough funds for Petsy’s education in the UK. For the determined father, there was no two ways about it. John Kuruvilla’s ambition had always been to ensure all his children are educated until they reached tertiary level. The final decision was to send her to pursue her desired course in England, even though the initial expenses alone for travel by plane and the accommodation amounted to some RM6,000.

With the help of a bank loan from the Chartered Bank, John Kuruvilla was able to provide the funds for Petsy to study in the United Kingdom in 1976. It was also through the help of his employer, Ch’ng She Howe, the owner of Howe Cheang Medical Supply in Penang, who provided a letter of recommendation to the bank. The loan was paid back in monthly instalments.

Petsy relates a story how her father’s mission in life was to make sure that all his children are educated.

 

“He told me what were on his thoughts when I was only a baby in his arms feeding on the milk bottle. Even in those days, he wanted very much this little girl of his would someday study to the highest level possible. It shows how much he loves all of us, that, he would never give anything second best to his children. He always provided us the best, although he may have to tighten his belt. During my school days, I wasn’t studying very hard but after realizing how much he was sacrificing for me, I became more serious with my studies.

 

During my university days, some friends asked me, “What happens if you failed?” To me, failure was never an option on my mind. I wanted to make sure that I graduate and thanks to Papa and my siblings (two brothers and sister gave abut RM100 to RM200 for my studies monthly) who were contributing partially to my education, I finally returned in 1979 with a degree. He was always very prompt in sending the money, knowing that I never liked him to delay.  

 

 

 

By around this time, Vijayan had graduated with a degree in Agriculture from Bangalore, India, and was already working for a big plantation in Kedah. Ravi, qualified with a Bachelor of Economics with Honours majoring in Public Administration from University of Malaya, had joined the civil service. Pearly had already completed her Bachelor of Arts (History/ English) from the University of Malaya, and subsequently pursued her Diploma in Education. As a father, John Kuruvilla would do his best to provide for his children’s education. In every situation, he always found that God was the Jehovah Jireh, the provider. With the salary he was earning, he had to fork out about RM1,200 every month to pay for Petsy’s sustenance in England. This burden was partly shared by his three older children, Vijayan, Ravi and Pearly, who had already started working after their graduation. Meanwhile, Mohan was still studying his Bachelor of Science in Engineering in University of Malaya. Mohan, too, was dependent on his father’s provision.

One day back in 1974, when Mohan wrote back to say that he needed a motor cycle to move around the campus, John Kuruvilla prayed for God’s provision. God answered his prayers. At that juncture, a clerk at Howe Cheang Medical Supply wanted to dispose off his second-hand Kawasaki 100 motorcycle for RM120. Without any hesitation, John Kuruvilla bought it and sent the motorcycle to Mohan with a note to say that he was to use it until it broke down. Once it became unserviceable, the motorcycle was to be thrown away.

Of the motorcycle, Mohan later reveals his side of the story: “Although it was 100cc, it was a small-framed bike and being 6-foot tall, I had to virtually sit on the back end of the seat to be comfortable. But it did the job of taking me around. I used it for three years and abandoned it at the (so-called) mechanic valley in Section 8 Petaling Jaya, behind the old Weld Supermarket, opposite Petaling Jaya Hilton. This was the advice of my mechanic friend. I then bought a second hand Honda 90 from my course mate and used it for my final year in 1977/78. I also used that for my first year of working life in Alor Star.”

 

 

Up Again

 

By 1982, things were starting to improve for the Kedah Medical Hall. A year earlier, John Kuruvilla had just retired from Pharmalaysia Sdn. Bhd. By establishing the pharmacy division, John Kuruvilla was supplying to the estate hospitals once again. Business picked up to the level when it first started.

But to carry on with the business without any assistants was difficult, as by now John Kuruvilla was already 63. The business was subsequently leased to Poly Pharmacy Sdn. Bhd. for a monthly lease of RM1,600 over a period of three years. John Kuruvilla continued to serve as the pharmacist in charge of the business for another three years, for which he was paid a monthly salary of RM2,500.

Now, the owner of the shop again gave a notice to increase the rent by another 100 per cent. If not, he warned, John Kuruvilla’s only alternative was to vacate the shop. Petsy later recalls:

 

“I was working as an assistant valuation officer for two years with the Government in Sungai Petani. I knew that the Government was in the midst of repealing the pre-war Rent Control Act 1966. I was praying hard that somehow my father’s wish would come true to finally own the shop. The shop was his pride. It was all that he had. Out of the business that he conducted at the shop, he was able to pay for all our education. We felt it was something that we would like to do for him. I wrote to my elder brother, Ravi, who was in the US. We all prayed. I went to approach a legal acquaintance in Penang together with Abraham to see how he could help as an intermediary with the property owner. God graciously allowed the whole deal to go through. Since my father was a sitting tenant, he was able to purchase the property at a price lower than the market value.”

 

Together with his children, and with the help of Bank of Commerce (now part of CIMB) Chief Executive Officer, Tan Sri Mohd Noor YusofJohn Kuruvilla managed to raise some RM320,000 through bank loans to pay for the purchase of the shop. The loan of RM200,000 from Bank of Commerce was finally paid off after 10 years on Dec 31, 2001. Later, on his application to the Town Council, the building was exempted from the Rent Control Act 1966. Being located in the middle of the town of Sungai Petani, the location is strategic and well in demand. The lease of the building was also renewed several times. Currently, it is still occupied by Poly Khoo Pharmacy Sdn. Bhd.

Throughout the rest of his active days in Kedah, John Kuruvilla was always helping out with various matters, including deciding and arranging marriages for relatives and friends. Through his good connections with the various government departments and medical establishments, he was able to introduce many into the medical services sector and obtained for them good jobs.

One of his other main contributions to the people in his generation was the development of the Mar Thoma Church in Malaysia, especially in his hometown of Sungai Petani, where he had painstakingly helped to establish. John Kuruvilla realized from a young age that a man without his God would be “an utter desolate piece of matter in this whole universe.” Throughout his life, God played a significant role in guiding and protecting him and his family. He had a major accident in 1956, which his daughter Pearly still remembers to this day. “God saved my father’s life,” she recalls the anxious moments when John Kuruvilla was lying on the hospital bed with drips all over his body. Ravi, who was only six years old, remembers seeing his father’s legs were in Plaster of Paris. “My mother was crying when someone had informed her about the accident. As a young toddler, I could only wonder what had gone wrong. I did not fully understand the implications of the accident.  I just stayed close to my mother. But, thank God that He had saved his life!” Since then, John Kuruvilla had changed cars several times. One of the oldest cars that Ravi can still remember was a Ford Consul with a registration number K6740. 

In moments when he was down, he knew that God was always there for him. In life’s toughest moments, he only had to look up; although he was down, he never fell out of God’s grace. His early years of involvement within the Mar Thoma community in Malaysia and Singapore are a legacy to be cherished by many generations of Mar Thoma believers to come.

 

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