Memories of a non-polo player

by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad

The first time I knew the word polo was in 1948 at my prep school in Kuala Kangsar. It was only much later I learned the game is of oriental origin. Pholo or Polo in Tibetan literally means "ball game".

Polo roughly resembles field hockey except that it is played on horseback with a long-handled mallet and for some extraordinary reason polo has the reputation of being a royal sport, and now a rich man's recreation.

I live about 10 minute's brisk walk to the Royal Selangor Polo Club of which I have been a member since the early sixties, leaving it briefly before rejoining in the eighties.

I must be among the few non-polo playing members of the Club - certainly among the handful of members who neither ride nor own horses.

I am also a member of the Selangor Royal Yacht Club who neither sail (except as a guest of wealthy yachting friends) nor own a yacht, not even a boat.

I swim though and I suppose that qualifies me to be a member of the yacht club!

My family used to have a perahu and sampan in my village in Kampung Bandar, Kok Lanas for use during the flood which was a norm in Kelantan in the forties, fifties and sixties during the monsoon season.

The perahu was long and could accommodate some 10 to 12 people depending on the weight and other loads; the sampan was smaller, accommodating three or four.

Though I do not (and not likely ever to) play polo, I used to ride horses when it was not fashionable among Malaysians in the sixties and seventies.

Then, not too many Malaysians were members of the Selangor Polo and Riding Club. But now it is the opposite.

While one does not see too many white riders still the number is big considering the number of expatriates living in the federal capital.

The expatriates contribute much, they enliven the place and add to the gaiety and fun at the long bar during "happy hours" in particular.

I often go there to meet acquaintances and friends, to watch them ride or play polo; listen to gossips and watch people flirt... it is refreshingly invigorating. It rejuvenates me - and recalls old memories.

While I am still hooked on Club membership - I have been a member of the Royal Selangor Golf Club (RSGC) for more than a quarter of a century - except for a year of irregular golf between 1974-75, 1 have not played golf except rarely, when friends insisted and I had no excuse not to when everything was laid out for me.

To the north of the town and north-east of the Malay College Prep School is the big Padang Polo.

On weekends (Fridays and Sundays) when we were allowed to go out with friends, I would sometimes saunter along Jalan Rengas (unless they have changed the name, on the way to Istana Mercu) to view the huge, empty, desolate and unkempt Padang Polo on the westside of the narrow road.

On the eastside is a kampung in the midst of sawah. Normally we would stroll there after either a movie show at Empire or Grand theatre, lunch or snacks at Ah Loke, Hameedia and Double Lion, the three among five approved restaurants for Malay Collegians.

The Padang Polo then was the venue for everything except polo, not even ponies were around.

It became temporary football fields for the kampung boys and folks; site for circus and ramvong or joget stages,

MCKK Cadet Corps field practice. The British Royal Commandos and other Commonwealth troops garrisoned in nearby Bukit Mercu also used the padang for various activities.

Directly opposite the south wing of the new extension to the Big School, the signature building of the famous school, is the Iskandar Polo Club, which resembles more like a junior Malayan Civil Servant's bungalow and the town padang with a pavilion opposite it across a narrow road, one of the routes for collegians to go to town, the shortest and popular route to the cinema halls and Double Lion.

Like Padang Polo there were also no paddocks or any sign of horses at the Iskandar Club. Polo playing apparently ceased with the death of Sultan Iskandar, the Oxford educated and polo-playing monarch of Perak.

He was succeeded by Sultan Abdul Aziz, who died, either in my second year at MCKK or may be second term of my first year.

The lights at the Iskandar Polo Club burned late every night as members played billiards, poker and other games, debated political situations and the future of the Malays.

The wife of the caretaker of the club cooked delicious nasi lemak and currypuffs. Though we were barred from buying food from other than 11 approved places" which Iskandar Polo Club was not, "the seniors" found ways to be supplied -with the nasi lemak in ' fresh. fragrant banana leaves.

it is not difficult for Malaysians to reach the conclusion. that polo is rich men's game.

I have watched in Pekan and in Kuala Lumpur polo teams owned by Johor and Pahang Royal families; watched teams from Singapore and those run by the new rich of Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Perak, even from Kelantan!

Besides there are also polo teams from the armed forces, police and city hall and two or three private clubs and teams of the mega-rich Sultan of Brunei and his siblings.

To be fair, I also know many players and riders who are not rich; a number are quite ordinary persons from the profession, politics, private sector and government.

I used to revel riding in early morning followed by a healthy breakfast.

I can understand why polo is becoming popular, it is a thrilling game. Truly it is not that expensive to play it.

Hire or buy horses, buy the gear, the right clothes, boots, etc; learn to ride, start with ponies and graduate to horses. Buy well-bred horses and take good care of them and hopefully they will sweat, win polo matches and glory for the owner

A good polo player would need up to 10 horses for the six games in which the period of play of each game last for 7-7 1/2 minutes or six seven minute chukkas.

Polo is "alien" to the majority of Malaysians but not for the villagers in and around Pekan.

They are used to, even relished to see the Pahang royals, their friends and staff riding fast horses chasing a white ball.

They find delight watching horsemanship; control, speed, skill and the pleasure of players scrambling and combating for the elusive white ball.

Polo is played under an elaborate handicap system which I hardly understand. I am told the best players play off 10.

If you like horsey life, parties, fun and girls then polo is something you should consider taking up. But remember all horse sports are about horses first and humans second!