Escape to Tioman

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Off the east coast of peninsula Malaysia, are several beautiful islands, the largest of which is Pulau Tioman. I was blessed to be hosted by Roland Ng, and my daughter accompanied me on this escape from  Singapore. Sorry, did I make it sound like Singapore is a penal colony. The long weekend was a continuation of my vacation of lounging at home, wherever that happens to be:  sleeping, eating, idling, reading, watching, strolling,  reflecting, chatting and journaling.

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Roland had a few of his friends around, other owners of apartments in the Berjaya condotel: Eng Lock(whom my daughter observed a resemblance to Lee Kun Yew) and his brother James; Ron (ex SJI boy who remarkably still meets up with his classmates once a month), and Alan.

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It was a joy to be with my daughter, Elaine. In the bus, on the beach, in the apartment, eating or talking or just being there. One evening   we conversed and walked down the whole 1.5km stretch of fine sand and surf to the restaurant just outside the gate of the resort where we had dinner. Come to think of it, it was good to get closer with my daughter, who has grown up more quickly than I wished, as in a matter of time we may not see her so often.

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The men went out on a boat to fish in the evening and returned at nine with fresh fish which Alan and Roland cooked and we had fish and rice, not fish and chips. We had so much fresh fish for two nights, I wonder if the Lord is trying to tell me something.

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The apartment we stayed in had a beautiful view of the sea and a tiny island. Alan, a real estate friend of Roland said it was better than the $4 million view of SC Global’s Sentosa apartments. I liked just looking out that balcony, standing and gazing, or sitting there with a cup of hot tea, eye on the distant horizon or sky or sea, hearing the sound of the rolling waves dashing against the rocks below, and feel the energetic and playful  breeze caress and massage me. I took in the sights and sounds and savoured it all greedily. Cool sea breeze, an enchanting view, and a good book was all I needed to feel relaxed.

Restless in Cameron Highlands

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I began my annual leave with a week’s vacation in the OMF Bungalow, nestled just off the road that passes by the Strawberry Park hotel in the Cameron Highlands. This was not the first time I had stayed in this bungalow run for weary missionaries and pastors by the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. I had used it for prayer, silent and staff retreats, alone and with others, and it was the first time I was there supposedly to rest. I say supposedly.

my room for six nightsTo be honest I found it a struggle to rest. I had left Singapore, but Singapore had not left me. The restless engine of mind and heart, though emptied of energy, was still running and the hood warm, for even as I settled into my room, the spirit of productivity, raised its insistent voice and demanded an answer, “What are you going to accomplish during this time of rest?” ‘Do’, ‘accomplish’, ‘achieve’, ‘goals’, ‘results’ were words that reverberated in my mind. Even vacation contorted into a task, a performance, a work with benchmarks to attain. My weak reply was, “I am here to rest, not to follow a schedule or plan. Why can’t I idle, do whatever I felt like, or just waste time, you know, just waste time and vegetate?”

As the slow lazy days passed, I realized how futile a reply it was, for into the third day and near the end of the week , I again found myself pulling the emergency handbrake to stop businesslike cost-benefit questions. Surely I am not the only Singaporean who have had to wrestle down guilt and the Protestant work ethic during a vacation. Time is precious, and we are to maximize it even on vacation! So Singaporeans cram as much activity as possible into their already packed plans. I was determined to rebel; I wanted to do whatever I please and let spontaneity reign. And so I did, or at least tried to do.

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I slept whenever I felt like it, and it was more than usual. I read stuff on design, storytelling, manhood, and started on a novel, The Shack, providentially given by James Tan, another pastor from Singapore who was there with his wife, Kim Eng. I picked up a book titled Travel Mercies from the OMF Reading Room and sauntered through its pages over two cold evenings. I napped on most afternoons. I finished two Japanese TV serials on DVD, Kurosagi, a manga-adapted character who is a swindler of swindlers in eleven predictable plots; and Arifureta Kisaki, a slow-cooker of a love drama about secrets and openness, solidarity and community. I also squeezed in the riveting Frost/Nixon movie, a gem by Ron Howard. I feasted on the mountain views, and sat out in the spacious garden, to stroll, reflect, read, idle, pray and journal. I listened to Kevin Kern, Rod Stewart, Norah Jones and worship instrumentals. I enjoyed two inspiring messages of Bill Johnson.

Robinson's Fallstrekking at track 5

On a Sunday morning, we went down to Tanah Rata, and spontaneously took a three hours detour to view the Robinson Falls and trek farther into the forest, till tiredness and good sense bid us to return without completing the route. Good sense because one of us was Malaysian front page news thirty years ago when he got lost while trekking in the forest with a missionary family, and was found by orang asli, after soldiers and Gurkhas failed to find them. We then returned to the Bungalow for lunch without even walking the main street of probably the most touristy of the Cameron hamlets.

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My red letter moments were many. There were no burning bushes of audible voice nor great wonder. But there were those moments when my heart burned with his loving thoughts, and I just knew the Lord was planting faith in my heart. These happened in conversations with my new acquaintances and friends. Certain insights, phrases, testimonies that were shared, were divinely alighted with the Father’s loving touch.

dining areaI was game and went along with pastor James on a low-salt, low-oil menu and surprisingly I cruised along without regret or withdrawal symptoms, largely because of the life-giving and interesting conversations over fresh vegetables and steaming hot coffee and crunchy home-baked cookies, and good company, which included, Rod Lam, a South African OMF missionary based in Hong Kong. Our meals often stretched into two, three hours affairs and we ranged from missions, living by faith, pastoring, spirituality, and theology to African coffee and cookie cornerpolitics, psychology, culture, books, counselling, health, dying well and family. I was also blessed by the visit of a church friend, Chua, who is an oil palm smallholder in Gua Musang, a growing town in the heart of Kelantan, where Nik Aziz the PAS spiritual leader resides. He drove about two hours and stayed two nights in Tanah Rata and we had many hours of faith-inspiring sharing of what God is doing in our lives, families and churches. It was in conversations like what we had that the Lord underlined certain insights and thoughts for further reflection and listening. Like the confirmation of what God had been saying to me through a providential conversation with Therese, the owner of The Lord’s Cafe at Tanah Rata. Its a spirituality of community: the Lord came alongside, like he did with the two on the road to Emmaus, and used something said to burn my heart with holy faith.

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The still and quiet times beside “still waters” when I listened to the Father’s song over me were unforgettable. To have seen how he saw me in His love was very affirming and liberating. He used a huge tree in the large compound to show me how he viewed me. Even more than Jesus, I needed to hear the Father’s song again and again all throughout my life journey,”You are my son, whom I love, and with whom I am well pleased.” It was a song of comfort, freedom, affirmation, passion and grace.

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Am I more rested now? I suppose so.

However my sense is that I probably need a sabbatical, not just a vacation. 🙂