Armed only with a metal trunk in hand, a shirt on his back and a secondary school education, a man some friends would teasingly call “shorty” stepped off a ship anchored at Port Kelang in 1948.

Jokeen Cyril Fernandez

Jokeen Cyril Fernandez

The dimunitive Jokeen Cyril Fernandez, standing all of five feet two inches (157cm), was among thousands of migrants from India who arrived in then Malaya to seek their fortunes. Cyril carried a little more than his personal effects, a pocketful of dreams and a steely determination to make good. His physical stature camouflaged the dynamite of a man underneath. He lived by the motto “Work hard, play hard.”

He was a high achiever and rose to become the confidential secretary to two Lord Presidents, Tun Mohd Suffian Hashim and Raja Azlan Shah – positions facilitated, no doubt, through his Pitman Shorthand prowess. He acquired shorthand competency in two languages, qualifying at 120 words per minute in English and 100 wpm in Bahasa Malaysia, putting him in an exclusive league of stenographers.

His loyal service in the Malaysian civil service earned him an invitation to continue to serve with Raja Azlan Shah when the latter became the Sultan of Perak and later, the Yang Dipertuan Agong. Thus, Cyril continued active employment post-retirement. He called it a day at the age of 77.

Cyril’s career achievements were scored amidst jolly-making aided by his musical talents. He was adept at violin and would have party guests on the floor doing a jig in no time with his repertoire of Irish, Indian and Sri Lankan tunes. On occasion he would belt out Johan Strauss’ Blue Danube. It wasn’t long before he added Malay tunes to his repertoire.

Cyril would do duets with Beatrice, his wife and mother of his eight children, whom he met through an “arranged marriage” in Kerala, South India. They barely knew each other and she was 12 years his junior when both bowed to the edict of their elders that they would tie the knot. Together they would unflinchingly take up house guest exhortations to give them a tune. It was hardly surprising that they were in demand on the party circuit.

The couple were disciplinarians who ran the household on a tight leash, raising their children on strong religious beliefs and moral values. Beatrice passed away last April. The couple had one unfulfilled dream – to produce a family that met the quorum for a football team. “It is cheaper by the dozen,” Cyril would quip to friends.

Cyril’s departure (on Sept 19) will be marked by those who knew him as the passing of one of the last of those left standing from an era of Indian migrants making the journey from Kerala, leaving their homeland to find their destiny in a new land that was rebuilding after World War II. This breed who explored new frontiers showed later generations what it means to step bravely into the world of the unknown to sow the seeds of human progress.