Asian Aerospace is an international trade fair for the aerospace business. It was based at the Changi Exhibition Centre near Changi Airport for a number of years, and is the biggest airshow event in Asia. A Liaison Officer (L.O.) is usually attached to each of the high-ranking foreign delegates coming to attend the Exhibition. The L.O.'s job is basically to receive the delegate when he arrives at the airport, facilitate and ensure his attendance at the various meetings, & send him off when he leaves.
A number of the participants were also bringing their wives with them, however. The wives were not here to attend the Exhibition, but to shop. Even so, as a token of courtesy, CAAS (the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore) also wanted to appoint L.O.s to each of the wives, & since there was a lack of manpower they contacted the various departments around the airport & asked them to nominate some of their staff to help out. Met. Service decided to send Pat and me.
We had a briefing where we were each given a handout on what an L.O.'s duties are, how to address the Minister (Your Excellency) & deport ourselves (Dress smartly, etc.). That last section included a line that said, "If you have body odour kindly use a deodorant." Several people sniggered when they saw this.
I was to be L.O. to Mrs Agum Gumelar, the wife of the Indonesian Minister for Communications. Pat was to be L.O. to the wife of the Thai Minister. We were to get their passports from the Minister's aides & bring them to immigration, & bring the wives around to the shops while their husbands attended the Aerospace Exhibition (& probably carry their shopping bags as well, in other words, be slave for a day). Someone asked how we were to recognise the Minister when he came off the plane, & the CAAS chap briefing us chortled & said, "He'll be the one all the rest are bowing & scraping to."
When the fateful day came, I went to the airport VIP lounge for the first time, and found that the Indonesian Embassy staff were also there. When the Minister appeared, I didn't notice a lot of scraping but there was some bowing (from the Embassy staff) and rapid exchange in Bahasa Indonesia. Mrs Agum Gumelar was a pretty & gentle lady; when she stepped off the plane & saw me, she shook my hand and said gravely, "Ni hao" ("How are you" in Chinese).
In the end I didn't have much to do because the Embassy staff took over & did everything. The same happened with Pat - the Thai Embassy staff came in & took over. However, Eng Chin, the girl who was L.O. to the Thai Minister, asked Pat to give her some moral support during the Opening Ceremony (which was to be held at Suntec City, although the Exhibition itself was at Changi), so I decided to tag along for fun.
Eng Chin had to go to the hotel (Westin Stamford) first, see the Minister to his car, then jump into the limo provided & rush to Suntec City, reaching there before the Minister arrived so that she could receive him. Then she was to hand the tickets to the Minister's aides so that he could enter the auditorium.
I met her & Pat at Westin; I was amazed when I entered the hotel lobby - it was full of naval, air force & military officers from every country, all resplendent in their uniforms, many highly decorated, some in red, others white, navy blue or green. They looked very impressive, & all of them seemed extremely tall. I would have liked to have stayed & admired them for a bit, but we had to rush up to the Thai Minister's hotel room.
When we got there, we discovered that the Minister had already left. We dashed down again, through the lobby where all the officers were milling around, & out to the limousine where our young Malay driver was waiting. Eng Chin panted, "Sazali, drive as fast as you can to Suntec!" There was a terrific jam, however. Not surprising since most of the delegates were staying at the same hotel & all of them were going to the Opening Ceremony at the same time. It was quite a sight, seeing the entire road crammed with limousines.
By the time we reached Suntec, the Minister had vanished. Eng Chin kept trying to call one of his aides on her mobile. We were running around, first up to the auditorium, then down again. Then we tried to take the lift up again but found that all the lifts had now been frozen because the Prime Minister had arrived. We ran to the escalators, but they too had been frozen, so we had to run up all six floors.
When we reached the top it appeared that the Thai Minister had already gone into the auditorium despite not having a ticket. Eng Chin still wanted to pass the tickets to the aide, so we went into the VIP area to look for him. We had to pass through the banquet hall first, & I was busy observing how grand everything looked - the food was all ready & waiting, trays & trays of hors d'oeuvres, stretching (so it seemed) to the horizon, barbecued meats kept warm & sizzling, a mountain of fruit, a vast array of empty champagne glasses ... we rushed through into the VIP room. I have never seen so many of our cabinet ministers together in such close proximity before (I noticed in particular Tony Tan, because of his white hair).
Anyway the Thai aide wasn't there either, so we went out again. Eng Chin was trying to call him. There was a crowd milling around outside the auditorium, & I was idly watching a man with a crewcut walking around in circles, talking on his mobile. Eng Chin was talking into her mobile. "Where are you?" Pause. "I'm out here, outside the auditorium." Pause. "You're where?" She kept peering into the crowd. "I'm outside, I'm standing next to the railing." Then her eyes suddenly fell on the crewcut guy a few feet away. "Oh hang on, you're right in front of me."
Since the Embassy staff had taken over everything, there was nothing for me & Pat to do until the last day when we were to see the Ministers off at the airport. I did take advantage of the fact that I had an entry pass to the Exhibition grounds, & brought a friend in with me so that we could watch the aerial displays. I enjoyed it but I wish I knew more about fighter jets; we couldn't recognise most of the aircraft we were looking at (I tried eavesdropping on two guys who were standing near us, hoping for a commentary, but without success).
Actually, since I stay near the airport I can usually watch some of the aircraft practising their displays whenever Asian Aerospace comes around. There was even one year when the Stealth came to Singapore. I never got to see that, but our technicians at the observing station next to the Changi runway did. They said it looked like a huge bat. I did get to see another bomber from my home window & it really looked menacing. I never knew bombers were so large.
On the final day, I got to chat a little with Mrs Agum Gumelar. From her passport I had seen that her name was Linda Amaliasari, and one of the Embassy staff had whispered to me that she was the daughter of the Communications Minister during the Suharto era. Despite that, she was a pleasant lady & had no airs. I was rather shocked when she told me she was 53 yrs old; she really looked youthful, & except for a thickening of her body, her face looked no more than 30, girlish even. She said she had just visited a friend here in Singapore, who was expecting a child after trying for 12 years. Then she said she had two girls of her own, & had only managed to conceive after 3 years. "Yes, it takes a while," she said. This conversation stuck in my mind because D & I had been married for a few years by then & were thinking of starting a family.
As she was leaving, she said, "There are many rooms in my house. When you come to Jakarta you can stay with me." Of course this was a pleasantry since I didn't have her address, but she said it in a simple & sincere tone. She gave me several pieces of silvery-grey batik silk cloth as a farewell present.
We had actually been instructed not to accept gifts, or if we did, to hand them in. However I left the silks in my car & forgot about them until the Exhibition was long over, & I felt there was no point trying to hand them in by then. I didn't know what to do with them - they were good quality silks, & yet not the kind of thing I could imagine myself wearing. Somehow I didn't have the heart to give them away, though, I think because I rather liked Mrs Agum Gumelar & felt it would be nice to have something to remember her by. The silks were kept away in my cupboard for a long time; but I finally had them tailored into dresses last year.