GAYA, MUTU, KEUNGGULAN!
Loh Kok Kin attended the V.I. from 1991 to 1995. His V. I. credentials are quite unassailable. His mother, Choo Hooi Sin, did her Sixth Form at the V.I. in 1967-1968, while dad, Loh Kung Sing, was the V.I. Senior Biology teacher in 1969 and Head of Science in 1970-1971. Kok Kin distinguished himself at the V.I. by topping his Form for four years running. He was also Head Monitor of his Form from 1991 to 1993.
Never forgetting the sporting field, he was a School Athlete and in 1994 and 1995, was the Vice-Captain and Captain of Lee Kuan Yew House (formerly Hepponstall) respectively. As the Captain, he led his House to victory on Sports Day, initiating the streak of nine consecutive years of Lee Kuan Yew House victories, a V.I. record.
Kok Kin was an indefatigable leader. He was the Troop Leader of the Second KL Scout Group and was the National Secretary for Malaysia at the 15th Asia-Pacific Jamboree in Australia. He was also the Chairman of the V.I. Museum Board. Interest in current affairs and analytical thinking made him a School Debater. His team were runners-up in the Tan Sri Wira State Debating Competition in 1995. Kok Kin eventually represented his university at international competitions, and was even elected as Vice-President of the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Association.
An accomplished pianist (he holds a Licentiate Diploma from the Trinity College of Music, London), he provided accompaniment for the weekly singing of the School Song during school assemblies and also composed the V.I. Centenary Song.
Having studied at the oldest school in Kuala Lumpur, Kok Kin leapt into the oldest university in Australia, reading for his Economics and Law degrees at the University of Sydney. There he won First Class Honours for both degrees. The university pounced on his talent, inviting him to lecture in Economics for three semesters, before he moved to London to read for his M.Sc. in Economics at the prestigious London School of Economics. In 2006, after graduating with Merit, he quickly landed a job as a management consultant with Deloitte Consulting, London.
Kok Kin welcomes correspondence and may be contacted at email@example.com
t the heart of any desire to improve the human condition lies the question "Can we simply rely on individual initiative, or do we need a coordinating authority?". Its themes and issues are prerequisite knowledge for any intellectual and over-arches the quest for knowledge by any self-respecting university student. But for me, I encountered these themes even while in school, though their meanings eluded me then. The V.I. was a social laboratory for that debate. Each time we went for detention, or booked the sound system for a campfire, or recruited boys for the choral speaking team, we were in fact discovering answers to the basic question "What makes people tick?".
Sometimes, motivation arises by sheer chance, and my curiosity about all things V.I. is an example. It was December 1990, my first month of secondary school. From that year, our school calendars were to start in December, though this policy was reversed in the mid-1990’s when January commencements were reinstated. No Pendidikan Moral teacher was assigned to us yet, so we starry-eyed First Formers, were herded into the library, as is customary for classes with free periods. Travelling from shelf to shelf, admiring the thousands of worn, yellowing books, I was suddenly entranced by a dusty, blue (or red?), hard cover with a faded title cut onto its spine. 'Six Great Women of England' (or something along those lines) thus became the first book that I borrowed from the library. I never finished reading it, not even just the chapter on Queen Victoria, despite several renewals. But like a spectre unexorcised from a traumatised mind, this short acquaintance kindled my desire to explore the enigma, not of the English monarch, but of the institution that is the V.I.
Curiosity became habit and henceforth I easily succumbed to any instruction or opportunity purporting to familiarise us with the V.I. I happily stayed back for orientation sessions; I volunteered myself for the Astronomy Society’s V.I. history inter-class quiz (which my team won); and when told by the history teacher to research family or school history, of course, I chose the latter.
Besides acquainting me with the V.I. tradition of ‘stay-backs' - a cornerstone of the school’s extra-curricular excellence - the orientation led by the prefects taught me about other equally important things. School rules demanded that ‘hair is hair, collar is collar and never the twain will meet' and required us to fold up our long sleeves into neat 3 cm bands above the elbow. Then there were the sports cheers like Glory, Glory Victoria and Kami Semua Murid-murid V.I. sung to the tunes of Glory Hallelujah and the Kimball Sauce jingle respectively. I also learned about the complicated organisational structure of the school including how the Prefects Board answered directly to the Principal and Discipline Teacher and no one else. The Sixth Form prefects knew what we craved, namely to be treated as mature 'big boys', and by doing so they kept us hanging on to every word that left their lips.
Two incidents cemented my utmost respect for the Sixth Formers. One evening after the orientation, I discovered that I had no money to catch the bus home and most of my friends had already left. By chance, I saw the School Vice-Captain, Ong Chin Siong, walking past and I asked him if there was a phone somewhere that I could use for free (mobile phones were unheard of then). He took out 50 sen - enough for a bus fare on a Bas Mini - and put it in my palm. When I promised to pay him, he simply said, "Tak payah". A second incident occured in the early weeks of 1991. Even though I was well-built, I had the misfortune of being bullied by a Second Former. He would deliberately knock into me whenever our paths crossed and then threaten to beat me up for being rude. Sometime in March, during a meet-up session between Sixth Former prefects and the First Formers, we were encouraged to speak freely about what we loved and hated about the school. At the instigation of my classmates, I related this incident to Vickneswaren, the prefect in charge of my group. The next day, Vicky took me to the classroom of the perpetrator and in a respectful but awe-inspiring manner demanded that the senior boy apologise and shake hands. The bullying never recurred.
Until today, I realise that seniority is no excuse for improper behaviour. But equally importantly, I learned to see the Prefects' Board as the defender of virtue. Indiscipline could not be resolved by perpetrators and victims on their own accord, especially if it involved a power imbalance; hence 'closing one eye' and letting nature take its course could not work. The Board was a necessary figure of authority and I viewed it with awe. Nonetheless, it was not just the prefects who executed the regulations. Teachers, too, were important protagonists in this respect. One of my earliest encounters with teachers' threats was in the swimming pool. During our first swimming period, we were sternly warned by Mr Sin Ah Tah (in his ill-accented Malay) "Mesti bawak V.I. swimming cap… Ini swimming pool, bukan Sungai Kelang!". The V.I. swimming caps were water-polo caps, with a chin strap. But not everyone had acquired one by the second swimming lesson. Fearing the wrath of Mr Sin, yet ever-resourceful, my nonchalant friend jumped into the pool with his mother’s shower cap as a substitute!
THOSE EARLY MORNINGS AND CLASSROOMS
A morning in the V.I. began at 6.30 a.m., with a few boys stumbling into class, dropping their bags and landing their heads on the desks to resume their interrupted slumber. As the 7.00 a.m. mark was breached, there were the desperate clamours for favours, as homework was bartered, followed by furious scribbling and copying. Also, who can forget the excited chatters; from blacklisting the losers in the weekend’s football league to an account of newly discovered manoeuvres in the Streetfighter video game? Classrooms and corridors were bazaars of information and gossip. Once, the chat was about our friend 'V' whose mugshot was flashed on TV3 news the previous night. Indeed, he was living that line from the school song "That the new Victorians match with old Victorians", except that his infamy owed to his being caught in a police raid on a video arcade at Pak Peng!
A sudden hush would then descend on us as we filled the quadrangle and the bell would ring at 7.35 a.m. At this, intimidating personages in white and blue would issue from their sanctuary where students (and angels?) feared to tread. Woe betide the rascal who forgot to visit the barber, the one who had run through a mud puddle on his way to school, or a courageous soul who hazarded a whisper to his friend. "You! Go to the back!", the prefects would yell. But sometimes there was strength in numbers and we hit back at our oppressors. Occasionally an impish choke would break out from an unknown corner, soon luring other throats into a fit of throat clearing, only to be silenced by a shrill "Keep Quiet!"; but not before the symphony dove-tailed with a final, single cough. Then, even as we trickled back to class, the adventure was merely beginning.
I was in the Hijau (A4) classes in Forms 1 and 2. The 1H and 2H classrooms were located directly above the Taekwondo room, on the first and third storey respectively in the Junior Form block. We commanded a stunning view of the tai chi sessions that unfolded every morning on the Stadium Negara car park. Even until today, the sounds of "chee... kuuu... chee... kuuu..." still reverberate in my mind when I think about the V.I.
But, neither can compare with my 3 Merah classroom, nestled at the end of the upper storey of Science Wing, near 206. It was my best classroom, ever. No, it wasn’t because we gained notoriety for disturbing the peace of those eagerly trying to work in the Senior Library directly below our class. And it wasn’t because the prefects occasionally forgot us due to our isolation whenever they made their spot checks. Neither was it because we had a side room (made of makeshift planks, and which used to be the store room of the Victorian Editorial Board) into which we sometimes squeezed and locked ourselves, as each minute spent in there shortened the official 40 minute lesson times while the teacher waited outside. What made it a memorable class was that it was the only classroom in the V.I. that was shockingly close to the 206 toilet block and the City Hall industrial-size garbage dumps. Each time the garbage truck arrived to clear the bins, especially on a hot afternoon, our class would enter a state of 'euphoria' that no amount of helium or Ecstasy could induce. On the bright side, the privilege of this unique physical environment gave us a common bond that fostered indomitable class spirit.
I started Form 1 camped in a class with about 21 strangers in December 1990. That month, too, American and Iraqi forces were encamped on opposite sides of the Kuwaiti border, and calls of jihad versus liberation resonated across TV channels and newspapers. It was this warring atmosphere in the far-off Middle Eastern battlefield that brought together the class of 1 Hijau. We became familiar with each other precisely because our opinions were so polarised. Even those indifferent about the Middle East crisis nonetheless became passionate supporters or critics of the behaviour of their classmates who were either supporters and critics of the issue. My gaping ignorance about the crisis (the Kuwaiti one), did not prevent me supporting Bush Senior when some classmates called for the boycott of McDonald’s and started jeering at anyone who consumed anything not stamped halal (at that time, I naïvely thought that disagreeing with them meant I had to automatically cheer the Americans). Slanging matches were yelled at distances shorter than a sword’s length, and the occasional whack on the table was administered to convey ferocity.
But time appeases, and time inspires. Soon the issue was overtaken by more important issues, like forming teams for our school history project, cleaning the class to keep detention class at bay, writing Malay poetry in groups and eating lunch together when staying back to watch a V.I. football game in the evening. Clearly, these tasks were compulsory (the group lunching wasn’t) but, more importantly, they gave us opportunities to mingle. Of course we dreaded work and we dreaded staying back to cheer the football squad until 6.00 p.m. And we unsuccessfully tried well-worn excuses like "My mum is waiting at the gates to drive me to private tuition", or "This guy is too lazy to be in my group" but the prefects and teachers brushed us aside. But since we had to do it, we thought we might as well throw in all our enthusiasm; not everyone thought so, but most did, and that made it rewarding.
I suppose we were pliant but why so? I remember fearing detention class because a whole evening was wasted brassoing hinges, arranging class furniture, polishing trophies and picking up rubbish around school. Detention was surely the Prefects' evil scheme to ensure that if we did not stay back for three hours to watch football on a Monday, we would stay back for an equivalent time the next day. Prefects marked attendance and painstakingly noted absentees. Thus, we took our first halting steps in learning and exercising cost-benefit analysis: "Is it worthwhile to skip an afternoon nap or a few hours in front of evening TV, just to have a few hours deprived from us the next time?"
But if detention were the only penalty, the more hardcore among us would have dismissed its threat. So there was a hierarchy of punishments, which was harped on by the Prefects during the orientation. Importantly, it was a credible hierarchy of discipline as we had the impression that the prefects and teachers were stern and diligent enough to apply it without fear or favour. The next penalty after detention was to see the discipline teacher or the Headmaster. More severe cases (or repeated offences) could merit suspension, and at the pinnacle of the hierarchy loomed expulsion. But for us mere mortals of crime, D.C. worried us sufficiently. D.C. was backed by a dark weapon lurking in the cabinets of the school office, namely, the students' personal files. Accessible to the student only after graduation, these files recorded the students' achievements and behaviour during his years in the school. Any quittings or sackings from a school club and repeated detention classes would be indelibly etched into these files, which prospective employers would presumably peruse with much interest.
Hence, credible discipline forced us to take up the opportunities the school was lavishing upon us. But grudge gave way to enthusiasm and most of us applied ourselves fully to any activity undertaken. Indeed, by the middle of our year, we had developed strong attachments to our classes. Two of my classmates - Mohd Ikhram Merican and Norfazlin Sulaiman - led us in setting up a nasi lemak stall at the School’s Co-Curricular Open Day on June 30. Coaxing friends to join the venture, negotiating a roster for manning the stall, and distributing duties for cooking taught us about cooperation and entrepreneurship. Unsurprisingly, I hear Ikhram eventually became a management consultant. On another occasion, we teamed up with 1 Kuning to form the football team Hijau-Kuning for the V.I. Amateur Football Association (V.I.A.F.A.) league. Hijau-Kuning was the moniker of the then dominant Kedah team in the Malaysian Semi-Pro League. More on this later. Then at year’s end, my class appeared on the back page of Utusan Malaysia, thanks to classmate Abdul Halim Abdullah who had just won the Milo Young Sportsman award. The reporter visited us during our class party and obliged our vanity of throwing our undeserving selves into the snapshot.
BECOMING THE BEST CLASS
Encouraging teachers and a plethora of inter-class competitions were also crucial in developing our class spirit. As members of 1 Hijau and then 2 Hijau, my classmates and I identified with the then Malaysian top hit, 'Hijau' by Zainal Abidin. So our Form 2 class teacher, Puan Rahmah, devoted a whole period of Bahasa Melayu to the study of the classic. We sprawled across the skating rink under the rustling trees and gentle breeze while the song was played and replayed. Since then, it has become our class official rally.
The same class spirit infused our soccer games. We had four international players who had played in the 1992 Kanga Cup in Sydney. So we were devastated when we lost 2-1 against Red Star F.C., our closest competitors from 2 Merah, in the V.I.A.F.A. league due to a controversial penalty. Sore losers, we filed a letter protesting an anomalous substitution made by Red Star: they had re-inserted a player who had already left the field without the referee noticing. Everyone in the team signed the letter. A few weeks later, a cordial but disappointing reply returned to us. Incensed, we made sure to decimate every team we faced in the end of year inter-class soccer competition. So against 2 Abiad, who had among its ranks the future Malaysian football star Rosle Mat Derus, we won 8-1, and against 2 Coklat, we won 4-1. Then in the grand final against 2 Merah, we destroyed them 4-2 for sweet revenge. Our sporting prowess was undeniable as we also emerged as runner-up in the hockey competition, losing 2-1 to 2 Biru. Not only was the match lost; I also lost some blood when an opposing player inadvertently slammed his hockey stick into my nose as he was scooping the ball.
A week later, we performed in the inter-class choral speaking competition. This is poetry recital in a group and has long been a tradition in the B.B.G.S. With the advent of choral speaking as a state tournament, our school started organising an inter-class choral speaking competition among junior forms in 1991. While we were initially disinterested and more keen on football, our pride was stung watching 1 Kuning’s thunderous practices of The Charge of the Light Brigade under the keen tutelage of Mrs Gnanarajah. With much grudging, moaning and monotonous droning, we practised the poem School Over by Muhd Haji Salleh during English lessons and free periods. But we would always lighten up and disproportionately raise our voices to over-emphasise the words "USMAN Awang". Calling our friends by their parents' names was deemed a jibe then (and the further up the family tree the better!), so who could resist the opportunity to annoy poor Farid whose father’s name was Ismail bin OSMAN? We emerged third in the Form 1 competition. In Form 2, our enthusiasm for choral speaking improved little, even though we were strengthened by new faces like Lee Boon Ket and Zamri Ayob from the successful 1 Abiad (they had performed MacCavity the Mystery Cat the previous year). Our rendition of Lear's The Duck and the Kangaroo merited us a third placing, again. It was only many years later that I realised the importance of this exercise, when I led the charge of the V.I. brigade at the state tournament. Armed with the poem Choral Speakers Should Be Exempted From Exams by Douglas Lim (later of the sit-com Kopitiam fame), we disappointed the V.I. with a mere fourth placing.
Inter-class competitions continued in Form 3. At the end of the year, after our government exams, the school organised various competitions for us. In 1993 the headmistress, Puan Robeahtun Damanhuri, had introduced streaming for all forms. My class and 3 Kuning were the top classes of Form 3 and being the ‘intellectual’ class we were written off in the sporting contests, though we did emerge as badminton finalists. After an exhausting morning of badminton, we weren’t cut to take part in the inter-class short sketch competition that afternoon. Moreover, we had not planned or practised anything. We also believed that unanimous apathy swept all classes, forcing the school to cancel the agendum. But 15 minutes before the competition began, I discovered that 3 Biru was taking part. I raced back to inform the class, and everyone decided we should compete. So within five minutes, we planned a pantomime about domestic violence and child abuse, with Muhd Harith doing the impromptu narration and myself providing the atmospheric piano music. It was entitled Rumahku Nerakaku (My House, My Hell), intended as a parody of the Malaysian anti-child abuse slogan, Rumahku Syurgaku (My House, My Heaven). We won the competition.
In 1993, the government exam for Third Formers was re-branded Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR), replacing the Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (SRP). Numbers of full distinction students rose from a handful to 46 in our year. (In recent times, numbers have come close to 100.) I felt cheap. But it was exhilarating to crown the joyous Centenary year with maximum A’s, and still more thrilling to be featured in The Sun (even though it was just two sentences) and photographed on the Utusan Malaysia front page with my batch.
Entering Forms 4 and 5 intensified our inter-class competitiveness. The two top classes were Ungu (Science 1) and Hijau (Science 4), the former being the top pure science class and the latter comprising the top 'mixed' science (dropping biology for Accounting) students. I was back in Hijau after a year in Merah, and there I remained for Form 5 too. Our classes battled it out in everything, from the Pesta Pantun to football matches to which class had more student leaders and which would produce the top Form 4 student. I ended up tying with Sam Lim Chung Sim as joint Treacher Scholars, so both our classes were evenly matched there. We were driven by invisible laurels.
But there was a tangible prize for the class cleanliness competition, at least at the beginning of 1994. Following a school-wide gotong-royong one Saturday in December 1993, a few friends and I stayed back until late evenings for a fortnight, to repaint the walls and doors, "brasso" the hinges and repair the notice boards in our class rooms. We took turns to scuttle to and from Petaling Street and Jalan Kenanga, with bags laden with cans of paint, kerosene and paint brushes. Cheekily, we schemed to buy only two or three cans each time we went, forcing a break from work every two hours! Thus a few days' task turned into a fortnight's challenge. Aggravating our sluggishness were our habitual lunchtime respites at the Scenery Restaurant opposite the Merdeka Stadium, where we spent over an hour after school before commencing work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we lost to 4 Ungu in the first round - they scored 76 to our 75.5!
Unfortunately, we had few chances for revenge. Each week, the teacher on duty was to make a surprise inspection on the classes and the cleanest in each form was to be awarded a challenge trophy, but this exercise diminished as weeks passed. Instead, the school simply named the winners at assembly, and even this practice faded by the middle of the year. Haphazard as it was, the competition had one constant, namely, that the classes with marks falling below a certain threshold were punished with D.C. So even if we weren’t propelled to be the cleanest, at least we dreaded being the worst.
I remember clearly the main reason I joined Second KL. They had set up an impressive flying fox from the slope to the P.W.D. hut in the corner of the field near the scout den. They had an appealing prospectus, with medieval parchments bordering blockbuster word fonts and photos of raised-beds, and arcane language that sounded as if Baden-Powell himself was addressing us. Their Fourth Former senior scouts had visited our classes daily, lugging with them ornately carved log-books (whose covers were actually made of wood) replete with detailed reports and spectacular graphics splashing the pages. And on top of that, one of my friends from primary school was the Leader of Falcon Patrol. But none of these were convincing reasons. What sealed my commitment was the recruitment drive by the band. A Second Former bandsman came into our class and gave an impressive spiel about why we should join the band. He ended with (in Malay) "But if you prefer the scouts over the band, it’s OK. Just make sure you join Second KL". All the marketing gimmicks of Second KL paled in comparison to the good word of an outsider. This experience instilled an important lesson: Merit needs no self-praise. Prove your merit with your works and others will speak for you. This has meant more to me than all my lessons in the government-decreed subject of Moral Education.
Troop activities challenged our ulu city-dwelling naïveté. It wasn’t surprising how ignorant some boys were - for example, that water and kerosene were different liquids with different properties! I remember a First Former emptying a whole bottle of water on a fire which we had just lit, claiming that "PL pour water, fire grow stronger, so I do the same, lah!" But such was the effect of these lessons on our lives over such a short time that this same boy eventually rose to become a Patrol Leader and Senior Patrol Leader. On another camp, our terror for leeches was such that one night after gathering in the river, we urbanite First Formers immediately stomped out of it like frenzied wildebeeste when one of our friends plucked one of those blood-thirsty vermin from his calf and threw it back into the river! The older scouts simply looked on, bemused by how ulu these new recruits were.
Through a combination of incentives, punishments and role models, Second KL ensured lessons were both caught and taught: faces were charcoaled like those of Apaches if cooking utensils were dirty, and many were the runs up and down the slope near the P.W.D. hut if log book assignments missed deadlines. Sins like not cutting off Pallas labels on our scout shoes were disciplined with push-ups. Severe censures were not unheard of but our elders always gave good reasons for such ordeals. When I switched from being follower to leader, the absence of textbook formulae forced me to think deep and fast to ensure there was a rationale for each policy and no loophole in any rule. Indeed, the troop stretched us and showed that we could do what we never thought possible, such as surviving on only 10 hours of sleep in total during the five-night Training Camp in 1991. Such a skill is much valued when cramming for exams or rushing a work project! Toughness aside, there were countless other lessons. We discovered our talents for singing or acting in compulsory patrol skits during campfires. We developed confidence when negotiating with sponsors for campfires or jamborees. We internalised the gravity of accountability when the police issued us with permits for overnight Treasure Hunts that took us on foot (for boy scouts) and bicycle (for seniors) from Jalan Pahang to Cheras to Damansara over a 15-hour period.
Tribulations were also a source of merriment. I remember the first night of my Training Camp in Form 1, at Ulu Langat. It was 2.00 a.m. Trying to catch forty winks before resuming gadget construction, I stacked staves of timber together as a makeshift bed. Not long after, I felt sprinkles and thought my Patrol Leader (PL) Mazlisham was playing a prank. He wasn’t. Abruptly, the heavens opened, leaving us scurrying for shelter under hastily-spread flysheets, while also frantically piling vulnerable haversacks, equipment and food under them. As rain skidded atop our sheets, we could hear the unfinished raised-bed structure above us creaking and threatening to collapse. My PL, with teeth chattering and arms folded across his shivering body, squatted precariously on the first-aid box, clasping a dim flashlight as water gushed beneath our feet. Yet he could still grin at me! When the torrents ceased, we set about re-constructing the destroyed and continuing the unfinished, with eyes-atwinkle and hurling jokes around as though nothing had happened. On the following days, we had cake baking jungle-style, backwoodsman cooking (cooking without using manufactured utensils but carving our own), gadget-building (such as double-storey tents called ‘Raised-beds', complete with a kitchenette, larder, table and bench), and water games. (I held the record for underwater-breathing for that camp; staying 35 minutes underwater with just a bamboo shoot as my snorkel.)
We had fun with pranks too. It was a custom at camps and campfires and even on the bus to and from camps, that those awake would paint the faces of sleeping buddies by stealthily spraying toothpaste, flour and egg on them. Pranks have included smearing entire spectacle lenses with Colgate, and drawing wrinkle lines on foreheads. The snag was to get away before the victim awoke. Pranks also occurred whenever creativity and opportunity dictated. Desaru was witness to one, during our pleasure trip there in 1991. While the rest of the troop slept in ground tents erected from two flysheets lazily hooked onto tree stumps, three boys slept comfortably in their dome tent. On the last night, a group of us unclipped the pegs and poles, sending the canvas hurtling inwards with them inside.
LOOKING OUT FOR EACH OTHER
One reason for Second KL’s aura was that everyone genuinely looked out for each other (despite the pranks!). New recruits always stepped into the human horseshoe of existing members to introduce themselves to the troop. In my case, among my remarks was "My ambition is to become a King Scout". Apparently, never had such a bold desire been articulated and "wooh!" erupted among the members. Six weeks and a Tenderfoot deadline later, I was summoned to the Court of Honour consisting of Patrol Leaders and scouters to explain my intention to quit. After numerous failures and retakes, I had been unable to complete the most basic scouting badge within the time frame set, and I felt myself a mere parasite in the troop. It was then that Senior Scout Leader (SSL) Sekhar Sathyamoorthy said "I believe you can reach your King Scout ambition, but the question is whether you think so too". After that, I always strived to give my best for Second KL.
Such embracing leadership did not just come from Sekhar. SSL (and School Captain) Danny Chen introduced prizes for the best three and most improved First Formers, and for those who barely missed out he commended by naming us in the horseshoe. After a fight had broken out between freshies and raggers after a campfire, he publicly shamed all involved and forced everyone to shake hands with each other while audibly saying "Sorry for fighting". Danny’s understanding of human idiosyncracies was amazing - no punishment did he mete out, but the shame was agonising enough, and we hung our heads low. Today, these then 'adversaries' are some of my closest friends. Sharing shame and despair (or triumph and satisfaction) built our common bond. I was privileged to be in the same patrol as Pejal (Ahmad Faeizal Hassan) in my Second Form, for he had a solution for virtually every scouting challenge, whether it was cooking a spud egg, securing a wobbly suspended flagpole or stopping leakage in a ground tent. Unstintingly, he shared his resourcefulness with me, despite my being a poor learner.
Truly, a strong fraternity bonded every member; differences in race, age and rank notwithstanding. The scouters never refused us boy scouts when we asked them to supervise our test-taking. During our pleasure trip, they happily mingled with us, sharing stories and jokes, and even allowed us to make fun of them. We would rest our elbows on their shoulders when posing for photos. At one competition camp, we cheekily addressed our leader as Mama-san for the entire camp. Ex-scouts, too, happily returned to conduct training sessions with the seniors - I learned some of the most 'advanced' scouting skills from the Second Class courses organised while I was in Form 1. We unabashedly quizzed those gurus on every imaginable aspect of gadget engineering, first aid, axemanship and much more. An ex-scout even divulged his secret for catching snakes: blind the reptile with a cloth over its head and seize it head first!
Doubtless, there were times when rank and hierarchy had to be enforced but most of the time we interacted freely. Through this interaction, we tapped into our elders' scouting skills, songs and miscellaneous knowledge, and more importantly, we absorbed maturity beyond our years. For instance, at an age when attending campfires and gatherings of other scout troops, ranger units and girl guide companies was all the rage, we were reminded that one of our Assistant Scout Masters had become the leader he was even though he never attended such events.
AESTHETICS AND CULTURE
My first encounter with the word ‘aesthete’ was in Mrs Nathan’s car, when she drove me back to school from a debate in Cochrane Road School. "You are an aesthete with the trappings of a scientist" were her approximate words. The year was 1995. I was in the Fifth Form Science stream and was President of the V.I. Museum Board as well as one of the two school pianists. The ideals of a Renaissance man – holistically endowed with scholasticism, sporting prowess and culture – imbued the V.I. and I was an heir of such idealism.
My fellow pianist was Ngui Yew Choy, son of Old Boy and teacher, Mr Ngui Thiam Khoon. The junior Ngui had clinched a prize from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in 1994, and I was but a pale shadow. Fortunately, my fellow Victorians were none the wiser and seemed dazzled by my repertoire at Monday assemblies, as well as the occasional pianistic flamboyance at school concerts. Monday mornings unfurled like clockwork – as the headmistress marched into the Hall, accompanied by the School Captain and Vice-Captain, everyone would rise to attention. Mighty chords would then issue from the piano, as I frantically tried to keep the music audible as a means of marking time (we never had a conductor). This was easily done with the School Song which was simpler to pound out than the quickstep Malaysia Berjaya, while the stately Negaraku (before the government officially quickened its tempo in 1994) naturally lent itself to in-time singing. Nevertheless, navigating the extended pause in the School Song in the transition between the second to last and last lines of every stanza was an uphill task in hand-eye-ear coordination.
In 1993, about which I describe more later, I mustered a motley crew of Lower 6 Form girls and an assortment of boys from Forms 1 to 4 to re-form the V.I. Choir that had vanished many years ago. Hours of intensive practice during school time in the two weeks leading up to Speech Day plus the expertise of conductor and champion organist Patrick Soong readied us for the performance of the Centenary Song for dignitaries that included the Minister of Education. Our services were called upon again for the Countdown Night, but the Centenary Celebrations committee deemed it too expensive to invite us to the main dinner at the Shangri-La the following night. Thus, the Centenary Song was never heard on that auspicious occasion. In 1994, I led the choir once more for Speech Day, but this time we had extensive practice. Days after the rendition, the headmistress summoned me to her office. She said "Kok Kin, an examiner from the Royal Schools of Music, who is a friend of Dr Lewis, attended our Speech Day and he personally wrote to me to compliment the choir." How could I not feel elated?
We pushed ourselves to the highest standards because the V.I. expects nothing less. Individual effort can be mobilised without central coordination as long as people align themselves with the objectives of their organisation. The V.I.’s culture of excellence could only be imparted
Thanks to the encouraging (but at times irksome) nudging of teacher advisor Mr Thiruchelvam, we devised a This Week in V.I. History print-out that we posted outside the museum. Other projects have escaped my memory. However, I remember one visitor to the museum in 1994. His dark skin and deep bellowing voice were quite outstanding. One of his comments pertained to the school song: "The lyrics aren’t the same as the one I sang." That night, I kicked myself when I realised he was Kamahl, one of Malaysia’s most famous musical exports who has sold more records than any Malaysian artist, and who counts Queen Elizabeth, President Bush and captains of industry as friends. Years later, it struck me that he must have sung The Old Grey School, which lasted a few months in 1949 until the current school song was born, and I kicked myself for not requesting his rendition of it.
Perks were scarce, but glittering memories I have several. One involves an iron plate and an old man. For years now the iron plaque unveiled by Lady Treacher in 1893 as the V.I. foundation stone had been kept in the museum. In 1995, the school decided to mount it for perennial display on the left hand side of the porch (where it used to be affixed in the fifties to the seventies), thus balancing once again the 1929 foundation stone sitting on the right. This ceremony took place on Sports Day with pomp and splendour, when I handed the plaque to Lee Mun Joon, the then school captain, who in turn processed it down the corridor with two scouts, finally handing it over to Old Boy Mr Robert Sundram for the re-mounting. But the 1995 Sports Day was historic for another reason.
SPORTS DAY BUZZ
No event conjured restlessness like the Annual Sports Day. With those majestic V.I. banners raised, three to each corner of the field; white lane markers carefully set; meticulously-designed house tent decorations marking out the eight rival territories at the far end of the field; parachute tents inflated close to the finishing line; potted plants moved from the Horticulture Club and buntings unfurled for the guest tent; the V.I. was ready to strut its athletic talent for all to see. And what is a V.I. Sports Day without the main parade? As the blazing afternoon inferno mocked us, the house captains threw the school field into a raucous frenzy especially in the week leading up to the meet. Barks of "kiri, kanan, kiri" pierced the air as they led their charges around the track until throats were sore and feet were aching. Respite came from buckets of orange cordial diluted with tap water and ice bought from the canteen or from Ah Wai (the V.I.O.B.A. caretaker). But this was a price worth paying for skipping class!
Lessons were supposed to officially resume after pre-recess time rehearsals, but the teachers understood that the education of discipline, resilience, teamwork and loyalty during these grilling marchpast practices justified our absence from class after recess. It was common that in the week leading up to Sports Day, less than a quarter of the school would be attending any lessons. Even if one was not involved in the march past, he or she would be painting, embroidering, and carving for the house tent decorations.
My most memorable Sports Day was in 1995, the year we began Lee Kuan Yew (Hepponstall) House’s onslaught on the all-time V.I. record: to win the most consecutive number of Sports Days. But difficult would have been an understatement. Sultan Abdul Samad (Davidson) House had held the record, winning from 1950 to 1955. When I became House Captain in 1995, Shaw had already clinched the past two meets, and had proven its capability of winning titanic struggles such as the nail-biting Centenary Sports Day in 1993, when they pipped Sultan Abdul Samad by just two points. Other houses were no less intimidating. Thamboosamy had the fearsome threesome of Khairul Azrin, Arman Salleh and Lee Boon Ket - all of them superb sportsmen and skilled practitioners of rabble-rousing - while Yap Kwan Seng had Siow Steve, a tireless captain committed to the ideals of kamikaze (Steve and I were also the Troop Leaders of Second KL, and his leadership would later earn him the School Captaincy). Steve sent shivers through me when he said "Every year we’ve been in the V.I., my house has come last - but I guarantee you, this year everyone will tremble when they see an athlete in light blue".
LKY’s ambitions was badly bruised in the first inter-house clash on 14 January 1995 - the Cross-country Relay. Instead of racing to find the fastest individuals, that year’s innovation created teams of four according to Houses, running exactly how relays are run, except that each runner had to cover four kilometres, and instead of a baton, we passed a sash that was looped around our bodies as we ran. When standings were collated at the end of the day, LKY fell into a dismal sixth position. Thamboo was first, with YKS trailing them closely.
With one month before the next battle - Datar Layak (Qualifying Rounds) - we returned, unbowed, to the drawing board. Every week, I ensured my charges attended House practices. Often, I skipped lessons to visit their classes, hauling in their commitment. I learned all their names. I lent the boys P.E. shirts when needed. Henceforth, irrepressible was the LKY assault. Even on the first of three days of Datar Layak, LKY had overturned the results from the Cross-country relay and had surged to the top of the league. And the Heats were yet to come. We occupied pole position for the rest of the season leading up to Sports Day (bar a lapse during the Heats, when we slipped behind Thamboosamy by one mark for one day). Remaining events to be contested on Sports Day were the 100 m, 4x100 m and tug-of-war finals. (The other finals had been held with the Heats.)
True to my premonitions, and unfazed by the 30 mark gap that separated us from them in second place, Thamboosamy continued to fight nobly, while YKS, in third place, was similarly unbowed. The heightening pressure was obvious. There were many "accidental" skirmishes on the field. During marchpast practices, contingents collided with each other - fists were swung into the oncoming contingent, legs were kicked and feet were trampled on. What fun! Meanwhile, YKS commenced early preparation of the house tent; as the juniors were out marching on the field, the senior boys and girls were busily sewing their butterflies and flowers. There was little doubt that YKS deserved the House Tent award in 1995. As for Thamboosamy, they were tug-of-war finalists (eventually winning). But LKY never capitulated.
We matched the other houses in face-painting, cheering and dress-ups. I even composed an LKY song that is still sung to this day. For our house tent, a spectacular grey medieval fortress had been designed by Yap Chen Wah. (On Sports Day, we won third place for this house tent.) Keeping with custom, we stayed overnight in school on Sports Day eve to construct it. Something deeply moving occurred that night. Enthusiasm was succumbing to creeping exhaustion as the clock ticked past midnight, when all other LKY members deserted me for their comfortable beds at home (well, truth be told, I had ordered many of them - including my unflinchingly devoted sidekick Rusken Ruslan - to leave so as to be fresh for the next day's events). At 4.00 a.m., a towering figure stepped into the room where I was still lethargically painting the polystyrene boards. He was no LKY fan. He was Rubendra Gnanalingam, the Shaw House Captain who had guided his charges to victory just two years before. But he astonished me with his words: "Let me be the first to congratulate you for winning this year". I was puzzled. "Trust me, no house with a 30 mark gap going into Sports Day can be defeated, especially if it is led by ferocious charisma". I was in awe at such magnanimity and confidence.
Rubendra was right. None of LKY’s athletes emerged with less than a bronze in their events on Sports Day. It was an LKY stampede because when I lifted the overall House Champion trophy, we had beaten Thamboosamy into second place by over 70 points, and YKS came a distant third. I never attended any V.I. Sports Day again until 2004, and in that year, we won our ninth consecutive meet (the Commonwealth Games had cancelled the 1998 meet). Davidson’s record had been demolished. By the way, heartbroken Thamboosamians would be delighted to know that in 2005, the greenies ended LKY’s winning streak; though LKY returned to glory in 2006, perhaps as a prelude to another record?
The grandeur of Sports Day aside, much in the V.I. inspired us to be fitness-conscious students, if not health freaks. We had inter-house swimming carnivals; much less spectacular than Sports Days, but no less competitive. I also remember that, as House Captains, we had to each organise one inter-house game. More than brawn was tested, as the more scholarly house members became standard bearers in the annual inter-house science quiz, though this event was sadly relegated to the history books after 1993. All this sportiness must have had their genesis in the humble swimming and P.E. lessons.
Swimming periods in V.I.’s own Sungai Kelang were compulsory unless one preferred to spend the lesson picking up rubbish, doing push-ups, or ketuk-ketampi (repeated squats while pulling the ears). Showing off flabby waistlines was a fair trade for avoiding such ordeals. Mr Sin Ah Tah and Mr Choe Peng Woon instructed us in the fundamentals of breathing underwater, plunging, treading and staying afloat but after giving a few initial lessons in Form 1, they let us frolic in the pool for the rest of our V.I. days. Besides water polo, we often played 'Dunking' where boys sat on their teammates' shoulders like gladiators and swaggered around the shallow end trying to dislodge rivals from similar piggyback formations.
Nearing the end of any period preceding swimming or P.E., we would tuck our hands under our desks, pre-emptively clutching our trunks or attire, ready to bolt out of class as soon as the bell signalled the change of periods. P.E. lessons often meant playing un-refereed football, but there were frequent exceptions, especially during puasa months, when classes focused on theory. In Form 1, Mr Sin taught us about adolescence and growing up, while in Form 3, Mr Shamsuddin Ismail forced us to think about the rationale of technical details like the height of a football goal post or the presence of the semi-circle affronting the penalty box. The latter, after leaving the school, became the assistant coach of the Malaysia League KL team. We learned other games too; for instance, in Form 4, Mr Norjoharudeen Mohd Noor (who left mid-term to become the science supervisor for the state) attempted, with little success, to endear us to touch football and rugby.
Cikgu Norjo’s valiant efforts were outclassed by
‘network externalities’ of V.I.’s football success. An externality
is essentially an indirect consequence. When a side-effect intensifies
as more people execute the original action, it becomes a network externality.
Here’s how. When our footballers played on home ground, it was every
Victorian’s duty (detention class was the alternative) to stay back to
support. But begrudging compulsion soon cultivated V.I. fanaticism.
Imagine a sea of blue lining one end of the pitch to the other, sometimes
up to four people deep. Then led by the senior Victorians (especially
the prefects and hostelites), we break into the well-rehearsed cheers -
from the rousing Glory, Glory Victoria (sung to the tune of
Battle Hymn of the Republic) and When the Blues Go Marching
In to the unusual Kimball song and Hello, Hello, Siapa
Saya? repartee (where the leader yells a question and we would
answer in unison), to the downright bizzarre Coca Cola / 7-Up
St John (or other rival team name) here K-O
Come on V.I. don’t give up
Immeasurable was the fun of linking arms with friends or the unknown Victorian next to you; strangers united in spirit. Even when I led the cheers with Arman in Form 5, my enthusiasm had not paled. It was more fun when rain bucketed down while we continued screaming as if the sun still sailed overhead. A panadol can cure a fever, but there was no consolation for a V.I. defeat. Thus football addiction grew in the V.I., even for those who couldn’t kick a ball straight, becoming a fine example of herd mentality. But this addiction and externality came at a price, and the sports masters were determined to ameliorate the costs of this externality.
Undoubtedly, the V.I. was still ruling the pool, having won every state water polo championship (bar one) since 1970. It had emerged state badminton finalists if not winners in most years (until the emergence of the state-sponsored specialist badminton school, Sri Garden). It annually stumped the rest of the state in cricket (thanks to the coaching of former national player Hector Durairatnam, whose son Navin became School Captain in 1994), and it continued to harvest medals in state athletics. But the sun had set on V.I.’s national dominance in rugby and many other sports. Winning zone competitions were as far as those sports could go.
Reasons proferred for such slumps include the lack of good coaches for these 'other sports', boys preferring tuition to trying out and training in games, and unsupportive (indeed, 'unsporting') parents. The first reason cannot be underrated. In athletics we trained on Mondays and Wednesdays under Mr Thiruchelvam. He had a partiality for hurdling that he tried to impart, though I never learned to stop stumbling. He trained our leg motions (middle cycle, front lift, back kick, backward runs), agility (zig-zag running), speed and stamina (circling Stadium Negara and its park at least five times). Some sports, like swimming and water polo, were led by students. My Tuesdays and Thursdays were taken up by the Life-Saving Society. We could prepare for the Bronze Medallion (thanks to many scouts qualifying, we could have our swimming hour at 11.00 on every Saturday meeting), practise water polo or simply hone our swimming skills and fitness. Old boys returned as slave drivers, fine-tuning our ball-bouncing, blocking and treading techniques in water polo, forcing us to swim an extra half kilometre each week or simply improving our first aid methods.
But coaching aside, there are other success factors. Other sports suffered a notable lack of support. Busloads of supporters, organised by the V.I.A.F.A., trundled to 'away' venues of our football team, but no one organised cheer squads when the hockey team were playing in school. Also, while the badminton team had a programme backed by the Badminton Association of Malaysia under which talented players and coaches were sent to or trained in the V.I., and football had a similar Milo-sponsored programme, there was none for other sports (these would have been similar to the past Lewis programmes for rugby and athletics). Yet another reason is the existence of a larger portion of students whose loyalties were torn between the V.I. and other things (I know of students of one external hostel who were implicitly pressured to only take part in certain activities like the cadets, but not other uniformed groups). With a smaller pool of participants, some sports consequently deteriorated.
Periodically, V.I. staff paraded their versatility. On Teachers' Day, while the Sixth Form girls let their hair down in their netball duel with the staff, the prefects took off their ties for the traditional volleyball match against the teachers. Spectators would plant themselves along the corridors outside the hall, and on the upper storey outside the staff room, for best views and a rare chance to taunt prefects and teachers without fear of retribution.
A COMMON CONSCIOUSNESS
Punctuating the school calendar and going by different names such as Hari Ko-Kurikulum (1991 and 1995) or Hari Keluarga (1994), various school carnivals replaced the solemn hue of the V.I. with crêpe paper, ribbons and banners of myriad colours (though blue was the perennial favourite). Classrooms metamorphosed into exhibition centres, and metal sheds were constructed outside the classes opposite the Scout Den to accommodate other games. Hungry visitors made for the stalls outside the pool, which peddled nasi lemak, mee goreng and other student-cooked 'delicacies'. Sales profits went unpilfered into our class funds as Victorian camaraderie kept the class coffers sacred for everyone. Everyone lent a hand, sometimes sulkingly, in snipping and matching crêpe paper of different colours, scrawling signs and instructions onto manila cardboard, wrapping desks with coloured paper and more. The prospect of improving class finances drove us on.
Some individual clubs and societies organised their ‘carnivals’ as an excuse to meet members of the fairer sex, transforming the V.I. into a boys’ finishing school for the day. Most infamous were Interact Club functions - International Understanding Day, Chinese New Year celebration, and Installation – due to their disproportionately female guest lists from schools like Assunta, B.B.G.S. and Sri Aman. Little wonder I relished the Interactors' frequent invitations to perform as guest pianist! I often paired with Teh Boon Kiat, my cohort’s saxophonist of unmatched suavity, performing pieces like Kenny G’s Dying Young. Other noble purposes guided other societies’ events. For instance, the Annual Parents' Campfire of Second KL was dedicated to the parents. This explained the absence of youth-oriented games so customary at other troops' bonfire gatherings and the singing of many evergreens like Wooden Heart, Pearly Shells and World of Our Own. To ensure smooth operations, many of these events were symbiotic. For example, the scouts would guard the traffic, serve the guests and control the crowds during the Band Tattoos. In return, acknowledgements were profuse, such as in 1995 when the scouts were listed above the Prefects Board on the Thank You page of the souvenir booklet.
Mundane matters mattered, too, for clubs and societies keen on remaining relevant. Upkeeping the rock garden near the pavilion on the edge of the skating rink and repainting the school railings yearly were thankless tasks, but it was the Interactors' service to the school. Meanwhile, the Horticulture and Art Clubs took turns to maintain the white brick formation that spelled the school's name on the slope beside the pavilion. Photo opportunities and the chance to appear in The Victorian lightened the tasks, and, occasionally, the desire for ‘school colours’ kept the chairmen of clubs active, but mostly it was simply the thrill of hanging out with peers that kept us going.
On the other hand, a handful of Victorians measured their contribution to the V.I. by how loudly they cheered. They marshalled cheer squads for the school teams, coached the boys in the V.I. cheers and, of course, used the V.I. clap to rouse, stir, laud and congratulate. The V.I. clap, for the uninitiated, arises when, in a crowd of Victorians, someone yells "V.I. clap, three, four!" This is followed by vigorous uniform applause, struck thus: 1 clap-pause-1 clap-pause-3 claps-pause-4 claps-pause-yell "V.I.!", repeated twice. What better way to begin our cheers for every football match, to acknowledge a retiring senior teacher and to celebrate every major victory!
Most Victorians went about doing the business of the V.I., namely, winning competitions. We received enormous support. When I was in Form 2, I took part in several Malay elocution contests around the state, and even though these were invariably held on Saturdays, Puan Airine Idris undauntedly hitched taxi rides with me on every occasion. Prior to the tournament, Puan Siti Zaleha Yaakob would have heard me recite my speech countless times, scribbled red marks and pointers on my drafts, poured much criticism and pointed me towards invaluable research materials. In spite of their gallant aid, I played second fiddle in the three zone tournaments I participated in. This jinx persisted even when I led the school choral speakers in Form 5 (fourth placing greeted us in the state competition) and when I debated in the same year. We lost to Convent Bukit Nanas in the state grand final. But we were consoled by our demolition of the Johannians in the semi-final.
On Friday 16 June 1995, meeting St Johns on home soil, we opposed the topic 'Education Rather Than Legislation, Is The Answer To Curb Social Problems'. Even though our rivals bugged us with the catchphrase "These Victorians are just fiddling with the symptoms rather treating the cause", we ravaged the Johannians in a triumph of in-depth analysis over catchy jingles. Immediately after the Chief Adjudicator hailed us as winners, the lecture hall erupted into one of the most impassioned V.I. claps that I had ever heard. The jubilant news took wing and, within moments, the entire school knew we had won. As the Johannians drooped their heads in awe, Shannon Sher, Darul Kisai and myself punched the air with victorious exhilaration, and relief. For the entire week, the teachers' meeting room was our coop as, with Mrs Nathan and Mr Jeyaretna, our brains were racked, our lips numbed and our tongues tangled from endless discussions. The honour of the school was at stake and we were its standard bearers.
ART OF TEACHING
In 1994, during a History lesson with 4 Science 2, an exasperated Puan Rosyta Abdul Rahim exploded in Malay “Even military bootcamp can’t prepare us teachers to handle you boys”. This lit our idea bulbs, and we decided to award a Sijil Tahan Lasak to our teachers for Teachers’ Day, stirring unmitigated glee among the recipients including our headmistress. For their grit in withstanding the slings and arrows of mischievous Fourth Formers, our teachers earned those certificates of recognition. Moreover, our teachers were like the intellectual giants or historic misfits whose tales were being imparted on us; so Kok, Lam and Wong could have passed off as Yamashita, Pythagoras and Mendelev. Stories sprang alive and textbook personalities breathed our humid classroom air when these teachers took to the blackboard.
Take Mrs Kok See Leong, the 155 cm tall V.I. Old Girl married to a VI Old Boy. For our first lesson (and thereafter), she scudded down the corridor, high heels click-clocking, before marching into class with her infamous green file under her arms. Without apprehension, she chalked up a flawless world map in 30 seconds, describing unmistakeable features like the ‘boot of Italy' and the horn of Africa, as she did so. But she wasn’t our geography teacher. Mrs Kok enchanted us in History, and after our first chapter on the Second World War, we quietly nicknamed her 'General Kok'. As this puny intellectual giant analysed strategies, unfolded plans and exposed military intentions, we were convinced that the War Crimes Tribunal had overlooked one more scheming war conspirator. Later in the year, she dazzled us with other gems like "In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue".
Perfectionism oozed from our teachers. How we loathed Mrs Lam Foo Wah’s half hour rantings if ONE boy forgot ONE lousy negative sign, and how we dreaded her ‘book-flinging’ after which we descended from the top of the junior block to retrieve our books from the drain. I also remember that she once shamed us with “See, this Sixth Former can score 89 in Mathematics; you boys should be getting nothing less than 100!”. Everybody was potential road kill (except Andrew Chung, whose instinctive timing in sashaying between mischief and demeanour made him a role model for the churlish, including myself). Oliver Goldsmith’s lines were terrifyingly prescient as we ‘the boding tremblers learn'd to trace the day's disasters in her morning face’. Sure we mocked our teachers with accusations like “Shouldn’t it only be once in 30 days?” but, in truth, ‘the love they bore to learning was their fault’. Mrs Lam’s then tiresome demands of "Keep your equality signs vertically aligned!" or "Apply Polya’s method for each question, how ever tediously unnecessary!" that were backed up with “Sit under the chair!” if we disobeyed, embedded in us attention to detail, logical thinking and even, surprisingly, a passion for mathematics.
V.I. teachers, especially the senior ones, had dedication to boot and ability par excellence. To this day, I still remember my cosine rule from Additional Maths, thanks to Puan Rohana Yusof who once, almost crudely (but deliberately), thrusted her index and middle fingers at me with a V-shape formation when I prodded her for a gentle reminder. No words had to pass her lips, but I was instantly reminded. To Puan Siti Zaleha Yaakob, the functions of transitive versus intransitive verbs, sub-clauses and dominant clauses, and other grammatical rules for Bahasa Melayu were so lucidly taught that I can apply those principles to English. And then there was Mrs M. Nathan whose worship of literature - particularly Shakespearean - has scarred me with happy memories of "Double, double toil and trouble" and "Cowards die many times before their deaths". Her unreserved devotion benefited those of us not in her class during school hours, as she stayed back on Thursday afternoons to coach us for the Cambridge 1119 English paper. To her I owe my ease with the distinction between the connotative and denotative, précis discipline and a huge kit of literary tools. Head of Biology, Mr N. Anandakrishnan, inspired sight unseen. Though I dropped Biology after Form 3 (in favour of Accounting), I was awed by stories of Mr 'Andy'. In all his 28 years of teaching in the V.I., he had never sat down while a class was in session. His other legendary achievements included guiding the V.I. Nature Society towards pioneering banana skin porridge, an idea that caught the press's attention and was forwarded to the United Nations as a possible weapon against malnutrition in the Third World.
(Left to right): Mrs Wong Chee Kheon, Puan Rohana Yusof, Mrs. M. Nathan, Puan Siti Zaleha Yaakob, Mr N. "Andy"
"Distinctiveness, not just Distinctions" must have been the unspoken mantra propelling the V.I. staff. Unlike architects or scientists whose achievements are measured by buildings and inventions, teachers’ contributions are not computed sheerly from the number of distinctions in public exams. Unlike androids, the V.I. teachers had inimitable style and character that in turn shaped our character. Around Mrs Wong Chee Kheon, we orbited like satellites around a planet, at the end of every Chemistry class. Frank airings of unrequited love and other topics censored from parental knowledge were met with consoling words and wise counsel from Mrs Wong. Consequently, we often paid the worthwhile price of standing in the quadrangle for 20 publicly humiliating minutes as punishment for turning up late for the next class. But so deep was Mrs Wong’s impression on us, that when her son was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, we rallied around her. In 1999, we raised funds at the universities where we were studying and Second KL also donated their Job Week funds for her son’s treatment.
Other teachers were sterner nutcrackers. Our teenage rebelliousness was no match for the insistent whingeing of Mr Thiruchelvam. We dreaded his turn as relief teacher. He would instruct us to empty the rubbish bin and keep it overturned to show our class was rubbish-free. “Put the litter in your pockets”, he said, an ingenius ploy to deter litter in the first place! When posters adorned notice boards with creative disregard for symmetry, he would compel an immediate re-arrangement. He even insisted on us keeping our hair moist and combed always. “Wet it with tap water” was his suggestion. So notorious were his obsessions that his whine “Moh-nee-terrr” became synonymous with a dark villain at the classroom door ready to feast on us, his defenceless prey. Muted hushes would seize the class when Thiru was seen near. Years later, I realised how his hectoring eccentricity scared us into cultivating good habits.
Instances of other lessons of life abound. For example, students bored with lessons would excuse themselves to go to the toilet or visit another student from another class (for ‘official business’), and then aimlessly wander along school corridors and slowly shuffle back to class. Mr Choe Peng Woon instituted a system of ‘toilet passes’ to combat this phenomenon. ‘Corridor refugees’ would be deemed illegal and be caned unless he had a valid travel pass. But the pass could only be valid if it had been signed by Mr Choe in the first place! In my Fifth Form, Mr Lou Boon Choy had to contend with F.I.F.A. World Cup fever, where students would crouch around a transistor radio for the latest news, even during a lesson. Mr Lou would subtly sneak into a huddled mass and suddenly unleash his stinging smack upon their shoulders. Students always unsuspectingly admitted him into their huddle because the short Mr Lou, who also had a penchant for donning white shirts, looked nothing like the elderly man we envisaged the Senior Physics teacher to be.
The greatness of these V.I. teachers lay in their genuine interest in their students. When the school principal calls you by name in the middle of her speech during assembly and unceremoniously orders you out of the hall, it’s not something easily forgotten. I, a hapless victim, have surprisingly never been rancourous about this experience but have always found it very amusing. I often wonder how Puan Robeahtun polished her sensory abilities to such exactness; surely my whispers to Kong Mun Meng weren’t very glaring? Luckily, such sensory brilliance is a rare commodity. My frequent detours of attention, away from the lesson at hand to some camping permission slip or competition registration form under my desk, have often escaped detection. But I wonder if the teachers were simply and quietly condoning this as an informal training of delicious cunning and character?
My encounter with the genius of the V.I.
staff began even while I was in the Pasar Road School (2).
Mr Yap Chai Seng, a V.I. teacher from 1953 to 1966 was headmaster
there until I was in Standard Four. Of course, I was then
ignorant about his V.I. pedigree. At his retirement, I asked
him to fill a page of my autograph book, and till today, I
remember his words:
When at home, guard your temper
When in public, guard your tongue
When alone, guard your thoughts
After a long separation, we met again in the early 1990’s, and this time I was a V.I. boy. He was paying a nostalgic visit to the V.I., and I bumped into him in front of the hall. Our exchange was short, but he reminded me of the Pasar Road motto ‘Work hard, Play hard’, which aptly captures the essence of being a Victorian.
Mr Yap is not the only old V.I. teacher I know. Miss Elizabeth Periathamby, a very close family friend, would always request a rendition of the school song when she came to our house. All of us would have to stand at attention. From her I learned the lesson of loyalty, and more. She taught me about the exacting academic standards of the school – whether it was about no slouching, or about the proportionality in sketching the cross-section of a fish, or about glistening the hinges of the V.I. doors. Mum also regaled me with tales of how she trembled at the words "See me" that Miss Periathamby sometimes penned in her Biology workbook.
Indeed, I have always moved in V.I. circles and I am constantly reminded of V.I. standards as my father was a Senior Science Master and my mother is an Old Girl of the school. My father would embarrass me with questions like "Name an animal that has a grandfather but not a father" to demonstrate the lofty standards that were once the staple of V.I. science articles and quizzes. (This question tested knowledge of parthenogenesis, where animals reproduced sexually and asexually. Examples include the worker bee.)
The V.I. teaches in many ways. Seniors and Old Boys as mentors were as important as our teachers in class. When I was the Troop Leader of Second KL, a visit by and talk with former Assistant Scout Master Michael Chin Yew Ming reminded me of an essential principle of scouting – to bridge differences and curb polarisation. It had been unwittingly relegated down the agenda as I took it for granted in my otherwise concerted efforts to mould toughness and endow boys with scoutcraft skills. Michael reminded me that “It’s not just about doing a hundred push-ups. The boys must also learn how to talk to their brother scouts and other people”. Short meetings like this inflict indelible lessons and impressions. When, as a First Former, I was introduced to Wong Kin Keat as the "pressure lamp master" or Edward Mak and Victor Ng as "the artistic geniuses", I subsequently strived to mimic and exceed their benchmarks. Also, when Fifth and Sixth Formers like Shamsul Sopiee or Ivan Randall Ratchaga made me feel welcome during House meetings, I felt I was no longer the insignificant First or Second Former who could slip away unnoticed.
There is an article elsewhere on the V.I. web page that I have written about the V.I. Centenary Celebrations in 1993. Of course everyone enjoyed themselves and there was a host of vibrant activities. So I shall now only focus on the less apparent themes I gleaned from that special year. Of primary importance to a glorious celebration is bold leadership. In the headmistress, Puan Robeahtun, we found this virtue.
There were very few school heads who could brave the swelling tides of religious fervour and bureaucratic brickwalling outside the school to her attempts to resurrect faded "colonial" traditions, while concurrently commandeering unparalleled support from staff, students and parents, and inspiring remarkable public exam results. Puan Robeahtun revived the house tent competition by setting up metal sheds for Sports Day, abandoning the decade-long practice of houses merely constructing large sculptures. On Speech Day, possibly to the chagrin of miserly powers that be, she brought back the spectacles that were once the V.I. Science and Arts Exhibitions. Thousands of visitors swarmed into the school over the weekend of the 7th and 8th of August to indulge in V.I. intelligence. Puan Robeahtun, or ‘Auntie Robie’ as we affectionately called her, was a steward of fair rewards and would never scoff at ambitious plans nor shirk from pursuing true ideals. In 1993 too, after a year’s absence, an actual bonfire was lit once more for the scouts’ campfire, even though some might have seen it as a manifestation of paganism inhabiting the school helmed by Auntie Robie.
She was supportive of students who genuinely wanted to contribute to the school’s pre-eminence. My first close experience of this was when I composed the V.I. Centenary Song. The piece that is now the Centenary Song was not the first one I submitted. An earlier work had stumbled at Puan Robeahtun’s first hurdle, namely, the Band Master, who was then Mr Wong Kook Cheow. When the second version, composed in July, passed Mr Wong’s vetting, Puan Robeahtun herself assumed the adjudicator’s bench. Fortunately, the song was accepted, though not before she understandably requested a Malay version too, which I dutifully wrote. What amazed me was that she took the lyrics, and returned them to me the next day, enormously polished. Here was a Headmistress, running a premier school of 1200 students, with a huge Speech Day and Exhibition coming up in a few weeks, descending from her throne to help a lowly Third Former with his work. Humility inspires.
Grand Old Man, Dato' Siew Nim Chee, the president of the V.I.O.B.A. aroused just as much admiration. Whenever I glimpsed his Jaguar parked beside the front porch, I knew I could find him sipping tea in the unexciting canteen. His frequent presence in school, especially in 1993, would have shamed any boy with less than perfect class attendance. Indeed, the Old Boys were inspiring. For example, what business had former Malaysian cricketer, Hector Durairatnam, with me who knew not then what off-stump nor legspin meant? But on the night of the Centenary Countdown on 13 August, he hunted me down to compliment me on the Centenary Song, and we proceeded to chat as if we had known each other for years. I felt like an adult, which gave me a pride that few other feelings could have excelled.
We, the students, would have channelled as much enthusiasm into the celebrations even if we were left to our own devices. We would have toiled and sweated for the celebrations for such was our love for the school. The difference that inspirational leadership brings is heart-warming empathy. It unites disparate endeavours, consoles frustration and most importantly, helps us stand on shoulders of giants. The 1993 celebrations would have been great if students ran it alone – it was fantastic because teachers and Old Boys were at one with us.
GRADUATING, BUT NOT LEAVING
The V.I. never leaves you. The V.I. is so seared into our psyche that when exchanging reminiscences with a fellow or stranger Malaysian, particularly overseas, we mark ourselves with “I went to the V.I.”. We would litter our proud stories with less grandiose comments like:
“Being hormone-driven guys, we never abhorred the challenge of walking through gangster-infested territories and rubbish-laden back alleys of Petaling Street, Jalan Tun Perak, Jalan Kenanga and San Peng to catch a bus from town or Pudu.”
When we catch up for reunions, these are examples of the tales that are often re-told: of the school’s name almost being changed, of climbing Gunung Tahan for eight days with just one smelly change of clothes and of experiences getting mugged (in slang – kena pau – this was most frequent along the muddy path cut along the side of Chin Woo hill leading from Stadium Negara down to the Methodist Boys’ School).
The extortionists never sucked much from us, as we hailed from diverse family backgrounds. In the V.I. there were filthy rich guys, sons of the Tan Sri or Minister, but these were few. There were even more who grew up as children of FELDA landowners, and spoke but a smattering of English. You would also have seen those whose parents fetched them to and from school on a kapchai motorbike. Of course, many were middle-class, but not the majority. There was no majority demographic. But we learned from each other. While gulping from my flask after P.E. one day, my FELDA friend mocked me, saying “Kok Kin, air itu nikmat. Minumlah perlahan-lahan”. He was one of the best infantry cadets I knew – not top academic material, but he had a very impressive personality.
Thus, excitement overtakes us when we hear of friends who become headliners today, be it from rectitude or notoriety. Perhaps not a Mokhtar Dahari, but Rosle Mat Derus the national team and Perlis team player is the idol of many a Malaysian football fan. My claim to fame is to have defeated his class 8-1 in the 2 Hijau versus 2 Abiad game all those years ago. In keeping with the tradition of eschewing personal wealth to serve the nation, we have Ahmad Fajarazam who is now second secretary of the Malaysian Embassy in Poland, having been personal liaison to President Khatami of Iran when the latter visited the country a few years ago. Meanwhile, Ang Hean Leng – my worthy rival for the title of top student in the form each year – is now a noted constitutional lawyer in the country, having graduated as one of the top STPM students of the country, and garnered top honours at the University of Malaya. With his colleague, they take on high-profile cases of religious freedom and human rights, and these have attracted death threats, compelling international jurists and politicians to speak out for their unfettered right to continue practising the law and right to safety.
Others favour the beaten track of corporatism. Benjamin Liew Chee Hoong, who was the Leader for Falcon Patrol and I his Second, is today manager of Singapore Airlines in Hanoi, while Khairul Syahar Khalid holds fort in Malaysia Airlines. Sharezal Wahid, my capable assistant when I was monitor in Form 3, is one of the youngest assistant managers at a top Malaysian hotel, the Shangri-La. Others cut their career paths in other ways: Prem Kumar Vellasamy devotes himself to a consumer non-governmental organisation, while the entrepreneurial Arman has built up a mini-empire of retailing operations providing internet services, sundries and groceries while holding down at I.T. management role with a multinational corporation.
My experience in the V.I. has taught me that the debate between free market forces versus central intervention lacks an answer. Instead of choosing between the extremes, we should ask "What are the conditions that make market forces or central intervention optimal?" because different situations compel different ideological leanings.
For example, free choice flourished in the V.I. but excess led to my failure to develop a reading habit, as the abundance of extra-curricular activities distracted me. Nothing was the matter with the library, as it was comfortably air-conditioned, and countless volumes of dusty classics sat ponderously upon the shelves. I wonder if readings programmes like those in M.B.S. would have inculcated more disciplined reading. I enjoyed collecting books and feeding my curiosity leafing through them, but the zest would falter quickly and substantial sections were often left uneyed. Exceptions included Choose Your Own Adventure game books like The Lone Wolf series that I swapped with classmates, tomes of fantasy fiction like The Lord of the Rings, and Canfonian Press comic-style publications of old Chinese classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In my junior years, there was an annual book festival at Changkat Pavillion, beside Chin Woo. V.I. students of both ardent and less bookish categories would flock to the hundreds of stalls there for dirt cheap books. I remember being cheekily mocked by the ex-President of the Literary and Debating Society (VILADS) who spied me absenting myself from a society meeting for the book festival.
Cyclicality is another prominent issue that emerges from the laissez-faire versus intervention debate. As different environmental factors wax and wane in importance, answers to similar problems may look diametrically opposed. It is glib that in an economics exam, the questions may be the same from year to year, but the answers will be different. In early December 1994, during recruitment drives, the unbelievable happened – 2nd KL scooped 120 of the 160 new First Formers as members, leaving the Band railing for new blood. Previously successful marketing techniques, where Bandsmen walked around on their own initiative to speak to First Formers, failed to rouse any enthusiasm. Clearly, intervention was needed if the school's Jewel in the Crown was to retain its dazzle. At one assembly, Puan Robeahtun entreated the First Formers who had not joined uniformed groups to consider allying with the Band. Eventually, even some 2nd KL members left us, but I was already content with the initial moral victory.
The enormous skew towards 2nd KL illustrates that "consumer choice" may not yield socially optimal results, except for the obvious beneficiary. But there were also situations where consumer choice incentivised efforts to produce the best work. Take the obsession with V.I. memorabilia, particularly during the Centenary celebrations. Countless clubs leapt into the money-making fray of producing t-shirts, folders, key chains and numerous souvenirs. But prefects could not use compulsion when pitting their T-shirts against the Interact Club’s, and even the school co-operative had to advertise their wares in the same way as other clubs did. Absent monopoly advertising and distribution power, only the best designs caught the buyers’ eyes and recovered production costs. Popular sales forced second round orders to be placed with the manufacturer. In this exercise, V.I. consumers learned about prudence and the effectiveness of people power, while V.I. entrepreneurs started understanding the paramount importance of product quality compared to the fluff of sheer advertising.
On entrepreneurship, the V.I. encouraged us to be resourceful. Contrary to public perception that the school was populated by rich students, we usually had to adapt ourselves to the lack of resources in executing our tasks. For example, as the school had little money to lavish on keeping the railings spotless, students chipped in by taking turns to repaint those railings. The Interact and Art Clubs were protagonists in this field. In campfires, where budgets constrained outlays on printing, we photocopied song book contents and personally rolled ink and silk-screened hundreds of covers, before laboriously stapling them together. Hours of troop meeting time and buckets of sweat were lost in this annual process, but it cultivated innovative minds and instilled resilience. Unsurprisingly, even when resources are scarce for any undertaking, V.I. boys never shirk unrewarded difficulty and suffering. With the right V.I. attitude, we learned to say, "I’m enjoying this difficulty."
How did we thrive in hardship and relish challenges? If you missed the Victorian spirit hiding between the lines above, read them again! Opportunities for student engagement in all aspects of the school empowered us with a sense of belonging. Perhaps less recognised is the importance of leadership. Ask a student of that era, and he should remember how Auntie Robie would come down to the field when the V.I. team was playing. Ask 5 Hijau of 1995 to tell you how she came to class and with unabashed gusto joined our singing of Sudirman’s Tanggal Tiga Puluh Satu and other anthems during Patriotic Day on 30 August that year. Ask me about not forgetting her repeated mutterings of "Kok Kin, we shouldn’t have lost" as she ferried me back to school from M.B.S. Sentul after the state debate grand final. Puan Robeahtun knew how to connect with staff and students, and she was a master of pedagogy. We would be enthralled listening to her speeches in English at assemblies, awaiting her favourite phrase: "Bla, bla, bla, BUT, there’s a big BUT there". School principals today seldom have time to familiarise themselves with student names; Puan Robeahtun not only did that, but also taught English to several classes. She exemplified the traits of a respectable and effective authority who could properly battle the excesses of free choice when necessary.
Indeed, the V.I. was a fertile ground of ideas, initiative and inspiration. It was not perfect. However, in imperfection lies its strength, because imperfection can impart humility and honesty. Unfortunately, imperfection can also impel myth-making, to deify what is earth-bound. Years of creeping annexation, myth-making and selective memory led to historical fallacies being passed on from one generation to the next via orientations, hostelite stories, and also over casual conversations – like those of the school song composed by Mozart, of the sun and moon signifying magnanimity and all that, of executed prisoners of war hanging off the palm trees, of 206 being graced by General Yamashita. Luckily, Old Boys have re-emerged in recent years with efforts dedicated to combat this phenomenon, deploying ammunition like the V.I. website and articles in school publications.
The V.I. does not need myths; it is glorious enough to thrive in its true history and where its past is dark it has the integrity to admit it. The fallibility of the V.I. has so inspired countless generations of students and teachers, including mine, to strive for the gaya, mutu and keunggulan (style, quality, excellence) which we all seek to preserve, that my senior once wrote, "Nothing replaces excellence, not even success." Fallibility transcends free choice and authority as the fuel for improvement. We strive harder because we know we could fail – this ethos is the V.I.’s legacy to me....
For a V.I. boy, many memories flash blissfully upon the inward eye. The old school bond never dies. Kok Kin meets old V.I. friends to croon Karaoke at Red Box, kick futsal in Petaling Jaya and sip teh tarik kurang manis at Steven’s Corner mamak. Hari Raya and Chinese New Year seldom pass without his visiting friends in KL. In recent years, Kok Kin has forged new friendships with Old Boys of other vintages, counting among them a Troop Leader from 1938, a King Scout anaesthetist in Wisconsin, a former School Captain in Jakarta, a former Victorian editor webkeeping in Vancouver, and an astronomer-cum-pathologist in Dubai.
Many post-1995 Victorians also know Kok Kin well and many have worked closely with him during his frequent visits to the Old School. For the Victorian Editorial Board, he has initiated and led Board interviews with Old Boy Tan Sris (Hashim Ali, Majid Ismail, Gunn Chit Tuan and Chong Hon Nyan). He has also researched and written up on forgotten historical aspects of the school, helping to debunk some recent myths about the school. With the present scouts, Kok Kin has gone camping with them, plugged them into the extensive network of ex-members and served as a ‘quality filter’ for many ideas and efforts such as campfire song books and badgework. Above all, he has bequeathed to posterity his History of V.I. Scouting, arguably, the most extensive history of any scout troop in the world - the V.I. has, after all, the oldest scouting movement in Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew house has also benefited tremendously from Kok Kin’s continuous contact and strategy advice – their nine consecutive Sports Day victory record stands testament. More importantly, he inspired successive cohorts of LKY leaders to return after leaving the V.I., to encourage and coach new generations of LKY sportsmen.
Instead of sleeping in a tent, he would dirty his hands by chopping wood, digging holes and lashing gadgets at a camp; instead of merely instructing athletes from the sidelines, he runs each kilometre with them. Kok Kin believes that charisma must exude from humble willingness to get down to grassroots and, with this conviction, he continues to be a Victorian.
To tempt its new-fledg'd offspring to the skies,
He tried each art, reprov'd each dull delay,
Allur'd to brighter worlds, and led the way.
A watery test of Second KL scouts' tent pitching skills, 2004.
Mind-mapping, speed-reading, issue-analysis, 2004: teaching study skills to V.I. boys.
South-East Asia Forensics Competition, 2005: Kok Kin as a coach and mentor.
Exulting over LKY Sports Day triumph, 2004.
Going for the Sports Day record, 2005: Rousing the LKY boys.
Joining present boys in the Cross Country Run at Bandar Tun Razak, 2005.
Tan Sri’s galore – (from left to right): Tan Sri Hashim Ali,
Meeting Old Boys worldwide – (from left to right): Kuan Beng Teik in
Sydney, Foo Chee Wee in KL,
Chinese New Year, 2003: Good food, good friends and good smiles.
Second KL Reunion at David's wedding, 2004
At Sharezal’s wedding, 2004: Old Victorians pointing to a future one?
Last update December 3, 2006.
Page-Keeper: Chung Chee Min