The Reminiscences of
Prof. Norman Yeow-Khean Foo
Norman Yeow-Khean Foo was a pupil of the V.I. from 1955 to 1961. He was at various times the Secretary to Thamboosamy House, the leader of the Psychology Section in the annual science exhibition, the Chairman of the Literary and Debating Society, a member of the School Debating Team, the Editor of the Seladang, a member of Club 21 and a School Prefect.
He was the Treacher Scholar, Rodger Scholar and Lewis Scholar in his time, the first person to achieve that hat trick.
Awarded a Colombo Plan Scholarship by the New Zealand Government, Norman read for his BE and then ME in electrical engineering at the University of Canterbury where he was a Senior Scholar. He returned to Malaysia in 1966 to practise as a telecommunications engineer with Telecom Malaysia.
Under a Fullbright Scholarship he joined the University of Michigan's Logic of Computer's Group in its Computer and Communications Sciences doctoral program. He was also a General Motors Fellow in 1971. After graduating with his Ph.D. in 1974, Norman was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Systems Science, T.J. Watson School of Advanced Technology, State University of New Yor in Binghamton. He then moved to Sydney University where he eventually became Professor of Knowledge Systems and founding director of the Knowledge Systems Group. He has been Visiting Professor at the IBM Systems Research Institute and T.J. Watson Laboratories, New York, and at the University of Birmingham, England. In August 1996, he joined the University of New South Wales as Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, in the Department of Artificial Intelligence in the School of Computer Science and Engineering.
onrad Lorenz, the Nobel laureate who gave the world the notion of "imprinting", is the real hero in a number of the anecdotes below. Imprinting is the phenomenon best explained by one of Lorenz's experiments. In it he showed that baby geese regarded whichever object or animal that they first saw after birth as their "mother". Thus, they were even made to follow cut-out images as if these were their moms. What has this to do with some VI events in my student days? Well, I think that many of the values that I hold dear, and the habits that I endure, are the result of "imprinting" at opportune (some might cynically say, vulnerable?) moments in my VI days.
My third-form teacher Mr Chew Ah Kong must have noticed that I was getting very bored with whatever he was trying to drill into the class, and he was really cunning. He had to circulate some announcement to all lower form classes, and he selected me to do that. The routine is familiar to all old boys and girls. The victim (me in this case) has to take the note from class to class, and request the teacher in charge to read it to the class. Well, the first class I went to was a second-form class being taught by Mr Yap Chai Seng. Here is what transpired.
Me: "Good morning Sir. Mr Chew Ah Kong sent me. Read this note to your class."
Mr Yap: "Yeow Khean, where are your manners?"
Me: (puzzled) "Sir?"
Mr Yap: "Whenever you want something done, the magic word is 'PLEASE'".
Me: "Oh, sorry Sir, can you please read this note to your class?"
Which he then did. To this day I am very conscious of manners. I say "please" and "sorry" with ease. Mr Yap Chai Seng is to blame! His son is Dr Roland Yap, an academic in computer science at the National University of Singapore. I have told Roland this story and he must think it has an apocryphal ring to it. But it is simply imprinting on the mind of a hapless 13 year-old.
At the end of my third form there was no in-school final examination because the new nation-wide LCE exam was taken by all. Being the kind of school that the VI was, over a dozen of us got A's in every subject we took. So, how were prizes to be awarded? I do not know for certain, but evidently the third-form teachers got together and assessed us using criteria best known to themselves. Again I do not recall how I got to know, but I found out that they intended to award me the first-in-form prize. I was very disturbed at this because I knew an objective measure could be defended, and it was not used. This was the mid-year examination, at which I bombed (usual for me in mid-year exams), and the top performer was Ow Yang Chee Wah. As I was nervous, I persuaded my buddy Chung Choeng Hoy to accompany me to see Mr. Gerald Fernandez who was in charge of third form. I insisted to Mr. Fernandez that it was Chee Wah who deserved the first-in-form prize, and said why. Happily, Mr Fernandez eventually saw the justice of my argument and acted accordingly. Somehow Mr Ganga Singh (whom I deeply admired -- I did an interview of him for the Seladang) found out what I did, and he saw me privately. This is what he said to me: "Yeow Khean, what you did was a noble thing. I am very proud of you." This was the imprinting. There are many things that I have since done simply because they were correct or proper. Had I failed to do them, I could just imagine Mr Ganga Singh looking over my shoulder and saying, "Yeow Khean, aren't we forgetting something?" It is a joy that Ow Yang Chee Wah, who was not only a respected scholar but a talented sportsman (he was pole vault champion in the VI), is still a close friend of mine; he is a semi-retired GP in south Sydney. Chung Choeng Hoy, a swim star, went on to become School Captain in 1961, and later was a World Bank economist.
THE RIGHT CHEMISTRY
In my upper sixth-form year 1961 our physics teacher Mr Yeong Siew Mun (more about him later) and chemistry teacher Mr Sim Wong Kooi decided to combine the physics and chemistry classes for the B1 (math majors) and B2 (biology majors) students. This is about an imprinting I got from Mr Sim. He undoubtedly suffered from having to teach students like me chemistry. There were a number of us who could be charitably described as chemistry-challenged. We used to sit as far back in the class as we could, so that we could avoid his searching gaze. I will name names! And tell you what became of them! Lam Ah Lek (Colonel, Royal Malaysian Navy, retired), Ahmad Zaidee (Dato Dr, Vice Chancellor MARA Institute of Technology and Past President, Malaysian Institute of Engineers), G.K. Madhusudhan (Medical Specialist, a northern UK hospital), Khoo Khee Meng (Agricultural Scientist and Consultant), Wong Yin Fook (Software Consultant, UK). Mr Sim would give "pop quizzes". If you could not answer, you remained standing. Typical question: "From compounds X,Y and Z, how would you synthesize compound V?" His clowns (we deserved this nickname - I sat in between Ah Lek and Zaidee) could never answer anything, so they were the objects of much mirth. The unanswered question was passed to the next victim, and so forth until a correct answer was given. It was also Mr Sim's idea that we should all master the reactions associated with the important elements, and to do this he set up working groups to draw up charts in which the central node was the element concerned. It was actually a great pedagogical device, but I guess his clowns were too immature to appreciate it. You guessed it, the clowns formed a group, and I cannot recall which element was to be our buddy. But the chart we were assigned to prepare was to be presented to the B1/B2 class some afternoon (so that way we all benefited from the labors of our classmates - another ingenious device). You guessed it again! We did not prepare ours, and in fear we did not show up for our presentation. The next day, when we were mulling about before chemistry class, a few of our friends gleefully came up to us and said, "You die, Mr Sim was looking for you lot yesterday! Hee, hee, he will kill you". To cut a long story short, when it came to proffering our excuse, we thought the better of the coincidental near-death of six grandmothers and simply said we had no excuse. At which point Mr Sim said: "Since you six are clearly not interested in chemistry, you can all take your books and cool yourselves in the library, and not bother to come to class again". We left, and thought, "Liberty, Fraternity!" Now, for a week, we spent wonderful days in the library while our classmates were in chemistry class. Oh frabjous joy! Until our vacation was rudely interrupted by sadistic classmates thus: "You all die! Mr Sim is expecting you all to apologize and beg to come back to class. If you don't, he will tell Dr Lewis, and then you will all really die! Hee, hee!" Now, this was really taking things too far. None of us fancied being caned by Dr Lewis the Principal, nor did we fancy being hauled in front of the Friday assembly and shamed. So, we crept humbly to the Staff Room during the interval and since I had drawn the short straw I did the talking. Here is what went on:
Me: "Sir, we wish to apologize for our idiotic and inconsiderate negligence, and hope you will forgive us and let us come back to class."
Mr Sim: "OK, you can come back, but you must work hard from now. WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG TO COME AND APOLOGIZE?"
The imprinting in me is that when an apology is due, do it quickly!
A couple of years junior to me was Tso Chih Peng (who, I am informed, is an engineering professor in Singapore). He used to beat all and sundry in table tennis, except the true champions. Certainly I could not beat him even though I played a reasonable game. Then one day, Lim Chooi Tee (the super-sportsman, who became my close friend) pointed out to me that Chih Peng was not nicknamed "Rock-and-Roll" for nothing. Chooi Tee alerted me to Chih Peng's brilliant table-tennis style:
Chooi Tee: "Notice that he has no forehand stroke! (Chih Peng used the western grip.) He only uses the back-hand, so as a result he moves left and right to return balls, and looks like a vigorous rock-and-roll dancer!"
Chooi Tee: "Well, he has such a disconcerting style that he unsettles his opponents! And table-tennis is the most psychological sport of all sports!"
Insight!! From then on, I would sometimes ruefully recall this astute observation in domains far removed from sports. Talent often loses out to irritation and distraction. And if you can be the master of irritation or distraction, you can louse up people who would normally prosper. Now, just so you don't get the wrong idea, I am sure that Chih Peng did not do that intentionally - it was an unintended side effect.
In the old Science Wing (part of the right wing of the old building if you look from the front) there was a Laboratory in which were inscribed on the four (maybe two?) walls in large lettering impossible to ignore: "THEORY WITHOUT PRACTICE IS BLIND. PRACTICE WITHOUT THEORY IS EMPTY". I do not know who was responsible for it, but a good guess would be the legendary VI science master Mr Daniel who had long retired before I joined the VI in 1955 as a first-former. I do not recall when I first understood the intent of the two sentences, but when I did (probably when I fell in love with math and physics in the fourth form) they were my Epiphany, my Road to Damascus. Prior to that I had merely regarded science as something that I had to do, much like history and geography, to pass exams well. After that, science became a calling. It was about TRUTH, and the two indissoluble paths to it were seared into my consciousness by these words so cleverly and aptly chosen by a wise science master. And the effect of this imprinting? I have never looked back. I am a scientist by profession, still awed by the success of the interplay between theory and practice that underpins the scientific method. Today, even as I ponder the effectiveness of induction and machine learning, and the near-mystical power of deep mathematics to describe the universe, the succinct clarity of the two sentences still amazes me. I quote it to my graduate students, and they find it difficult to believe that I first saw them in a modest lab in a small British colony when I was an 11 year old. But then, it was in an extraordinary school!
THE SUBVERSIVE SCOTSMAN
When would you say it was the most dangerous time to expose young men and women to blasphemous and iconoclastic ideas? Should we subvert the certainties of our young charges who come from conventional and bourgeois homes? I came from such a home, with parents anxious that I should secure a comfortable profession remote from excitement. I suspect that Mr Milne, who only taught me occasionally when my regular teachers were absent or busy, had other plans for some of his charges. I got to know him when I was being coached for the debating team. (Mr John Doraisamy was another coach, but more about him later.) I was in the fourth form then. Here is what Mr Milne did. My passion for science had just been ignited, and there were no bounds to my curiosity. He must have noticed my questions about God and the Universe, and he lent me BOOKS. These were not books about physics, but books by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and they addressed the inner universe of the mind. He must have done that to Ooi Boon Seng too, for Boon Seng became a devotee of Freud. There was never a debate in which Boon Seng spoke that he did not psychoanalyse something! The Freud books that Mr Milne lent me were The Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism. Jung's book that he lent me was the classic Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. I had never read anything as deliciously scandalous as these books! If you do not know why, go look at them. They were a lot more seditious than the Lady Chatterley's Lover paperback that was being smuggled around in a dust-jacket entitled Inorganic Chemistry in my class then. (Do you see the irony of the dust jacket? LCL was surely about chemistry, but also most assuredly it was all about organic stuff!) When I think of Mr Milne these days, it is fondly of a man who often reeked of alcohol, but who so loved unusual literature that he would seize opportunities to impart that love to the young. And I would also say from experience that fifteen is about the right age to imprint in them an abiding love for imagination and subversion.
There are several poems that we were forced to learn well in the third form, to the point where we could almost recite them by heart. This was part of English literature. Students of my generation can all place these beginning lines:
"The boy stood on the burning deck ..."
Who picked them? I was told that Mr Ganga Singh had a big hand in this. What was the effect of learning this stuff? Well, to this day I am able to quote passages from them that are appropriate to social situations. This cannot be unique to me. My imprinting in poetry began very early, in Batu Road School, one of the two feeders into VI (the other was Pasar Road School, which I had also attended). Strangely, my teacher there was in the same mold as Mr Ganga Singh. He was Mr Sadhu Singh, and these are the opening lines of three poems he taught us:
"I met a traveller from an antique land ..."
Once exposed to these gems, a young mind is enriched forever. Mine certainly was.
A TREASURE TROVE
The School Library was a treasure trove of delights of all kinds. It was probably the first air-conditioned school library in Malaya. One day when I was in the second-form, a senior boy beckoned me surreptitiously and pointed to a thick volume. I saw the title, One Thousand and One Nights - Volume I. Now, I do not know if the two volumes are still in the Library, but between the years 1955 and 1961 when I was in the VI, no self-respecting student would have failed to at least make a show of cheekily perusing some of the content. In case you do not know, these were the translations by Sir Richard Burton (no, not the most famous of Liz Taylor's husbands, but the late 19th century British Arabist) of the alleged tales of Sheherazade who told them to her Sultan husband each night to avoid being executed ...., well, never mind the details. The main point is that many of these tales were pornographic! Generations of students had added to the legend by writing comments on the margins (perhaps inspired by stories about Fermat?), some lurid, many very witty. It was also easy to find the interesting pages. One had merely to look at the edge of the book to see which pages were most shop-soiled. It was almost a mark of sophistication to be able to rest the book on its spine, and let it fall open on the most enticing pages. Now, back to my initiation. The first story I read already had copious margin notes of much erudition. Many will now recognize its title: The Boy and The Rubber. I will say no more about it.
Lest you worry that I read no other books, I hasten to recall some of the other treasures. The Library boasted the Dialogs of Plato, and his Republic. I read the latter, and some of the former. Reading Plato's Republic can be destructive. Shamefully in retrospect, I misused it by learning how to exploit the Socratic method to twist the arguments of my debating opponents. There were many volumes by the Brontë sisters that I avoided because I could not abide their themes, and tomes of Dickens which sickened me with their unrelieved verbosity, so I avoided them too. But there was a precious book by Isaiah Berlin called Historical Inevitability that was a revelation to me because I had hitherto been persuaded that Marxism was truly scientific. The science fiction collection was not strong, so I had to go to other libraries for that. But the "real science" collection was superb. There were beautiful volumes on Greek mathematics and science. One could read endlessly about Alexandrian science, and Archimedes, and Euclid. If your thing was modern physics, real analysis or suchlike, you could live in the Library for weeks! The standard UNIVERSITY books on physics were on the shelf - Resnick and Halliday, Margenu and Montgomery, Sears and Zemansky. So were the standard university stuff on differential equations and linear algebra.
Well-thumbed volumes were Hardy's Pure Mathematics and Piaggio's Differential Equations. I am sure similar adventures awaited my B2 classmates in the volumes on genetics and neural science. I know there was a copy of Pasternak's Dr Zhivago because I donated my copy to the Library after I read it. And would you believe it, there were the volumes of Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, which provided many hours of hilarious amusement for us when the exams were far away enough for us to indulge ourselves. Reading Frazer taught us something very valuable. His bizarrely inaccurate descriptions - some would say they were inventions - of the practices and customs of the Malay Peninsular revealed to us that just because something had appeared in print, was expensively bound, and been written by a knight of the realm, was no reason to expect it to be true. I had a go at the Library's copy of Dante's Inferno, but gave up when it got tedious. Sadly, a lot of the slow-moving contemplative stuff in Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Dante, etc. lost out to Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane for many of us. The only saving grace was that we loved Shakespeare; lots of murder, blood, betrayals, action, lust, greed, envy! And his action was fast. Henry V was a great favorite. So was Richard III, and Julius Caesar. Everybody awaited the annual parody during Speech Day of Mark Antony's oration at Caesar's funeral: "... Brutus said that Caesar was ambitious. I say, Ambitious My Foot!". Another great favourite was a parody of the sleep-walking Lady Macbeth soliloquy, played one unforgettable year by a senior MALE Sikh student. As I was in the B1 class of potential mathematicians and engineers, I would have been thought to be (what is nowadays called) a wimp if I was caught reading Keats and Shelley for fun. But I sneaked, and read them in the library, then found them so alluring (Prometheus Unbound was my favorite) that I went out and bought the paperbacks. The library also carried some of the plays of Sophocles, and after being subverted by Mr Milne's books on Freud, I had to read Oedipus Rex. I don't remember if the library had it, but I read it and it shook me to the core. Ever since then, the Greek myths have been part of my soul. What a library!
When I was in the lower sixth, there was a physics experiment designed by our teacher Mr Yeong Siew Mun to demonstrate terminal velocity. It was as ingenious as it was simple. He got hold of a large bore glass tube, and sealed the bottom by attaching a rubber sleeve to it, and clamping the sleeve with a spring clip. Then he filled the vertical tube with golden syrup. A meter rule was attached alongside. We would drop ball bearings from the top and use a stop watch to measure the rate of their descent by recording the distance dropped with respect to time. This way we learned to work in teams, to take readings, and to understand experimental error. The strange thing was that although the resulting terminal velocity was pretty much the same for all groups, as the weeks progressed this seemed to be reached further and further down the tube. Mr Yeong was puzzled. But all was revealed when it became clear that a number of my classmates had a free source of sweetener for their sandwiches! I understand that some became excellent engineers and business people. Here is a story about Mr Yeong that is burned into my memory. I was in lower six when he first taught me, and I was besotted with physics (among other things, like psychology and Greek philosophy). One day, a few other physics addicts like me held him up after class to get him to explain the Double-Slit Experiment to us. This is the quintessential quantum mechanics experiment. While explaining it, he had occasion to write down on the blackboard Schrödinger's wave equation. He was stuck for a while in recalling some its coefficients, and he got quite upset with himself. He got it right finally, but he impressed the hell out of me. Here was a true intellectual, who valued precise knowledge! For the next two years he was one of my heroes.
One measure of a school is the way teachers and students interact. Mr John Doraisamy who taught economics did not formally teach me, although I would gladly have junked chemistry for economics had the HSC been flexible enough then. That did not prevent me from having long conversations with him about political economy. He was also one of my debating coaches. One afternoon in the canteen we fell into talking about Thomas Malthus. The reason was that he noticed that I was reading a book, Must Men Starve? (I forget the author), which introduced to me the Malthusian doctrine. I will never forget the discussion with him. He treated me like an adult when I was only in the fifth form! He listened to my opinions, challenging them gently when they were in error, but also (to my surprise and admiration) admitting his ignorance or uncertainty sometimes. A question he asked me was, "Do you think the Malthusian law is absolutely true?" I thought long and hard before answering, "Not if the society is modern and has voluntary fertility control." He was pleased as punch with that, and I was pleased that he was! I was vulnerable enough to have craved approval from teachers I admired.
Two other teachers whose "good books" I had to be in were Mrs Jeyasothie Devadason and Miss Chiew Pek Lin. Mrs Devadason taught me English in the fifth and sixth forms, and besides imparting a lasting love for Shakespeare to us, also made sure we learned how to behave like young gentlemen. This she cleverly achieved by regularly inviting us to her home for parties in which many pretty young ladies were present. I certainly overcame my shyness that way. I was devastated when she passed away when I was in the upper sixth. Mrs Devadason liked my essays but urged me to be a more careful speller. I had the weakness of spelling phonetically quite often, and using American spelling without even knowing they were such. (It did not help that I was reading magazines like Time.) But she persisted and probably saved me from unnecessary loss of marks in the SC and HSC. Miss Chiew taught me and my classmates for only about two years in the second and third forms. But in that short time, the example she set was to last a lifetime. Her influence on me is like that of Mr Ganga Singh. I handle moral quandaries in my life partly by asking what Mr Ganga Singh, or Miss Chiew, (or one of my university professors Jack Woodward) would have done. Miss Chiew was not merely a teacher. She took upon herself to look after the welfare of her charges, and as a result she is an "elder sister" figure to them to this day. And would you believe destiny? She now lives just two doors from me! Officially she is Mrs Wong, having married Prof Francis Wong, an educationist. But ask any VI boy or girl who knows her, and she is perennially Miss Chiew.
We had the good fortune to be taught mathematics for a full four years, all the way from the fourth to the upper sixth forms, by Mr S.G. Ayyar, BA (Madras). Mr Ayyar brooked no nonsense. His unremitting objective was to have his boys (and occasionally a girl or two, since not many did the A-level math in those days) master the stuff of mathematics to the point where it was well-nigh impossible for the Cambridge examiners to set questions the shape of which we had not seen before. The method was as simple as it was effective. First came the derivation of formulas, for which you had to understand the logic. Then came the drill in applying them. Then the challenge extensions. If you mastered the first two, you would be assured of a good credit; the second would bring a distinction. His untiring efforts would result in almost all passing, three-quarter the class with credit or better. In a typical week I would have solved over twenty problems. One day, he was dictating a mechanics problem, "Consider a one ton weight at the end of a weightless string ..." At which point I giggled at the absurdity of the model. He looked mischievously at me and sneered, "Engineer!". He did not like students who rote-memorised, but was a persuasive advocate for "first principles". Heaven help the student who can only apply a formula but cannot derive it when challenged. None of us will ever forget, for instance, his approach to Statics: "Resolve forces horizontally; resolve them vertically; take moments". Works like a dream, everytime! His accent was Southern Indian, and so great was his influence on me that years after, whenever I talked about mathematics, I would unconsciously lapse into this accent, so deeply did I hold him in awe.
SILVER TONGUE ARRIVES
My buddy G.K. Madhusudhan, now a medico in England, joined us in the third form. He quickly made a huge impression by volunteering to summarize a chapter of some book the class was reading. It was not the fact of volunteering that was impressive (although it was undoubtedly so, too) but the smooth and confident way that he did it. I recall it being something like this: "XX had resolved to bring matters to a head, and to accomplish this he executed a devilishly clever plan ..." Oh wow, we all thought, Silver Tongue had arrived! And there we had found our secret weapon with which (actually, whom) we would one day win the Thuraisingam Shield from the MBS (the rival school down the road) on their home ground. You see, the annual VI-MBS debate was held in the VI or MBS on alternate years, and the tradition was that the host school had always won. Madhu, as he became affectionately known, soon established a formidable reputation as a debater, honing his oratory as the years progressed -- Form 4, 5, Lower 6, then Upper 6. I did my bit, too, but almost always as third speaker to his first. Our coaches, mainly interested teachers, were superb. In a typical strategy session, Madhu, I, and whoever was second speaker (most memorable were the Sodhy cousins, Sheila and Renuka; others were Ivy Ponniah, Baljit Kaur, Marina Yusoff) would meet to prepare material. The core of it was not only to make our case, but to anticipate the opposing argument. I played devil's advocate, and that was good because my task as third speaker was to extemporise, and deliver impromptu sarcasm and laughs at the expense of the opposition. It often looked very clever, but little did the audience know that we had already anticipated 80% of our opponents' arguments, and had ready replies. Madhu, usually with the cunning assistance of the Sodhy cousins, would plan the arguments, and coin the winning phrases. Silver Tongue appeared to be effortless in this. When needed, he would conjure up cadences that stirred even the near-moribund and, if he desired tears, he would invent excruciating pathos. The Sodhys were masters (or should that be mistresses?) of poetic elegance. Me, well, I had read my Plato and knew how to make an opponent look naïve by simply using the Socratic trick of asking them to define things (that actually nobody could really define), or taking their arguments to absurd conclusions -- not much oratory in this, just sheer mischief.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, in our Upper Sixth year I think, Madhu, Renuka and I led the VI to an unprecedented victory in the Thuraisingham Shield by winning it for the VI on the MBS home ground. Then, at the end of the year after our HSC exams, the same team led the VI to victory in a national inter-school debating championship sponsored by Radio Malaya. Madhu's father was in that audience, and we all chuckled when he was so (justly!) proud of Madhu that he kissed him! I wish I had recordings of Madhu's speeches, and videos too for the gestures and facial expressions that accompanied them were pure theatre. A favorite of his was to mimic weighing scales with his two hands, and ask (I try to recall!), "Where is their sense of balance? Do they even know how to measure things? Are they even aware that there are things to measure? Oh, to be so innocently blind! Such is the unalloyed joy of infant minds!" The beauty of such constructs was that he could use them in ANY context!
I joined the VI from Batu Road School and my first form teacher was Mr T. Ramachandran. He taught us Mathematics and English, handing us over to other teachers for Physical Training, General Science, History, etc. This was my first experience of "specialist teachers". Mr Ramachandran was an exacting English teacher. He made us read passages aloud, correcting our diction and accent. As we probably carried into the classroom accents of our mother tongues (and dialects!), he did his best to erase them from our pronunciations of English. Initially we giggled at his attempts to have us pronounce, e.g., "expected" as "ig-spec-tid". One day, we giggled too loudly, and he was genuinely hurt. He said, "I spent a lot of money and time to learn how to speak English like an Englishman, and all you do is laugh at me. If you want to speak Shakespeare's language, the least you could do is to speak it well." We were shamed. From that day I listened carefully to his diction, and tried to emulate it. He also drilled us from a marvellous book whose author I forget, but the title of which describes its intent: "Correct Your English". From that book, we learned to avoid grammatical errors that are still heard from the lips of highly educated Malaysians, e.g. "You don't like this, isn't it?" Mr Ramachandran would drill us in exercises from that book, so that by the end of the year most had mastered correct contractions, e.g, "You don't like this, do you?", "I should laugh, shouldn't I?". Then came the transitive verbs, e.g., "Let's discuss this" (not "Let's discuss about this"). And count agreement, e.g. "To them that have, less should be given" (not "has"). Subjunctives, e.g. "If I were the king, I would free the slaves" (not "was", not "am"). His teaching was so effective that by the end of the year (1955), I spoke grammatical English with ease, and with a colloquial command equal to that of native English speakers of my age educated in a grammar school in England. So did most of my classmates. One sad side effect -- my default language of thought became English, and I began losing my mother tongue. Mr Ramachandran loved the English language as much as Mr Ganga Singh, and he tried to inculcate that in his charges; I am testimony that he succeeded in no small measure.
A SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
Mr Lim Eng Thye seemed to be Senior Assistant for as long as anyone could remember. He was Dr Lewis' trusted right-hand man, and the chief executor of day-to-day discipline. He would patrol the school and set right wayward boys (always boys, I did not ever see him discipline a girl) by the classic "Eng Thye Knock" on the forehead. This was a legendary manoeuvre worthy of much celebration in the annals of VI. For the uninitiated I will try to describe it. First, clench your fist, position it so that you can see the back of it (so the fingers are at the bottom). Then bend it down so that the back is now inclined about 45 degrees to the horizontal, sloping forward. Then flick it upwards to about 45 degrees above the horizontal. Ah, that is the "Eng Thye Knock" if you had applied your clenched fist to the forehead of a naughty VI boy! I had received the grand total of TWO such knocks in my entire school career. The most unfortunate of my pals is Chong Sun Yeh, VI vice-captain in 1961 and now a retired engineer-accountant-lawyer in Melbourne. He had the misfortune of sitting next to the back door of our Form 4B classroom, and that door was missing the hook that would have kept it fully open. Every time Mr Eng Thye passed it on his patrol, he would hold Sun Yeh responsible for the loose door, say to him, "Why don't you hook the door?" and also administer the "Eng Thye Knock" to poor Sun Yeh simultaneously. Understandably, no one wanted to change seats with Sun Yeh despite his heart-rending pleas. I never quite understood why it was so difficult for the school to replace that hook!
Wong Yin Fook, a great sprinter and mid-distance athlete was a prefect in our 5B class the following year. He had the uneviable task of helping our class monitor Yeo Chee Liang to keep order in the class whenever teachers were absent, or yet to arrive for the next lesson. One day Yin Fook used a trick that had succeeded often in the past when the boys became really noisy and rowdy. He stood up from his chair near the back door and shouted, "Keep quiet! Eng Thye is coming!" Well, a trick can be tried once too often, and this time it was. Coincidentally, Mr Eng Thye actually had arrived on his patrol and was standing behind Yin Fook just as the latter shouted his warning! Mr Eng Thye then boomed, "Oh, so Eng Thye is coming, is he? Well, Eng Thye HAS COME!! Wong Yin Fook, I am a-shaamed of you! Eng Thye coming indeed!" Poor Yin Fook! I had never seen anyone so mortified. I wanted to laugh but had to suppress it. But once Eng Thye was out of range, you could hear everyone guffaw. Luckily Yin Fook did not receive the customary Eng Thye knock.
Old (and quite ancient ones like me) VI boys of a certain vintage who happen to gather in some pub halfway round the world would invariably come around to ranking one another by how many "Eng Thye Knocks" each had received. Mr Eng Thye had a very soft side that the boys only discovered when they visited him and his wife during Chinese New Year. Mr and Mrs Eng Thye would lay out sumptuous cakes and urge the boys to eat to their fill, and then more! They were childless, and I believe that he regarded most of us as his surrogate children, that his responsibility as surrogate parent was to make us into little gentlemen of whom he could be secretly proud.
The Brasso Teams of VI lore.... I do not know if the tradition persists, but in my days there was a weekly competition to see which class would win the "best polished door hinges and cleanest classroom" in the school. The winning team would be announced on Friday assembly, and the class monitor invited to shake Dr Lewis' hand and receive the award. Each class was free to organize its hinge polishing roster, and usually the monitor did the scheduling. Even prefects were not exempted. I did my share, and the manual labor was therapeutic. It was a great leveller, especially when the boys saw that the Crown Prince of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah (4 years my junior) also had to brasso the hinges. Some were rostered to sweep the classroom floor. Usually, the cleaning activity was uneventful, but one memorable day it almost precipitated a catastrophe. To understand the circumstances, I have to explain another tradition just in case it is now dead. For misdemeanors that a teacher or prefect deems to be "beyond the pale", a boy (or girl, yes!) can be sent to Detention Class, better known in my days as DC. DC was on Saturday mornings. It was, I and my fellow victims thought, specially designed to rob us of the pleasure of sleeping in on the first day of the weekend. I attended my share of DCs, not because I was particularly evil, but because a few teachers (whom I had grown to despise -- yes, there were these unspeakable creatures in the VI too) began misusing the DC for very minor lapses. Example: a few of us were sent to DC for forgetting to bring our Atlases to geography class! In one DC, a number of us were assigned to polish the hinges of the Chemistry Lab in the old science wing. I was in the Third Form then, and among the DC punishees were some Fifth Form lads whose identities I have forgotten, so let me just call them XX, YY, etc. Now, the Lab hinges were rarely polished, so the brass was virtually BLACK. XX's hard work and liberal applications of brasso seemed to achieve little. Here is what I heard:
XX: "Oi, everyone! I have a bright idea! This is the chemistry lab, and we all know what Aqua Regia does! Bloody hell, I'm going to get some and pour it on these hinges, and they will be shiny in no time!"
YY: "You sure that is not dangerous?"
XX: "You chicken or something? What is science good for if we cannot apply it? Come and help me get some Aqua Regia!"
So off they went to the benches.
ZZ: "Hey, no Aqua Regia anywhere. Mr Toh Boon Huah must have locked it away. But never mind, here is some concentrated Sulphuric Acid -- that should be powerful enough!"
XX: "OK, don't waste time, pour it on this hinge!"
Oh, wow! I was standing a little way away, a bit nervous, but near enough so as not to miss the excitement. The acid trickled down the hinge and the shine was restored in its path -- BUT! it trickled onto the wood, and began dripping on the floor, and I saw smoke!
YY: (yelling): "Ahhh! Help! It is burning the Lab!"
XX: "Idiot, don't just stand there! Go get some sodium hydroxide! Alkalis neutralise acids!"
The rest was a blur. Maybe all three of them got the NaOH and poured it on the stuff that the acid was dissolving. Then they wiped off the lot with the many rags we had. By the time the prefects came to see what the commotion was about, these guys were whistling away nonchalantly as if nothing had happened. Today my sons will describe them as "Real Cool".
The VI, like most English-language schools in the 50's and 60's, was a crucible of Malayan nationalism. A good number of VI students were present in the Stadium Merdeka when the Tunku (Abdul Rahman, of course - was there any other?) became the first PM of Malaya on August 31, 1957. I was there, and it was the proudest moment of my life to date. Like most of my schoolmates, I did not feel I was Chinese (sub-group Peranakan) but Malayan (there was no Malaysia then). How come, you might ask? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, we had all been indoctrinated to think so. And in retrospect, not too subtly either. At every opportunity the subliminal message was that we were not Malay, Chinese, Indian or Eurasian - we were Malayans. More overtly, on every Friday assembly the national anthem would be sung to the raising of the national flag. The Malay language, once regarded as a vernacular, became compulsory. English however, remained the language of instruction, and was the usual language on the playground. Rugby and cricket were the star sports that even badminton had difficulty in displacing. The result? VI boys and girls of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian descent mixed freely, unselfconsciously, easily, comfortably and often affectionately with one another, because they all regarded themselves as Malayans.
There was also reinforcement from English literature. It hinted that the greatness of the British was in no small measure due to their early nationalism. Shakespeare's Henry V and Richard II drove the lesson home. Henry V's prayer before Agincourt, "O God of Battles, Steel my soldiers' hearts ...", and his exhortation of his men, "... And now good yeomen, Whose limbs are made in England ..." hinted at what national pride could do. Then there was John of Gaunt's dying speech in Richard II, with the stirring lines describing England, "... this royal throne of kings, this sceptr'd isle, ... this other Eden, demi-paradise, ... the envy of less happier lands..., this England!" Surely, if a small island could conquer half the world, this nationalistic self-confidence must have been part of the story? Why, we Victorians could aspire to lead Malaya to glory too, if we loved our country as intensely as the English loved theirs!
This subsumption of our different ethnicities in a Malayan identity in the VI had a salutary effect. Deep and lasting bonds formed regardless of race. (Example: one of my closest friends to this day is PJ, a Jaffna Tamil who was my VI classmate.) Somewhat disturbing to their parents in many cases, a good number of VI boys and girls also entertained romantic notions and adventures that transcended ethnic divisions too. I will now recount some of the latter.
The object of many a senior red-blooded boy's crush was the Head Girl, NN. She rode a Lambretta scooter to school with her pony tail waving. A number of my classmates swooned whenever they spied her. A scholarly prefect, GG, a year her senior, was the last person whom I thought would fall for NN. This he did, in a big way. How did I know? Well, I was in Thamboosamy house (as was NN!), and our House debating team was led by EE, a star debater in the same year as GG. Our team was to meet the Davidson House team led by GG. Here is what EE told me. "We will destroy GG! Here's how we will do it. He is crazy about NN, so we will put her in our team and all she has to do is say a few words but keep smiling at GG all the time. He will be so distracted that he would not be able to collect his thoughts despite that big brain of his!" And it worked! What is wonderful about it was that NN was Malay and GG Chinese. It did not matter. They were together quite a bit. As for EE, he was of Jaffna Tamil descent and he, too, met his match and fell like a ton of bricks for WW, a Chinese girl. They became inseparable. Theirs was an exceptional relationship, for it continued into their early university years.
A champion athlete was YY, who was built like a stud. For the concert item on Speech Day, his class put on a "play" which I am not sure would be permitted today. It was a 15 minute sketch set in a slummy Latin café, dimly lit, and seated on a chair obviously boozed was ZZ, the most well-endowed girl in U6A. YY then came on stage, dressed like a randy stud, half-unbuttoned shirt, and he seized ZZ in a passionate embrace, and together they danced a sultry tango. Long after that Concert Night, they were still a pair. He was Chinese, and she Malay. (Many senior boys of all ethnicities were much taken by ZZ.)
The point about these pairings was that no one thought anything unusual about the cross-ethnic relationships - they were completely unremarkable in the VI that I remember. My own classmate BB was besotted with CC, to the point that he found it painful to leave for England without her after his HSC. He was Malay and she Chinese. Me? For a few months I had a "thing" about a cute Malay girl SH in the arts stream with whom I would flirt when she visited the physics lab while I was designing experiments for the Science Exhibition. A number of my classmates, Chinese, Indian and Malay, would often find excuses to visit BB in his home up the hill where the Telecom tower now sits, just to meet his charming sisters. My brilliant debating pal HH, of Malayali descent, was hopelessly infatuated with our fellow debater VV, of Sikh descent. He dared not confess it, for fear of rejection. But I suspected that VV knew - HH's body language was too obvious. Nevertheless, nothing came out of this, because HH was too proper! The irony of it was that I knew many girls from other schools of all ethnicities who were fantasizing about HH because he was so utterly charming on the debating stage.
Then there was the heart-rending case of XX, a scholar of Jaffna Tamil extraction whose overtures to KK, arguably the best-endowed Chinese girl of his year, was not reciprocated. His consolation was that she rejected overtures from all and sundry too. One of my friends was the Eurasian prefect SS. He was a handsome and very athletic lad, so was secretly drooled over by a number of girls. But a Chinese damsel LL in his Arts class was so obviously dreamy about him that it was often painfully embarrassing to watch. However, SS was a perfect gentleman and never took advantage of his potential Lothario status.
What became of these romantic pairings? Usually the constraints of the external world took over when they left the VI. If Malaya (or later, Malaysia) was like Thailand with no religious or serious cultural divisions, many of the pairings would have persisted. But that was not to be. Most sundered, and parental objections were only the beginning of the problems. I know of one pair that survived by escaping overseas. Which just goes to show how unusual the VI was, that such relationships could have flourished, and I am sure many of the players do look back longingly to a more innocent and joyful time.
Some postscripts. GG went on to a distinguished medical career, and his girlfriend NN to a career in journalism and broadcasting. I heard a touching story that he used to tune into Radio Malaya to listen to her present The Children's Hour just to hear her voice. You see, they were in different cities then, and distance and time eventually took their toll. In my younger brother's year, his Jaffna Tamil buddy RK fell for a Chinese girl YM, and they had to wait to complete their degrees and then eloped to get hitched. In my year in the Arts stream, after completing her degree the Sikh girl PP ran away with her old VI Chinese classmate, but not before she narrowly escaped an attempt by her father to break up the relationship.
More postscripts. Malaysian nationalism is a dead horse today. Cynicism seems to be dominant. Perhaps that is not a bad thing, for nationalism or patriotism can be very dangerous in our modern world. If the new VI is nurturing an international ethos, it would be in keeping with its adventurous history in education. However, I hope that it has not stopped nurturing cross-ethnic romance!
My last year in the V.I. was in the Upper Sixth B1 class of Pure and Applied Mathematics specialists. There was no variation in the subjects we took for the HSC ("A"-levels): Pure Math, Applied Math, Physics, Chemistry, General Paper. This strait-jacket curriculum was routine for the colonies that had only recently emerged from the paternalism of the British Empire. My friends in U6B2 were just as constrained by Zoology, Botany, Physics and Chemistry. The only escape from this was to elect the Arts stream and join either U6A1 or U6A2. I would sometimes look enviously upon my friends in U6A1/2 and wish I had their freedom of choice. They had before them a seductive array of subjects - Economics, History, Geography, English, Literature, Languages, Religion, Philosophy, and (even!) Pure, Applied or General Mathematics. I had thought it unfair that they could offer Mathematics while we B1/B2 students could not substitute, say, Economics for Chemistry. I had a vested interest in this particular substitution because I was such an appallingly reluctant student of Chemistry, quite contrary to my avid interest in things economic. Many of my U6B1 classmates were similarly turned off by this over-specialization. I had briefly entertained switching to the Arts when I went up from 5B to Lower Sixth because of my allergy to Chemistry, since I could still offer Pure and Applied math. But a quick inquiry killed off this fantasy when I found out that Arts majors could not offer Physics! After all, my only rationale for becoming adept at Math was simply so I could use it in Physics (my mystic religion after I read Sir James Jeans' Physics and Philosophy that was in the school library).
One reaction to the intellectual narrowness of U6B1 among my classmates was the cultivation of a love for the scatological, the unconventional and the scandalous. A number of them became devotees of the insane logic of the Goon Show. These guys could rattle off by heart screeds of the episodes. Another lot pretended to be homosexuals, and sporadically produced a two-page parody of the Seladang which they called the V.I. H-Times. This carried fake ads for things like "reinforced-concrete back-seat pants". Yet another group decided to become experts in the latest cult movies. I am sure that if games like Dungeons and Dragons, or Diplomacy, were around then, they would have consumed my class. Students of today do not know how lucky they are to have such freedom of choice in A-level subjects.
The juciest manifestation of the manic obsessions of my classmates was the sketch they "wrote" and performed for Speech Day. I had forgotten its title until I was reminded by our near-omiscient V.I. archivist Chung Chee Min ("Chimes" to us all, and two years my senior) that it was Socrates and Co.! The theme, however, has not been forgotten by any of my classmates to this day. I met up with some of them in London in 2001, and they all recalled it with undiluted glee. My recounting of it below should invoke bitter-sweet nostalgia in many whose classes also presented sketches that became part of our V.I. bonding. Mrs Creedy, a senior teacher of English in the school, loved our sketch. She said to us, "Everytime I see you rehearse, I notice something new and funny!"
The 1961 U6B1 sketch did not have a written script. It evolved as it was rehearsed, with ideas contributed by almost everyone in the class. The words that come to mind in describing its development are: co-operative, mischievous, adaptive, double entendres, irreverent, and - yes - sacrilegious. The setting was a History of Science Room in the British Museum (we knew there was no such room, but we also understood poetic licence) which housed statues of famous scientists, ancient and modern. The idea was that these statues come to life after closing hours and engage in learned discourse. Someone in U6B1 had obviously read the Pygmalion legend!
My buddy Poolo Jothy has supplied photos of this sketch. Poolo has always been much better organized than me, and with great prescience had arranged for the parties to sign the photos. This is why the principals can be correctly identified after all these years!
Well, let me give you samples of the action and dialog. The sketch begins with the statues frozen. A Museum Guide (Lam Ah Lek) shows a husband (Poolo Jothy) and wife (Fang Peck Hwee) visiting couple to the room. After inspecting a number of them, the wife spies Archimedes (Tharman) sitting in his legendary bathtub. Archimedes is obviously undressed (only his legs and upper body are visible), and the wife bends over to snap a picture of him in the bathtub. The husband, clearly embarrassed by his wife's prurience, pulls her away. (At this point, I remember hearing a few parents in the audience guffawing.) After they leave, the statues come alive, stretching and yawning. Archimedes then breaks into song while scrubbing his body with a brush. This was a parody of "I'm gonna wash all men right out of my hair" from the movie hit South Pacific, with invented lyrics like "I'm gonna wash all dames right out of my hair, with Plato's toilet soap". At the conclusion of his singing, Plato (Soo Kong Seng) and Socrates (Balasingam) come on stage affectionately arm-in-arm, singing the South Pacific song "Younger than spring time are you" to each other. (We were no strangers to the conversations in Plato's Dialogs in which older men would describe their fondness for handsome young men in terms which would get them in trouble today in many countries!). Just in case some parents missed the allusion, we got Archimedes to say to Plato and Socrates, "Hey, you two are very late. What have you been up to?" To which Socrates replies while cuddling Plato, "Isn't it obvious?" (I seem to recall seeing some parents shifting uncomfortably at this!) At some point it was, of course, obligatory for Archimedes to jump out of his bathtub yelling "Eureka!". When he did, Pythagoras (Ahmad Zaidee) asked him, "What's that about, Archimedes?" I do not remember the reply, but it was some parody of the legendary buoyancy theorem, and it brought the house down.
Later, an excuse was found for Pythagoras to expound his right-angle triangle theorem thus, "The squaw on the hippopotamus (his hand tracing the top curve of an imaginary hippo) is equal to the sum of the squaws on its other two hides" (each of his hand tracing one curved side of the hippo), which also caused a ripple of laughter through the ranks of the parents. Clearly this was an audience that remembered its geometry! Aristotle (Wong Yin Fook) subsequently produced a hoop (the kind used in PT classes in those days, later on for hula-hoop stuff), raised it vertically, and asked rhetorically, "Hey Einstein, since you are so damned smart, can you tell us how many sides there are in this circle?" Einstein (Ho Kah Poong) disdainfully declaimed, "An elementary question from a simple-minded Greek! As a circle is the limit of a regular polygon of n sides as n tends to infinity, it clearly has an infinite number of sides!" As I recalled, this raised only minor titters in the audience. Mr Sim, our ever so forgiving chemistry teacher (three of his worst students had roles in this sketch!), had warned us that of all the jokes in our sketch, this was the weakest as it depended too much on knowledge of limits. As usual, he was right, but our class refused to give it up as we all enjoyed it so.
The punch rejoinder was delivered by Euclid (Vijayan) who proceeded to brush aside Einstein. Euclid then swooped his arms inside the hoop in a breast-stroke motion, saying, "Einstein, as you can see this circle has an inside", then withdrawing his arms he used them to encircle the hoop, saying, "and you can also see that it has an outside. It is plain to all that this circle has TWO sides - an inside and an outside!" Now that brought the house down! My turn came when the irritated Einstein asked Democritus (yes, me), "So what do you Greeks think the universe is made of?" To which I replied, "It is made of infinitesimally small, indivisible small balls, balls and balls", while extracting ping-pong balls from within my toga to toss into the audience. This was found to be amusing because of people catching the balls. Mr Yeong, like Mr Sim, was skeptical that this joke would be well received, but it worked because of its forced "audience participation" - an effect predicted by my classmates.
Several times during this sketch we found excuses to break into song, all of which were unsavory parodies of the musical movie hit South Pacific which ran to full-houses in the Odeon cinema in Batu Road from December 1959 to January 1960 (more than 6 months prior to when our sketch was to be presented). This piece of arcana is, of course, due to our ubiquitous Chimes again! One was based on Some Enchanted Evening and our version was scurrilous to the point that Mrs Creedy wondered how it escaped the school censors. It began thus, "Some enchanted evening, you can see a bayee, you can see a bayee, chasing Ahmad Zaidee, .. " The conclusion of the sketch was when the Museum Curator (Chong Sun Yeh) comes to shut it, and all the characters quickly resume their statuesque poses.
Oh, I forgot to mention that we invented an excuse for the Greeks to bash up Einstein as they got irritated with his bizarre views about the Universe. As you can see from the accompanying photo, he was on his knees begging for mercy, which was not given. Intuitively, we understood that even intellectuals could be unforgiving when their pet theories were challenged! The Curator, as he was closing up, looked puzzled at the still statues, and said loudly to the audience, "This is strange. I could have sworn that the statues are in different positions from this morning! And... hello ? (peering at the statue of Einstein now on the floor), Einstein is all broken up from head to foot - (then grinning to the audience while pointing to a private part of Einstein) not leaving the in-betweens!" Loud guffaws for that closing line.
Our Socrates & Co. sketch was the penultimate one for the Speech Day evening. Traditionally the teachers put the promising sketches toward the end, as there were prizes for the best senior and junior ones, the judges being distinguished Malaysian playwrights or producers. We did not win, but came second in the senior division. True to tradition, the last sketch of the evening, Professor Psycho, by the 5C chappies took the honours. As I recalled, they richly deserved the accolade, as theirs was full of hysterical action and studied nonsense, loud, ridiculous, raucous, and hyperactive. When we watched their reheasal and final performance, all we could do was console ourselves that we did not have to descend to such craziness, but deep in our hearts we were, of course, very envious! But at the end of the evening, all the classes which presented sketches, including the unseen but essential stage hands, lighting experts, sound crew (e.g. there was a magnificent "wind and storm" generator backstage) had a magnificient party.
I pay tribute to all my U6B1 classmates for this treasured memory. ALL of them wrote the sketch. If any of them read this and can recall more, I invite them to send the recollection to the page keeper who will then forward it to me to embellish this anecdote. In particular I wish to thank my buddies Poolo for the photo of the cast that accompanies this and for annotating the identities in it, and Ah Lek for refreshing my memory of some lyrics.
Last update on 21 June 2004.
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