Monday, July 25 2005

New Straits Times

CATCHING UP WITH: Tan Sri Chong Hon Nyan

Tan Sri Chong Hon Nyan has worn many hats in more than five decades of service to the nation. A product of the British colonial administration, he was the consummate government servant, an exemplary MCA politician and a man known for walking the straight and narrow path. Chong talks to LIM THOW BOON about his life and times.

THE assistant resettlement secretary did not know it but the detainee who escaped from his work gang that fateful day at the height of the Emergency would re-emerge as one of the country’s most wanted communist leaders.

The date: March 18, 1951. The place: Malacca. The official: Chong Hon Nyan (now Tan Sri).

Entrusted with the difficult, and sometimes risky, task of rounding up scattered groups of Chinese and relocating them in new villages, Chong had been asked to set up a settlement in the jungles of Ayer Keroh. The idea was a key strategy of London’s pointman in Malaya, General Sir Gerald Templer, who sought to cut the communists’ access to their recruiting grounds and sources of food supply.

That Sunday, a 10-man work gang of communist sympathisers under detention assigned to him was chopping trees and clearing belukar. "Among them was one Rashid Mydin, who used to work in Perak Hydro. We were making preparations to build houses."

At 11am, Chong left a Chinese Affairs officer in charge and took off to see his fiancee, Eu Ngoh, now his wife.

LOVING COUPLE: Chong relaxing with his wife, Eu Ngoh.

"About noon," Chong said, "Rashid asked for permission to answer the call of nature." He walked away and that was the last they ever saw of him.

Rashid resurfaced later as the right-hand man of Malayan Communist Party boss, Chin Peng. Meanwhile, Chong was staring at the doghouse or, worse. "I was interrogated by the Special Branch," he said. "You see, Rashid left a note which said, ‘Chong, thanks for all the help’.

"Help? What help? I merely treated him fairly like any other human being." On hindsight, he recalled that there were several tell-tale signs that Rashid was up to something that day. "Although he acted normally, he had on a watch which was unusual among the detainees - and he kept checking the time with me.

"He had rubber shoes on while the rest wore slippers. He wore a shirt and trousers while the others were in T-shirts and shorts. "And to top it all, he had sought permission to keep a rubber tree that had been chopped down. "He said he wanted to use it for firewood, and this suggested he was not going anywhere."

Those were tough times indeed for civil servants. This was more so for the Chinese officers who were looked upon by the communist terrorists and their sympathisers as lackeys of the British.

He was later drafted into the Home Guard and among his duties was to carry out a census. "I had a police escort and I was more afraid of the escort than the communists. But they turned out to be good fellows."

A few years later came Merdeka. When Tunku Abdul Rahman returned from the London talks with independence in the bag, he wanted to announce the good news in Malacca. "I don’t know why he chose Malacca, probably because it is a historical city," Chong said. "And he wanted an open car. Now, where on earth do we find an open car in Malacca?" He then remembered that a Chinese towkay owned such a vehicle and he borrowed it for Tunku’s victory ride.

Chong, a product of Raffles College and Cambridge University, was born in Kuala Lumpur and had his early education at the Victoria Institution. He started his working life as a teacher in Malacca and later entered the colonial service.

After independence, he joined the Malayan Civil Service and rose to become the secretary- general of the Agriculture and Finance Ministries before venturing into politics in 1974. In the same year, he won the Batu Berendam parliamentary seat in Malacca on an MCA ticket and remained an MP until 1986. He was the secretary-general of the MCA from l977 to 1985. He joined the Government as the Deputy Finance Minister and later became Health Minister and then Transport Minister before retiring in 1986.

Now, 81, he leads a quiet life with his wife of 50 years in a spacious bungalow in the affluent enclave of Bukit Ledang, off Jalan Duta in Kuala Lumpur. But for failing eyesight and a pair of legs that are getting weary, he is as good as a man his age can be. He takes daily walks round the serene tree-dotted neighbourhood. "I used to play golf, but gave it up 10 years ago because of these legs."

He spends most of his time pottering around the garden which is covered with trees, bushes and flowering plants. The orchids are his pride and joy. But life has not always been quiet and orderly. He had been in the dumps, too. He said: "When I first retired, I didn’t know what to do. I was bewildered. I was depressed ... I was close to panic. "So, I went to Britain where my two children were and spent three months there."

On his return, he joined the board of some companies at the invitation of friends. Except for J.P. Morgan and AP Land, he has since relinquished all the directorships.

Asked for his views on the civil service now compared to what it was during his days, Chong went back to the British administration time. "We were then told about the virtues of being independent. Our duty is to give the best professional advice we can. "We should not try to please anyone and not get involved in political decisions, which is so much a part of the everyday scene today.

"But then, things have changed. The British administration was nothing more than a Collector of Revenue and its main concern was to keep law and order, and not development."

He will always remember what his boss told him. "He said ‘When you make a recommendation to me about anything, I want you to summarise the pros and cons in such a way that all I have to do is to say yes or no and the summary should not be more than two paragraphs’. "That was how they taught us to operate - separate the chaff from the grain and get to the gist of an argument."

Chong is a strong believer in the use of English to promote greater cohesion in society. "The decline in the standard of English is making it difficult for everybody ... some segments of society cannot compete. You may be excellent in many fields, IT whatever, but if you don’t have the linguistics, the communication skills in English, you will be left out."

An avid reader - nowadays, he is into modern history - he is saddened that young people of today are not reading as much as the older generation used to.

"And they don’t even know about our past leaders."

An Interview with
Tan Sri Chong Hon Nyan

by Alicia Choy May Yi, Daniel Kamal, Agni Nhirmal, Loh Kok Kin

Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Chong Hon Nyan was born in 1924 in Kuala Lumpur. His wife, Eu Ngoh, was the Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Welfare Services; son, David, is a pharmacist; daughter-in-law, Ven Yu, an I.T. lecturer; and daughter, Su Lin, a doctor and Chief Executive Officer of Sunway Medical Centre.

Tan Sri had his primary and secondary education at the then Batu Road School and Victoria Institution respectively. It was only after the end of the Second World War that he entered Raffles College, Singapore in 1946 on a Raffles College Scholarship, to read English. It was then the only institution for tertiary education serving in Singapore and Malaya. He obtained a First Class in his diploma in English in 1949. He joined the education service soon after, teaching secondary classes in the High School in Klang for nearly a year. He then joined the Straits Settlements Civil Service embracing Singapore, Penang and Malacca and was appointed as an Assistant District Officer in the Central District of Malacca from 1949 to 1952. This was during the height of the Emergency involving an attempted uprising by Communist Terrorists. Amongst his other responsibilities was that of resettling settlers in danger-prone areas in New Villages, at some personal risk.

He was awarded a Federal Government scholarship, conditional upon his gaining a place in Cambridge University to read for a degree of his own choice. He chose to continue his studies in English. On entry to Trinity Hall, Cambridge University in 1952, he discovered that the English course included Old English and Philology which did not appeal to him and he promptly changed his course to Law. He completed his Law Tripos in 1955 but was recalled to Malaya before he could take the Bar examinations as the country was preparing for independence and required trained Malayans. His B.A. (Hons) was followed by an M.A. degree in accordance with the practice in Cambridge. He was awarded a fellowship by Harvard University in the summer of 1954 to attend a summer course in Politics, Economics and Philosophy as a graduate student.

He was re-posted to Malacca and served as an Assistant State Secretary until he was selected to join the Malayan Civil Service in 1957. He served in the Federal Establishment Office in the Prime Minister’s Department. Subsequently, he transferred to the Ministry of Finance and then to the Ministry of Agriculture as Secretary-General before being re-posted to the Ministry of Finance as its Secretary-General in 1972. He was awarded the A.M.N., K.M.N., J.M.N., P.S.M. and D.G.S.M. (Malacca) for his public services.

In the General Elections in 1974, he was elected as a member of Parliament for the Batu Berendam constituency of Malacca and served the constituency for three successive terms until 1984. During that period, he was also the Deputy Minister of Finance, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Minister of Health and of Transport, after which he opted to retire from the Cabinet. He was Secretary-General of the MCA until his retirement.

During the course of his public service he attended meetings of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Colombo Plan, World Health Organisation, Commonwealth Finance and Health Ministers’ Conferences, and Economics and Social Commissions for Asia and the Pacific Region. He also visited countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America as the leader of various official government delegations, and was elected President of the World Health Assembly in 1982 for a year.

He is the National Patron of the Boys’ Brigade in Malaysia, Chairman of the Trustees of the Tan Sri Lee Yan Lian Charitable Foundation and Patron of the Selangor and Federal Territory Gardening Society. He was Chairman of the Board of Governors of Montfort Boys’ Town, Honorary Treasurer of the Malaysian Association for the Blind, Council Member of the Tun Hussein Onn Eye Hospital, Chairman of the Council of Tunku Abdul Rahman College, member of the Lions Club, Patron of the YMCA and independent member of the National Economic Consultative Council appointed by the Prime Minister. He is an independent non-executive Director of a number of public listed and private companies, and a member of the Board of Governors of the International Medical University.

His hobbies include reading, gardening, the keeping of aviary birds, tropical fish and dogs and other assorted pets, together with indulging two grandchildren, Mathew and Emma.

In 2003, for Tan Sri’s invaluable contributions to the growth of the International Medical University (IMU) and having served the nation with selflessness and great distinction, IMU conferred upon Tan Sri the honorary degree of Doctor of Science.

The Victorian interviewed him at his house on 21 July, 2003.

Your years of childhood and teenhood intersected with the Great Depression, inter-war years and, of course, the Japanese Occupation. Please tell us about that period and how you coped.

hinese parents were often obsessed with creating dynasties to carry on the family name, so I was born into a family of eleven children! Earning a meagre salary as a postal clerk, with little chance of being promoted beyond office assistant, my father still ensured that all his nine children who survived infancy received a sound education. Father used to sit at the table with us while we read and did our homework, and we couldn’t leave the table until he finished reading his newspapers. The slightest budge would attract his eagle eyes, and his stern admonishment: “Why are you fidgeting?”. Over time, we nonetheless became self-reliant as discipline and concentration became our habit. Little wonder that all my five brothers and I qualified for the V.I.

Opportunities were very limited then and we had to do our best in order to seize them. Joining the V.I. required us to be among the top 100 students who sat the entrance examinations in the feeder schools of Pasar Road and Batu Road. To survive five years at Batu Road School, I had to catch a 3-cent train ride daily from my house in third mile Cheras Road to Sultan Street, before walking to Batu Road School via Malacca Street. You see, at that time there was a train from Ampang town to Pudu Ulu to Jalan Sultan, opposite the present Puduraya. Fortunately then it was safe to walk as there was not much traffic and five-foot ways were uncluttered by hawker stalls. When I was in Standard 5, my father bought me a Raleigh bicycle with which I cycled to school.

Ordeals of other kinds surfaced at the V.I., the renowned school of hard knocks. With their authoritarian approach, probably nine out of ten teachers then would today be charged with common assault. The lumbering Mr Lim Eng Thye commenced his science classes with “What does a Bunsen burner burn?” and woe betide him who ventured a wrong answer. Down came the ‘Eng Thye knock’ on his forehead! Another master, whose name I forget, frequently kicked the tables of those who irritated him, while screaming “You rascal”. Techniques varied between teachers. Generations of Victorians would remember Mr Ganga Singh and his booming voice - even the walls would tremble in fear! “Up!” he would command an unfortunate boy onto the bench, who would then be the subject of humiliation of an entire class, if not Form. I also remember Mr C. E. Gates, the Headmaster, whose detention class punishments included weeding the cricket pitch and polishing hinges.

Discipline was also instilled via student activities. I was a Sergeant in the Cadet Corps. Saturday morning parades were led by our commander, the indomitable Mr F. Daniel, who returned as headmaster after the war. Assisting him were teachers or senior students as Under-Officers and NCOs. I was also a debater and the secretary of the Prefects’ Board. We inspected classes and gave marks for class cleanliness competitions, checked toilets, monitored the field and patrolled classrooms to ensure they were empty during recess (to prevent pilfering). There were spin-offs to being a prefect, such as getting half-priced or even free food at the tuck shop if the owner was in a generous mood! But above all this, we had to be role models for others.

Numerous memories litter my mind. In those days, many a funeral wound slowly up Birch Road, to the drones of melancholic band music. During recess, we would sit on the slopes to watch these processions. We had assemblies every day, usually lasting 10 to 15 minutes, where the headmaster would make announcements. Teachers sat around the hall and at the back, while the headmaster alone occupied the stage. I remember the day war broke out in December 1941 when very unnerving announcement was made about it at assembly. During the war, I worked in the Census Department, where wages were in the form of rice and cigarettes. Strangely, we never took any census; our task was just to keep records of foreigners! Many of them were missionaries from France and Canada, who were not interned but left in seminaries and churches.

So in a nutshell, you learned to become a tough nut to crack because you have a past rooted in honouring the tradition of hard knocks, and learning how to sweat and suffer without complaining. How relevant are traditions, hard knocks and obedience when the buzzwords for the 21st century are ‘change’, ‘adapt’ and ‘question’?

Blind obedience all the time could be harmful, such as in creating extremists, but do not think that tradition is an evil word. The V.I. derived much strength from its tradition of employing the best teachers, both local and foreign. A Welshman taught me English Literature, and I was gripped by his accent especially when he said “Yes man” or “No man”, with the ‘a’ emphasised as in ‘ah’. Then there were the Lewis brothers, the ruggermen who taught our boys the game. They also used to sing to us songs like “Hey Noni No”. These foreigners brought to Malaya their background knowledge of their own country, so when we learned literature, we understood what daffodils were, or why a Shakespearean idiom of a fair summer’s day was so evocative. Until today, I continually leaf through my volume of the complete and unabridged set of Shakespeare’s works, in large print of course, no thanks to my failing eyesight!

Sometimes, change is necessary. For example, entry into the V.I. now is no longer restricted to just Batu Road and Pasar Road Schools, but for any student who proves himself in academic and sports fields. Such increased accessibility, without diluting standards, is important. But the main question is how change should be achieved. Speedy change can be detrimental. Notice the social movement of the last 20 to 30 years, where the education system has been continually transformed while professions in industries like value-added manufacturing and information technology have boomed. Bewildered by such changes, many graduates now prefer to work in sectors other than teaching. I remember when teaching was an immensely cherished profession; teachers would visit students in trouble or would stay back in school to give extra tuition at no cost. The V.I. teachers were like that in my time and, hence, they were very respected.

You ask whether we should question ideas. Well, it is very central to being human. For instance, with hindsight, I question the merits of double promotion, where in our time, high achievers could jump from Standard 1 to Standard 3, and then from Standard 3 to Standard 5. Speed comes at the expense of giving the child a solid grounding in basic education. Also, it is important for people to be among peers, as younger children tend to be bullied by older classmates. This is one example of questioning, even though many parents liked this double promotion system.

However, there are some things that are intrinsically right regardless of how much you question. Various traditions of the V.I. are such ‘intrinsically right’ elements - the hard tactics of the school ultimately produced outstanding scholars and sportsmen. You know many scholars already, so let me name a sportsman - Mobarak Ahmad was a fantastic athlete. He was father to Ishtiaq, another Victorian who subsequently became the national record holder for the 110 m hurdles, and an Asian Games sporting giant.

It appears that the foreign teachers in the V.I. were dedicated to boot. But, surely, the lack of emphasis on things Malayan and Asian must have been of concern?

Certainly! Subjects like English literature and the history of the English empire, plus celebrations of Empire Day in May annually, were not balanced with the study of things local. This conditioned us to think that everything British was good, which of course was misleading. However, don’t get me wrong. Deep knowledge of things foreign is in fact a good thing; what is problematic is if there is imbalance. Equally, knowing in depth the history of Kuala Lumpur or the geography of our Peninsula is important, but these come to naught if we do not expose ourselves to the world outside.

A combination of all things good is what we should seek. My daughter practised medicine in England for 17 years. Intent on mastering administration skills as well, she did her M.B.A. at the renowned London Business School. When she returned here six years ago, she brought with her knowledge of the efficient practices of the British medical system plus administrative experience. Today, she tries to impart these into the policies and practices of Sunway Medical Centre, of which she is the Chief Executive Officer.

Likewise, I have tried to marry the best of both worlds in whatever I do. Knowledge of things British was obviously ingrained into me since school level, especially since I did my Senior Cambridge twice! Those aged under 17 years could not go to Singapore for further studies, so we retained ourselves for another year in school. Normally the second year results were worse than the first because we became complacent! We could have gone to the U.K., but there were not many scholarships available besides the Queen's Scholarship. Instead, with 10 Raffles Scholarships (five for Singaporeans, five for Malayans) and Federation Scholarships, Singapore was the more popular destination. Armed with a Raffles Scholarship, I headed to Raffles College where I read English, History and Geography.

Upon graduating with a First Class for my diploma, I resumed teaching at Batu Road School (where I had taught shortly before going to Singapore). Then I took up the post of Assistant District Officer (A.D.O.) in Malacca. At that time, there were three systems of civil service, and the Straits Settlements Civil Service was one of them. My grandfather had settled in Malacca, my father was from Malacca, and that was why I decided to serve in Malacca. There my superiors told me that the only way to advance my career was by furthering my studies, which is why I went to Cambridge University on a scholarship from the Federal Government. Equipped with newfound skills and a broadened mindset, I subsequently returned to Malacca to fill the post of Assistant State Secretary.

With a Cambridge qualification, you could have made so much money in the private sector! Yet, you continued serving the public sector, be it as a civil servant or, subsequently, a politician. What motivated you to do so and how did you approach the task of public service?

Regarding my entry into politics, turn back the clock to the 1970’s. Tun Tan Siew Sin, the son of Tun Sir Tan Cheng Lock, was then the Minister of Finance, and represented a Malaccan constituency. A fine man (and posthumously awarded a special award for integrity, by Dr Mahathir this year), he was unfortunately prone to frequent illness. He had only one lung, the result of contracting tuberculosis when he was young. Seeking a successor to Tun Tan, Tun Abdul Razak who was Prime Minister then, spoke to me. “Chong, what do you want in life? If you want to make money, you can. You can easily be a rich banker. But why don’t you serve your country?”. Urged by the M.C.A. president, Dato' Lee San Choon, as well, I accepted the challenge. Indeed, my devotion to public service since my first task as A.D.O. had been guided by the payback principle: Give back to society what you took.

Whatever task I have at hand, I must do it with great integrity. I must be able to look myself in the mirror and say, without hesitation, “I haven’t done anything wrong”, and I must be able to go to bed at night with peace of mind. Very importantly, I have always striven to connect with the people around me. In Malacca, I used to trudge through sawah to visit penghulus and discuss with them the needs and concerns of the people. My reward was to know I had done my job well, nothing else. Hence I always felt embarrassed when villagers pushed an elegantly iced cake into my hands, or secretly stockpiled my car boot with combs of bananas and trays of eggs, in appreciation of my efforts.

But my greatest gratitude to the villagers is for saving my life. Communist snipers used to lurk behind corners of roads, ready to pump bullets into the running dogs (that’s what the communists called the British) and whoever worked for them. My life was under constant threat. It was the penghulus who, despite extortions and threats by the communists, dropped hints to me. “How are you going home?”, they would ask. “Ayer Keroh road”. “Maybe you want to take another road lah”, would be their reply. So you see, we have to connect with people. During my three years of probation in the civil service, I learned Bahasa Rumi and Jawi. All the Dato Sidang who brought letters to me were glad that I easily understood them. These languages aren’t difficult to learn, so long as you have a good munshi to teach you.

It’s impressive that despite your high postings, you’ve avoided having a high and mighty attitude and you’ve served people with your best ability. It must have been difficult to retreat into a quiet life after retirement. How have you managed retirement and what is your advice on how to live productively?

There's so much charity that can be done. Take drug rehabilitation for instance. Detoxification is easy - three days’ cold turkey is enough - but re-integration into society is much more difficult. Many former addicts regress into their habits. One thing I do is to pay several boys (undergoing rehabilitation) who come to work on odd jobs in my house regularly, so they stay productive and get some income. We keep in touch with their families, so their families do not reject them. I also helped the Montfort Boys Town. The centre trains drop-outs in skills like carpentry, agriculture, computing and publishing. Do you remember Godfather Pizza? Just before it closed down, I acquired two ovens from it and donated them to Montfort. Eagerly, the centre sent a brother to learn baking from a Dane, and today Montfort boys can make excellent Danish pastries.

The point is this: We shouldn't isolate ourselves into our own community, because human needs cut across race and religion. Montfort is a Catholic centre run by the Brothers of St Gabriel, and I am a Methodist, but that didn't stop me assisting them. My wife is also ceaselessly involved in organisations like the Women's Aid Organisation that helps battered wives and those suffering from domestic abuse. Starting with no money, they successfully appealed to people like Tun Tan Siew Sin and the British Council to help fill the coffers. Even the Raja Permaisuri Agong chipped in to help expand the facilities of the organisation. The rewards lie in the results we see. Once, the organisation received a phone call from a distraught boy from London, who asked the staff to urgently visit his mother who lived in K.L. It was in the nick of time, as his mother had not only been abused but was on the verge of suicide.

My wife and I often start up charity work and run them in the beginning, but we always let others take over so that new ideas and perspectives are generated. Young people are the force behind social change. Determine what the present challenges are and always seek improvement. When I was Minister of Health, improving accessibility of the health system was the main concern. "No resident in rural areas should be further than 30 miles from a medical facility. General hospitals and specialist centres should be set up in all major towns", I told myself. Today, the challenges facing the health system are different, with medical training being the hot topic. Fifty years ago, students spent the first three years purely reading medical books, but today, many students are thrust into practicals almost immediately upon entering university. Partnership between institutions is another increasingly common phenomenon. For instance, the International Medical University, of which I am Pro-Chancellor, has partnerships with 22 universities.

Future challenges to the health system could include balancing the mix of private and public health care. Stressed staff and overburdened facilities in public hospitals make private hospitals more important and popular, though expensive. But that doesn't mean public sector doctors are less competent. In fact, most private hospitals gain their staff from public hospitals! This is an example of a future challenge. You asked me how to live productively, so this is my advice. Present and future generations have the responsibility of building on the strengths of the past, improving weaknesses and achieving a better future. To do this, you have to identify what the challenges are and how you plan to rise and meet them. Give your best; only then will you live life to its fullest.

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