The V.I. and I
I sat for the Cambridge Senior School Certificate examination in December 1948. The results were available in April 1949. I had done well enough in that exam to gain admission to the University of Malaya in Singapore. In that era there were only two higher education institutions serving the needs of British Malaya and the two British Borneo territories, namely Sarawak and British North Borneo. They were Raffles College and the King Edward VII College of Medicine. The Crown Colony of Singapore for its part was noted for excellent secondary schools such as the Raffles Institution and Victoria School as well as a number of Catholic, Methodist and Anglican mission institutions such as the Convent, St Joseph's, St Patrick's, St Andrew's and so on.
My generation had survived the Japanese occupation (February 1942 to August 1945). We had been looking forward to the liberation and going back to school. Alas! There were quite a few, who having been compelled to go into employment to support their families, had become "rusty" as far as studies were concerned. They dropped out of school and continued to work.
The war had broadened the outlook of young and old alike. There was a ferment of ideas in the political and educational sectors. The demand for a proper university was growing stronger. The King Edward VII Medical College had courses that led not to a medical degree but to a "licentiate" in medicine. Similarly, Raffles College provided Diploma courses in Arts or Science. To cut a long story short, the British colonial power in its wisdom decided to move along with the new nationalism and to start a University of Malaya through a merger of the old Raffles College and the Medical College.
And that is how it came about that I found myself a freshman in October 1949 standing in the crowded balcony of Oei Tiong Nam Hall (of Raffles College) witnessing the inspiring Founder's Day ceremony presided over by the inimitable Malcolm MacDonald, Commissioner-General for South-east Asia. He was the Chancellor of the University of Malaya. To say that he was a good speaker was an understatement. He had a rare combination of elegant English and the knack of choosing the appropriate words and phrases. Fanfares of trumpets heralded the entry of the Malay sultans and other dignitaries into the Hall.
The euphoria of the foundation ceremony and the ragging ended and we settled down to the usual routine of lectures, tutorials and extra-mural activities. One had to obtain a good grade in the initial or pass degree of BA or BSc before being deemed fit for pursuing Honours degree studies. It was a deliberate policy of elitism in higher education. I reached the Honours degree class in English and then decided to take up the Diploma in Education course as I wanted to pursue a teaching career.
Sometime in late May or early June towards the end of the Diploma course I received a letter marked "On Government Service." Somewhat intrigued, I opened the cover to find that the letter was signed by "D.K. Swan," a senior officer of the Department of Education. I read and reread that letter. Let me recall some of the sentences:
You will shortly be completing the Diploma in Education course, successfully I hope, and be ready to take up appointment in the Federation Education Service...
Arrangements are being made to appoint you as temporary Education Officer pending your interview by the Appointments and Promotion Board.
It is probable that you may be posted to the Victoria Institution, Kuala Lumpur..
The letter also cited the monthly salary scale with the initial figure of $592 basic, a handsome figure.
Frankly I was also thoroughly intimidated. I had, of course, heard of the V.I., the premier school in the Federation. There were many V.I. products at the University. All were "bright sparks and live wires" with regard to both academic and extra-mural activities. It was, of course, an honour to be posted to such a famous school but I came from a relatively small school in a small town, namely, St Paul's Institution, Seremban.
Friends, relatives and the teachers at St. Paul's congratulated me and also gave me much encouragement. In any case, I was legally bound by the terms of the Federal Teaching bursary I had accepted to serve the Federation for five years.
First Impressions of the VI
I managed to secure accommodation at the YMCA in Brickfields, K.L. This was the original structure, a wooden building and not the present brick building nearby. The hostel was next door to the Lido Cinema, separated by a road. The cinema, too, has disappeared.
I informed the Chief Education Officer Selangor that I would report for duty on the first of July 1955. Mr G. P. Dartford whose history textbooks well known interviewed me briefly in his office and then asked me to report to Mr P. Roberts the then principal of the V.I. I took a cab and reached the VI without any delay. Traffic flow was quite smooth and tranquil in KL in those days.
As the taxi moved into the school compound I was visibly struck by the splendid location and the school building itself. The tall shady trees evenly spaced to the left of the approach road and the spacious ground facing the sports pavilion were impressive.
Mr Richard Pavee was in the office. I introduced myself and he asked me to wait a few minutes. Mr Roberts briefed me on the nature of my teaching load. It consisted mainly of English Language and Literature. I was also assigned to Loke Yew House of which Mr Chong Yuen Shak was Housemaster.
In the staff room I was introduced to a few VI stalwarts of whom I had already heard from the ex-VI students in my undergraduate days at Singapore. Mr Lim Eng Thye, Toh Boon Huah and Ganga Singh were there. I remember Mr E. J. Lawrence (now Dato') as well as S. G. Dorairaj, Lian Tet Seng and Michael Peter. There were at least two expatriates lady teachers, Miss Moira Knowles and Mrs Entwistle. Mr S. G. Ayyar, a notable maths teacher, was among the small elite group of Indian graduates specially recruited from India. There was a grave shortage of science and maths teachers in those years in Malaya and the Borneo territories.
I think my first day at the V.I. was a Friday. After school I went to the Foh Hup bus stand in Pudu and headed for Seremban for the weekend. I returned to KL on Sunday evening. There was no Fedreal Highway and traffic from Seremban had to pass through Mantin, Beranang, Semenyih, Kajang, Cheras before reaching the Pudu area. There were good eating shops in the Brickfields area close to the YMCA. My favourite was the New Oriental Restaurant. The signboard described the meals available as "Vegetarian and Military Diets." "Military" was a common phrase in Indian to denote non-vegetarian meals, as military personnel were invariably meat eaters and non-vegetarian, unlike millions in the Indian sub-continent. A military meal cost only a dollar and twenty cents then!
I did not stay at the YMCA for long. I moved to Jalan Penghulu Mat, off Old Klang Road, to become a tenant or boarder with Mr Abdul Razak Khan. His family were away in India and there was a good Chinese female servant or "assam" to cook the principal meals and to wash and iron the clothes. We went to a furniture shop not far away and for $250 secured a bed, table, chair, bookcase and a small cupboard. Sometime in 1956 I moved again. A few metres off Jalan Shaw, a new block of flats had been constructed. This was certainly in close proximity to the school.
A motley group of bachelors occupied one unit above the landlord's ground floor premises. This was to be my home until I resigned from my post at the V.I. and left for the UK as a newly-married man in June 1963.
The Rediffusion was a popular form of ready broadcast in those days. Invariably people left the switch on and the canned music went on into the night. Early in the morning the Rediffusion apparatus served as a reliable alarm clock. I got used to leaving my flat when the ever-popular "Shadow of Delilah" serial commenced. It took hardly seven minutes to reach the V.I. front entrance. The prefects on duty always looked smart and tidy in their white coats, white pants and school tie. Often, as I walked up the drive, Mr Lim Eng Thye would pull up and I would hop into his car. When we got to the cafeteria, Mr Eng Thye would call out in his Stentorian voice, "Kopi, lai!" The cafeteria man would rush to serve us. I loved the curry laksa prices at a mere 30 cents a bowl.
The Changing Political Milieu
The political milieu was changing rapidly within the country in 1955 and 1956. In July 1955 the first country-wide election was held so that voters could choose their own representatives to the federal legislature, officially known as the Federal Legislative Council. There were 52 seats to be filled by elected members and another 46 by individuals nominated to represent a range of commercial and cultural/racial interests. The Alliance Coalition of UMNO, MCA and MIC headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman won 51 out of the total 52 seats. The remaining seat was secured by the Pan Malayan Islamic Party or PAS. The Tunku became Chief Minister and he could bargain with the British from a position of strength. By early 1956 it became obvious that Merdeka or Independence was going to be achieved sooner rather than later.
Eventually August 31 1957 was fixed for the transfer of sovereignty. The V.I. certainly felt the impact of the impending changes. The Merdeka Stadium was taking shape rapidly behind the school. The physical work of construction set in motion not only massive noise pollution but also clouds of dust that blew freely into the school compound. Some teachers moved out of the classroom and lessons were held, whenever the weather permitted, under the trees and away from the immediate vicinity of the din.
A large number of construction workers and drivers of bulldozers and heavy trucks entered the school cafeteria constantly for the purchase and consumption of drinks and snacks. Dr Lewis got on well with the Chief Engineer of the Stadium project. This resulted in visible gains for the school in the form of road resurfacing.
The V.I. Library
The V.I. library was a very special part of the school as far as I was concerned. When the Chief Education Officer Mr G. P. Dartford interviewed me he asked me to express my preferences with regard to extra-mural duties. I promptly answered that I would love to help with the library administration. When I did step into the vast place packed with tall shelves all around, I was happy. I concluded that the library had been modelled on the best of British public schools. I walked around noting the titles and the numerous sets of "complete works" of leading authors and playwrights. There were also bound volumes of journals and academic periodicals. It was customary to accumulate journals for three or four years and send the lot to the Pudu Jail for binding by the inmates. A few months after I began teaching at the V.I., I accompanied Sam Abraham to the gaol to collect and bring back to the school a pile of bound journals. As we stepped out of the gaol premises, a couple of small boys who had been watching us from the steps of a house right opposite the gaol entrance concluded we were newly released prisoners. One of them said so, quite loudly, as we got into Sam's car!
Dr Lewis had done a good job developing the library at the Anderson School, Ipoh. He wanted Mr. Abdul Razak Khan and me to reorganize the V.I. Library using the Anderson School Library as a model. Mr Khan and I made a special trip to Ipoh in August 1957. I checked into the YMCA Hostel which is not too far from the Anderson School. Mr Khan stayed with relatives. We spent two days in Ipoh and returned to KL on Merdeka Day eve, namely August 30. The school librarian had done his work with exemplary care and devotion. I knew that Dr Lewis expected me to transform the V.I. library. We had to start with a new classification. There was a group of boys and girls who had volunteered to help with the needed chores including the preparation and pasting of labels and the entering of the serial numbers and classification.
I wrote to the librarian of the University of Malaya in Singapore requesting samples of membership cards and book labels. Cardboard pockets for the emplacement of cards with essential data such as the Borrower's name, date borrowed and date due were also requested. I also sought guidance on preservation of books and what powders or liquids were ideal and which ones were not so suitable. The librarian responded promptly and the Caxton press in KL agreed to supply all the items we needed.
Smithsonian Institution reports
During my years in Singapore I became familiar with some publications of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. It was fascinating to read about the genesis and growth of this great organisation. What was truly intriguing and inspiring was its very humble start and rapid growth.
I wrote an article on the Smithsonian for the Malayan Undergrad, a student publication.
James Smithson (1765 - 1829), a British scientist was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland. Apparently until about 1802 he was known as James Lewis Macie. He achieved considerable success in analytical chemistry. His formal qualifications in science were acquired in Oxford but he spent most of his working life in Paris. He had no contacts with the USA nor did he ever visit that country. Yet Smithson's will had a clause stipulating that if there were no heirs the whole of his property should go to the United States for the founding at Washington under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.
The amount of the endowment was said to be $120 thousand. The US Congress, after eight years of debate and discussion, finally accepted and created the Smithsonian Institution in the year 1846. It steadily grew to become the giant and multifaceted institution of today.
In 1904, Smithson's remains were taken to the US and are now in the original building of the Institution. The National Air Museum, the John Kennedy Center and the Museum of History and Technology are three random examples of entities under the Smithsonian umbrella.
I decided to write to the Smithsonian Institution and to ask for any reports that they would care to send to the VI Library. The response simply overwhelmed me. Within a few weeks the Post Office van drove to the porch of the school with parcels containing a full set of the annual reports of the Smithsonian. The library volunteers worked like beavers and they had no problem finding space on the shelves for this vast collection.
In my General Paper classes, I encouraged the students to read some of the sixteen or seventeen excellent articles on various aspects of science and technology that were (and are) appended to every Smithsonian Annual report. All this of course happened in a very different era. I have often felt anxious about what happened to this valuable collection. I am aware that with the non-use of English as a medium of instruction many literary classics and scientific publications have been destroyed or simply thrown away. If, by some good fortune, the Smithsonian volumes are still in some corner of the V.I. they should be donated to the Science Centre in K.L.
The V.I. was also doubled up as the centre for Normal Classes for trainee teachers. The Normal Class system ended in the 1960s, I think, with the advent of residential teacher training classes and also full time day training classes. The Normal Classes began sometime in the 1920s, I think, and the system was appropriate for an underdeveloped country that could not afford expensive facilities. The minimum qualifications for entry into the Normal Class was a Grade Two School Certificate - the Cambridge School Certificate with credits in English and mathematics and a minimum number of credits. Teacher trainees taught full time at their respective schools but on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings they had to turn up at the Normal Class centres for lectures in the Theory of Education, English Literature and other prescribed subjects. It was a three year course. Upon successful completion of this period, the trainee became a probationer teacher. Many schools, even secondary schools, were staffed only by Normal trained teachers.
In my own school, St Paul's Institution, Normal trained teachers taught all the subjects in all the classes with confidence. The experienced ones knew their textbooks as well as the art of teaching. There were many among them who read widely or voraciously and introduced their pupils to Readers' Digest, Worldwide Magazine, and Everybody's Magazine.
In the Catholic mission schools there were brothers and nuns from Ireland, France, Burma, Singapore and Malaya itself. Several among them wrote excellent textbooks and revision texts.
Among the staff members, there were a few whom I shall always remember as "unforgettable characters" for a number of reasons. Mr A. A. P. Milne was a Scot from Aberdeen. He had been in the British Army in India and having been stationed in the northern regions that today comprise Pakistan, he spoke fluent Urdu. I enjoyed exchanging views with him. He occupied the home just outside the V.I. compound and was in charge of the V.I. Hostel. In the evenings he would travel by cab to the Coliseum Café in Batu Road as we called it for drinks and company.
There used to be a taxi stand, whether official or unofficial, I am unable to say, just outside the school. The entire area was then known as Coronation Park. The Merdeka Stadium and the Indoor Stadium did not exist then. The cab drivers were all Pakistanis and they would compete to convey Major Milne to the Coliseum as they could speak with him in Urdu, their mother tongue. He once told me, "You should learn this language. It is a rich language." Urdu is the official language of Pakistani as well as enjoying recognition in India. I realized that Milne was a lonely man and he wanted company. He used to subscribe to a periodical that no longer exists, Time and Tide. He would pass on copies to me after he had finished reading them. And so I was kept in touch with British and world developments as well as good book reviews and articles on a variety of subjects. Milne had a mischievous sense of humour. I remember the shock on the face of a teacher of biology when he asked casually, "Have you taught your class about the love life of a frog?" Major Milne's family, I learnt later, had owned a prosperous fish-exporting firm but the war shattered their business. Milne was on contract and worked in the school for only three years or so I think.
Harry Lau: The Bookshop and the Man
The V.I. Bookshop located at the back of the stage was a small room or cubicle. Harry Lau was an ex-pupil of the school. A Normal-class trained teacher, he was also in charge of the bookshop and he had a flair for figures. Harry was an institution within an institution. He loved to have teachers crowd into his bookshop for chit chat and jokes. He had a fund of stories about the V.I. and the teachers of yesteryear. Very often he would enter the staffroom and invite or round up those of us who were free to go down to the bookshop. One of the tuckshop men would be summoned to take orders. Everybody relaxed at the table and many cups of tea and coffee as well as numerous bowls of curry laksa would be consumed. The classrooms were not very close to the bookshop and so the inevitable peals of laughter never disturbed the other teachers and pupils.
Harry knew all the restaurants and stalls and good eating places in Kuala Lumpur and its surroundings. A small group of us used to adjourn for lunch on Friday afternoons to an establishment selected by Harry. We never had occasion to be dissatisfied by the choice of venue. In the K.L. of those times, neither parking nor traffic access posed a serious problem. Everybody settled his own share of the meal as the unwritten rule was: PRO RATA.
Harry had a good heart but he was also hot tempered. He later became principal of a large secondary school in Cheras. His last years were sad ones. He suffered from ill health but he attended the 100th anniversary dinner. Some of the VI old timers used to visit him regularly. He passed away in 2002 and the funeral service was held at the St Mary's Church. I was happy to be invited to give the eulogy.
Before I became a V.I. teacher I had formed very favourable impressions of two individuals who had been headmasters of the school. I should explain this more fully. For students who had sat for and passed the Cambridge School Certificate exam in December 1948, the Education Department "improvised" special classes to serve as a preparatory stage for University education. These classes were designated "Post-senior" classes held in government schools in several states. I was able to enrol in the post-senior class at King George V School in Seremban. This was a rival school to St Paul's. Being a full Government school it was a favoured school. The teachers of the PSC were all degree holders. There was, I presume, some kind of improvised syllabus and we were being prepared for the first University of Malaya entrance examination.
In that year 1949 the principal of the KGV was Mr Frederic Shaw. He had already been Headmaster of the V.I. in the years 1929 to 1936. Shaw commanded wide respect. At the drop of a hat he would quote Tennyson or Kipling or the Bible or literary or classic work. His erudition was matched by a benign personality. He was our English teacher. Although we had been in his class for only eight months, we all learned a great deal from his formal instruction as well as his anecdotes, lengthy literary quotations and constructive criticisms.
Mr Richard Sidney had been principal of the V.I. in its earlier years. I have given ample details about his career in my book VI The first Century. He had been a prisoner of war in Singapore. After the war, he was given a financial subsidy to publish Young Malayans, a periodical for Malayan schools. 'RS', as he was known, used to visit schools throughout the length and breadth of the Malaya Peninsula promoting his paper and also urging students to contribute articles, poems, sketches and book reviews. He was a very entertaining speaker. Many who had a flair for writing or wanted to try their hand at narrating some story or recalling an experience or expressing an aspiration could send their draft to 'RS'.
Richard Sidney had written several volumes on aspects of Malayan history and the country's unique cosmopolitanism in the prewar years. Today they can be found in the library and archive shelves under "Malaysiana". I am not sure how 'RS' lost the financial support from the Federal Government. He tried hard to raise revenue through gifts from well-wishers but failed. Age had brought along its own challenges. He was a very lonely and a very poor man. However his contributions to both the formal education and non-formal education spheres must be acknowledged.
There are numerous volumes with his name and marginal notes and dates in the main library of the University of Malaya. 'RS' was an avid reader and an avid buyer of books in his lifetime.
The senior classes took an avid interest in the world and national affairs. That encouraged me to prepare talks on some aspect or other of international relations from time to time. After the formal presentation, questions or comments could be raised by members of the audience.
1956 was a crisis-ridden year. President Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the Hungarian uprising in October of that year gave rise to all manner of fears and pessimistic forecasts. The Egyptian ambassador was invited to give a talk to the school. This took place sometime after the "police action" taken by Britain, France and Israel on 29th October 1956. Both the US and the Soviet Union condemned the attack in the UN security Council and voted together for a ceasefire. This led to the formation of the first UN peace-keeping force to supervise the Israel-Egyptian border. Lester Pearson, the Canadian External Affairs Minister, played a major role in the diplomatic moves.. The Egyptian envoy interpreted the outcome as a victory for and by his country. Copies of the verbatim text of the envoy's talk were distributed by the diplomatic officers who had accompanied the ambassador.
Meanwhile the pace of constitutional progress was accelerating. It was predictable that Tunku Abdul Rahman would be asking for early independence. For us in the V.I., the dust and the din emanating from the Merdeka Stadium that was taking shape steadily in our backyard did not dampen the enthusiam for all manner of fun and creativity. The annual concert items were a mix of comic and satirical sketches and musical items. The new rock and roll era had started. The pop group the Platters were satirised on the VI stage as The Flatterers. Phang Kow Weng was conductor of a group that that presented a musical show and received a standing ovation. Phang sported a cute goatee beard.
In the mid-fifties there was much to look forward to by way of "projects." The nineteen thirties were a period of gloom largely owing to the Great Depression. Those who had passed the Cambridge Certificate were lucky if they could obtain jobs as clerks in the government service.
The advent of the Colombo Plan opened the door of opportunity even wider for V.I. students. The Colombo Plan was the brainchild of the Australian External Affairs Minister Sir Percy Spender. The main objective was the economic development of Southeast Asia, an area in which the Commonwealth of Australia had vital strategic, economic and political interests. In concrete terms the plan meant that there were attractive scholarships, fellowships and study opportunities in Australian institutions for bright young people. And that is how a steady stream of V.I. boys and girls went year after year to Australian univesities for degree courses. By the terms of the awards, the Plan scholars were committed to return to their homelands and serve in appropriate sectors, whether as science and maths teachers or as engineers or doctors or economists and statisticians. New Zealand was also a Colombo Plan Donor. Canada provided technical assistance in higher education at a more sophisticated level through the Commonwealth Scholarship and fellowship programs. Traditionally Malayans had hitherto gone mainly to Britain for law and arts degrees, and always as private fee paying students. The United States was an unknown area and there were generally weird notions about the US and its universities. Somehow many individuals harboured the notion that American degrees were awarded even for football playing!
The VI, a lighted schoolhouse
In the theory of Adult Education, the concept of the lighted schoolhouse sprang up in Canada. Why should school premises not be put to good use even after school hours? After all schools are public institutions financed out of public money or the taxpayers' contributions. In my estimation, if ever there had been a school that evolved unwittingly into a lighted schoolhouse, it was the V.I.
In the mid-50s, many young Malayans were imbued with new ambitions. With independence looming closer they realized that there would be a growing demand for people with good academic and professional qualifications. The Federal Government launched the Further Education Classes or FEC in 1958. The V.I. became a large FEC center. There were available formal classes for preparation for the School certificate as well as the Higher School Certificate. Students would flock to the V.I. after work in the evenings. Many were teachers but there were also clerks, typists and housewives. Fees were affordable. Also in the 1950s the massive traffic jams of today's K.L. did not exist. So there were good incentives for those with ambition and perseverance to plod on with their studies. I know that some became lawyers, others accountants and two of the students that I taught became Senators and at least two eventually reached the senior ranks of the judiciary. And so the lights burned till late into the night at the V.I. This was the forerunner to the advent of "lifelong education."
However, the V.I. was the popular venue for events and activities other than evening and night classes. The planters used to come to the school for their oral exams in Tamil. This was considered important for all rubber estate managers.
The V.I. swimming pool was utilised by a number of girls' schools such as the Pudu English School, Bukit Bintang Girls School and St Mary's School. These schools also had use of the science laboratories for practicals. The name of the late F. Daniel was legendary as a pioneer in science teaching at the V.I.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the war tax department occupied the school hall.
Needless to say, all manner of meetings of examiners used to be held at the school as senior V.I. teachers often served as chief examiners or team leaders for various subjects in public examinations, such as the LCE, Sixth Form Entrance exams, Senior Middle Three exams among others.
I became fully involved in the V.I. Literary and Debating Society. Formal debates and quiz programmes were frequent. The students were the speakers but the team of judges comprised three teachers. The chief judge was expected to make pertinent meaningful constructive comments as well as announce the verdict. Month after month the budding orators honed their skills in these formal debates. Of course there used to be many moments of hilarity and good clean fun. The judges always came down hard on sentences or phrases that they regarded as being too personal or crude but these lapses were not frequent. The general standard of English was very good and all teachers of English and Literature encouraged students to read widely. "Every teacher is a teacher of English," we heard. The resources of the school library were always accessible.
East Coast States and Students
There were secondary schools in the three East Coast states of Pahang, Kelantan and Trengganu but post-secondary classes were not yet developed in the 1950s. Therefore boys and girls who performed well at the Senior Cambridge examinations had to apply to institutions that had facilities for Sixth Form classes in arts and science in the west coast secondary schools. The V.I. attracted quite a number of star pupils from the East Coast states. They enriched academic standards as well as standards in athletics, games and extra-mural activities generally.
Dr Lewis had noted from details in my CV that I had taken economics as a subject for the BA degree. He asked whether I was willing to teach Economics in the Lower Sixth Arts and a year later in the Upper Sixth Arts class. I replied I was prepared to do so. For a Principal level pass in that, students had to sit for any two out of the available five papers. "Principles of economics" was very basic and teachers regarded it as more or less compulsory. For the second paper, the choice was usually "National Income." I prepared to teach "Structure and working of the British Constitution." There is little doubt that this was a far more interesting subject than "National Income." Dr Lewis left the decision to me completely. And so I was the "economics teacher" at the V.I. With typical thoroughness, Lewis wanted me to consult the London School of Economic calendar and order all the recommended textbooks listed in it for the two economics subjects. That order was duly executed. In that era all the leading commercial banks published and distributed quarterly and in some cases bimonthly bank reviews. In my graduate years I had been receiving my own copies of some of the publications. The articles were written by economists and a wide spectrum of topics was covered.
Quite by chance I had come across a reference to the Foundation of Economic Education in the State of New York in the USA. They published and sent out gratis a quarterly periodical on current economic or political topics with a clear pro-capitalistic bent rather than a left wing or socialistic bias.
By the time I said goodbye to the V.I. there were bound volumes of the FEE periodical in the V.I. library. I wonder whether, like the Smithsonian report, they too are gathering dust or have been ravaged by white ants somewhere in the old V.I. premises?
A number of the more affluent diplomatic missions in KL used to send to the V.I. Library good reading materials. Of course there were students and some teachers who had a negative attitude to anything that was published in the US or British press. "Western propaganda" was the smear label they used. Doubtless in the long drawn out Cold War era the great powers used overt as well as subtle devices to boost their own image and denigrate Soviet and non-free world information. The only remedy is for teachers to help their students to develop more critical attitudes.
The Royal Bank of Canada
The Royal Bank of Canada is a leading commercial bank. During my university days, probably in 1951, I came across a four-page "Monthly letter" published by the bank entitled "Writing better letters." I read it and found it was a good coverage of the subject. Out of curiosity I wrote to the head office of the bank and they placed me on the mailing list. Every month there was something good to look forward to. I have an almost full set of the Royal letters from that era until they ceased publishing in the late eighties. After my V.I. career, when I was at the Faculty of Education of the University of Malaya, I met Dr J. Ruby Kidd, a great name in Canadian Adult Education. When I mentioned the Royal Letters he told me that the writer was a public relations officer of the RBC and that his name was John Heron. This publication was an excellent source of ideas for the General Paper classes. The Bank quite willing ensured that the V.I. received 100 copies (or more) of their esteemed publication. I concluded that paper is plentiful in Canada!
Latin and French
The daily use of Latin in Catholic Church services was a good introduction to Latin. One became sensitive to the Latin roots of many English words. I have found that a very useful acquisition. In St Paul's Institution where there were no British or American teachers. We became accustomed to the accents and the humour, particularly, of the Irish brothers. There were also French nationals such as Brother Anselme. Brother Henry, a one-time principal of SPI, and his own brother, Brother Symphorien, were also French nationals. The latter with whom the boys used to crack a few anti-French jokes was a little hard of hearing. It is sad to recall that in the early days of the Emergency he was shot by Communist terrorists at a bungalow in Penang Hill probably by accident or misunderstanding.
I shall always be grateful to Brother Anselme for taking time off to give four of us supplementary lessons in French. I had paid 8 or ten guineas as fees to the Pelman Languages Institute in London. It was a very unique tutorial approach - the emphasis was on learning grammar and vocabulary very directly, without translation into English. Spread over two years, this link with London and thanks to the booster doses of Brother Ansleme, I managed to secure a credit in the Senior Cambridge examination. There were no opportunities for mastering spoken or oral French but I have maintained the reading skill all these years and I can read a French newspaper or simple stories. Canadian government publications are generally bilingual. I read the French version and recheck new words or phrases in the other version.
My roots in South India are in Pondichery, the former French colony. The signs in French are still there. The Romain Rolland library has a vast collection of French books. And the Alliance Francaise also has an appropriate presence in the shape of a large book shop with reasonably priced books and magazines. French culture still lingers in Pondichery and in three other enclaves in South India.
Mr. Allan Bennett
A member of the staff with whom I moved closely was T. A. M. Bennett or Allan. He was an Oxford graduate and was certainly an intellectual who made an impact on the young minds of the Sixth Form Arts classes. He had two small children, both boys and it was a tragedy that his marriage was hitting the rocks. He used to confide in me and I felt sorry for him, his wife and the two boys. While at the university I had learned the hard way the vital importance of never gossiping about anything that a friend told me in confidence. Bennett loved Greece, a country in which he had travelled a lot. He was from Northern Ireland or Ulster and never liked to be described as Irish. Later he was transferred to Penang and also worked in Saudi Arabia. He died there or in England of choking while having a meal. His second wife was Siew Tin and they had a daughter Judith. Siew Tin Bennett used to tell me that her husband always remembered me with kindness. When I met Judith she was already grown up. I was stunned and deeply moved to note that Judith was a picture if not an exact replica of Allan Bennett. She was then working, I think, for Oxford University in England.
Bennett used to subscribe to the well-known British newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, now known as The Guardian, an excellent middle of the road or liberal paper. C. P. Scott, its great editor, coined the slogan "Facts are sacred; comment is free," another favourite quotation of mine.
And so about once a month, I used to have a pile of The Guardian to read. I used to cut out the best articles and editorials and I used them in English Language, General Paper and Economics lessons. I have always believed that a teacher should fill the bulletin board at the back of the classroom with appropriate news cuttings, cartoons and illustrations. That is as good a way as any to kindle the intellectual curiosity of students.
Wherein lay the success of the V.I. in maintaining and even enhancing its reputation as a leading institution, if not the leading school?
Firstly, admission was always selective. The students admitted to Form One were always the cream or the cream of the cream of Batu Road School or Pasar Road School.
Secondly, there was always a significant number of graduate teachers in the upper forms. There were both expatriates and Malayans. Many of the non-graduates later became heads of lower Secondary Schools.
Thirdly, the V.I. was historically the pioneer in science teaching and the good work of the legendary Mr. F. Daniel provided an admirable legacy.
Fourthly, the milieu or environment fostered a remarkable degree of self-reliance among the pupils
Many Names and Many Pupils
In his little masterpiece, Goodbye Mr. Chips, James Hilton has a touching account of the dying Chips who recalls names of many of the pupils he had taught. I daresay that is bound to be a common trait amongst teachers. Some names and personalities will linger in one's memories more than others. Who are some of these "bright sparks" I will always remember?
Surely, Foo Yeow Khean is not easy to forget. He was always reading, not fiction, but the great classics of philosophy while in the upper secondary forms. Tan Hong Siang was a veritable wizard with figures and I was not surprised that he became a professor. Whenever, as chief examiner in English for the Lower Certificate of Education, I had to calculate the median and the mode, I would leave the mark list with Hong Siang. He would bring me the appropriate figures to cite in my examiner's report.
M. Shanmughalingam kept in touch with me even after I was no longer in the V.I. He told me he used to spend the daily recess period in the Library as he wanted to read every short story written by Somerset Maugham. Shan was my best man when I got married!
Hew Chee Peng I shall always remember as the one who was fond of writing poems. I am afraid I have lost touch with him after some years. Goh Meng Fatt was cheeky. he left school after Form 5 and, for some time, went round marketing a variety of books. I still have an anthology of poems, The Cherry Tree, which I bought from him. One day, during an English lesson. I was commenting on the views and observations that students had expressed in their essays. One of them had written about the way in which a hawker squeezed out the sugar cane juice. I was saying that often the hawker's honest sweat might mingle with the juice. Promptly, Meng Fatt quipped, "More tasty, sir!"
I will never forget Darwis bin Daek. He came from a rural home and they were a relatively poor family. Darwis secured a scholarship and went to an Australian University. In a letter which he sent to me, he wrote: "I cannot thank you enough for emphasizing the importance of English." Darwis had a good career in the Malaysian private sector eventually.
Every year when Christmas comes round the corner, I receive a letter and a Christmas card from Dermot Killingley in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the north of England. I read the circular letter and I think of the bright, vivacious young lady who was Dermot's wife. I simply cannot believe that she has passed away...
Leong Siew Yue was Siew Mun's younger sister. Her interests were literary. Killingley is a Sanskrit scholar. Both of them kept busy with writing, literary research and music. I spent one academic year in the University of Edinburgh and I was invited for a weekend with Dermot and Siew Yue. I took the train from Waverley Station in Edinburgh and on reaching Newcastle, took a cab to the Killingley residence. It was a pleasant stay. We also went to the beach. Karen their little girl was delightful company. When I expressed an interest in Durham Cathedral, Dermot offered to take me there and this was another delightful outing for the four of us. In my last three years (1946-1948) at St. Paul's Institution, I had a pen friend in Durham. She had sent me photographs of Durham Cathedral which I framed on my table at home.
It was in that part of England - the Northern counties - that Christianity took root. I was happy to note that Siew Yue was producing as well as taking part in plays with a strong Christian background. In August 2003, Dermot sent us an elegant volume of poems by Siew Yue titled A Once Green Vine: Poems of Joy and Despair. The back cover contains a brief description of the nature of the poems and the reader is informed that "the poems in this collection were largely written between autumn 2000 and spring 2003."
I read and re-read these poems of joy and despair and felt proud that Siew Yue was an old pupil of mine.
Dr. Gnanam Duraisamy I have occasion to meet from time to time. She is a senior member of the Gribbles Laboratory and she ensures a special fee for me and my wife whenever we have blood tests and other tests there. She had a good career in the Blood Bank of the Medical Department. Her older sister, Mrs Devadason, was an English teacher at the V.I. Unfortunately she was diagnosed with cancer and proceeded to London for treatment but died there. I remember the shock that registered in the minds of teachers and pupils when Mr. Lim Eng Thye announced the tragic news at the School Assembly in 1961.
Rollins Bonney was a bright student. He was interested in current affairs and politics and was a good debater too. He worked in the History Department of the University of Malaya. He wrote good papers as well as a book I think. Unfortunately he never recovered from an unsuccessful love affair. He deteriorated emotionally and passed away. I have heard it said that the humble people of a kampung in the East Coast looked after him as long as he stayed with them.
Mohamad Zaman Khan came to the V.I. for Form Six studies from Kelantan. He contributed considerably to the school as a Prefect and also as a rugby player. He rose high in the Police Force and was seconded to the Prisons Department. I ran into him quite by chance over the years. He always stopped his car to offer me lifts. He goes to all the V.I. Reunions. I shall always remember his installation as a prefect. I was seated with all the teachers on the V.I. stage. E. J. Lawrence, who was seated next to me, remarked, "Zaman Khan has a good personality." I fully agreed...
Chew Swee Yoke was a bright girl who came from Pahang is now a legal practitioner in K.L. She was also a badminton star. I shall always remember the article she wrote for the Seladang when I left the V.I. in mid-1963 for the U.K. She cited my favourite lines from John Donne's much-quoted Meditation 17:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never seek to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.
Sometime in the year 1991 or was it 1992, the VIOBA approached me through Mrs Khoo Siew Mun to write the history of the V.I. It was to be offically launched in August 1993 when the V.I. Centenary festivities would take place. Siew Mun was and is very loyal to her teachers. She had become a family friend and my wife Pat enjoys her company. My older daughter Debbie had been a classmate of Ronald Khoo, Siew Mun's son at the Sekolah Seri Petaling in P.J. Without any hesitation I responded positively to the invitation to take up the writing project pertaining the school over the years.
Apart from the annual school magazines, there was the Seladang as well as books written by Richard Sidney in which the school and the activities of students and teachers are featured prominently. The V.I. Old Boys were well-known citizens in the community. They were bound to be enthusiastic collaborators. In February 1991, we had lost my only son Damian. He died in a freak accident in Taman Negara while holidaying there with an Australian classmate. He had returned from Sydney after graduating as an architect. I needed to keep busy mentally and working on a serious manuscript was the best possible preoccupation.
Siew Nim Chee asked me to state the renumeration I was expecting. I am aware of Dr. Samuel Johnson's famous saying that none but a blockhead wrote except for money. That was the title adopted by Larry King the famous US broadcaster for his book on media issues. I simply asked for ten thousand ringgit but later increased it to "15 grand." There were professional historians and researchers who quoted 50 thousand or even higher figures. Ideally the book should have been written by one who had studied at the V.I. However I was happy to undertake the task although I was, in a manner of speaking, only an "adopted son!" There was a group of ever willing "aiders and abettors." Let me mention some names out of gratitude for their assistance.
Considerable help came from Dr. Ronnie McCoy, an outstanding old pupil and his wife, Susheila, also lovingly called "Twinkle." "Spitfire" Ratnam was a loyal Old Boy and he and his classmates participated with enthusiasm in the centenary events.
I came to grips with the realities of writing a book about a great institution and the individuals associated with it. A few wanted to ensure that their names would not only be included but that they would be mentioned in superlative terms! Scholastic achievements were exaggerated. There were other more worthy persons. They had heard that I was looking for photographs. They willingly sent me postcard-sized photographs with short messages of goodwill. That was a morale booster. Similarly, from time to time, Nim Chee would invite me for lunch at Seng Nam Coffee Shop or at any one of a variety of posh establishments. He would read through my pages and suggest some changes or rectifications only very sparingly. Siew Mun had introduced me to Nellie, her one-time secretary and typist at the University of Malaya Library. Nellie proved to be a good choice. She worked willingly. It was also easy for me to meet her with my chapters or part chapters and instructions.
I interviewed the Governor of Bank Negara, Tun Ismail Ali. He was courteous and full of memories of the school, the teachers and his war time experiences in Britain. Reuben Gnanalingam was the honorary curator of the small V.I. Museum. He lent me the bound volumes of back issues of the Victorian.
Dr. Arasu belonged to a group that used to
meet every month for lunch. He had studied in the V.I. in the mid-1930s.
Dr Arasu's contacts were invaluable. The book of late Justice
Fred Arulanandom, entitled Through my Tainted Glasses is
full of humour and wit. The phrase "sober as a judge" would not be
fitting for this bon vivant. He was among the brightest and
best of the V.I. students sent to the U.K. on a Social Welfare
scholarship he had also managed to study for and pass in several
subjects in the bar exams. He became a good judge.
Last updated on 13 February 2021.