Tan Sri Dato' Gunn Chit Tuan


'I past beside the reverend walls
In which of old I wore the gown...
And caught once more the distant shout,
The measured pulse of racing oars
Among the willows...'

(Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1850)

ambridge University undoubtedly evokes an aura of excellence and tradition; little wonder that the master-builders of V.I.'s heritage have modelled our school after prestigious Cambridge and Oxford. Of many Victorians who have passed through the "reverend walls" of Cambridge, we have selected one to interview. Not only is he a Tan Sri; he has also climbed to the top echelons of his career.

Peterhouse" Tan Sri Dato' Gunn Chit Tuan, born in 1929, was a student of the Victoria Institution in 1940/ 1941 and again in 1946. Reading law at Peterhouse, the oldest college at the University of Cambridge, where his varsity contemporaries included Lee Kuan Yew, the future Prime Minister of Singapore, this was followed by a period at Lincoln's Inn where he did his Bar exams.

His first job posting with the Malayan Civil Service was as Assistant District Officer in Butterworth. After that short stint, he became Senior Assistant Registrar of Selangor. He spent one year as Registrar, where his duties included registering wills, issuing money lender licences and administering court procedures. Tan Sri was then appointed President of the Sessions Court in Malacca.

This was followed by a tenure in the Attorney-General's Chambers as Assistant Parliamentary Draftsman, and then as Deputy Public Trustee for a year. Tan Sri moved again, this time to Ipoh as the Senior Sessions Court President, a post he held for about 3 years. Subsequently, he became Registrar of Companies, during which he was sent to Australia to study the Companies Acts there, as Malaysia was in the process of developing its corporations legislation.

Then Tan Sri was appointed as Senior Federal Counsel (Crimes), a position equivalent to the present Senior Deputy Public Prosecutor. This was almost a three year stint, which was followed by his secondment as the Chairman of the Special Commissioners of Income Tax, a position in the Treasury Department.

In 1977, Tan Sri was elevated to the High Court of Malaya, the second highest court in the land. Ten years later, his undying loyalty to public service was rewarded with his promotion as a judge in the Supreme Court of Malaysia. In 1992, he became the Chief Justice of the High Court of Malaya. This was the second highest judicial office of the land. Had the post of Lord President of the Supreme Court of Malaysia become vacant during Tan Sri's tenure, he would have assumed that position to be highest judge in Malaysia.

For his services to the country, he was awarded the P.S.M. (Panglima Setia Mahkota), which carries the title Tan Sri. He had earlier been conferred the title of Dato' from the Governor of Penang. One month after his retirement, in June 1994, Tan Sri Gunn was awarded the P.M.N. (Pingat Mangku Negara), the highest medal for the titular class of Tan Sri.

The interview with him was conducted at his house on Tuesday, 22 July 2003.

Gunn Why interview me? I am a dinosaur, belonging to a bygone era. My experience would probably bore many of you. As students, we aspired to go to Cambridge and Oxford because those were the temples of learning in Britain, but today, students may aim to go to America, Australia or Al-Azhar. Opportunities are wider today, and mindsets are no longer conditioned to think that the colonial masters are the best people around.

Tan Sri added that while in his day, many worshipped the colonial masters, today people worship other gods, especially money; so his experiences are irrelevant. We paused before replying “Yes, but at least you realised you worshipped something. Many people don’t, and so they become blind followers”, hoping we had persuaded Tan Sri that we could learn from his life stories. After all, he was a big Gunn.

I was born in 1929. My father was a British Government Civil Servant. He sent me to Batu Road School for my primary education, after which I sat a competitive examination to gain entry to the Victoria Institution. Batu Road School had four Standard Five classes, with around 160 students in total; moreover, we had to compete with other Standard Five students from Pasar Road School, as both our schools were the feeder schools to the V.I. After putting in so much effort, we felt immensely proud to be rewarded with a place in the V.I. Others who didn’t succeed went to other schools such as St John’s Institution and the Methodist Boys’ School. I joined the V.I. in 1940.

When Malaya was attacked in December 1941, my one year old stint in the school was rudely interrupted. Fearing for our safety, especially as the family of a British servant, my father instructed us to hastily retreat to Singapore. Led by my mother, my brother and I fled. Other families did likewise, such as Loke Wan Tho who sought refuge in India. Who wasn’t afraid? Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya, had descended with such stealth and vigour on the East Coast, and day by day, his army was rapidly devouring each state in Malaya. Bicycles gave them agility and speed, without being clumsy and unwieldy. Gripped by fear, the British, who in fact outnumbered the Japanese, surrendered.

My family was then herded into cattle trucks and forced to return to KL. From the station, we walked to my uncle’s house in Weld Road (now Jalan Raja Chulan) where we stayed for a month before returning to our own house in Circular Road (now Jalan Tun Razak). As you can see, now I live just off Jalan Tun Razak, having moved to this place just five years ago, from another house on Jalan Tun Razak itself. Come to think of it, I’ve lived on or just off Circular Road all my life, barring my sojourns overseas and my postings outstation!

We had to attend Japanese School where we were force fed with the Japanese language, Nippon-Go. Learning was quick and easy, as children pick up language without much difficulty. But I have forgotten most of it; in those days, we detested our Japanese occupiers, and so purged their language from memory as quickly as possible. In the meantime, my father enlisted some office colleagues to give me private tutoring in English. An Indian tutor drilled me in Maths while a teacher from St John’s Institution taught me Latin. That’s how we made the best use of our time, and I am thankful that we didn’t waste those years.

Surviving on rice and sweet potatoes for daily rations, we learned austerity as there was not enough to eat. The Japanese forced us to plant potatoes. One of our workers also reared pigs, which provided meat to supplement our diet as it was hard to buy meat even if we had money. Money wasn't everything, though sometimes, the Chinese had to pay off the Japanese to ensure protection.

How thankful we were when the war ended, and I resumed my studies at the V.I., which occupied the Maxwell Road School premises during the interregnum when the British Military Administration (B.M.A.) took the reins of Malaya. For their headquarters, the B.M.A. used the V.I. premises on Petaling Hill, hence forcing our temporary relocation. Due to my studies during the war, I was deemed intellectually capable to be promoted to Standard Nine (Form Five today) straight away.

Austerity hung over Tan Sri’s early life. His V.I. was a school of hard knocks; a school of staunch traditions and teachers of unrelenting ferocity. Faced with such scenarios, we would probably wonder "why?", or ask the school to "please explain your policy". Submission is such an ugly word today. But how did Tan Sri face this school of hard knocks?

My memories of the V.I. before and after the war are unfortunately faint. A scholarly type, I didn’t indulge in many extra-curricular activities with great fervour. After school, it was often ‘go home, have meals, study’. My parents also arranged for me to have Cantonese classes. As a Baba, I found such language skills useful. The passion for language also led me into debating; I was debating in the V.I. since I was in Standard Six. (The Victorian 1941 records that in a debate on the motion that "Country life is better than town life", Tan Sri opposed the motion and was declared the best speaker).

Gunn I have fond memories of several of the teachers. One was, of course, the strict Mr Ganga Singh, who infected his students with his passion for the English language. Meticulous in his grammar, he never hesitated to punish students who slackened, not just in grammar but in anything and everything else. Then there was Mr Gorbex Singh, related to Lall Singh. Like Mokhtar Dahari to football in the 1970’s and 1980’s, or Kenneth Ong to squash in the 1990’s, Lall Singh inspired awe as a cricketeer who played for India in the prestigious Test series, the equivalent of the World Cup for cricket. Being acquainted with any connection of Lall such as Mr Gorbex, even if not Lall himself, was sufficient to thrill us. Most fearsome of our teachers was probably Mr S.C.E. Singam. He lived the phrase ‘To frighten the monkey, you kill the dog’; we were beaten into timid obedience each time he hammered his solid knuckles onto a mischievous prankster.

Some of my closest friends were Loke Wai Bun, Chong Ngee Hin, Chong Chin Hin and Lye Fah Lin. Wai Bun’s father made Chinese sauce; the family also reared fish. Because Wai Bun and I were close friends, I used to get fish from them. Ngee Hin and Chin Hin were older than I, especially because I had ‘accelerated’ into Standard Nine at the end of the war, but age was no barrier to our friendship. Ngee Hin later worked for the income tax department, while Chin Hin enlisted his services with the Nanyang Siang Pau in Singapore. Fah Lin and I spent a lot of time together. His father was a concrete maker, whose name was Lye Chin Loi.

Lye Chin Loi? There is a V.I.O.B.A. scholarship under that name. So now we know who he was. How often that we unquestioningly receive prizes and scholarships without pondering on the personalities behind those faceless awards. History is swept away by words such as ‘irrelevance’, ‘development’ and ‘modernity’. Yet, we forget that many of society’s pre-eminent institutions, such as universities, are strong precisely because of their history.

My stay in the V.I. lasted less than a year, and just before the Senior Cambridge exam, I left with my younger brother, Chit Chan, and my father for England during the autumn season there.

The three of us went to the UK by a troop ship. These were ships transporting military personnel back to England from Malaya. My father secured three berths in a cabin of six bunks, which we shared with several Singaporeans. My brother and I enrolled in the Ley’s School, an old public school in Cambridge. Remember that in England, private schools were called ‘public schools’. Two former professors of my father from Peterhouse, Cambridge University - Professor Butterfield and Dr Burchield - had recommended the school to us. There I sat for the Oxford-Cambridge joint board exam, in place of the Senior Cambridge that I would have sat for had I remained in Malaya. I scored 7A’s and 2C’s; English and English Language being my disappointments. The wartime tutelage in Maths from that Indian tutor paid off handsomely as I breezed through Mathematics; in fact, other students often came to me for assistance. Many were the shortcuts and tricks that I had learned from that Indian tutor.

Due to my good results, the Peterhouse Admissions College granted me exemptions from the college exams, and I was admitted to Peterhouse. This is the oldest college of Cambridge University, and in the 1940’s, there were around 200 boarders, but no women. There were 12 Malayans as my contemporaries in Cambridge. Most famous of them was Mr Lee Kuan Yew, later Prime Minister of Singapore. Mrs Lee Kuan Yew née Kwa Geok Choo was also at Cambridge. Third in prominence was Yong Pung How, son of Mr Yong Shook Lin, then a famous lawyer and later Federal Councillor in Malaya. Pung How himself had earned his laurels as a distinguished scholar and scout at the V.I., and after many career achievements, is presently the Chief Justice of Singapore, the highest judicial officer of the land. Eddie Barker, later a member of the High Court in Malaysia, was of Eurasian descent and was also one of my colleagues in Cambridge. Then there was Raja Tun Mohar Raja Badiozaman, who passed away earlier this year (2003). He was the brains behind the New Economic Policy (NEP) of Malaysia.

It was a star-studded list of names, and equally importantly, a list of personalities from different races. Cambridge in the 1940’s already was a cultural blending pot, a mini-Malaysian cosmos! They ate together, worked together, socialised together, and today, in their twilight years and decades after they have left university, many of them still keep in touch with one another.

Sports at Cambridge was a year-round engagement, even in the numbing cold of the British winter. Everyone played rugby in the winter, hockey in spring and either cricket or tennis in summer. Compensating for the wasted sports opportunities in the V.I., I joined the boating team. Our Cambridge cox was a certain Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later the husband of the late Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II. Sports allowed everyone to interact, regardless of class, race or religion.

But off the field, there was more separation. Whether in school, or walking down the streets, people would whisper "Chink, chink, chop, chop, chop", in reference to our Asiatic backgrounds. They also used to be awestruck by our stories that bamboo shoots and sharks' fin soup were delicacies where we came from. Though their country ruled the ‘empire on which the sun never set’, the British then were not very exposed to foreign cultures. Over time, however, Britons mingled more with the foreign students who arrived on their shores, learned to eat curry from the Indians and Asiatics and lived in the same neighbourhood as many migrants.

Besides coping with multiculturalism, the British have been adjusting to egalitarianism. In my time, public schools in England were mainly the preserve of royalty and the upper class. This hurt social integration because the younger generation did not get to mingle with each other. That’s why the Labour government has been pushing policies to expand the enrolment policies of public schools, boarding schools, day schools and grammar schools. Nonetheless, the public schools, due to their long history, still have a headstart in attracting the best students. With rich and politically connected old boys, public schools like Harrow and Eton are never hard pressed in their coffers. That’s why these schools still offer the best facilities and often, the best teachers too. I sent my two boys to the Leys, my old school in Cambridgeshire. One eventually became an osteopath, the other an immunologist.

An interesting twist to the Gunn family indeed; both his sons ventured into the medical realm, while Tan Sri had a long distinguished legal career. But if offered the chance to turn back the clock, Tan Sri said he would have done some things a bit differently. Hindsight is perfect vision, but no one has such advantage. There is only advice, guidance and the wisdom of others to lead us.

I should have done the Economics and Law Tripos at Cambridge. Instead, I did an out and out Law Tripos, intending to become a ‘Parker lawyer’, meaning, a lawyer who just practises the black letter of the law. But the most important lesson I learned while doing that was my professors’ message that "Cambridge does not Gunn prepare you to become a specialist lawyer; it gives you a general education". We lose perspective in our quest to become experts and specialists, and fail to recognise there is a wider world out there. Law interacts with society and the economy. It is about understanding human behaviour and relationships as much as it is about a judicial text or a Parliamentary statute. Studying law and something else, such as Economics, would have been such a good move for me.

After poring through countless legal texts in Cambridge, there was more in store when I joined Lincoln’s Inn. We had to ‘eat three dinners’ per term for three terms before being called to do the Bar finals. Exemption from the Part One of the Bar exam was given to those who scored a Second Class or higher from Oxford or Cambridge. Nonetheless, the Bar was a very trying exam. For instance, in the Cambridge exams, we had a choice of questions to attempt, but in Part Two of the Bar exam, we had to answer all ten questions stipulated. There was no ‘spotting questions’ or ‘skipping/ choosing revision’.

Why did I want to be a lawyer? Few occupations promised the prestige and alluring future that lawyers could have during the colonial era. Although Leys and Cambridge were comfortable periods, the reality was that I had to return to Malaya, and I had to consider making full use of my Oxbridge credentials to tap career openings back home. Driven by this realisation and inspired by such luminaries as Messrs Yong Shook Lin and Khoo Teik Ee who were successful legal practitioners, I took up law. Expediency was a strong motivation, but with time, patience and commitment to the tasks at hand, I grew into the job and the job grew into me.

In 1953, I did my Articles for six months and worked with S.M. Yong (another Old V.I. Boy and later Justice Tan Sri). Unquestionably, the British had their faults, but they were also far-sighted enough to realise that an inevitable independent Malaya would need racial integration in the civil service. So they persuaded the sultans to allow non-Malays to be admitted into the M.C.S. A position as Assistant District Officer (A.D.O.) in Butterworth was my first M.C.S. posting. In those days, politicians primarily comprised of teachers and clerks; I remember one of them, who eventually became a State Councillor, initially wore no socks to work! So the members of the M.C.S., who were highly educated, bore the important task of advising them, not just fashion-wise, of course!

Thus I followed in the footsteps of my civil servant father.

Dato' Modesty kept Tan Sri from revealing that his father, Gunn Lay Teik (later Tan Sri Dato'), was not only a civil servant, but in the newly independent Malaya, was appointed the High Commissioner to Australia and New Zealand. Motivated by such modesty and higher ideals of public service to the country, Tan Sri spent 41 years in the civil service until his retirement in 1994. Dr Mahathir once commended him: “With your intelligence, you could have made so much money in the private sector - thank you for your devotion to the public service.”

There is much more to living than money. Unfortunately, appreciating history and language is too underrated in our pursuit of the ringgit or dollar. History is not just about dates, but more importantly, about events. I get very excited in reading history and literature such as the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms. My father used to sit us by roadside stalls to listen, enthralled, to story-tellers weave their yarns on such historical events.

It is difficult to understand culture if you don’t understand history. For instance, as Buddhists (coupled with my mother’s Taoist influence) we were chap choong kwai who observed rituals like celebrating Cheng Beng and praying to the God of Heaven on the eighth day of the New Year. The latter was cultural, as I am a Hokkien. For the Hokkiens, the eighth day of the New Year has historical meaning because during the invasion by the Manchus, the Chinese in Taiwan had to hide in the sugar plantation where they prayed for the safety. No harm came upon them, and thus, this remembrance ceremony has been devoutly observed by Hokkiens all over. Again, you cannot understand culture without knowing the history.

But knowing history and culture also needs mastery and appreciation of language. English was my vernacular as a student, so I studied Malay while I was posted to Penang, because how else can you understand the people around you and call them your friends if you don’t speak their language? Even though the Malay cikgu mainly taught me classical Malay and Munshi Abdullah, it was important that I learned the language.

At Cambridge, we had to study one old language, either Latin or Greek, and one modern language, either French or German. Knowing language doesn't make us rich, but that’s not the point. I took Latin and French (though I would have learned Spanish if given the option). As a result, I could study Justinian Law in my first year of varsity, even though it consisted of Roman statutes coded in Latin. You may be too young to remember my eminent colleague, the late Tan Sri Eusoffe Abdoolcader SCJ. He was so proficient in Latin that he composed a long Latin poem that he published in The New Straits Times annually on the anniversary of his wife’s death.

Making friends and breaking down barriers means understanding each other’s history, culture and language; and these are things that making money does not give us.

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created: 30 November 2003.
Last update: 30 November 2003.
Contributed by: Ang Wen Juin, Cheong Shi Min, Loh Kok Kin.