July 7, 2007

An Evening with V.I. Legends

by Dennis Loh Kok Kin

egends are made when happy coincidences and crossing of paths weave tales worthy of passing on across generations. The felt need for a public school in Kuala Lumpur in 1893 coupled with surplus funds from Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was the coincidence that gave us the Victoria Institution. So too, the V.I.O.B.A. Charity Gala Dinner of 7 July 2007 will live on, for it was on that fateful night when decades-old friendships were re-kindled, teachers met old students, captains of industry mingled with recent graduates, that a shared desire to rejuvenate the V.I. inaugurated the "Global Victorian" campaign.

The "Global Victorian" campaign seeks to capitalise on the Ministry of Education’s gift of greater autonomy for 30 premier schools in Malaysia, of which the V.I. is one, to improve flagging education standards. Consequently, the V.I.O.B.A. initiated a drive to seek input and develop a proposal for, market the idea of, raise funds and resources for turning the V.I. into an independent or private school, and thus return the school to its rightful pedestal.

Thus, parting with RM150 for my dinner ticket was filial duty. But this amounted to a trivial drop into an ocean of other tickets, the priciest of which was RM5,000. Later that night, the V.I.O.B.A. patron, Dato’ Siew Nim Chee, generously bid RM55,000 and won the auction for the car, one with the catchy registration ‘WP VIOBA’. The starting bid had been RM35,000, courtesy of Andrew Abishegam. And then there were the four lucrative lucky draw prizes that I immediately expunged from my memory when I did not win! It was a rich night – with several hundred attendees, and sponsorships from friends of the V.I. like Malaysia’s premier ports operator, Westports (partially helmed by former prefect Ruben Gnanalingam). If Bank Negara ever needs a bail-out, someone should give them the number of the V.I.O.B.A., the de facto money minting machine of Malaysia.

Mere mortals like me were contented with meeting friends that night. Our batch of 1995 had ten representatives, and I had not met some of them since I had left school. Our ranks counted a lawyer with Baker & Mckenzie, a management consultant from London, a lecturer in Biotechnology and an assistant manager at Siemens. But again, I felt humbled when I overheard some attendees at the dinner declaring that they had not met some school mates for over 50 years! And some of these schoolmates were Tan Sris, former high ranking public servants and professors.

V.I. Legends (l. to r.): Dato Dr V. Thuraisingham, Dato' Tan Chin Nam, Datuk Mustafa Ali, Dato Ng Yen Yen, Dato Prof Daniel Thuraiappah,
Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, Mr V. Chakaravarthy

In the crowd, I spied and cheekily snapped photos with the likes of Dato’ Siew Nim Chee, Malaysian property baron Dato’ Tan Chin Nam, Queen’s Scholar Dato Dr Thuraisingham, public servant and writer extraordinaire Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, ex-managing director of Shell and oil & gas guru Dato Jaffar Indot, health sector expert Dato Professor Daniel Thuraiappah (T. Mahendran), former Sime Darby supremo Dato Mustafa Ali, and of course the Guest of Honour and current Deputy Minister of Finance, Dato Dr Ng Yen Yen. Eat your heart out Malaysian Tatler! Coming from a family of teachers, I also drew on my dad’s friendship with redoubtable headmaster V. Chakaravarthy for a photo, and had another with my old Pasar Road School headmaster, Mr Yap Chai Seng, who doubtless had terrorised numerous V.I. boys during his happy stint from 1953 to 1966.

Above all, there was one old boy I longed to meet. Sometime in March, I had received an email from his sister, who informed me that he had read my V.I. Web write-up about him and that he wanted to meet me. But geography stood in the way - we were half a world apart. Then Serendipity decreed his attendance at the V.I.O.B.A. dinner, and I told him I would be there. Thus, at the end of the night’s proceedings, I marched up to this giant celebrity and nervously introduced myself. With disarming humility, he greeted me and then invited me to join him for private drinks at his hotel, during which had a hearty chat. I would never forget that first time I met with Kamahl, the famous crooner from Australia.

The remarkable night kicked off at 7.00 with pre-dinner drinks in the foyer of the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre Ballroom, as hordes queued to register, check their seats or purchase V.I.O.B.A. paraphernalia. The scene was one where grey-haired wizards weaved amongst lesser hobbits, walking sticks and wheelchairs batiks found their place amongst suits and V.I. ties, and occasionally a loud "Hallo!” followed by cackling laughter would rise above the din. Black suits and V.I. blue on balloons, ties and shirts stood out amidst the golden hue emanating from low yellow light, wooden panelling and glass panes aplenty. Even the drinks were blue! (No, no, they weren’t margaritas.)

Dato Dr Ng Yen Yen’s arrival heralded the start of the night. After the national anthem and a gusty rendition of the school song, the V.I.’s favourite emcee Mahadzir Lokman invited Andrew Abishegam (head of the organising committee), Dato Yusli Yusof (V.I.O.B.A. president and CEO of the KL Stock Exchange) and Dato Ng to address the throng. The guest-of-honour reminisced about her arrival in the V.I. amongst swarming hordes of city-dwellers who keenly enquired if she lived on trees back home in Kota Bharu, her admonition by Mr Murugasu who once caught her running in the Sixth Form Block, and how she shamed other V.I. boys and girls with her expert agility in the rumba, the cha-cha and other dances during the student socials.

So what was served for dinner? There was delightful steak, strawberry sorbet, and I can’t remember the rest. I even missed a few dishes. Satiated with thrilling reunions with old friends, and the random "Hello Kok Kin, you might not remember me, I was your junior by xx years", it was wonderful to know that I hadn’t been the only one adding flab, growing facial lines and greying on the scalp. I soon ran out of business cards too, forcing me into embarrassing apologies when Dato Ng and others asked for one later in the night.

Entertainment was provided by Victorians present and past. Bagpipers from our famed V.I.C.C. Band escorted and piped in the dignitaries for the start of the evening's programme. It was a stirring moment when the three-time state champion V.I. choir performed school’s Centenary Song that I had composed and last heard in 1993. Irreverent jokes at the expense of Samy Vellu and international celebrities later kept the audience in stitches, albeit only after a few minutes of politically correct nervousness at the start – all this thanks to stand-up comedian and Old Victorian Prabu Krishnananthan. A semi-valued artist he certainly wasn't.

Then, it was the launch of the Global Victorian campaign. Who better to introduce it than Dato Yusli, one of the most active students of the 1970’s and now the devoted president of the V.I.O.B.A. and a concerned parent of a present boy? A heart-rending slideshow set to the Gaudeamus Igitur theme of Brahms’ Academic Festival followed. (I think the voice-over was done by the same chap who does the Tourism Malaysia ads and sounded very much like Patrick Teoh – maybe we should totally ‘Victorianise’ the slide show of the next dinner?). It should be recorded that all the performers that evening, apart from receiving a free dinner, gave their services gratis.

Commonly commanding thousands of ringgit for one-night appearances, Kamahl made this Saturday evening his free tribute to his alma mater. So entrancing was his performance that my friends happily ignored my invitations to tuck into desert, even rebuking me with: "Wait until Kamahl finishes, lah!" It was all the more surprising, as they had neither heard of him nor heard any of his tunes except for the more familiar My Way and Memories. Kamahl began with a powerful rendition of Impossible Dream and continued to enchant his audience for over half an hour with songs like White Magnolia Tree, One Hundred Children and his signature tune, The Elephant Song. This seasoned charmer wowed many a female in the audience each of whom who received a rose from him. (For his host, Dato Jaffar, Kamahl reserved a budless stump!) His songs brought the evening to a rousing climax, with a well-deserved standing ovation for his amazing voice.

The Victorian of the Year was awarded, posthumously, to Mr Robert Sundram. Enumerating his credentials would need a write-up of its own, but he was known to everyone present, except perhaps those who had graduated from the V.I. after his passing in 1994. I remember watching him releasing balloons during the 1993 Cross Country to inaugurate the Centenary Celebrations for the school – Robert Sundram must have been one of the last to perform such an honour before balloon releases were banned nationwide. David Dzulkifli, his son, a Victorian of the 1960s, accepted the award on behalf of his distinguished father.

Perhaps David’s act epitomised what the Gala Night was about. It was about the present linking with the past, about honouring history, excellence and legendary achievements in perpetuity.... legendary people, legendary achievements in one unforgettable evening. Congratulations and thank you to the V.I.O.B.A. and all organisers.

Sharing the top of the VIOBA totem pole with: Kamahl, Dato Jaffar, Datin Pat Jaffar, Datin Prof Gnanam,
Saodra (Kamahl's wife), Dato Prof Daniel Thuraiappah,Chris and Andrew Abishegam.

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Created: August 1, 2007.
Last update: August 13, 2007.

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