A Mat Salleh Girl at the V.I.

Rosemary Ross

by Rosemary Ross, V.I. 1960 - 1961

Rosemary Ross was in the Sixth Form in 1960-61 and was the school's first and only British girl. Afterwards, she went on to the University of Malaya and graduated with an Honours Degree in History. Now retired after many years of teaching in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, she is a freelance writer. Rosemary has had a long standing interest in the occult and writes and syndicates a weekly horoscope feature internationally. Despite having a proper concern for interpreting past events on the basis of historical evidence alone, she is quite happy to paint pictures of possible future events and likely outcomes.

She came to Malaya as a six year old in 1949. The country was not an unlikely place in which to make a new life, since the family had a historical connection with Penang. This was through her paternal grandmother, whose ancestor, James Scott, had been Francis Light's partner. The family once owned Glugor - now the site of Penang's University. Rosemary's grandfather had been a prominent barrister in Penang and President of the Racing Club, but he was killed by the Japanese in 1941 or 1942. Not unusually the children of such 'colonial' families were kept in the UK. Her father, born and educated in Edinburgh, was a Civil Engineer and came out on a contract with the Drainage and Irrigation Department. A year after arriving, her then 12 year old brother was sent to Australia for his education and after short spells at schools in Penang, Ipoh and K.L. Rosemary was sent to a boarding school in the Scottish border region until she was nearly 16.

Her mother had never taken to the life of the memsahib and eventually divorced her father and left Malaysia in 1959. From this point Rosemary was never to know life in a family home until she married. Her father gradually became an alcoholic, but nevertheless was responsible for the first high-rise buildings in K.L. including the Federal Hotel and its revolving restaurant. A favourite was his Green Spot sign which for years stood proudly on top of the Chin Woo Stadium.

BBGS girls at VI

 have many fond memories of the V.I. and still think of my Sixth Form years as the happiest in my life. Although I must say my career path was never as distinguished as some of my contemporaries. Still, my claim to fame can be that I once walked amongst them!

My first contact with the V.I. was via the BBGS. We girls went swimming in the V.I. every week and also had the odd science lesson there. We never encountered any boys but enjoyed the odd wolf whistle from afar. Later some of us sat the formidable entrance exam and I was thrilled to get a place.

I suppose the starting point of my V.I. narrative must be my being conscious of being perceived as being different. I was in a racial minority of one! I felt I always had to play a line between not appearing sombong and not being regarded as gatal and as I desperately wanted to fit in and be liked, this was not easy. Believe it or not, I was also very shy! Despite my efforts I had a reputation anyway put about by the girls of the Upper Sixth when I joined in Lower Sixth. I was subjected to racist remarks most often in Chinese which I pretended not to understand ... but I did! Of course in those days no one realized there was anything such as racism. The taunts however didn't last for long.

However, outside school things weren't that good for me. My parents having divorced, my father lived with his mistress and my brother was in Australia. No one in the V.I. knew that at sixteen plus I was living on my own and subsisting on a dollar a day (to include bus fares). I was really grateful to be taken out to lunch. Fortunately, I had fellow B.B.G.S classmate, Khoo Suat Pheng (who became Deputy Head Girl in Upper Six), to turn to. Her family cook, who called me "Loh May Lee", made the best fish curry in the world and I went to her home at least once a week! Other close friends included Elly Tan, Ong Beng Gaik and Renuka Sodhy.

The Tempest

Drama soon became 'my thing' and I was in the 1960 School play The Tempest produced by Mrs Devadason. I had a crush on Min Hsiung, the then Head Boy, at the time, who played Prospero. His girlfriend wasn't pleased! Incidentally, the boys of 1961's Sixth Form were a particularly 'fit' bunch and bright-eyed 17 year olds from all-girl schools noticed the likes of Bobby Lee, Lim Ked and Lam Ah Lek! Anyway, the play opened with Prospero standing on a supposedly rocky shoreline directing a great storm and I (as Miranda) had to rush in to tell him to stop it. On the third night I ran in, I tripped and winded myself and had to improvise a bit of wailing (real) until I got my breath back to speak! In the play Miranda has never Jonah and the Whale seen a man in her whole life except for her father (who doesn't count) and the deformed and ugly Caliban, and she falls immediately in love with the ship-wrecked Ferdinand - who she finds so handsome, she can't believe he's human. I remember the audience tittering at Miranda's (my) wonder at seeing a real man for the first time!

A bit ironic then, that a year later when I played Shiprah the courtesan in Jonah and the Whale, I was wickedly smoking a cigarette on stage and looking every inch a wanton harlot! I didn't then smoke so the cigarette puffing on stage was difficult and nearly choked me. That play was directed by ex-Victorian Krishen Jit who was to be one of my tutors in my final year at M.U. Kenny Siebel was stage manager and there was a hilarious moment when he had to run with the curtain to get it closed. He literally took off and was suspended in the air for several seconds. Rehearsals and performances were always followed by mee supper in the Lake gardens or near the Old Market. Krishen Jit always paid ... none of the rest of us had any money!

Of the inspirational teachers I had must be counted Mr Alan Bennet. He taught English and General Paper and introduced us to the Romantic Poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, etc) and also insisted that we kept track of current events and read the newspapers. That rickshaw which Dr Lewis, in his memoirs, claims to have bought, was actually acquired by Mr Bennet for $100 for our Lower Sixth Arts skit in the annual Speech Day concert. It was the last one in use in KL and had belonged to an opium addict. I had a ride in it with poor old Michael Foenander as an American tourist down the school hall as part of some spoof entitled The Mad House of the March Loon, which won first place that year! I was Michael Foenander's loud American wife and I had to call him 'Elmer'. Lim Cheng Law played the part of the rickshaw-puller and he was brilliant. With a Good Morning towel tied around his neck and shiny beads of perspiration on his forehead and body, he stole the show with his loud protestations of a crudity worthy of, well, rickshaw pullers. 'Elmer' and I were then deposited at a Geisha house where we were entertained by an assortment of kimono-clad girls, wrestlers and hula hula boys.

Concert cast

The event must have given Michael ideas for not long after, he arrived at my house in Klang Road on his trusty old black bicycle to ask me to accompany him to a prayer meeting. I wasn't in but a friend took great delight in describing what he called 'a strange sight' who took forever to describe the object of his mission in between mopping his brow and cleaning his glasses!

I was also in Miss Joan Floyd's choir but not for long. Renuka and I were kicked out of it for fooling about. Mr Saw Chu Tong, the history chap was an endearing soul, but used to spit so much when talking that everyone left the first four or five rows empty! He promised to eat his hat if I repeated my feat of getting an 'A' in the subject at Subsidiary Level - but claimed later he had never owned a hat when I did it again. John Doraisamy was an articulate teacher, but if you missed one of his economics lectures you could get the notes from the previous year ... it was all there including his jokes! As for Geography, Mr Lam Kok Hon just didn't turn up half the time while Dr Lewis took us only for seminars, but we all passed anyway.


Although much in awe of him, I really liked Mr Lim Eng Thye, the Senior Assistant. He frightened me to death when I was signing my exam entrance forms, coming out with the classic "How old are you?" My reply earned his famous "Seventeen years of wasted life!" rejoinder ..... but I was honoured he had spoken to me! Every year at the annual concert, one class or another would do a sketch and mimic him and the 'wasted life' line was sure to be in it. I believe when he died, many hundreds of Victorians went to his funeral.

I was something of an athlete in those days and played hockey for the Combined Schools and the Selangor Club. I was very disappointed that Sports Days in the V.I. U6A in those days didn't have any events for the girls. We did of course assist with the decoration of the tents and gave loyal vocal support to our track and field stars.

One of my few ventures into games was through badminton when I was persuaded by another V.I. girl to partner her in a doubles match against St Johns. Although I had hit a shuttlecock about on occasions, I didn't know how it all worked and throughout the match, she had to tell me where to stand and when to serve etc.! I can't remember who won and if it was us, it was due entirely to her. My only qualification for playing was that there was no one else and that I had been a tennis player! I did however represent the school in table tennis a few times, but can't remember winning. In all things I was very much an also-ran and believed in the myth that taking part was more important than winning! If only the V.I. girls had had a hockey team!

I wasn't a member of the Debating Society ... but I endured a debut ... where I was absolutely awful. I didn't have the confidence for that sort of thing. Drama was different because you were disguised as someone else ...even so I suffered and still suffer terrible stage fright until I actually go on.

I enjoyed a brief spell of success in the Chess Club until I was beaten soundly in the semi-finals of some competition by a boy of 13!

I also spent a lot of time in the dark room of the photography club flirting with one of the nicest boys in the school - Ho Kah Yen. He was too shy to respond. I was very sad to hear of his death in the 1969 riots. What a tragic waste!

I was persuaded to write a piece for The Analekta in 1961 called The Villain in Literature which I subsequently heard broadcast on Rediffusion U6A or Radio Malaya a few months later. I listened to the piece and thought it sounded familiar and only realised it was mine on hearing my name at the end. As for the Historical Society .... I can't remember much of it, but I do recall a trip to Batu Caves with the Geographers. We were allowed to go into the really deep dark bits where I caught my first glimpse of white cockroaches. (Later I was to nearly blow up a septic tank in an effort to kill of these most loathsome of insects .. and my account of this also got published in the Town and Country Magazine in the 1980s!)

My most enduring memories of VI days continue to haunt me. One was what must have appeared as an attempted robbery of the phone box at the top of the stairs outside the school office! It was late afternoon and no one was about and I tried to make a call. My 10 cent piece got stuck and I kicked the box. To my horror the bottom of the thing fell open and spewed its contents all over the floor and you could hear the coins clattering as they bounced down the stairs. I took off like a rat up a drainpipe and never ever found out who pocketed the windfall!

On another occasion, my classmates and I had been out to lunch and had had some Netball sort of kway teow and cockles. I suddenly took ill on the playing field - cramps, vomiting diarrhoea ... the works! I was a complete mess! I suppose I should have been taken to hospital, but I was so embarrassed that I refused. Despite my protests Rajan Rajasooria offered to take me home in his chauffered-driven car which my friends elaborately lined with newspapers. Years later I reminded him of the incident, but he claimed (gallantly) not to remember it. The third came when I fell at Merdeka Stadium running the final leg of the girls 4x100 interschool relay ... but we still came second! I hung up my spikes not long after that.

I was also fairly corrupted by the likes of Kenny Siebel, Thiruchandran and others who, when the lectures were getting boring, delighted in teaching me the most vile and colourful Tamil expressions imaginable. I also learned a complete repertoire of rugby songs from them too. I can't claim to have lost my innocence at VI (that came much later), but I certainly received a rounded education!

I once slapped a Fifth Form prefect when I was in the Upper Sixth. (Horrors!) He tried to take me to task for loitering in the Sixth Form Block at recess. I claimed I hadn't known the rule which had come out the day previously (in my absence) and he called me a liar! I asked him to repeat it and he had the cheek to do so and I saw red! I was summoned by Dr. Lewis who was sympathetic to the aspersion cast on my honesty and integrity, but was obliged to hand me over to the prefects. My real annoyance was what I thought was the presumption of that Fifth Former.

The School Captain, Chung Choeng Hoy, gave me Detention and 1000 lines - each one an apology for my sins. With several younger boys keeping me company I began them in Detention Class in some classroom near the prefects room but had to finish them elsewhere. I squeezed all of them on one side of A4 paper in the tiniest writing possible! How childish was that? Choeng Hoy was certain I had missed some and I told him to count them! I don't think a girl had ever been sent to DC before and possibly no one from the Sixth Form! But it was true that the prefects were to be feared more than the Headmaster or the Senior Assistant! They had this irritating custom of keeping you waiting outside their prefects' room from the beginning of recess until the end of it. This prefect that I slapped was the first and last person I ever raised a hand to and if he should ever read this - I apologise unreservedly.

VI Girls 1961

I met Earle Siebel, my first husband in the V.I. following the 1960 Annual Sports. We girls served drinks to the Old Boys in the staff room and he was one of them. I didn't like him at first and thought him too forward, but was to marry him in 1967. Our friendship blossomed in 1961 and he used to collect me on his motorbike after school from the back school gates most days.

From the V.I., I proceeded to M.U. I had hoped to go to Cambridge and had been offered a place to read English. The lack of money ruled this out, but in the end I wasn't sorry. I gained a respectable degree in History and was never out of a job.

On my arrival at the University gates, I was taken aside by some students of the Engineering faculty to be 'vetted'. They were mostly from Singapore and older students because their course had been fairly long at that time. They were quite crude in their ragging because, firstly, I was from the V.I. - you know, Malaya's premier school - and, secondly, I was a Mat Salleh. Their initiation mainly involved a two foot long metal screw and its possible uses. I think my time in the V.I. served me well in handling it all and I managed to refrain from saying what I thought I could do with it to one of them. For the first few weeks I kept a very low profile and was never teased again.

At M.U. I was pleased to have contact with Krishen Jit once more. He was then, I think, a History Tutor in his first year. During the 1962 Rag Week he was thrown unceremoniously into the lake. While we watched and enjoyed the spectacle, he bobbed up and down and then suddenly took off his watch and threw it on the bank. It was only after that we realised he was drowning. He obviously prized his watch more than his life! I can't remember who fished him out, but I do remember him, with true Victorian style and panache, taking off his shoes and emptying them!

For such memories, I am proud to have been a V.I. girl too.

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Created: May 31, 2004.
Last update: November 19, 2008.

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