Of Brasso and Broken Hearts

Reminiscences of Seven Years in the V.I.

Shahriza Hussein was at the V.I. from 1956 to 1962, all the way from Form 1 to Upper 6. He had two headmasters during his time, Dr. G. E. D. Lewis and Mr. Alan Baker, and participated in the opening ceremony drill at the Merdeka Stadium on 30 August 1957.

After his H.S.C., Shahriza went to Monash University in Melbourne under a Colombo Plan Scholarship to read for his B.A. Hons and Dip.Ed, returning five years later to serve as a teacher at Alam Shah Secondary School. During this time he earned his Cert TESL from Singapore. After four years teaching he was transferred to the Education Ministry as Exams Specialist and Curriculum Designer. He was sent to the USA where he earned a Certificate from the Educational Testing Service, Princeton.

In 1977 Shahriza resigned from government service for the private sector, setting up a publishing firm which he operated until his retirement in 2005. Since then he has written a novel which is in the process of being published and is into his second literary effort. He is married to a Thai academic and has two daughters and four grandchildren.

t was with a mixture of awe and pride that I passed through the gates of the Victoria Institution for the first term in 1956. The place was imposing, a far cry from the collection of wooden buildings that was the Pasar Road Primary School. Very quickly, though, the euphoria dissipated. After registration, I found myself trooped to the Form 1A classroom, where the Form Master was also the mathematics teacher. “So you are Shahriza,” boomed Mr. T. Ramachandran. “I taught your father. He was a good maths student.” I cringed. I was lousy at maths.

And so began my seven years in what was widely regarded as Malaya’s premier secondary school (Penang Free School and MCKK students disagree, of course). The V.I. was a part of my journey through teens to adulthood, from a timid thirteen-year-old to an optimistic twenty-year-old. From beginning to end, I was the dedicated Arts student, always in the A class until, in Sixth Form, it became lonely because I was the only Malay in L6A1 and U6A1!

Life in the lower forms of the V.I. was, I suppose, no different from that in other large secondary schools. I felt like a minnow among larger finned predators. Form 1 students were at the bottom of the food chain and most daunting among the bigger boys were the ones in blue shirts. They moved with authority, even the junior, freshly appointed ones. But save for one or two, these prefects were fair-minded. I began to respect them and look up to them, knowing I would never become one of them, being neither a sports person nor academically outstanding. (Not being a Science student was also a handicap!)

Higher up the pecking order were of course the teachers. Until I was in Form 3, I lived in mortal fear of some of them. Looking back, there was absolutely no reason why I should have felt that way. They were kind and caring people despite their formidable reputation.

The only time I was hauled up before Mr.Ganga Singh was when I was in Form 2. A prefect had caught me reading a comic book. Ganga Singh looked down at me sternly and, perhaps noticing my puny build, merely held up his open hand in front of my face. The hand was humongous. “See this?” he asked softly. Then, as I quaked in my socks, he lowered his hand and said with a smile, “You can go.” I never brought a comic book to school again.

With Mr.Lim Eng Thye I managed to utter a few words in response. The matter had nothing to do with a breach of discipline. Rather, I wanted to opt for an exam paper that was not being offered by the V.I. in the Senior Cambridge English Literature syllabus and was not being taught in class. That made my Literature teacher, Mrs. Yiap Khin Yin, very upset. It must also have screwed up the administrative process somewhat. So I was grilled by Eng Thye. In the end I got my way but had to sit for three papers instead of two. I obtained an A2 for the subject, much to my satisfaction and, perhaps, to Mrs. Yiap’s great relief.

(L. to R.): Dr G. E. D. Lewis, Mrs Yiap Khin Yin, Messrs Harry Lau, Ganga Singh, John Doraisamy, Vincent Voo, Lim Eng Thye, Alan Bennett

As for the headmaster, Dr. G.E.D. Lewis might as well have been God. I never exchanged a word with him the entire time I was in the V.I. There were occasions when I wished him a good morning when I passed him but all I got in return was a nod. Once he even smiled. But Lewis was a continuing presence in geography lessons because the textbooks were all authored by him. Clad from blue to green to red covers as we progressed up the forms, these textbooks were the only geography books allowed from Form 1 to Form 5. That perhaps explains why I junked the subject in Form 6!

Of course, there were teachers that I liked rather than just respected. Vincent Voo, the Art teacher, is one. Alan Bennett, my English Literature teacher in Form 4, is another. John Doraisamy, my Economics teacher, is yet another. And I shall never forget Miss Wong Yoke Ling, my General Paper teacher and Form Mistress. Great legs!

But rapport with teachers was possible only in the upper forms. Life in the lower forms was different. It was permeated by Brasso, the smell of which still clings to my nostrils. Brasso was associated with Detention, a dreaded form of punishment which kept offenders back after school or even required them to return on Saturdays.

Call Detention what you like, but I see it as forced labour and child labour at that. How so? Simple. All the door hinges, latches and knobs in the school, from the classrooms to the assembly hall, are made of solid brass. Brass tarnishes over time. So, to keep them bright and shiny, they needed to be polished. And who’s to do that? The students, of course, using Brasso. The work could not be done during school hours and so Detention Class (DC) was created for the purpose. Being late for school, homework not done, horsing around in class, an untidy desk all qualify for Detention of various durations.

Brasso is messy stuff, and smelly. You shake the metal bottle and dab a bit of the liquid onto a piece of cloth. Then you rub the stuff vigorously on the brass fixing. After the stuff has dried to a grey colour, you wipe it off with another piece of cloth. And so it continues. Rub on, rub off, until the brass fixing shines. The maddening thing is that the more brass gets polished, the more quickly it seems to revert to a dull yellow and then to a dirty brown.

One day, some bright spark came up with the idea that our school badges would look great if they too were polished. So a few of us (myself included) dutifully scraped off the paint from our badges and Brasso’d them to a magnificent sheen. All we got for our pains was more DC. We also had to suffer a scolding from Harry Lau, the teacher in charge of the school bookshop, before he would sell us new badges – at twice the price.

The junior student’s ghetto existence changed when he got to Form 3. It was the year for serious study because at the end of it was the LCE. This nationwide examination determined whether one would continue in Form 4 as an Arts, Science or Commerce student or, if one failed miserably, even quit schooling entirely. I did well in the LCE but had terrible grades for Math and Science. And so it was the Arts Stream for me, which was just as well because the prospect of doing Additional Maths was simply too terrifying. Good friends in Form 3 parted company as each student went to his allocated stream, to study separately all the way to Form 5 and beyond.

Form 4 was generally regarded as the honeymoon year. There were no exams to bone up for. Even the teachers seemed relaxed, giving us time off to go to the library or simply enjoy “free” periods. It was a time, too, when at 15 or 16 years of age, boys found their hormones working overtime. The sole copy of The Thousand and One Nights in the library was a popular read and Hamzah the library clerk was kind enough to bookmark the juicy pages for me.

It was towards the end of Form 4 that the Randy Trio was formed, which consisted of John Vadiveloo, Kingsley Yuen and me. We would read up the more colourful literature books and compare notes. Kingsley even managed to obtain an unexpurgated copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to lend John and me. And, naturally, we began to look at the Sixth Form girls with renewed interest.

That interest took an embarrassing turn the following year. The 1960 intake of Sixth Form girls included Rosemary Ross, a true-blue British lass rather than one of some Pan-Asian mix. She was the first and (as it turned out) the last Mat Salleh girl to attend the V.I. The members of the Randy Trio positively drooled and our fantasies ran wild. Finally it was decided to get to know her. It could not be in school. After all, we were her juniors and would be the laughing stock of the Sixth Formers as well as our own Form 5 class. So it would have to be outside, perhaps in some makan stall. But how to make contact? First, find out where she lived! But rather than do that as a concerted effort, we drew lots. And I was the unlucky one.

So one afternoon after school, I trailed her down to the High Street station where she boarded a bus. I was too far behind to join her but I noted the bus number. A quick check told me which route the bus was taking but I still could not know where she would get off. Then I had a brainwave: the phone book! Once at home I checked out all the Rosses. There were three in Kuala Lumpur and only one with an address that tallied with the bus route! I dialed the number. A man answered.

“Could I speak to Rosemary, please?” I stammered.

“Hold on,” was the gruff answer.

Then she came on the line. “Hello?” “Hello?”

For the life of me, I couldn’t say anything. It was as if I had no voice. My only response was to breathe heavily into the mouthpiece. After what seemed an eternity the male voice returned and I got an earful, with threats to call the police. I hastily put down the phone and listened to my heart pounding for the next five minutes.

Of course, the upshot of Operation Rosemary was that the Randy Trio never got to socialise with her. John and Kingsley got cold feet after I told them about the phone call!

For all its high and low points, Form 5 meant serious work preparing for the SC Exams. That was also the time when new prefects were selected. Invariably, the majority were from the Science Stream. None of the Randy Trio made the grade. I didn’t, even though I was active in the Malayan Arts Council (Young Friends) and in the Drama Club. I wondered about Koh Tong Bak getting to be a Blue Shirt when he was not a sports person like Lim Chooi Tee. I didn’t know then that he was very prominent in the Scouts movement!

Ah, sports! I was as bad at that as at mathematics. But I did contribute to designing the tent of Shaw House for Sports Day and I did try my hand at rugby. I ran fast enough to be appointed a winger for Shaw House’s second team. That lasted one match, though, after I lost a tooth when my cousin Kamal Din of Hepponstall House crunched me.

The other bit of sports I was involved in was the annual Cross-Country Run. There was no escaping the event as every student in the school, except the Sixth Form girls and boys with medical certificates (I remember overweight Leslie Jesudason had one every year), had to participate. Qualifying times were allocated for students according to their age. I didn’t qualify in Form 1 or 2, but managed to do so from Form 3 onwards.

Another physical activity mandatory for junior boys was swimming. The V.I. was the only school in the country with its own swimming pool and the Headmaster made it a point of pride that every boy could swim two lengths of the pool by the end of Form 3. I managed that, although I never learned how to tread water.

Nineteen sixty-one and Sixth Form at last! We had our own girls, successful candidates from schools all over Malaya. It did not matter to me that all the girls in my class (L6A1) were either Chinese or Indian, while nearly half of L6A2 were Malay girls (including Rafidah Aziz and Dr. Kashnor) as we would all meet up in the lecture theatre for Economics. But it was frustrating nonetheless in that our girls were soon monopolized by the Upper Six boys. Another year, I consoled myself, and the mantle of the underdog would be shed forever.

The Randy Trio stayed together right up to the end of Upper Six, when Kingsley and John had a bitter misunderstanding over one of our classmates (who later married a V.I. Old Boy and teacher). I sided with John and that broke up the Trio for good. I have not seen Kingsley since, although John and I would get together whenever he returns to Malaysia from the U.S.A. If Kingsley should read this, know that I am keen to get in touch with him to make up.

I left V.I. at the end of 1962 with four distinctions in the HSC exams and a Colombo Plan scholarship. It would be another five years before I would join the work force and my time in Australia could fill a book. But I shall forever cherish my V.I. days.

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created on February 28 2007.
Last update on February 28, 2007.

Chung Chee Min cheemchung@gmail.com