Tun Ismail bin Mohd Ali
on his V.I. School Days

V.I. Speech Day - July 12, 1991

Tun Ismail bin Mohamed Ali was born on September 16, 1918 in Port Klang, the oldest of several brothers who would distinguish themselves at the V.I. and in public life. He received his early education in a Malay school and attended the V.I. from 1931 to 1938. His school days at the V.I. were extremely happy and he regarded the school as his second home. He cycled to school in an era when the traffic in Kuala Lumpur was extremely light. While at the V.I. Tun Ismail was active in the scouts; he swam, played badminton and took up gardening. He was a Shaw House prefect. He was the second Malay student in the country to win the highly competitive Queen's Scholarship. He joined Cambridge University to read economics from 1938 to 1941. On completion he was stranded in England by the war and so decided to read for the bar in 1943 at one of the Inns of Court in London at Middle Temple and was called to the bar thereafter.

Returning to Malaya after the war in 1946 Tun Ismail joined the Malayan Civil Service, rising to be Assistant Selangor State Secretary in 1948. He served variously as Assistant Secretary in the Economics Department of the Treasury, as an Economics Officer in Penang and as a Comptroller in the Commerce Department of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Tun Ismail was made Minister in the Malayan Embassy in Washington D.C. from 1957 to 1960. He was simultaneously Executive Director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in the United States. Returning to Malaya in 1960, he was appointed Deputy Governor of Bank Negara and was rose to be Governor in 1962. He held the post for 18 years until 1980.

Tun Ismail was active in various organisations, serving as chairman, at various times, of Malaysian Industrial Development Finance Berhad, Permodalan Nasional Berhad, Golden Hope Plantations Berhad, and Sime Darby Berhad. He was Pro-Chancellor of University Kebangsaan Malaysia and also served on the Board of Governors of the V.I. He passed away in 1998.

t was almost exactly 60 years ago that I was about 13 years old, small and a little frightened at coming to this big school for the first time. I stood in this very hall with a pile of books at my side, attending my first day of school at the V.I. having come from the old Batu Road School. It was the practice in those days to have all the teachers and all the pupils – all of them boys – assemble in the school hall on the first day of the school year and for the Headmaster to address them. The Headmaster then was an Englishman, Mr F. L. Shaw, a scholar in literature and Latin and a kindly man.

After standing right here and delivering his address (I cannot now remember what he actually said except that he welcomed the new boys including myself to the V.I.), he went down these steps to meet the new boys. I can clearly remember Mr Shaw stooping and bending to talk to me saying that my pile of books was almost as tall as I was.

I was put in what was then called Standard 6A (Form 2 today) in the corner room on the ground floor where the teacher was a fierce-looking Bengali with a long beard, a turban and thick fingers which he occasionally used to slap boys in the class. I recall also our English teacher, a large, lazy-looking Eurasian who took us in English Literature and a Chinese teacher who taught us geography. Those were the teachers I remember distinctly in my first year of school at the V.I. We also attended afternoon school in the same classroom to do our homework and the class was supervised by a school prefect.

I was promoted to Standard 7A the next year, then to what was called Junior A (Form 4 today) after that and then to Senior A (Form 5 today) where the foreign teachers, all of them Englishmen, taught us English grammar, English Literature and essay writing. There was also a science class taught by another European, Mr Daniel, who later became Headmaster. Mr Shaw, the Headmaster, also taught us Latin.

Let me tell you that I was only an average student, passing all the examinations neither being at the top of the class nor at the bottom, being only somewhere in the middle. This kind of school performance may be of comfort to some of you assembled here today. I passed my senior examinations when I was about 17 years old and since at that age it was considered too young to go to a university abroad (there were no universities in our country at that time), I was transferred to a class called Senior 4 where we were taught subjects required to pass the London University Matriculation Examinations. I managed to pass that without great difficulty and was enrolled to compete for the Queen’s Scholarships, two being awarded each year for the states of Selangor, Perak, Negri Sembilan and Pahang. These prestigious scholarships were awarded on the basis of a competitive examination and entitled those winning them to be admitted to either Cambridge University or Oxford University. I won the scholarship in 1938 and sailed to England in August that year to enter Cambridge to get ready to read for a degree in Economics.

Let me tell you that those seven years as a pupil at the V.I. were some of the happiest in my life. I thoroughly enjoyed school life. As I have said, I was only a mediocre student, neither at the top nor at the bottom of the class. But I took part fully in all school activities: I played all games, football, hockey, badminton, swimming; I was a scout, regularly attending camps during the weekends; there was a wood-work class and gardening where groups of pupils competed for the best garden plot. There was also a book binding class. All these activities took place after the afternoon class and during the weekends. We spent most of our time at the school all through the weeks. Especially before examinations, I used the V.I. library a lot, reading books both in English and Malay.

I had a very happy time at the V.I. because I had a very close friend, a boy called Rodney Lam, with whom I spent a lot of time together. In class Rodney was so unlike me; he was always at the top especially in mathematics and he was also good with his hands at making things.

The only subject which I managed to beat Rodney in was Latin. I myself have wondered how I ultimately became fascinated by this ancient and antiquated language. Latin was taught right from the lower classes beginning with Standard 6A but I did not do well in it until I was promoted to the Senior A class where Mr Shaw, the Headmaster, took us in Latin, he himself being a Latin scholar. The way Mr Shaw taught this ancient language to us made me appreciate its importance as a precise systematic language requiring good memory and mental discipline. Because of its precision and orderliness, treaties between countries in the olden days in Europe were in Latin.

Mr Shaw showed us the beauty of a sentence in Latin in which there is a right place for the noun, the verb and the object. I can say that learning Latin helped my study of English as well. Another reason why I had to study and pass the Latin examination at the matriculation level was the requirement by Cambridge and Oxford Universities that a candidate for entry into these two universities pass the examination in Latin or Greek, the two classical languages.

School at the V.I. was a happy time for many of us. Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians mixed freely together as pupils in a great school to which we were proud to belong. I can recall that we were not conscious of one’s race. Rodney Lam, a Christian Chinese, was closer to me than my own brothers and my own parents accepted him as one of us in a large family. He came to eat and sleep in our house and joined us on holidays when my father took us to Port Dickson or Penang. I used to go also to his house to study together and eat and sleep together. He also won the Queen’s Scholarship after the last World War and went to Edinburgh to study medicine, finally settling down in England as a surgeon.

My seven years at the V.I. prepared me well for university education in England where I went in 1938 when I was about 19 years old. Perhaps I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend secondary school at the V.I. and then go on to another prestigious institution like Cambridge University for higher education. I know that the number of students going for higher education is at present very limited because of the small number of universities in our country and the high cost of education abroad. This is a problem which has to be tackled quite soon.

As you know, our Prime Minister has told us of his vision, that by the year 2020, that is, 30 years from now, Malaysia can be a united nation with a confident Malaysian society, infused with strong moral and ethical values, living in a society that is democratic, liberal and tolerant, caring, economically just and equitable, progressive and prosperous, and in full possession of an economy that is economy that is competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient. And Dato’ Seri Dr Mahathir has told us also of his thoughts on how we should go about to attain the objective of developing Malaysia into an industrialized country by the year 2020. He has explained that there can be no fully developed Malaysia until we have finally overcome nine central strategic challenges. I suggest that you read closely the vision and challenges that our Prime Minister has presented to us, especially those of you who are about to leave the V.I. and who will either go for higher education or go out to earn a living. You will be the men and women who will have to play the leading role in meeting the challenges that the Prime Minister has mentioned and make his vision a reality by the year 2020.

If these challenges are met and our country becomes a united, modern, industrialized, prosperous one, there should be just enough for us to take our equitable and just share in the wealth of the country. All of you who will be participating in the growth and development of our country over the next 30 years should therefore prepare yourselves for this role. There will be a great need for all types of skills, particularly scientists, engineers, accountants and computer experts of whom there is already a shortage at present. And school is the place where the preparation should start and the V.I., I believe, is still a premier secondary school in our country. It is my own experience that school is where I begin to use my mind in a logical, systematic and orderly way through learning new things, be it mathematics, geography, history, literature, another language like Latin, woodworking, gardening or scouting. I learnt to love reading, of things past or of the present and of the skills of others.

Let me end my speech, therefore, by thanking the Headmaster for giving me this opportunity to deliver this address at your Speech Day and convey my wish that you all spend a happy time at the V.I. as I myself had done over 60 years ago and that you will benefit greatly from your days at this great school as I did.

The Victorian, 1991

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