August 11, 2016

VI won races with races

AUGUST 11 — “Not one race but one in feeling”

That would be a great outcome for Malaysia.

G. F. Jackson put it to words in 1949 for the new school song of the Victoria Institution (VI) — located in the stretch which ends with malls in Kuala Lumpur City.

VI’s cultural ethos is at odds with racism; however, existing in a system where racists dominate, it is weighed down by governmental inaction. I’m unsure when the tipping point in favour of its opponents will occur.

It would be a sad day.

Though some of my peers say that moment has long passed.

VI — or what remains of it — turns 123 years old this Sunday and as ever my thoughts travel back to its grounds.

Dividing 27 boys

Mr Jeya asked the boys in turns to raise their hands to acknowledge their race. It was one week into the year for first formers at the VI, but my first. I was ushered from classroom 1A2 to 1A1 because there were too many Indians already in the former and last in was first out.

The school wanted race-balanced classes, as far as numbers were concerned.

I do ask at times if appropriate mixes produce the appropriate thinking in persons, as social engineering exercises even with the best intentions can produce zany results. At times, the results oppose the lofty goals.

If people are difficult to manage then young adults — teenagers, if you must — are impossible to contain, they are individual powder-kegs.

But that’s VI. Aware that race is the nation’s Gordian Knot the administrators forced interaction and avoided unintended homogenous environments. The standard applied to Felda students and later on the Sabah Foundation boys — a certain Shafie Apdal was one of them during the Razak years.

The school felt competitiveness would drive positively youthful restlessness, rather than obliging racial stereotypes and insecurities.

Therefore on school grounds, capacity not race mattered. The best guys put together in a team got the best results, and at VI winning was a culture. Not about trophy cabinets, rather it was about competing. Things can be won if you compete. Eye on the game and work together because that is how you will win.

Win. Correction. Compete to win. What is all this learning, training and experience good for if students are not competing to win?

The multicultural balance ensured that so many grew up convinced that race had little to do with winning, even if race gave students cultural and religious backgrounds.

If you are not winning, try harder and don’t blame others for doing well.

Of course today’s interference from the ministry does render balances improbable. Balance which is not limited to racial admission. The ministry prefers imbalance to sate its political masters.

But the school tries, as far back as 2012 when I served on the school’s board. Unfortunately, the ministries try too and it controls payroll.

Gone undone

By the mid-eighties, the spirit of blind nationalism — to counter progressive politics — championed by Mahathir Mohamad was already in fully swing. In 1985, Shaw Road had its named altered — in a switch which is proof that fact is stranger than fiction — for the mythical Hang Tuah.

The change of the perpendicular Birch Road to Jalan Maharajalela was more topical to the general population — since the murderer was recognised in place of the murdered — but to the Victorian community renaming what was in honour of our first headmaster Bennett E. Shaw was regretful.

With no past as a missionary school, single community pride school or government initiative to train clerks for the service, the VI has long been an aberration.

A gift which falls in no categories but fiercely devoted to its traditions and heritage. The leaders representing all of Selangor’s capital intended a school with a strong affinity for English education.

Overzealous patriots felt it was their duty to remove all references to British monarchs dead and alive, even if the institutions were tied to the past.

So today, 30 years later, it is phenomenal a decent amount of school traditions have survived the assaults. The traditions won’t survive another generation at the rate of decay.

Lessons to be wiser

We call the anniversary — the laying of the school’s foundation stone — Founders’ Day.

In the death throes of the 19th century, a school for a new city was envisioned, and we celebrate the visionaries. People matter, physical constructs rust.

Yap Kwan Seng, William H. Treacher, Loke Yew, Sultan Abdul Samad and Thamboosamy Pillay. Many other names joined the list in creating a legacy weaved diligently over decades.

After all, in 1893 the town was inundated by migrants — newcomers, whites, continental Asians and archipelago folks equally — by the rivers bringing the tin ores.

Those who built and continue to build the school were Victorians regardless of their demographics. There is a certain beauty in that when seen through today’s perspective.

The most dedicated patron of them all, the late Siew Nim Chee, gave a portion of his monthly salary to the school as soon as he left university and never stopped giving.

School construction — physically and ideologically — has been ongoing since 1893, but I fear the level of commitment to building the school today is a sliver of what it was.

I don’t blame the old boys to a large degree. They do want to have more control if they are paying for things, not just pay and let the school administrators and ministry decide all the spending and educational direction of the school.

A school which continues, not static.

Which is aptly phrased in the first line of the school song:

“Let us now with thankfulness, praise the founders of our school.”

Opposite to the persisting credo of the powerful in this country, we were asked to judge persons by their deeds and not who they are and where they came from.

The school intended not to make people lose their race or find their meaning in another way, it was cognisant of the multicultural makeup of the school as an accident of its founding and history and wanted to leverage on the differences rather than deny the differences.

At the start of alumni dinners, boys hoot loudly to signal support when roll call of the sports houses is conducted: Shaw, Treacher, Rodger, Lee Kuan Yew, Yap Kwan Seng, Loke Yew, Thamboosamy and Sultan Abdul Samad.

Seven of the eight houses named after non-Malays, but there is no hullabaloo over it. Not yet.

Though the real testament to that more race-indifferent environment was that achievement was judged by deeds not what your name was on a birth certificate.

I favoured the colour-blindness the traditions asked of us, even if the path Malaysia was taking was departing from that course, and indeed in time VI became a victim of that distorted journey.

This country could use more of that, a culture of competing to win together, and accepting losing is part of competing. That wanting to win is not an expression of ego, but an attempt to express ability and draw others into excellence too.

That excellence, like a country, is too large a concept to be limited to race. It is indeed too beautiful a vision to have only one hue of brown.

The first stanza of the school song ends this way:

“For their foresight and devotion,
Some who came across the ocean,
Some Malaysia’s own sons,
All true Victorians”

Praba Ganesan (V.I. 1985 - 1991)

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created: 13 December 2016.
Last update: 13 December 2016.