An Interview with
Tan Sri Abdul Majid bin Ismail

Tan Sri Majid Ismail

Majid Ismail was schooled in a Malay school in Segambut and then transferred to Maxwell Road School and Batu Road School before arriving in the V.I. in 1936. Despite his struggles with ill health, Majid was a brilliant scholar. He was an active scout and cross country runner. Majid joined the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore in 1940 on a Selangor state scholarship but his studies were interrupted by war in early 1942. After the war, he resumed his studies from 1946 to 1949. In 1950 he was awarded a Queen’s Scholarship tenable at the Faculty of Medicine in Singapore. On graduation Majid worked as a Medical Officer at the General Hospital in Kuala Lumpur. He went for post-graduate courses in Edinburgh and Liverpool and by 1958 he was a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon rising to be Director of Planning and Research in 1969. In 1963 Majid was sent VI Speech Day 1986 to the United States as the first Eisenhower Fellow from Malaya. In 1971 came the ultimate prize for a medical professional in public service; He was appointed the Director-General of Health, a post he held until retirement in 1976. He was made a Tan Sri in 1973.

Throughout his long public career Majid has held many other positions in statutory and professional bodies. He was the Chairman of the Council of the University of Malaya, the President of the College of Surgeons, the Malaysian Chairman of the National Medical Research Council, the Vice-president of the National Council of Social Welfare to list but a few. Majid is currently Chairman of Syarikat Endah Sari Sdn. Bhd., Inti Universal Holdings Bhd (Inti College) and other companies. Despite his many commitments, Majid has never forgotten his old school. For a decade he sat on the V.I. Board of Governors. The school, too, did not forgot its brilliant son either, and invited him back to its 1986 Speech Day. On Founders Day 2003, he was once again the guest of honour and this time unveiled the school's Patriotic Wall. Today, Majid relaxes with golf, big game hunting, gardening and chess. He recalls his V.I. days...

was born in 1921 in Kampong Baru in my grandfather's house which, today, if still standing would be at the intersection of Jalan Sultan Ismail and Jalan Raja Abdullah. I was the eldest of ten siblings. Much of K.L. then was still covered by dense jungle. There were no tarred roads when I was growing up in Kampung Baru. People travelled by rickshaw or bullock cart. My bathroom was the Sungai Batu, which is the river that runs behind the Putra World Trade Centre. I used to trap fish, udang galah, and pucuk paku for my family's daily meals. I enjoyed the games of childhood: catching birds and spiders. A favourite derring-do was to throw stones at hornets' nests. We would arm ourselves with stones and leafy branches. Once we hit the nests with our stones, we would cover ourselves with the branches and lie absolutely still, to fool the angry insects into thinking we were trees. However, one time my friend, Islamuddin, happened to wriggle his toes and so gave away his presence. The hornets swarmed all over him and he ran for his life. Fortunately he got off lightly.

My fondest memories of family life are those of my grand aunt who used to make barut, a cloth used to cover the navels of newborns. Once I followed my grandaunt to sell barut to a Chinese family. I think it was the Chua family that used to live in the bungalow that is now the Le Coq D'or today. When K.L. was inundated by the 1926 Great Flood, I recall my grand aunt and I taking a rickshaw to a house in Jalan Yap Kwan Seng. The poor rickshaw puller had to wade through flood water which at times reached up to his chest. Still, he got us to our destination. When I was about six years old, my father, Ismail Nekmat, got a permanent job in the building and repair section of the Federated Malay States Railway. So we moved to the third mile Jalan Ipoh, near the Segambut junction, and lived in an old Malay kampong.

I went to a Malay School in Segambut and was there almost four years until I finished in 1931. The journey to school took me past the Goh Ban Huat pottery works. My school master was the only person I remember who owned a car then. It had a licence plate with the number 963. In my final exams, I came out top and was given a scholarship along with six other Malay boys to study in an English School - the Maxwell School. The scholarship was $10 a month with $7 for mess and lodging and $3 for pocket money. A major event in the 1930s for me was a fireworks show comprising ONE rocket. Hundreds of people would gather at the Selangor Padang and wait for a man to light that rocket. If you missed that, you would have missed the entire fireworks display!

I became a golf caddy when I was ten years old. After school about seven of us would hang around the Sentul Golf Club House. I had my first taste of golf - swinging the clubs under the trees - while waiting for the Tuans to start. Although we did not know their names, we Golfing with Royalty would make up names for those expats who frequented the Club House. One was "Tuan Tujoh Lapan" because his car number plate was SL78. Another was "Tuan Botak" for obvious reasons. We carried their bags and since, in those days there were no tees, we also made a mound of sand for the golfers to tee off from. Sometimes if I made the mound a bit too high, the Tuan would say to me, "Banyak tinggi" and I would reduce the height. After nine holes we would all go back to the bungalow and the mem would go inside and bring out a tin of Brasso and ask me to polish the clubs with it. Then she would go for her tea and she would come out and ask me, "Sudah habis?" She would then give me 10 cents for my handiwork, which was a lot of money since a packet of nasi lemak was just 1 cent. The interesting thing was this. After I became a doctor I became a member of the same club where I had caddied and became its first local champion. Not one time but for two years. The ex-caddy of the club had come back to teach them a lesson! I would have got a hattrick had I not left the country the third year on a Fellowship.

I stayed in a hostel in Kampong Baru for Malay boys on scholarship from rural areas – that building is still there, in front of the Sultan Sulaiman Club. I remember the first Headmaster of Maxwell School was Mr Bloomfield and my class teacher was Mr Hashim, who was also the superintendent of the hostel I was staying in. I was then in Special Malay Class (SMC) 1. The following year I was promoted to SMC 2. These special classes were designed to assist former Malay school students adjust to an English School environment by giving them an extra two years in the education system. My teacher in 1933 was Mr T. Ramachandran who later went to the V.I. He used a gold Parker pen and had the most beautiful handwriting.

Maybe they were converting Maxwell to some other technical institution, but in 1934 I was transferred from Maxwell to Standard 4B in Batu Road School. Mr Hashim also followed me to B.R.S. whose Headmaster was Mr Whitley. There I topped the class and went on to Standard 5A in 1935. I was taught by Mr Peethamparam who used to live in the Government quarters in Sentul, as did Mr Rajalu and Mr Ramachandran and Mr Siew Tit. At the end of 1935, I sat for the feeder school examinations to compete for a place to the V.I. - only the top 120 pupils from Batu Road School, Pasar Road School and Maxwell School were selected - and came out top again by a mile and got admitted to Standard 6A in the V.I. I was told later by Mr Pavee, the V.I. school clerk, that I had done better than even the illustrious Yap Pow Meng who was my contemporary in the V.I. Because of my good results I won a scholarship to be a boarder at the Dewan Sultan Suleiman Hall of Residence in Kampong Baru.

The V.I. then had four classes in each Standard, with around 30 students in each class. The classes were labelled from A to D, with the top boys in the A class. Altogether, the V.I. had around 500 students. There were also fewer teachers, but these few teachers taught many different subjects. My very first class at the V.I. was on a Monday morning and it was taken by the V.I. Headmaster himself, Mr F. L. Shaw. I was sitting at the back when Mr Shaw walked in, stood in front of the class and asked, "Who’s Majid?" I stood up and answered, Mr F L Shaw "I am, sir." "Are you Malay or Javanese?" he asked. "I am Malay, sir." I had no idea why he asked that. Anyway, I became Mr Shaw’s favourite. Every Monday morning, after the school assembly, I would be standing in the front row in the Hall. Mr Shaw would then come down the steps from the stage and call to me, "Madge, here Madge, take my cloak to the office." And I would scamper up the steps to the office with his black academic gown to hand over to Mr Pavee. It was a great honour for me to be chosen for that task every week!

Mr Shaw was Headmaster till July, 1936. Mr J.B. Neilson, the next Headmaster, was a stern man and used to wear a blazer to school. He was pivotal in making me a cross-country runner. My Standard 6A master at that time was Mr Thambiah. I was still doing well, topping the form. In 1937 I was promoted to Standard 7A, where the form master was Mr Ganga Singh. He was a very strict master. When he started speaking, you shivered. One day a hair from Ganga Singh’s beard fell onto my book. I closed the book without his noticing it and took away a souvenir of a great teacher!

Unfortunately that same year, I fell ill with typhoid and was hospitalized in the Malay Hospital for three months. At that time there was no medicine for typhoid. I wonder how I survived. I became as thin as a piece of bamboo and all my hair fell out. In those days the Malays did not believe in medicine as they believed in the bomoh and the dukun. Only when they became really bad, did they go to the hospital and, usually, by that time it was too late. That, of course, reinforced their lack of confidence in hospitals – "When you go to the hospital, you die!" The colonial government tried to encourage faith in western medicine by building Malay Special Hospitals in Kampong Baru, Kuala Kangsar and Negeri Sembilan. I remember the doctors in the Kampong Baru hospital, including Dr Latiff, an old Victorian, who was the first Malay doctor in the country. Malay pupils from my hostel were sent there for deworming every three months. I was a naughty boy while there and used to climb the mata kucing tree outside the ward. After I recovered from my illness, my performance in school was no longer as good, as my intellectual abilities had been affected. As a result, Yap Pow Meng beat me in the Junior Cambridge (Form Four today) and became the Treacher Scholar. I was beaten into third place and missed becoming Nugent Walsh Scholar.

We did not have television or radio sets in those days. The cinemas showed silent movies and I remember watching my first Charlie Chaplin movie at the Coliseum Cinema. Like for most people of that generation, Bukit Bintang Park and Eastern Park were my favourite haunts in my teenage years. I had my first dancing lesson in Eastern Park, where there were cabaret girls and joget dancers. It cost one dollar for four dances.

In Junior Cambridge, the mathematics master was Mr Vallipuram. He was a good teacher and did not waste any time. The moment he entered the class, he started writing on the board! One time I was not paying attention - I think I was talking to someone – when Mr Vallipuram came to me and asked, "What are you doing?" "Nothing," I said. Whamm!! He gave me a slap – I can never forget that. Funny thing, at the end of the year, I got the mathematics prize!

Standard 6A, 1936
Seated: Lim Teow Leong, Ng Boon Sneh, Majid, Mr. Shaw, Mr. Thambiah, Mohd. Noor Marahakim, Othman Talib, Yap Pow Veng
Second row: C.R. Samuel, Tan Bok Wan (?), Shamsuri b Hj Ali, Ramli bin Talib, Vaniasingham

My class master in my Senior Cambridge class (Form Five today) was Mr S. Tacchi, while the Headmaster then was Mr C. E. Gates. I was also a boy scout in the First K.L. Scouts. Mr Goh Keng Kwee was the Scout Master. He was trained in ju-jitsu, and would teach his boys the art of unarmed combat and physical training. I enjoyed group meetings on Saturdays during which we played scout games and learned much scout craft like orienteering. Camps were equally enjoyable with various activities like cooking, where I and my friends would whip up some curry, nasi briyani and lemang. Around the campfires we would enjoy our food and sing songs like Old Smokey and Kookaburra. Much of these memories were happily recorded in log books, which were among the many memorabilia that I had kept over the years until my house in Sentul was burned down! I was a member of one of the Beamish Cup-winning teams in the late 1930s (the Beamish Cup was the Selangor inter-troop competition trophy). In addition, we scouts worked hard to achieve the coveted King's Scout’s badge. I did not get to be a King's Scout but one of my close friends, Ghazally Ahmad, was made one.

I remember going camping at Castle Camp and also working for my First Class Journey badge. I was second in command of our patrol and we had to go out on a night hike. Our route was from Castle Camp, then along Circular Road (now Jalan Tun Razak) to Petaling Hill and we were to spend the night in Damansara where the Socfin estate was at the time. It was not an easy journey for there were no bitumen roads then and we had to navigate muddy paths and jungle routes. Carcosa We cooked rice in bamboo tubes and camped for the night. We then went down to Segambut and came out beyond Sentul, then to Setapak and finally back to Castle Camp. It was a very interesting experience.

In those colonial times we celebrated Empire Day every year. The Chief Secretary of the FMS would hold a tea party at Carcosa, the home of the High Commissioner and there would be Hainanese boys catering the food. To add some colour, they would invite some scouts to help out. One year, a dozen of us scouts were invited. I brought along my second-in-command, Shafie, and we cycled from my home in Kampong Baru to Carcosa. The tea party was at the tennis court - a grass court at that time - and all the European ladies were in beautiul gowns and hats. First they served the food and then the tea. After the tea the whisky stengahs were served. Until then, I had never heard of whisky nor tasted it. But now I happened to smell whisky for the first time in my life as I carried the drinks tray around to the guests. I told Shafie, "Eh, baunya sedap, lah" After going around with the tray, I tried a cup, then another. I told Shafie, "Sedap, lah!" and so, after another round with the tray, I had another cup.

After the drinks, the programme called for a little concert to be staged on a raised platform. As the performers tumbled out, I thought I saw two men dressed like London policemen walking back and forth, singing. Puzzled, I whispered to Shafie, "Those two men are doing exactly the same thing." I did not realize at that time that I was drunk and was seeing double! By now, Shafie had started drinking as well, and by the time the party was over, he, too, was drunk, too drunk to cycle home to Kampong Baru. How was I to get Shafie home? I lighted our bicycle lamps and balanced Shafie on my bicycle bar. I then pushed my bicycle with one hand and pulled his bicycle along with my other, all the time trying to steady Shafie. Luckily, it was downhill most of the way!

The Fighting Temeraire

One of the things I remember at the V.I. is the annual concert at the end of the first term. The first boy in each class had to recite a poem in front of the whole school. As the first boy in 6A, I recited The Fighting Téméraire by Henry Newbolt:

"…Now the sunset breezes shiver;
Téméraire! Téméraire!
And she's fading down the river;
Téméraire! Téméraire!
Now the sunset breezes shiver;
And she's fading down the river;
But in England's song for ever
She's the Fighting Téméraire.…"

The top boy for Standard 7 was Venugal, who recited S. S. Pinafore. In Junior Cambridge the top boy was Hera Singh, brother of V.I. teacher Gorbex Singh, who recited Matthew Arnold’s epic poem, Sohrab and Rustum, beautifully and touchingly:

"….So, on the bloody sand, Sohrab lay dead;
And the great Rustum drew his horseman's cloak
Down o'er his face, and sate by his dead son.
As those black granite pillars, once high-rear'd
By Jemshid in Persepolis, to bear
His house, now 'mid their broken flights of steps
Lie prone, enormous, down the mountain side -
So in the sand lay Rustum by his son…"

The last to recite was Jaswant Singh Sodhy (later Dr), top boy of the Senior Cambridge class and a second lieutenant in the Cadet Corps. He was very impressive in his uniform and leather Sam Browne as he recited Rudyard Kipling's The Last Suttee. The entire school sat transfixed as they latched on to his every word:

"Udai Chand lay sick to death
In his hold by Gungra hill.
All night we heard the death-gongs ring
Jaswant Singh Sodhy For the soul of the dying Rajpoot King,
All night beat up from the women's wing
A cry that we could not still.

All night the barons came and went,
The lords of the outer guard:
All night the cressets glimmered pale
On Ulwar sabre and Tonk jezail,
Mewar headstall and Marwar mail,
That clinked in the palace yard... "

Then acts like Pyramus and Thisbe from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream were staged. I even played a kuih seller in one local item. There was also ballroom dancing held at night after the prize-giving.

The football matches against St Johns and MBS, I remember very well. The rivalry was intense, with the whole school coming out to cheer and the V.I. would usually win. That’s the thing about the V.I. – it considers your sports ability and not just your academic ability. We had great runners, great footballers, great cricketers. During the school athletic sports, the Sultan of Selangor (Sultan Sulaiman, the great grandfather of the present Sultan), would come and give away the prizes. The whole school would be there, at the annual prize-giving and at school football matches as well.

Our senior science teacher, Mr F. Daniel, started the first science course in the country. Because of that a lot of boys from other states, like Pahang and Negri Sembilan, joined the V.I. to take science, people like Tan Chee Khoon from Kajang, and Too Chee Chew and Cheong San Thau, both from the M.B.S. Mr Daniel was strict teacher and a very methodical man. Your eyes must always be on him. His eyes were very sharp - you could not fool around when he was talking.

The other strict teacher was Mr Lim Eng Thye. "What does a bunsen burner burn?" he would ask us! He was a very diligent man who wanted everyone to know what he was teaching. Sitting in front of the class, I often had him turn to me and ask, "Do you understand, boy, what I am talking about?" I remember a special phrase he used on us when the answers were not correct: "You are a doongu!"

My other teachers include Mr Leong Fook Yen, the geography teacher. He had all his notes fully compiled and, as far as he was concerned, you just needed to know his notes thoroughly to pass your exams. He would come into the class and say to you, "Read this" and you would stand up and read his notes out aloud. Mr N. S. Rajalu is another teacher I remember; he taught us mathematics in standard 7. When he was angry with you, he did not hit you, he would kick your desk instead! There was also Mr Ariffin in Std 6, Mr Lai Nyen Foo, the science teacher, and Mr H. V. Ponniah, who taught scripture. The latter used to say, "even the foxes have holes and the birds have nests, but we, the son of man … put them on our heads." I took Latin, taught by Mr Thambiah, which was taught only to the A classes.

Majid's teachers

Another teacher I remember well is Mr L. F. Koch, a Eurasian. He was a very good teacher but he was a bit lazy. He would come in about ten or fifteen minutes late and he would straightaway say, "Hepponstall House boys, stand up!" (He was the Heppostall House master). "Why were you not at the cricket match yesterday? I didn’t see you," he would scold them. He was very particular about House matters, you see. When we were studying Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Mr Koch did not say anything about the poem for nine months while we read the poem by ourselves. Then, in the final four or five classes, he came to life and took us through the entire poem,

".....Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink...."

We gaped as he walked about the classroom and acted out the whole poem. He was a wonderful teacher - when he wanted to!

Mr Ng Seo Buck was another good teacher. Dressed like an Englishman with a bow tie, he was a good story teller and made history very interesting. His son, Ng Kok Teow, was my classmate and also became a doctor. I remember Mr Buck telling us about the War of Jenkin’s Lamour and Coco Ear in 1843. After I graduated as a doctor, we became luncheon friends. I would go to the Wine Merchants Club in Sultan Street every Saturday where I would join Mr Buck and his friends at lunch and Mr Buck would regale us with his stories.

After the Senior Cambridge results came out, I came out top amongst the Malay boys and was called with two other Malay boys to see the secretary to the British Resident, Tun Raja Uda. As we stood in front of him, he said to us, "Awak Majid, pergi Singapura jadi doctor. Awak Mat Nor, awak pun bagus juga. Awak pergi Singapura jadi doctor. Awak Shamsudin, pergi Technical College jadi engineer" That was how I was given a scholarship to read medicine! Mat Nor Marahakim later became Professor of Ophthalmology at U.K.M. Shamsudin became an engineer and later settled down in Johor Bahru.

I finished my Senior Cambridge in December, 1940, and in June, 1941, I was on my way to Singapore on a Selangor State scholarship for medicine. Fellow Victorian Rodney Lam had won the Queen’s Scholarship in 1941 but because of the war in Europe he, too, went to Singapore instead. After the war, Rodney continued his studies in Britain and became an orthopaedic surgeon. When I arrived, I found there was ragging by the seniors in the Medical College. Some of the seniors who ragged me were Old Victorians Tan Chee Khoon (later Tan Sri Dr) and Keshmahinder Singh (later Datuk Dr). One occasion, the seniors and juniors jointly went to the cinema to see a film called The Jungle Princess. The actress was Dorothy Lamour; she was the first to wear a sarong in a film. She had a pet chimpanzee in the film called Coco. When we got back to the hostel, one of the seniors, Omar Din (later a radiologist), suddenly got an idea: "Hey, let’s stage The Jungle Princess in the hostel now!" They got an Indian boy and dressed him up as Dorothy Lamour. "Now who is going to be Coco?" Omar pointed to me, "Yes, that’s who is going to be Coco!" So I had to do some scenes with "Dorothy Lamour", climbing trees and so on.

From that time on, I was called Coco and the name stuck. No one knew my real name. In fact one of my cousins, who was living in Johor came over to Singapore to look for me in the hostel. He asked for Majid and was told there was nobody named Majid. He later rang me up and said, Majid Ismail "You told me you were at the hostel but I could not find you." I explained to him, "Don’t ask for Majid, ask for Coco."

The poor fellow who acted as Dorothy died in the subsequent Japanese bombing in February 1942, as did our Victorian Hera Singh. During the Japanese shelling of Singapore, one of the medical students at the Tan Tock Seng hospital was wounded. They brought him to the General Hospital but he died, and so they had to bury him. The British had already dug trenches all around the premises for bodies and it was decided to bury the student the same day. It was about 5 p.m. in the afternoon and the students attending the burial were dressed in white overalls. They were thus easily spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes which must have radioed their coordinates to the advancing Japanese artillery in nearby Bukit Timah Road. I was about to join that group when Lim Sian Lok (another Victorian) was coming back from an operation and told me that Prof Munroe was looking for me. I went to the operating theatre instead and so was spared a horrible fate. Later I met Chee Phui Hung, one of those who had escaped the massacre. His face was pale as he told how Hera Singh, Sarathi, Mabel Ludher and Hamid had all died in the Japanese shelling of the burial party. I saw their bodies in the trenches the next day.

After the war the Queen’s Scholarship system was changed. Only Raffles’ and King Edward VII College’s best students qualified for them. I got mine in 1950. After Merdeka, it was called the Agung Scholarship. Yap Pow Meng was also a Queen’s Scholar during the war. But when he returned to Malaya from England he found he had better qualifications than the top psychiatrist in Tanjong Rambutan. So he left for Hong Kong instead.

V.I. boys in my time were selected as the most intelligent boys and were extremely capable in doing many things. This quality was nurtured by excellent teachers who were extremely dedicated. Both the boys and teachers were concerned about the image of the school and they were all conscious of the responsibility they had in maintaining that image. That’s why the boys worked well with the teachers to ensure that the V.I. remained as the premier school. Even after leaving school, boys still kept in touch with the teachers. I am very proud to be a V.I. boy. The school has made me what I am today. The teachers, the atmosphere, the character of the school were really good a build-up for any young man. I hope the school will carry on the good work.

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created on 30 June 2003.
Last update on 28 April 2007.

Contributed by: Chung Chee Min