VI vs SJI:

The Heritage Battle

Badan Warisan Malaysia

Saturday, 19th March 2016

Saturday, 19 March 2016, witnessed a battle of words like none seen in recent times between longtime rivals the Victoria Institution (VI) and St John’s Institution. Billed as ‘The Heritage Battle,’ the event was organised by Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM) and The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (MBRAS) in collaboration with project partner Think City.

I attended the morning session.

Built on the premise that one of the schools had to go to make way for KL’s latest skyscraper (a very real threat, actually), the debate was a lively mix of townhall- and courtroom-style exchange that saw Victorian Chacko Vadaketh and Johanian Zahim Albakri attempt to defend their respective schools over six rounds (plus a bonus round at the end). Upon registration at the front door, audience members had to choose whether to side with the VI or with St John’s, or to stay neutral. It was later revealed at the beginning of the debate that the winning side would be determined by audience votes — and that only neutral audience members had voting rights. If only we Victorians knew in advance!

Audience members wearing yellow (neutral), blue (VI) or green (SJI) wrist bands

Debaters Chacko Vadaketh (V.I.) and Zahim Albakri (St. John's) all decked out in school uniform

First round was a group singing of the School Song by the debaters and their respective schoolmates in the audience. The Victorian contingent struggled to keep up with an unusually fast-tempo recording of the school song, and St John’s won this round with a robust and hearty rendition of theirs that nearly lifted the roof.

                  Battle of the founders

Founding and Philosophy was the topic of the second round. A strong case was made by St John’s for its missionary-influenced humanitarian founding philosophy. Our Victorian, on the other hand, presented an engaging narrative starring the founding fathers of Kuala Lumpur itself and buoyed by a line drawing of the old VI at High Street (by Victorian webmaster Chung Chee Min). Nevertheless this round resulted in a tie.

Next up was Architecture. While St John’s played the nostalgia card brilliantly with modern-day footage gloriously rendered in black-and-white, nothing could overcome the sheer grandeur of the VI’s E-block and hall, depicted in old photographs and illustrations. Chacko added emphatically, “They don’t make buildings and grounds like this anymore,” and secured a convincing vote from the audience. (Also, the loss for St John’s might be partially attributed to Zahim’s slip of the tongue: intending to say that Johanians aspired to “a higher pecking order,” he instead said “a higher peeking order” accidentally—or was it?) It was revealed during this round that several Johanians sit on the Badan Warisan board, but Chacko carefully reminded the audience that “we are here not to discuss how many members we have on the Badan Warisan board, but which is the better school.”


  The final scoreline. That's a 5 - not a 25 - in the right column

From then on, the VI took the lead in the next three rounds. For Historic Events, Chacko described the Japanese administration and surrender ceremonies that took place in the VI, while Zahim spoke of how St John’s promoted the teaching of the Japanese language during the occupation. (Hang on, doesn’t that make St John’s a collaborator of sorts?) Round five—Sensational Events—had Zahim recounting the 1975 siege of the AIA building (next door to St John’s, a fact that Zahim admitted and Chacko hammered like a nail into the Johanians’ coffin). It was an easy Victorian win with the sensationally unmatchable tale of the Proudlock murder scandal.

Notable Alumni was the focus of the sixth round, in which audience members could help the debaters by shouting names out within a 10-second window. Hitherto, each round carried a maximum of two points. Round six had eight points at stake, two for each category: the VI comfortably cruised to victory with commanding wins in Royalty (5 names to 3); Politicians (8-3); Arts, Sports and Entertainment (12-6); and First/Pioneers in Field (7-5). There were some hilarious moments, such as Zahim questioning in bewilderment after the third category, “How did they get 12 names in 10 seconds?!” The line of the day also came in this round, with a struggling Zahim entering this statement for First in Field: “Najib Razak, married to the first lady of Malaysia.”

After six rounds, there was a bonus round in which an Old Boy in the audience had 60 seconds to make some concluding remarks for their respective alma mater. Dato Sri Andrew Abishegam, current chairman of the VIOBA Foundation, took to the podium but, despite a well-crafted impromptu speech, the audience voted in favour of St John’s.

The points were tallied and the VI emerged victorious over St John’s with 15-5 scoreline. “A few final words before we adjourn for recess,” the debaters said, and there was a moment of silence for schools that were unsuccessful in their bid for preservation—like the Bukit Bintang Girls’ School and St Mary’s School—and a sobering reminder that many other heritage schools are under the same threat: the Methodist Boys’ School, Maxwell Road School, Batu Road School and Ipoh’s St Michael’s Institution, to name a few. To further bolster the battle for preservation, Badan Warisan Malaysia is launching a dedicated website,, this May. The school bell rang out the closing of an exciting and informative debate, and the room was filled with lively conversation for quite some time more.

A total of seven Victorians turned up for the event, including legendary headmaster, V. Murugasu
(1964-1971), fourth from right, and Andrew Abishegam, third from left. The writer is at far left.

Don’t worry if you missed the event. Radio station BFM 89.9 interviewed the debaters on this very subject and you can listen to the podcast here:

Benjamin J M Ong

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created: April 2, 2016.
Last update: April 2, 2016.

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