An Interview with

Dato' Mahadev Shankar

COSMIC Magazine, July 2011

Dato’ Mahadev Shankar was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1932. During his secondary education at the Victoria Institution, he was active in debating and drama, and once played the title role of Antonio in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He was the school’s Treacher Scholar in 1959 and Rodger Scholar for 1951.

He later studied law in the United Kingdom and became a barrister of the Inner Temple, London and was enrolled as an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya in 1956. After practicing as a lawyer for over two decades, he was appointed in 1983 as a Judge of the High Court of Malaya. He served in Johor, the Federal Capital and in Selangor till 1994 when he was elevated to the Court of Appeal.

Dato’ Mahadev Shankar retired from the Court of Appeal in November 1997. In 2000, he was appointed a commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) for a term of two years. He has also served as a Commissioner in three Royal Commissions of Inquiry (RCI), most recently in the RCI into the V.K. Lingam Video Clip in 2007/8. He is currently a consultant for a law firm in Malaysia and until last year was chairman of the board of Trustees of the Gandhi Memorial Trust. He currently sits as a trustee of the GAB Foundation and is an Adjunct Professor in the Law Faculty of Taylor’s University.

Your education was interrupted by the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II. How was living in the war years like for you and what were the most valuable lessons or experiences that you have gained from that period in your life?

What is it that makes a person who he is? How does a person's character get shaped? If I can go back to Wordsworth:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

What Wordsworth was trying to say is the formative influences that are imprinted in a life of a child have a critical impact on the kind of person he becomes in later life.

Human character is moulded by heredity and environment. Nature and nurture, culture and community are other ways to express the same concept.

I was born of very orthodox Brahmin parents in Peel Avenue between Cheras and Pudu in 1932. At home we were very strict vegetarians and our diet and daily rituals were very rigid. We were drilled into memorizing our daily prayers from a very early age and prayers at dawn and dusk were mandatory. This must have done wonders for my elephantine memory in school where "LBH" or learning by heart was the order of the day.

The domestic environment was felicitous. The community was housed in terrace houses of six or eight dwellings apiece bounded by Peel Road, (which connected Circular Road and Cheras) Peel Avenue, Cochrane Road, and Shelley Road. Within this square was a smaller Peel Square with a small playing field. Behind our house was a coconut plantation; one side of Cochrane Road was the edge of a forest reserve and beyond Shelley Road was secondary jungle with squatter huts.

The inhabitants of our community were all government servants and the authorities must have taken great care to ensure that we reflected a healthy mix of the main ethnic groups. Thus in our block 1724/1-8, our neighbours in numerical order were Mr Buxton, Mr Lee Ngee Yoon (later Assistant Registrar of Companies), Mr Hari Krishnan (Telecoms) Mr N.K. Pillay (lecturer at Technical College), Mr Moey Liam Thoon (Sanitary Board Inspector), Mr Moey Sze Weng, (court interpreter). Raja Khalid (District Officer) and my father Mr T.V. Mahadevan (Private Secretary to the Chief Justice - a post he held from 1931 to 1958 through the Japanese occupation).

Our most famous denizens from Peel Avenue were the children of Uncle Haji Mohamad Ali (later Registrar of Citizens). In order of seniority they were Tun Ismail, later Governor of Bank Negara, the late Tan Sri Dr Zaleha (former director of the Welfare Department), Dato Mohd Noor, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah, and her younger brothers Dato Seri Ahmad Razali, Dato Jaffar, and Dato Zainal. There was Joe Surin, the undisputed cycling champion of Malaysia for many years, Datin Kontik Kamariah, the late Dato' Siew Nim Chee, ... the list is endless.

The point is that as children we had an idyllic childhood, effortlessly picking up each other's dialects. I became fluent in Cantonese and also spoke Malay, Tamil and Malayalam. English was the general medium of communication between us. The games we played were marbles, kite-flying, Koundy Kaunda top spinning and Rounders. Malay words were copiously used in marbles and kite-flying. Like jengkal, pachap, masuk lubang raja, or anjung, junam, putus tangan etc. in kite-flying. We were all cigarette card collectors too. Such was our integration that we were one big family so that even today seventy years later I can remember the names of about seventy per cent of the hundred families living there.

My primary schooling started in the Pasar Road School in 1940 in Primary One under Mr Tan Pan Tai. The following year we were taught by Mrs Soares. Early in 1941 the war had already made its effects felt. Our school was taken over to house the Indian Army soldiers and we had to share accommodation in the Pudu English Girls' School then under the legendary Miss Foss. We were given the afternoon session. We walked through the coconut plantation to get to Pasar Road School. And we had to use the roads to the Pudu Police station to cut through a side lane and across the Pudu/Ampang railway line to get to the Pudu English School. War songs like Wish Me Luck, Siegfried Line, and Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory had become the daily auditory diet. There was no time for play anymore. Horror stories of what was going on in China had started to filter in. Worse was to come.

The December 1941 school holidays had just started when we had the first taste of war and it began with a BANG. We were playing winning cigarette cards from the ring, by throwing our stone disks at them, when a whole lot of planes flew over our house towards the airport at Sungai Besi. The muffled thuds of the bombs being dropped there were nothing compared to the deafening anti-aircraft fire coming from some hidden encampments right behind our house. Our parents were all at work then and we were taken completely by surprise.

That evening when they all came home there were many hushed whispers as to what was to be done. Within a matter of days all our neighbours disappeared in the night or at dawn. Mrs Surin was the telephone operators' supervisor and Uncle Joe was there with her. Like us they stayed to the last.

That was lesson number one. In times of real and sudden crisis it was each man for himself.

Even as we tarried, Mr Benedict Paul, a revered teacher and a family friend walked from Chow Kit Road where he lived to come to my Dad to remonstrate the idiocy of remaining less than a hundred yards from the main road south to Singapore. The Japanese were already in Kampar. That road south was a stream of evacuees all going south. My father declined Paul's offer to follow him to that "island fortress" but the next day, my father's nerve cracked and we packed what little we could and went to Glenmarie Estate where most of the Brahmin families had already congregated in the manager's bungalow. He was a Mr. Crawfurd and had gone off earlier. We lasted there for a few days as my mother could not fit into the ladies kitchen pecking order. We left for the house of another friend in Lorong Seputeh off Old Klang Road. There we saw through the invading Japanese soldiers on their bicycles and then the daily flights of Japanese squadrons from Sungai Besi to Singapore using the railway line as a marker south.

We were the first to come back to our house in Peel Avenue in February 1942. It was deserted and every house had been looted. The doors and windows were open and the floors were littered with torn books and rubbish of every kind. It only occurred to me later that the first thing an invading army does is to destroy the culture of the enemy.

Within days Japanese authorities ordered all government servants back to their former posts. So the administrative machinery was in place within a fortnight.

Chinese vernacular schools disappeared. All the teachers from the old Pasar Road School were now re-housed in the Tek Sin Gakko in Peel Road ensconced in the middle of a coconut plantation. And there we went, a five-mile walk from home to bow to the Japanese Emperor (whom we addressed as Tenno heika, or His Imperial Majesty) first-thing in the morning, sing Kimigayo (Japan's national anthem), do our Radio Taiso (exercise drill) and then adjourn to class to learn Nippon-go. By the end of that year (1942) I was already fluent in basic Japanese and the three scripts (Hiragana, Katakana and some Kanji) and had an array of Japanese songs, both military and festive.

But food shortages had already started to bite. Bread was the first to disappear by mid-December. Rice started to dwindle in mid-1942 to be replaced with millet, which we called ragi. And in every inch of ground around our house we planted bananas, vegetables and tapioca and sweet potatoes. Whilst we very quickly grew thinner, our Sikh friends in Pasar Road, and in Cheras who kept cattle were still looking sleek.

Lesson - self-sufficiency in food is the first priority for survival. The government rations my father got was hardly enough to go around and the occasional meal of parboiled rice was a treat. We were hungry most of the time and drank water to stave off the hunger pangs.

By 1943 the food shortages compelled my brother and I to go to work. At the age of 11 in early 1943, I trudged daily with him to the Oki Denki Kabushiki Kaisha on the other side of the KL railway station, next to the Methodist Girls School. This was the former Post and Telegraph workshop. The inducement was the monthly ration of one gantang of rice, one bottle of coconut oil, half a catty of sugar, and two cartons of cigarettes - a superior brand "Koa", and an inferior brand "Semangat". My salary was fifteen Japanese dollars, which was just enough to get me a double scoop of coconut and maize ice cream at Cheong Kee's in Sultan Street.

The Fung Keong canvas shoes I had in 1942 had long since worn out. The crepe rubber sandals which took their place smelt horribly with a sludge we worked up between our toes we called "toe jam" and we preferred to walk bare foot and developed a thick carapace on our soles which served us better. I had two pairs of shorts and short sleeve shirts which had to last me till the end of the war. My stint at Oki came to an abrupt end in 1944 with the first Allied bombing of the Sentul workshop. My parents thought, quite rightly, that they would bomb the railway station next, so I was taken out, but my brother who was doing something more important than just soldering copper coil wires had to remain.

I was shifted to Tokyo Shibaura Kabushiki Kaisha which had its headquarters in Sungei Besi Road (the old United Engineers premises) and its subsidiary in the Wearne Brothers workshop in Pudu Road next to the Church of St. Anthony and the Selangor Chinese Recreation Club (SCRC) Padang. Here my ability to read and write Japanese got me the job of assistant storekeeper with Mr Samuel Nalliah, who was barely a year older, and Mr Maniam as Head Storekeeper. I remained here till the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, when we were all sent home. When the war ended, I weighed only 45 pounds (about 20.5 kilograms), but was not suffering from illness.

Apart from Samuel, all the other people in the factory were mature males of all races. And the bulk of them were kind to us. But amongst them were also some bad eggs who were quite callous about cheating me of tools from the store by insisting that I not record their taking them because they only needed them for a few minutes. They would deny they took them when I asked for their return and this loss could easily have cost me my head if the annual stock check had not been interrupted by the surrender.

So what were the lessons learnt here. "Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the venomous toad, has yet a precious jewel in his head."

Common hardship is a great unifying force provided it affects everybody equally. We were still a united people despite our different ethnic groups. Eternal vigilance was the other lesson learnt especially in matters of security of property entrusted to my care. The next lesson was an instinctive knowing of what was important. On three occasions I had seen a person being killed right before my eyes and on other occasions, seeing dead bodies at close range was a regular occurrence. But such was the ingrained sense of youthful immortality it never seemed to faze me that I too could be next in line.

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned was how to get on with people and the value of a dollar and with it the capacity to adapt oneself to changing circumstances. With this kind of training we could be thrown anywhere and survive somehow.

As the famous Spanish novelist Cervantes once said, "To become rich after being poor, and then to become poor again is no big deal, but to always have been rich and then to become poor is a real tragedy indeed."

When the war ended I was only 13 years old. But I had the mindset of a young man of twenty. The lost childhood had given way to an accelerated maturity and a burning curiosity to find out what lay on the other side of the hill. Even though the Japanese soldiers treated children with great tenderness, our boss Hasegawa-san did not say much and Fuji-san was a terror on the workshop floor.

The British troops who came in to replace them were a different breed altogether. Scumbags amongst them there were but by and large they were national servicemen from good families. I very quickly got myself a job as a batboy in the 22nd Royal Signals stationed in the Cochrane Road Wireless Station and will never forget how I brought the first loaf of bread home and my father exclaimed he had not seen one for five years. Corporal Freddie Pollock who told me stories of home, Lance Corporal Leslie a born teacher who never tired of explaining mysteries of moving into adulthood, and the shape of world affairs were a big bonus. There were others too many to be named here who were all kindness personified. They were demobilised by mid-1946 and I had to look elsewhere to fill my time. Another curious feature was the ravenous and insatiable craving for sweets which came after the years of starvation. Chewing gum had come into our lives too.

Immediately after the surrender in August 1945 there was a short interregnum when the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) and their supporters ruthlessly hunted down and killed all Japanese collaborators. But once the British and Indian Army came in, order was restored by the British Military Administration. All the Government servants in our area reported back for work.

But the schools were not reopened until 1947. With our parents out of the way teenagers were turned loose to become professional "loafers" ever on the lookout for some mischief to perpetrate. Very quickly they had formed themselves into "gangs" and fights soon broke out between the Cheras Road Gang, the Peel Road gang and sometimes the Pasar Road/Imbi Road Gang. The subject of the quarrel was always the attention given by the outsiders to "our girls". A West Side Story or the Montagues and Capulets all over again.

It was Uncle Joe Surin who quickly channelled our energies into team sports such as badminton, football and cricket, and also other sports such as cycling and body-building. As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined. In that enlightened community of civil servants we had elders who took the responsibility to show us the way and thus did I re-enter Pasar Road School in 1947 to be put into the class of the greatest teacher I ever had - Mr Goh Keng Kwee. I got a double jump and moved into Victoria Institution (V.I.) the next year.

All of us who came out of the Japanese occupation rose to fill positions of responsibility in the life of the nation after our tertiary education.

What feature of Malaysian history were you then aware of which you feel most Malaysians have since neglected?

The excellence of a nation's people depends almost entirely on the quality of the education it provides. The late Mr Herman De Souza, another giant educationist in his time, once told us, "There is no such thing as a bad student, there are only bad teachers." V.I. and the Penang Free School were the two leading public schools in Malaysia in their time. Today, V.I. ranks in the twenties!!

The reasons for this degeneration will explain it all. In our time MERIT was the motivator and excellence the goal. Until we got to the SchoolCertificate class; we had to take all the subjects and hence received an all-round liberal education. Streaming into Arts or Science classes only came after that in the Higher School Certificate level and then in the university.

Literature, History and Geography were mandatory. With them came ethics,philosophy and a love of the humanities. There was equal emphasis on sports especially inculcating the team spirit in a multiracial effort. Some lines in our V.I. school anthem bear repetition:

"Not one race, but one in feeling
For a school to each appealing
That instruction be not all
Nor this School just roof and wall."

If we can keep one fact of history always in the forefront of our minds everything else will fall into place. That fact is that service to humanity without distinctions of race, colour or creed, is the best work of life.

What can ordinary people do to "create history"?

There is an old cliché that people get the leaders they deserve, and as that great Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said, "People who have not actively participated in the great events of their time have not lived!"

In a nutshell, it is the duty of every citizen to flesh out the Constitution by making it a living embodiment of the principles which guide our daily lives especially in the allocation of the nation's resources.

All results are consequences of our previous acts and we have a collective responsibility for allowing the nation to come to the pass in which we now find ourselves. Those who could have made a difference did not do so because they were too busy minding their careers and leaving the business of politics to others.

Ordinary people can make a change by educating themselves on the issues that really matter and get to grips with the short, mid and long term implications of projects and policies which are going to change the shape of their lives. They must demand greater accountability from those they elect and empower. They must get involved. And they must find a consensus on productive programmes.

Above all they must take to heart our national motto, Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu, which our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman incorporated in our national coat-of-arms. Unity is strength. At a time of increasing racial polarisation especially amongst a younger generation who have been subjected to segregationist policies, we have to build bridges across the communal divide.

For ordinary people who are confused as to where to start, a quick visit to any government hospital should be an eye-opener. Disease does not discriminate and all of us are prey to the ravages of ill health and old age. So how come muhibbah reigns supreme in our hospitals? Likewise see how we get on in our wet markets and our malls.

These common spaces have to be enlarged by finding common concerns. This is the greatest opportunity for the ordinary people to make history, by ensuring that those whom they empower at the ballot box are also those who will put the interests of the nation above themselves.

No government can claim to be perfect and admittedly we have made some missteps. If we allow our judgement to be warped by the gloom-and-doomsayers we can easily overlook what is staring at us in our faces namely by and large we are still a vibrant nation with all the mod cons which make for a good life. The stability and mobility we enjoy should be maximised to generate greater goodwill and mutual concern to ensure peace on earth and goodwill to all. Service to humanity is still the best work of life.

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