Two Interviews with
Tan Sri Yaacob bin Latiff

Yaacob bin Latiff

Tan Sri Yaacob was a second generation Victorian. His father, Dr Latiff bin Abdul Razak, joined the old V.I. in High Street and became the first Malay doctor in Malaya. Yaacob attended the V.I. from 1933 to 1936 and excelled in sports. He represented the School in hockey and cricket, winning colours in both sports. The 1936 Victorian reported that his batting average was 21.3 while his bowling average was 14.0 ! Yaacob was the Captain of Thamboosamy House and a School Prefect. He was appointed School Captain in the latter part of 1936.

Yaacob's career was entirely in the Public Service. He began as a District Officer in 1939 in Kuala Pilah just as war loomed in Europe and in 1941 was drafted to help defend Malaya against the invading Japanese army. He joined the Information Service after the war and moved into the Diplomatic Service in 1961. He served as Malaysian ambassador in various countries. When the first Mayor of Kuala Lumpur passed away after serving only three months in 1972, Tan Sri Yaacob was tapped for the job. He served as the Kuala Lumpur's second Datuk Bandar from July 1972, to February 1983, stepping down on his sixty-fifth birthday.

Tan Sri Yaacob's love for his alma mater was deep and lasting. He served as Chairman of the V.I.'s Board of Governors and as President of the VIOBA in the fifties and the sixties. For many years he was the Guest of Honour at the School's Speech Days and Sports Days. In 1958, in memory of his late father, Tan Sri Yaacob donated the Latiff Shield for inter-House debating.

He was interviewed twice by the School Magazine, first in 1954 and again twenty-five years later, in 1979. Both interviews are reproduced below.

The Victorian, 1954

ecently Mr. Ganga Singh and I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the school's distinguished old boys. He is Inche Yaacob bin Abdul Latiff, Director of Information Services, Federation of Malaya, since first July this year. He is the youngest Asian officer to head a Federal Government Department, being just thirty-six years old.

As we entered his neat and airy office, Che Yaacob rose to greet us; he is tall for an Asian and possesses a bearing which commands respect; his hair shows a tint of grey, particularly noticeable round the temples in sharp contrast to his unwrinkled complexion. He was dressed simply in a shirt with tie and long trousers.

We settled down to business at once without any preamble, and heard from this modest man a remarkable story - a tale of achievements to serve as an inspiration to all Malayans and of which every Malayan can be proud. As we conversed, I could sense the presence of Mr. Bennett Eyre Shaw, the School’s first Headmaster, and visualised his kindly familiar face smiling at the youngest Asian head of a Federal Department.

Che Yaacob began with a short account of his family background. His father, Dr. Abdul Latif bin Abdul Razak, eldest son of a territorial chief, was the first Malay to qualify as a doctor. Dr. Latiff, as he is generally known, has recently retired from active service. He is also an old boy of Victoria Institution and his school days date back to the opening years of the twentieth century. Though it is many years since he left the school, the school still remembers Dr. Latiff and at the recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations, he was one of the few old boys who were awarded Jubilee gifts. Che Yaacob spoke with pride of his pioneering father and of the care and attention which Dr. Latiff had lavished on his upbringing and education.

Che Yaacob was born in 1918. He studied in a Malay School, joined Maxwell Road School and in 1933 entered the Victoria Institution. Throughout his school career he was in the "A" class and on the academic side maintained a good record. He was a member of the School Cadet Corps and towards the end of 1935 attained the rank of Under-Officer, a rank equivalent to Second Lieutenant. The Cadet Corps Yaacob - VICC was an extremely efficient body during the nineteen thirties. In the field of sports, the School Soccer, Hockey and Cricket teams had highly successful seasons, and Che Yaacob was awarded school colours for the latter two games. He excelled in cricket and was chosen to play for the Selangor Combined Schools State team on several occasions. Che Yaacob was Thamboosamy House Captain and undoubtedly played a big part in the success of this House in 1936 as recorded in the Honours Board in the Library. He was made a Prefect in 1935 and later became School Captain. The Prefects' Board functioned efficiently under his leadership and when he left the school at the end of the year to join the Malay Administrative Service, his absence was felt all round.

The outbreak of the Pacific War found Che Yaacob in the Volunteer Forces actively resisting the invaders. He accompanied his Unit to Singapore, and when Singapore fell, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese. On his release he made his way back to Kuala Lumpur to rejoin his parents. Then followed the dark period of the Japanese Occupation.

The Liberation of Malaya heralded a new phase in his life. In 1946 he was chosen to represent the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force in the Victory Parade in London and was, indeed, a worthy representative.

On his return from London Che Yaacob joined the Public Relations Department as the Department of Information was then called. His ability and personality were noticed by the Head of his Department and he soon became a Senior Officer in the Department. In 1949 he went to England for a six-month training course in Information work. He was later promoted Deputy Director of the Department of Information, and when Mr. Peterson, Director-General of the integrated Information Services, left the Department, Che Yaacob succeeded him. He thus became the first Asian officer to have the honour of heading an important Federal Department.

When Che Yaacob visited the school on Empire Day, he was surprised to see more than a thousand boys and girls in the Assembly Hall, instead of the five hundred boys of his day. Despite his success in his work, Che Yaacob maintains that his years at school constituted the best period of his life. When asked for his opinion of present day Victorians, he remarked that they seemed to be as enterprising and enthusiastic as Victorians of old.

Then, with some hesitation, he asked whether we thought his own motto might be of any use to our readers. On being assured that it would, he dictated the following:

When crew and captain understand each other to the core,
It takes a gale and more than a gale to put the ship ashore

That, he said, had been the principle on which he ran his Department. He added that he believed in a friendly and understanding approach to other people's problems. Superficial co-operation achieved by force is an empty victory and will collapse in a crisis. He has great Yaacob - Sports 1960 confidence in the methods of teaching employed in the Victoria Institution and affirmed that Victorians would always be able to make their way in the world. He recalled with obvious pleasure and pride all the things that his former teachers had done for him and, with a smile, added: "I have always been loyal to my school. I am a member of the V.I.O.B.A. and I have refused to join any other recreational club."

Che Yaacob then proceeded to say a few words about the work of his department. The Information Department, he explained, is not a propaganda organisation but is concerned solely with conveying the truth of what is happening in the country to the people. The Department employs personal contact, films, pamphlets, pictures and many other means of communication, to further the education of the people and to make them understand their civic rights and duties and also what government in this country stands for.

The Emergency has made the Department's work more onerous and important. Che Yaacob ended the interview with this message to Victorians:

"Do your best in anything you undertake, and see that you live up to the traditions of the school and also to your parents' expectations."

Sung Wing Choon

The Victorian, 1979

he wait seemed an eternity. Excited and nervous we sat in the reception lounge waiting to be called into the office of no less a person than the Datuk Bandar of Kuala Lumpur himself. We had never interviewed a person of such importance before. In our minds, we rehearsed all the questions we were going to ask Yang Berhormat Datuk Bandar.

The moment came. We were asked to proceed to his office. We timidly knocked and entered. Tense and nervous, we could only manage a mumbled "Good Morning". We seemed to have forgotten everything we had planned as we faced the Datuk Bandar, sitting behind his desk, serious and dignified. Not to disgrace the Editorial Board we recovered our wits and hastily launched into the interview. The Datuk Bandar replied to our questions in a solemn and deliberate voice.

Gradually, as the interview progressed we began to relax, encouraged by the affability and warmth that lay beneath his outward seriousness.

Born on the first of February, 1918, in Klang, the Yang Berhormat comes from a large family. He recalls tenderly the family where honesty was taught and the strong bond of fellowship that prevailed. His parents, he described, as loving but at the same time disciplinarians. The way they brought him up had the most telling effect on his ultimate achievements in school. He was at first educated at the Kampung Baru Malay School in Kuala Lumpur and later Maxwell Road School. In the year 1933, on completing his primary education, he came to Victoria Institution where he remained until late 1936. At this point we asked what his first impression of V.I. was. His reply was unhesitant. "I had always aspired to go to V.I." The reason was that his father (one of the first doctors to graduate from King Edward VII College in Singapore) and three of his brothers were also old Victorians. Going to V.I. was like a tradition that he was expected to maintain.

A short pause, as we prepared our next question mentally. How were school days for him? "Wonderful! Wonderful!" he repeated. The plural society of the school was harmonious and it was where he learnt to work together with his friends. The bonds of friendship did not crumble but has been retained even to this day. It was not only this that made his school life memorable for him but also, as we gathered, incidents, especially amusing ones, that took place in relation to his teachers.

Yang Berhormat delighted us with anecdotes of leg pulling of the teachers during the end-of-year concert period. Then they were free to do as they liked. There was a time when ink was mischievously poured on Mr. F. Cobb's seat, the purpose of which we could only guess. Our eyes dilated at such audacity - who would dare try it today? Anyway, as to the consequences, we will leave it to your imagination. Certain teachers that remain in his memory were Mr. Ganga Singh, who was a wonderful but fierce teacher; Mr. Ponniah, who could not pronounce "axe" but said "atch". Then there was the geography teacher, Mr. Leong Fook Yen, who religiously adhered to his prepared notes and never strayed from them. Others he recalled were Mr. Ng Seo Buck, who ended his history lessons in a unique way - by talking about Manchurian history - and a Science teacher, Mr. Lim Eng Thye, who treated his pupils like small children.

The Datuk Bandar was extremely modest about his academic achievements in school. He added that, however, being in the "A" class of the V. I., he found it hard to fail. Furthermore there were among his classmates many brilliant boys from whom he obtained assistance. He attributed his subsequent passing of the Junior Cambridge and Senior Cambridge to the help from these friends.

Yaacob - Prefects

With regard to extra-mural activities, the Datuk Bandar was very active. In his final year in school he was the School Captain, an Under-Officer in the Cadet Corps, a member of the School Cricket Team (Vice-Captain) and Hockey Eleven and Captain of Thamboosamy House.

Amongst the many fond memories he held of the school were the debates that were held between classes. It is a lamentable fact today that inter-class debates have lost their popularity. Then there were the times when they had open house on Sports Day for parents and friends. Food was then plentiful and cheap. At that time each House had its own room to hold its meetings. A humorous event connected with Sports Day is well remembered. One year Yang Berhormat took part in the high jump event. "Perhaps it was due to my height," he offered an explanation. He was attempting to clear the bar which was placed at a height which read 5' 6" on the vertical posts. This was higher than the school record. However, the "horizontal" bar was not very straight as it sagged in the middle. He recalls with amusement how his House Master, with growing excitement, shouted, "Jakap! Jakap, you are breaking the school record." (The teacher could not pronounce "Yaacob" properly). But after he cleared the bar and the height was measured, it turned out to be only five feet two inches because of the sag in the middle of the bar. Anyhow, the gold was his.

All good things had to come to an end and, in 1939, Yang Berhormat left the V.I. for Kuala Kangsar to be trained for one year as a Malay Probationary Officer. After the training he was sent to serve in Klang for three months and later transferred to Kuala Lumpur. He commented that it was a coincidence that his first job then was to look after squatters and now he is still doing the same thing in his capacity as the Datuk Bandar! He remained in Kuala Lumpur until 1941 when he was transferred to Kuala Pilah. When the Pacific War broke out later that year he was drafted into the army, where he joined the Malayan Volunteer Infantry. What he remembered most clearly about the Malayan and British Forces at that time was that they were retreating most of the time. From Kuala Pilah he was dispatched to Port Dickson and then to Port Swettenham (Port Kelang today). After that he went to Singapore, accompanying Japanese prisoners-of-war. Among these prisoners was Mr. Mori, a former headmaster of Methodist Boys' School, whom he knew. Upon Malaya's defeat by the Japanese, he and his friends were ordered by their commanding officer to lay down their arms and to go home. This he did, taking a cattle wagon that took thirty-six hours to reach Malacca from Singapore. In the ensuing Japanese Occupation period, he did not work for two years but, later, he became a magistrate in Kuala Lumpur.

After the war, Yang Berhormat was reabsorbed into the former civil service and was posted to Jelebu. Subsequently he was sent to United Kingdom for the Victory Parade as one of the representatives of the Volunteer Forces. On his return he served from 1946 to 1961 in the Information Department, of which he became the Federal Director in 1954. It was at this time that the Department was assigned the important task of educating the people about democratic elections and combating communist influence among the rural folks during the Emergency.

In 1961 Yang Berhormat was requested by the new Malaysian government to join the Home and Foreign Service where he was appointed Malaysia's ambassador to Thailand till 1965 when he was sent to Egypt. He was accredited as ambassador to Lebanon, Morocco and the Sudan as well. The Six-Day War between the Arab States and Israel broke out in 1967 while he was still Malaysia's ambassador to Egypt and his chief concern then was to look after the welfare of Malaysian nationals living there. From 1967 to 1972 he served as ambassador to Indonesia. In 1972, Yang Berhormat retired from the Civil Service but was requested by the Prime Minister, the late Tun Abdul Razak to continue his public service as the Datuk Bandar of Kuala Lumpur.

As the Datuk Bandar of Kuala Lumpur Yang Berhormat has always held the view that the development of the city should be such that it provides pleasant amenities for children to grow up with. The city Mayor of Kuala Lumpur should also benefit Malaysians living in it and even outside it. In addition, he considered as one of his prime duties that of instilling the national spirit into the community.

At this juncture we asked Yang Berhormat how he was able to cope with his many duties, duties that involved a very tight schedule and varied responsibilities. He replied that all his jobs have been interesting because they involve dealings with other fellow human beings, and more important, because of his philosophy of life. He mused, "When I start on a job I always say to myself that I will like the job."

Finally, we asked Yang Berhormat if he had any advice to give to the younger generation. He shook his head, contemplating. He really had none, he said, except to repeat his philosophical edict on life.

We had been talking for nearly one whole hour to an old Victorian who has not only made good but has attained distinction both in his community and in the country. Since we had covered a lot of ground already we thanked the Datuk Bandar and returned to school to write up our notes, feeling extremely grateful that we had just been given the opportunity to talk to a truly great Malaysian.

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Created on 1 February 2002.
Last update on 23 November 2003.

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