Praise the Founders!
To Kapitan China Yap Kwan Seng and Towkay Loke Yew, the founding of the V.I. must have been an act of Chinese noblesse oblige. When Fortune smiled, it was customary for the fortunate to establish a village school whereby the sons of the poor were taught the classics to become book-loving scholars who on successful competition in Imperial Examinations became government officials. Sir William Hood Treacher, Resident of Selangor, had something else in mind and this was having English-educated clerks and minions to run his government offices.
It was left to the founding headmaster to have the final say on the V.I.’s orientation. Mr. Bennet Eyre Shaw, recruited to start a school in a far flung corner of the empire, Malaya in this instance, had only the school, he came from, as model. English schools were influenced by public schools like Harrow or Eton which originally were for the scions of aristocracy. The culture of English aristocracy consisted of horse-riding and fox hunting. The younger sons, who were not in the line for inheritance and therefore had to take their education more seriously, were more likely to enter military Sandhurst than scholarly Cambridge. The prevailing myth was what Arthur Wellesley was alleged to have said, “The battle of Waterloo was won in the playing fields of Eton”. Myth it might have been but English headmasters believed in it. Therefore the V.I. had a heavy dose of sports, scouting, cadet corps and extra-mural activities - for character building.
How good are the English schools like the V.I.? Having been a university teacher all my life, I have noted that many of my otherwise excellent Master and Ph.D. candidates lack civic mindedness, initiative, leadership and team spirit. After broaching over their weaknesses, I guess that in the countries where they come from, they have not been required to oil the woodwork of doors, to polish brass door hinges, to be bruised in the rough and tumble of rugby, to play as a team to win or to organize camping expeditions to Langkawi. I do not have to go to their countries to visit their secondary schools, because the impoverished Chinese schools in the Kuala Lumpur of my time used to have only a basketball court and a few ping-pong tables to cater for extra-curricular activities. In contrast, the V.I. sits on prime real estate with a spacious playing field.
As a slouch of Shaw House, I cannot say that I fully benefited from the sporting activities. But there have been many who did and here I let my classmate, badminton champion Dr. Oon Chong Jin have his say, “…Our Master of Downing College (Cambridge University) tracked the careers of its undergraduates and their contribution to society 25 years later. They found that those who had done well in studies AND sports or extracurricular activities in the College became top professionals/CEOs, MDs and leaders in society...” This is quoted from Dr Oon Chong Teik - Thomas Cupper and sports doctor elsewhere in this web site.
Although we sing in the school song of “their foresight and devotion”, the founders in the Victorian era did not foresee the importance of “science”. In this Mr. Daniel should be praised as a “latter-day founder”. Science could have been taught as the Classics, to be critiqued and memorized. Mr. Daniel and the science teachers “who came across the ocean” taught us reality checks by experiments and observations.
The reminiscences below have been compiled from emails sent to my siblings (for their amusement) and to their children (so that they would know something of their roots). I have tried to put them in some chronological order but the accuracy is questionable. The emails always elicited comments from Elder Brother Boon Leong. I am including samples of what he wrote at the beginning and end.
tandard Four, Pasar Road School, was a critical year for me. With Batu Road School, the total enrolment of the two feeder schools was 400 boys and the VI accepted only 200. Father kept telling us that we would have to go to the trade school if we were screened out in the competitive examination. I managed to be accepted.
Our years in VI passed by during momentous changes in world history. The Korean War ended with General Mark Ridgeway telling the American people that USA should never again be enmeshed in an Asian land war. It was Eisenhower, following an “I like Ike” campaign to be the president of USA, who ended the war. Father had little respect for Eisenhower and kept saying that Marshall chose him to be Supreme Allied Commander of the western front in the Second World War because his gregarious nature was needed to smooth the easily ruffled egos of General Montgomery and General de Gaulle. Moreover, Ike was lazy and spent most of his time playing golf. One end-result of the Eisenhower presidency was the dominance of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, in international news making. “Brinkmanship” was entering the vocabulary.
The news turned to the French’s last stand against the Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh and gave coverage on their defeat by General Giap. To cover up the humiliation, much was made of the heroism of a French nurse, who became the “angel of Dien Bien Phu”. In Indochina, Emperor Bao Dai, deposed by the French after the Japanese occupation, was reinstalled. Then his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, declared himself the President of the South Vietnam republic.
In Britain, the Conservative Party was back in government under an increasingly senile Winston Churchill. Anthony Eden, who was married to his niece Clarissa, waited in the wings as Dauphin.
King George VI died and Princess Elizabeth, who was touring and staying in a tree-house in Kenya, was rushed home to inherit the throne. The coronation of the new Queen took place the following year. Within this time, Sherpa Tensing and Edmond Hillary scaled Mount Everest for the first time. The long preparations of the coronation were for reasons of state but also for drawing American tourists. The British pound was sinking and needed greenbacks to buoy it afloat. Watching from Gaumont movie newsreels, the event was staged as pageant and spectacle, the type of showmanship which I admire in the British. The Westminster Abbey was packed with sables and coronets. The sun, that never set, was already entering the twilight zone. Their Highnesses the Malay rulers were present with the Queen of Tonga. Music for the occasion was Edward Elgar’s stirring and majestic “Land of Hope and Glory”.
Back in Malaya, the Briggs plan of starving the Communists by resettling squatters behind patrolled barb wired fences in New Villages (concentration camps — as Indian leftist delegates in the WHO Conference called them) was having success. Gerald Templer could resume his military career, leaving Donald MacGillivray as High Commissioner to usher the country to Merdeka.
A schoolboy’s life was routine and uneventful. Interesting things came from hearsay or reading from second-hand sources. First-hand events were far and few between. One was Anthony Eden’s visit.
Another happened during “interval” one morning. We were gazing skywards and spotted two specks streaking across the unclouded portions of the sky, etching two fine white lines against the blue. We looked to Mr. Saunders, our physics teacher who happened to be beside us, for an explanation. He was as baffled as we were. Later, when I talked about this strange sighting at home, my younger brother Boon Keng, who went to the Methodist Boys School, told us that his classmate had followed the specks with a pair of binoculars and told him that they were just jet planes leaving behind their exhaust as vapour trails. Mr. Saunders did not follow-up the sighting with us, presumably because the jets belonged to US Strategic Air Command, putting the British in the back seat. There was a third event and it was Boon Leong’s challenge to British high-handedness. One day, there was a commotion outside our home, a scene typical of a near-miss traffic accident. Passers-by were crowding around the car involved and adversaries were locked in argument. As a busybody, I joined the spectators. To my surprise, the adversaries were Boon Leong and a Britisher, who was the driver of the car, which had narrowly averted hitting a local cyclist. At this point, I shall let Boon Leong’s email complete the narrative:
“Dear BT: I did not think, right up to the minute when I read your account about my encounter with the British driver, that anyone in the Family had witnessed it. There are some details I would like to add to it. The girl, a village girl, about 17 or so, was cycling on the left side of the road going towards Pudu. Then she turned right sharply towards a laterite road on the other side of the road. The car driven by this Britisher, going in the same direction and also going towards Pudu, narrowly missed her. I can't remember why she stopped. The British driver also stopped his car and came out and berated the girl. She merely stood there looking very frightened. She was actually in the wrong, I had then thought, but she was very young and frightened and I just did not like to see one of our own being scolded by a Brit. I can't remember what I actually said in her defence but something to the effect that he nearly ran into her because he was driving too fast. As we argued to and fro he got more heated up and this I remember very well. He said ‘If you are not wearing spectacles I will give you a slap.’ I then took off my glasses and said ‘You just try.’ After that he suddenly left in his car. Even now I distinctly remember what I had in my mind when I dared him to slap me. This was that I would report him to the police. I was too naïve and did not realize that I would not have gotten much satisfaction from the colonial police force. I was and am surprised that he left without teaching this native a lesson. Probably he thought that the people, who had gathered around us, would start a fight with him if they saw him slap me and he would lose in the fight. So he was prepared to accept a loss of face by going away. As they say, discretion is the better part of valour…”
I retain a vivid memory of this spectacle: Boon Leong in the short pants of a secondary school boy standing up to this Britisher. In my eyes, he was a hero. For the rest, a schoolboy’s life was measured out at a plodding pace.
Apart from the form teacher, there were specialist teachers: Mr. Ramachandram for geometry, Mr. Yap Swee Kee for art, Mr. Lim Hock Han for swimming, Mr. de Souza for history.
Mr. Ramachandram: I loved proving geometry theorems in Mr. Ramachandram’s sessions. This was the beginning of my development in spatial thinking, an ability so useful in my career in engineering. Mr. Ramachandram was scoutmaster of the 4th K.L. scout troop.
Mr. Yap Swee Kee: I was hopeless in Art Class. Mr. Yap would place a vase in front for us to draw. We were also asked to shade the drawing to bring out the shadow and the reflected glare. Choong Thim Kwai, who was a natural artist, grasped the idea immediately. As I was seated behind him, I could see what he was doing. Imitating him, I added pencil shadings here, there and everywhere, except in the right places. Both Mr. Yap and Thim Kwai must have concluded from my effort that I had no clue as to what was “light and shadow”. I had to wait until quite late in my adult life before I learned to see the shadows and the reflected light in objects.
When later I coached a pupil, who was weak in geometry, I appreciated that other people suffered the same kind of delayed maturity. In my case, thank goodness, it was not in one of the subjects regarded as important from academic standpoint.
Mr. Lim Hock Han: We idolized our swimming master, Mr. Lim Hock Han. Possibly because he was in his early twenties, we felt close to him. Hock Han was an all round athlete. His Tarzan-like physique impressed us, especially when he stood by the pool in swimming trunk. He kept telling us: swimming and track use different sets of muscles and therefore one must choose to excel in one or the other, but not both.
At that time, VI was the only school in Kuala Lumpur to have a swimming pool. Before we were allowed to dip into the pool, we were told the white lie that the water was treated with special chemicals which would identify us as culprits if we urinated in the pool. The water was certainly treated with a heavy dose of chlorine which caused our eyes to smart. This explained why no public infections arose in spite of the high factor of utilization. Apart from our school, the pool was used by many girl schools (to our delight) and by the British army base next door. It was always shocking to see British Tommies stripping themselves stark naked unashamedly before our eyes.
There was one accidental drowning of a schoolboy. Father offered his opinion that the pool was too crowded and no one would be able to notice a swimmer in strife. Nowadays a lifeguard would be on duty all the time. For some time we stayed away from the pool building after dark lest we see the ghost, but the accident was soon forgotten. The first swimming lesson was dog paddling. Before long, we were encouraged to race. I did not win in races because I could never plunge properly.
Mr. Herman de Sousa: We had Mr. de Sousa as history teacher. Seeing an opportunity to pun with his name, we told ourselves not to run afoul of him, lest we ended up, “banyak susah”. We thought it befitting that a descendant of the Portuguese colonizers of Malacca should be teaching us the “History of Malaya”!
One day, in order to make history lessons memorable and interesting, Mr. de Sousa wrote a script for our class to enact on stage in the School Hall. The historic incident was the arrival of the Ming admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He) before the sultan of Malacca in 1405. The enactment was brief: Cheng Ho and his entourage emerged from left stage and greeted the sultan and his courtiers who emerged from right stage. I remember only one line in the skit, “I am the Envoy of the mighty Wang (emperor)!” End of scene.
Mr. de Sousa was prescient by half a century in selecting this event to dramatize. After Gavin Menzies’ 1421 was published in 2002, Cheng Ho, being a Muslim, has become not only a hero of the Chinese world but of the Muslim world as well.
The remainder of the course consisted of a kaleidoscopic view of the history of Malaya, beginning with the arrival from the mountains of Yunnan of the negritoes, jakuns, sakais and Malays. There were the Hindu era, the Srivijaya and Majapahit kingdoms; the conversion to Islam, Sultan Parameswara of Malacca; the arrival of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.
When the V.I. Cadet Corps was revived as an extracurricular activity, Mr. de Sousa became the commanding officer.
Mr. Austin Foenander was the most memorable form master I had. In part, this was because every pupil and every observation called for a comment from him. Somehow he found out that the classmate, whom we gave the nick-name, “Baby”, was related to towkay “Lau Ti Kok” (the landlord to whom our family paid monthly rent). So the class kept hearing the rhymed couplet, “Lau Ti Kok, Miser cock!” (Several years later, Baby’s father was kidnapped and all through the ordeal Baby never let out that anything was amiss. We read about it from the newspaper after the ransom had been paid and his father released.) Lian Chen Fah, who looked pale and anemic despite the fact that his physician father must have stuffed him with the most nutritious food, was christened “Chinese TB”. The two bumps on Mac Yin Wee’s forehead were, to Mr Foenander, his horns, clear evidence of his bullishness. As Yin Wee was Teochew, there was no end to ethnic teasing, “Teochew-nung…” and the kiltless "Wee Mac".
Classmates all agreed that LKK was a walking scarecrow. One day Mr. Foenander picked on him, “LKK, you are so ugly! You’ll never be able to get married”. After I graduated and was a junior lecturer in the Technical College in Gurney Road, my roving eyes homed on someone whom I would have liked to know better. On enquiry, I was told that she was already married, and married to LKK! I thought that she was LKK’s best revenge on Mr. Foenander.
We liked Mr. Foenander because he joshed along with us and his classes were never dull. We felt that he was genuinely interested in us. At the end of the school year, he invited us to visit him. This was the only invitation we ever had from a teacher. I asked Mother to buy us a cake from the Victoria Bakery and brought it to his home, which was in one of the government quarters near Pasar Road School.
We found Mrs. Foenander to be much younger than her husband. She was a much fairer Eurasian and the children were then not old enough to go to primary school. She taught baking and I was embarrassed to have brought the cake, the proverbial “coal” to “Newcastle”. The hosts served us tea and slices of the cake which I brought along. My mouthful of the cake seemed very dry and coarse.
Mrs. De Silva: Mrs. De Silva was another Portuguese descendent. Being blonde, she possibly inherited the genes from the Vandals who crossed the Pyrenees to invade the Iberian Peninsula. Mr. de Sousa, by contrast, had the complexion of leather. Mrs. De Silva was from Pudu English Girls School. She came to the V.I. once a week to teach singing. She taught us some beautiful traditional English songs. We had little cultural nourishment then. Apart from camp fire songs which we learned from scouting, the other songs we knew were the American songs from 76 rpm records and from Rediffusion.
Although, I enjoyed singing with Mrs. De Silva, I did not understand the reason for the singing class. I had the theory that it was a way by which the Europeans legitimately put one of their kinds on the payroll. The real reason was brought home to me, when Boon Leong came home singing “Frères Jacques”. His French teacher had explained to him that the singing made him practise the articulation of French words.
It was from Mrs. De Silva that we learned the difference between ham and bacon. For the few of us who had come across “ham and eggs” and “bacon and eggs”, the meats, having the same texture, colour, saltiness, were one and the same. Bacon, she explained, had alternate layers of fat and lean. She told us that, in Cantonese, the meat was called “sam chung” (three layers).
Mr. Chin Peng Lam: His art class, under the guidance of his English normal class supervisor, was very different from Mr. Yap’s. We were given bright red, bright orange and bright blue powders to be mixed with water into colours of our choosing. Then we were encouraged to splash the colours on coarse, brownish paper with a paint brush. We were never told what we were to paint. The idea presumably was to encourage artistic creativity.
As Mr. Chin Peng Lam was also our scoutmaster, he confided to me that he was not convinced that art class should be run that way. But as a trainee teacher, he had no choice. Peng Lam thought that this Englishman was eccentric because in his home he had floral arrangements made from weeds and lalang picked from the roadside.
Mr. Navaratnam: Our first science class master was Mr. Navaratnam, who spoke with a lisp. During our first meeting, he pelted a piece of chalk at an inattentive pupil. The ballistic was to illustrate the concept of “stimulus”. “Response” was the reaction of the unsuspecting target who was too slow to dodge.
Chemistry: In the beginning, I could not relate to chemistry class because the chemical compounds were too remote from my daily experience. The nearest was H2O, because water was familiar enough. Although we were told that air consisted of oxygen, nitrogen and others, to me this type of knowledge fell in the category of fjords and canyons in geography lessons. I could trust that they existed because the teachers said so. But why these strange elements, oxygen and nitrogen? Why not, sugar or rice, which I was more familiar with? Nobody explained that sugar and rice were very complicated compounds and that knowledge should begin with the simplest of elements such as oxygen and nitrogen.
Physics: I liked physics. It was in physics class that I came to understand the origin of my shadow which had followed me all my life. In the same way, I always wondered what the images in mirror were. Perhaps, I had asked but never got satisfactory answers. Or, it might have been that I had never asked because I never thought the questions had answers. Whatever the reason, it must seem odd to the present generation of children, that I was so retarded. It was in the physics class that so many of the things which had puzzled me fell into place. It was my liking for physics which led me to engineering.
Biology: I was not fond of biology. The great Rutherford (father of the atom) made the arrogant statement, “There is physics; the rest is stamp collecting.” During our time, biology was in the category of stamp collecting, meaning to say it consisted of cataloguing the collection into Aden, Austria, Australia, etc. The advance of biology to a systematic science in my lifetime has changed that. But I had other psychological hang-ups. I could do botany or microbiology because both are less animate. However, zoology would be out for me. I cannot fully explain it but it has to do with the fact that I never felt comfortable with the touch of the warm bodies of family pet dogs. I recoil as much to the cold touch of reptiles. Early in my life, I thought that I would be a medical doctor like Father. The stumbling block was biology.
Mr. Ratnasingam: In British Malaya, we loyally celebrated the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. As the class monitor, I organized a tea-party and in the celebration I mouthed expressions that we were on the threshold of another glorious Elizabethan era. Although the class master, Mr. Ratnasingam, said nothing, from his facial reaction I sensed that he was thinking that I was only parroting the official line.
Mr. Ratnasingam disapproved of my spoken English. He advised me to listen more to radio broadcasts to get my accent and diction right. I did not take the criticism well. However, he was correct because the only way to speak a language well is to have impeccable speech models. My spoken English still has the Malayan accent learned from our Malayan teachers.
The back windows of Form Three overlooked the swimming pool. Beyond the swimming pool, the terrain sank abruptly by a hundred feet or so to a “padang” on a lower level cut of Petaling Hill which was Coronation Park. As the Merdeka Stadium has been built over Coronation Park, this padang remains only in the memories of Old Boys of our vintage. I mention this padang only because two years later I had a distant glimpse of Mr. Anthony Eden there when he visited Malaya to review the progress of the British forces in fighting the Communist insurrection. The British were introducing helicopters in jungle warfare and Mr. Anthony Eden was shown a helicopter hovering over the padang at a height equivalent to the tops of trees. From the helicopter, security forces lowered themselves down by a rope to an imaginary jungle clearing below. I was struck by the blueness of Mr. Anthony Eden’s suit. He was then the Foreign Minister and would soon be the Prime Minister when Winston Churchill retired. The Suez crisis in November 1955 drove Mr. Anthony Eden out of office so that his term of office as Prime Minister was very brief.
Mr. Gurnell: Because Mr. S. Gurnell was our science teacher from Form 3 to Lower 6, all of us have affection for him. Tan Hong Siang, who joined us from Klang High School in Lower 6, must have found Mr. Gurnell exceptional too because he kept touch with him in England when he was reading engineering in Imperial College.
Mr. Gurnell was short for an Englishman. He wore shorts and stockings to class. He also wore a toothbrush length moustache, but he did not have the menacing scowl of Hitler. He had a master degree in chemistry from Manchester University. He mentioned that before coming to Malaya, he taught in Ethiopia. We learned that the Ethiopians ate spicy food that was so hot that they would keep their lips from touching the food. The Ethiopian schoolchildren were very determined in their studies, so much so that they were inconsolable when not successful. I could not believe this and silently rebutted, “Mr. Gurnell, you are new to Malaya. You have not met us.”
Mr. Gurnell began the first class of the school year with a long preface. This was on the scientific method as it related to the corpus of world knowledge. We were too young to understand this. I remember some of it mainly because I had listened to it a few times. But it contained the scientific spirit which he was bringing to us.
He had a life-long personal curiosity, which he shared with us when our Science and Mathematics Society invited him to give a lecture. The subject, he talked on, was the instincts in living creatures, for example, the navigational abilities in migrating birds. The empirical data for the existence of the instincts were well documented. But there remained the mystery of the “mechanisms” by which the “instincts” worked.
In the chemistry laboratory class, he was interested in showing us the signature colours of different chemicals in the flame of the Bunsen burner: yellow for sodium, green for copper, red for iron. Sometimes I worried that he was neglecting to train us in quantitative analysis and in the titration methods, which chemistry teacher Mr. Toh Boon Huah was drilling Boon Leong in the class a year ahead of mine. Would I be able to pass the chemistry lab exam in the Cambridge Syndicate School Certificate Exam?
“Rely on your nose!” Mr. Gurnell kept telling us. “Ammonia, acetic acid, chemicals have their characteristic smells. Smells are accepted in the court of law as evidence.” I remember that in the once-weekly afternoon class, Mr. Gurnell would come to class with a light scent of cheese, which Mrs. Gurnell (a science teacher in Pudu English Girls School) must have given him for lunch. Mr. Toh Boon Huah would have a ready retort, “Rely on your nose for chemical analysis. Have a sniff of cyanide!”
Somewhere in the chemistry curriculum, pupils were exposed to “soft” and “hard” water. In bathing, we were used to sloshing our bodies with water scooped from the brownish-green glazed urns in our bathrooms and it amused us to think that the Mongolian blue spots on our buttocks were bruises from hard water. It was Mr. Gurnell’s first year in Malaya, and he wanted to precipitate the “hardness” as a calcium carbonate residue in the bottom of the test tube. Mr. Gurnell was nonplussed because he could not reproduce the result in front of the class. Then it dawned on him that whereas water was “hard” everywhere in the British isles, water in the Klang Valley was soft. He overcame the hitch by dissolving calcium carbonate in our soft water first and then precipitated the hardness for us to see.
Another oddity in the Orient, which Mr. Gurnell discovered through reading The Malay Mail or The Straits Times, was suicide by swallowing caustic soda. As a chemistry teacher, he felt it his duty to tell us that caustic soda was a most painful but ineffectual way of dispatching oneself. All that the caustic soda did was to corrode the lining of the alimentary canal and death followed slowly from tissue destruction. I supposed that the class was expected to multiply the message fortyfold to the suicide-prone in Kuala Lumpur. Somehow, I felt that he did not offer a helpful solution - what affordable, easily accessible chemical to use!
Mrs. Devadason: Mrs. Devadason was lady-like, beautiful and wore sari with exceptional grace. She taught us history. Everybody remembered her devotion to the Dramatic Society. After scout meetings, the walk to the bicycle park would take me past the school hall where Mrs. Devadason would be rehearsing Khoo Teng Bin, Ananda Krishna and others in Shakespearean plays. Unfortunately, Mrs. Devadason passed away very young.
Mr. XXX: Possibly because I never liked him, I do not remember the name of this Englishman who taught English and literature. He was lanky and had short, light brown hair. He wore a bracelet around one wrist.
My dislike was based on his attitude towards us. One day, in order to impress us that he was not a racist, he told us that he was married to an Italian and how much mutual tolerance was required to make an interracial marriage work. This example was most unconvincing at that time. This was because English and Italians were all Europeans to us.
I appreciated his example only after living in Australia and meeting many south Italian immigrants. I remember my landlady, Mrs. Johnson, and her husband, Ron, telling me how dreadful their experience had been in attending a Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie. Not only was the action slow and boring but worse still the audience were mainly Italians smelling of garlic.
On another day, Mr. XXX belittled what we, young Malayans, were capable of achieving. I countered by saying that the extra-curricular activities of VI were organized entirely by schoolboys. He came back with an example which stumped me for many years. The example was the heroism of young pilots who flew the Spitfires that shot down the Luftwaffe, winning the Battle of Britain. Because we “natives” were never mentioned in colonial history lessons, we never had our “heroes”. Even if I had the presence of mind, I could not, during the Emergency, use for counter-example, Mr. Lee, whom Father engaged to give us private tuition in Chinese. Mr. Lee was only a pupil of Confucian School in 1942 when he fled into the jungle to join the Chin Peng’s Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA).
Miss Knowles: I quickly sensed from Miss Knowles’ criticisms of our writing that she expected from us, English essays similar those she submitted to her tutors in her university days. This liberated me and I wrote more freely than I would for a local teacher.
It was her first encounter with the monsoon months. One day when she arrived in class, a few desks were empty. Then slowly, the desks came to be filled by latecomers. Coming from civilized Europe where “punctuality is the politeness of kings”, she scolded the class. As class monitor, I had always acted on behalf of the teacher, as teacher’s stooge, as wiseacres would put it. On this one occasion, I protested on behalf of the class. I told her that in Malaya rain had always been valid excuse for being late. Miss Knowles would not accept it.
Some thirty years later when I was crossing Singapore’s Orchard Road by an underpass, I was amused to see an elderly white lady waving her arm, shooing Singaporeans to walk on, what in her mind was, the correct side of pedestrian traffic. I chuckled to myself because I had already met Miss Knowles.
Mr. Marshall: Mr. C. J. Marshall was a “missionary” of one of the agencies of the United Nations. Somehow, he managed to get himself invited by the Science and Mathematics Society to address senior pupils on a series of four lectures on "Land preservation and utilisation". It was in the late afternoon and the school refectory, where the meetings were held, was more packed than during our usual meetings.
Mr. Marshall began by asking us to imagine the human sacrifice ceremonies of the Mayas and the Atzecs. Young virgins were led to the altar. Then with a sweep of his hands, Mr. Marshall hinted at the gruesome method which dispatched the victims to placate the gods. Nonverbally, he dramatized the full horror of sacrificing humans and the cruelty of the Mayas and the Atzecs.
If we thought the Mayas and the Atzecs to be barbaric, Mr. Marshall continued, we in the twentieth century were hardly different. This was because we kept sacrificing our future generations by our thoughtless rapacity of Nature’s gifts to Mankind. His message was that human survival depended on the world’s four inches of top soil and once the delicate layer was peeled off, we would be left with the barrenness of the Sahara. We would not kill our off-springs as sacrifices. We just starved them to death. Our rainforests protected the erosion of the top soil. Many of the hardwood trees in Malaya’s rainforest took 70 years to grow and at most only 1/70 should be logged in any year.
This lesson on environmental protection made a very deep impression on me. I began to see the extended patches of red laterite on our hillsides as gashes which wounded our planet mortally.
Mr. Ganga Singh: Mr. Ganga Singh could hide the gray in his hair under his white turban but not in the full beard which Sikhism would not allow him to shave off. When he became our Fourth Form master, he was already a legend. He had been top student in VI and had he been born later in time there would have been opportunities for him to be a doctor or a lawyer. He was not alone in this because Mr. Foenander, another brilliant Old Boy, shared the same fate.
Because they had been top scholars both showed interests in improving us as pupils. It must be sad for them to see pupils leaving school, year after year, to enter University of Malaya, universities abroad in Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, while their own lot was stuck in VI.
Because I was top boy in the class, Mr. Ganga Singh sized me up - against himself and also against all my predecessors. In a soliloquy that that I could overhear, I learned that I did not measure up.
Mr. Ganga Singh liked to debunk the hyperboles, which repeated often enough, passed for truth. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, he told us was nothing but a sales pitch of apple growers associations.
He was literary inclined and fond of word games. It was Napoleon who uttered, according to Mr Ganga Singh, the longest palindrome (a sentence which could be read forward and backward): "Able was I ere I saw Elba." Of course, now thinking back I realize that it probably could not have been true as Napoleon, a sworn enemy of the English, would have been most disinclined to speak, let alone compose a palindrome, in English! As for it being the longest palindrome, I have discovered that there are many, many more ingeniously long palindromes composed since Ganga's time!
Ganga liked all figures of speech: oxymoron,
onomatopoeia and the like. Of paradoxes, he gave us
He taught us English poetry. He read poems like Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade with enjoyment, drama and gusto:
“…Theirs not to make reply,
Cannon to right of them,
I was sometimes ill at ease because of what I felt to be over-dramatization. Also, had Mr. Ganga Singh been reading Punjabi poetry or Tagore’s in Bengali, I would have had full confidence that the rendering had been correct. But I was troubled as to whether the delivery was an authentic English reading of poetry. This was not to say that Mr. Ganga Singh could not be doing it right. The lack of confidence was mine alone and came from my insufficient knowledge of things English, as Mr. Ratnasingam had pointed out.
We had to write English essays. In one, I wrote about the Pudu Gaol and how an inmate looked forlornly through the prison bars to freedom. Mr. Ganga Singh’s criticism of this essay was that I over dramatized the plight of the inmate. It seemed that Mr. Ganga Singh could read my mind regarding his poetry reading and evened the score.
Mr. Hackling: Mr. Hackling taught us physics for only one term but I have no recollection of his classes. I remember him only because he was freshly out of college and schoolboys tend to idolize schoolmasters in the inter-generation age group between parents and siblings. Mr. Hackling could be bracketed with Mr. Lim Hock Han and Mr. Chin Peng Lam.
One late afternoon, I was watching an inter-house rugby match. Mr. Hackling was by the sidelines. I imagined that he must have been a star player in his college rugby team and found our standard quite pathetic. Many conscripted players, I amongst them, had no enthusiasm for rugby. I had the fear that my ears would be sheared off in the scrums. Whenever the ball came my way, I would cowardly get rid of it by passing it to whoever was closest to me before my lower limbs were tackled.
Mr. Hackling must have made a wish to show us how rugby should really be played and the wish was answered. This was because a rugby ball came flying his way. Mr. Hackling made a dive for the ball. I always thought that the dive was what made rugby so much more action-packed than soccer. A dive must have a landing and fortunately for Mr. Hackling, the padang was soft and soggy after the afternoon downpour. When Mr. Hackling picked himself up, he was muddied (white shirt and white pants were de rigueur in the tropics). The focal point of all our attention, he sheepishly made his exit.
Dr. Lewis: Until Dr. G.E.D. Lewis became headmaster, the V.I. was a revolving door through which passed a procession of headmasters, expatriates presumably waiting for new postings in Malaya or other parts of the diminishing British Empire. Dr. Lewis’ tenure was long enough to help in stopping the school’s down-hill slide. Among other activities which he introduced to boost the school spirit was the annual cross-country run.
I remember crowding around Dr. Lewis in awe of his doctorate. His self-deflation came across as, “You put four geography books together and - voilà! - you come out with a fifth!”
Once a schoolboy scrawled in the washroom something some graffiti about Dr. Lewis. In one of our Friday school assemblies, Dr. Lewis berated the prefects in public for failing to notify him of these. I thought that a basic precept, regarding upholding discipline in any organization, was violated. If prefects deserved to be reprimanded, it should be done in private. Prefects must enjoy schoolboys’ respect in order to exercise authority and a public shaming would take away the respect. Happily, the prefects’ authority remained intact because everyone knew that the headmaster was, in this case, in the wrong.
Mrs. Dempster: Mrs. Dempster, our biology teacher for several years, always wore a white cotton dress which had a certain thickness and stiffness. In a hospital setting, she could be mistaken for a doctor or the matron of a ward. Her face was lightly powdered.
The science textbook in the lower forms was written by Mr. Daniel who took into account the peculiarities of the flora and fauna of the tropics. When we reached upper forms not covered by Mr. Daniel’s work, we had a biology textbook which was written for English schoolchildren. One of the subjects studied was the earthworm. As a conscientious schoolboy, I read the text ahead of class. I even memorized the anatomical parts of the earthworm, without knowing where the scientific names belonged to, except to the illustration in the book.
Mrs. Dempster had an earthworm dissected in front of the class. With the outer body pried apart by pins, she examined the exposed the alimentary canal, prodding this and that organ as she named them. “Your Malayan earthworm does not have this, this and this!” she would tell us.
This lesson made a deep impression on me. Up to this point in my life, everything, in print, was authoritative and sacrosanct even. I began to learn that “words, words and words” must correspond to observed facts.
One day, Mrs. Dempster gave Arnold a gentle rebuke, “The next time you wouldn’t get away with it by giving me the sweet smile.” Arnold had defaulted in an assignment and instinctively knowing that he had the handsomeness and café au lait complexion which “European” women find irresistible, he was, at his young age, working on his charm.
It did not seem lady-like that Mrs. Dempster should be stropping a barber-shop razor against a leather strap. Eventually, I had my turn to do the same but unlike classmates Yoong Meow Nyen, Adam Basheer, Low Pek Soon and Ti Teow Kong, I never learned how to sharpen mine fine enough to slice a microscope specimen to the thinness of a single cell. Mrs. Dempster predicted that some of my classmates would become distinguished surgeons. Ti Teow Kong became Professor of Surgery. I ended up as a biological science drop-out.
Mrs A. P. Hamilton: Our Form 4 history teacher, Mrs Hamilton, had patrician good looks. Whereas our biology teacher Mrs. Dempster wore white drill, somewhat too thick and too tight for the tropics, Mrs Hamilton preferred light, loose dresses. For teaching style, she stood on one leg with her back leaning against the wall. Her other knee would be slightly bent with the sole of this foot pressed against the wall. As standing on one leg was tiring, she alternated her legs. My guess was that the cement wall served as a heat-sink to cool her back. On other occasions, she would be sitting on top of the teacher’s desk, with one leg crossed over the other knee. Every so often, she would re-cross her legs, at which time her full skirt would billow.
By Form 4, I had already completed Edward Gibbon’s The Fall and the Decline of the Roman Empire and was beginning T.B. Macauley’s History of England. I found history fascinating. It was Mrs Hamilton who purged any secret hopes of my becoming a professional historian.
Mrs Hamilton related her experiences with her thesis supervisor in her history major. Every hypothesis, she proposed, had been met with the demand for historic evidences. I came to realize that history writing was necessarily a slow, painstaking chore. There was no place for imaginative, story telling.
Because of Mrs Hamilton’s influence, I now keep insisting on the knowing the proofs for historic facts. The footnotes and the references in a book of history are now more important although less entertaining than the story line.
Another of her lessons related to “rule of law”. She told us that the British government had ways of ensuring that the military was always under civilian authority. These consisted of keeping garrisons geographically apart and rotating the commanding officers around for short durations.
Dr. Jogindra Singh: After Mrs. Hamilton left, she was replaced by a Ph.D. in history, a Sikh recruited from India to tide the temporary shortage of teachers. We were studying the history of the British Empire and when the Black Hole of Calcutta came up, Dr. Jogindra Singh categorically denied that there had been a Black Hole. He quoted papers by impeachable historians claiming that that the Black Hole was in any case too small to accommodate so many captives. At that time, we held the belief that Indian universities were below par and the Ph.D. notwithstanding, who was he to contradict what was already in our textbook?
Because Dr. Jogindra Singh was a newcomer to the country, someone asked him what he thought of us Malayans. He told us that he found the Malays most courteous and hospitable. I was not pleased that he did not praise the Chinese. I have since come to share this opinion. Many times when I jogged around Taman Titiwangsa, young Malays would address me as “Uncle” as they wished me “good jogging”.
Mr. Lai Nyen Foo: Our Form 5 teacher, Mr. Lai Nyen Foo, was known to be independently wealthy. At home, we Ooi brothers enjoyed telling stories about our teachers. Mother, overhearing this teacher’s name, decided to call him “Pull a Person’s Pants”, which was how “Lai Nyen Foo” sounded like with the Cantonese tones mischievously adjusted.
If I had to describe him with one adjective, Mr. Lai was “smart”. He was smart in the sense that he was clever. After all, he was our mathematics teacher. He was smart in appearance - white shirt and pants, collar and tie when in mufti and well-cut uniform as an officer of the cadet corps. Most important of all, he looked sharp and alert. He had a head of thick, shining Brylcreemed hair.
Mathematics, we had been told, were all about reasoning. Mr. Lai had a way of teaching it like the “Three Character Classic” (San Zi Jing). Every so often, he would intone to the class:
“Add equal to equal and the sum is equal.
He was enunciating the basic laws in algebraic manipulation which nobody had taught us before. From this mantra, he explained why in solving an algebraic equation, +x in crossing over to the other side of the = sign becomes –x. Or, why an “upstairs x” becomes a “downstairs 1/x” on crossing the = sign. He enabled me to understand the whys of the algebra which had been introduced to me in Standard 4, Pasar Road English School.
Mr. Lai’s main goal was to teach us differential calculus. He made learning it so simple. This was by repetitively bringing in the concept of incremental change and taking the increment to a vanishingly small limit.
Before entering Mr. Lai’s class, I had taken a dislike for him. This was because he appeared proud, standoffish and unfriendly. But once in his class, I belonged to his flock and I sensed a changed attitude. Outwardly, the teacher-student relationship was not different from what I experienced in other classes. But from time to time, there were nonverbal facial expressions, sometimes of encouragement and sometimes of praise. In time I developed affection for Mr. “Pull a Person’s Pants.”
Later in the university when I asked one classmate from Penang’s Chungling High School and another classmate from a Hanoi lycée what they had learned in mathematics, I found out that our English schools in Malaya taught us comparatively very little mathematics.
Mr. A. Milne: From Foo Yeow Khean’s reminiscences, Mr. Milne had been influential in adding humanities to Yeow Khean’s decidedly science orientation.
My memory of Mr. Milne was when he was invited to Mac Yin Wee’s farewell banquet in Mak Yee restaurant, which was then inside Bukit Bintang Amusement Park. (Mac is the same as Mak.) The occasion was to wish Yin Wee success in his engineering studies in England. When Mr. Milne, as one of the honoured guests, was invited to the microphone, he sang a Malay song. This unexpected performance left Mac Yin Wee nervous and confused. What would the Mac clan and his father’s friends think of the V.I., the premier school of Kuala Lumpur, now that Mr. Milne had acted in a manner unbecoming of the dignity of a teacher (from the traditional Chinese point of view)?
Mr. Milne was only doing his part in being less aloof and showing appreciation of local culture.
Mrs. Egerton: We had Mrs. Egerton in our English class in Form 5. On a few occasions, she asked me to read my English writing exercises to the class. This encouraged me not so much because I could show off to my classmates but because Mrs. Egerton was young and pretty.
In the movie Gigi, Maurice Chevalier sang in his inimitable way, Thank Heaven for Little Girls. The song ended with the line, “Without them, what would little boys do?” Indeed, Mrs. Devadason, Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Egerton had inspired very many not-so-little boys, like myself, to excel.
BT's class experienced more British teachers than ours. I remember that BT always raved over one Mr Gurnell and his scientific methods. Does that explain that BT's year seems to have produced a few more pure scientists than ours?* His science teachers were all science graduates and had come from universities where there were larger number of scientists and the culture of conducting scientific work.
Our local science teachers, like Toh Boon Huah who was our chemistry teacher, C. Ganasalingam, who was our physics teacher and, of course, Eng Thye who was our biology teacher, were all very good in passing on to us the knowledge in each of their respective subjects but there was no passing on of the scientific traditions. For example, it has just occurred to me that whilst we studied the balsam plant in our biology lessons and we did it very well, none in our class as far as I know, (including myself) of his own accord looked at any other plants. Or does this inquiring instinct come with greater immersion in the subject usually found only at university level.
Now to some of the other teachers. Miss Knowles also taught our class in history in Form II - only for a short while. She was a good teacher and knowledgeable in her subject - we were doing history of England. She was kind and seldom if ever lost her temper with the class. There is a curious sequel: she is related to a couple, Mr and Mrs Grove-White, both of whom were medical doctors in Malaysia after the war. They knew my father-in-law and therefore Meng Eng (Boon Leong’s wife). Meng Eng met her at some function and they became friends. After that she found out that I was from the V.I. I don't think she quite remembered me. A few years later she visited KL and some of my class and Teng Bin's class gave her dinner. She had not changed much except that her hair had a lot of white. She was still unmarried.
Mrs De Silva also taught us singing. She never indulged in giving us tit bits of information, like ham and eggs and bacon and eggs. She taught us the Ash Grove and also an English traditional song that has the words "Summer is a coming in, loudly sing cuckoo". Our class thought that Mr Payne, the headmaster, was sweet on her because he always had a look in during her class.
Mr de Sousa was our form teacher for two years in succession - Form IV and V. I think he had been in the volunteer force as some sort of officer before the war. So he had a military cast of mind. He taught us English Language and history and was quite a competent teacher. During the whole school year he would have set about half a dozen essays for us to write. In history lessons, he was very fond of one Chinese boy who had beautiful handwriting and could draw very well. Very often in the history tests some answers required drawings - like drawing the mouth of the Malacca River and the Portuguese fortress.
His military cast of mind was exhibited one day when after for some misdemeanour he sent the whole class to the school field to pick up leaves and stray pieces of paper. The class was in a rebellious mood and sent me, as the class monitor, to ask him for brooms to do the job. I remember still, urging him to give us brooms, using the argument that one can't make bricks without straw. He refused. Eventually tempers cooled and the class did the best they could. I referred to his military cast of mind because we have all heard stories of how soldiers have been ordered to scrub the floor using toothbrushes. He was actually a kind person and on Christmas Day we used to visit him at his double-storey government house in Cochrane Road. His wife was also very good at baking cakes. The Eurasians seem on the whole to be good at baking cakes. (I am also thinking of Mrs Foenander). I always associate suji cakes with Eurasians.
* The M.Ds. and Ph.Ds. of this cohort are: Dr. Oon Chong Jin, Dr. Ti Teow Kong, Dr. Chin Peng Sung, Dr. Narendran Nair, Dr. Tan Hong Siang, Dr. Ooi Boon Teck.
Last update: December 23, 2006.
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