Sunday, May 16, 2004

A Grand Tradition


As reported by NST, Nuance section 16 May 2004

Among its former students are Sultans, a prime minister and top-notch politicians, which accounts for why, in the minds of many, the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) is a bastion of all that is snobbish and elitist.

But as Tan Sri Datuk Mohd Azmi Datuk Kamaruddin put it in 1995: “It’s true that in the beginning, the college was started to accommodate sons of Malay rulers and their chiefs. But it was not long before meritocracy took over from aristocracy. Furthermore, it was also true that the early philosophy and the driving influence were derived from English public schools such as Eton but one should not deride the founders for wanting the best school model for their sons.”

There is no arguing that this “grand dame” of residential schools in the country has come a long way. When it was set up by the colonial government in 1905, it was an educational institution intended for the children of the traditional Malay elite in particular, many of whom were groomed for a career in government service.

By the 1930s, the school could already boast of having a number of Malay Rulers as old boys. At the outbreak of World War II in 1942, all four rulers of the Federated Malay States were products of the institution — Sultan Abu Bakar of Pahang, Tuanku Abdul Rahman ibni Yam Tuan Muhammad of Negri Sembilan, Tunku Hishamuddin Alam Shah of Selangor and Sultan Abdul Aziz of Perak. The trend continued in the post-war years.

Of the old boys who entered politics, there was Datuk Onn Jaafar, the first President of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), and Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, who was a second generation student at the college in the 1930s.

To an outsider, one of the most endearing things about MCKK is the “spirit” shared by its old boys. Talk to any of them, and the sense of pride is unmistakable; which is probably why the MCOBA — the Malay College Old Boys’ Association — has remained extremely active all these years, with its annual gatherings being much anticipated events.

And it looks like the tradition is not lost on the new generation of collegians, going by the responses of students approached on the campus, which clearly showed strong appreciation of the heritage and the honour to attend the school.

Datuk Andika Indra @ Ishak Mohd Esa, who at 101 is older than the College, remembers his time there like it was only yesterday.

“I was the captain of games,” he reveals proudly. “In fact, I was the headmaster’s favourite which was probably why I was also made head boy subsequently. I had to be quite strict with the boys as they were a naughty bunch.

“But the most I did was just to give them a tight slap if they were unruly. They never retaliated because if they did, they would be worse off when sent to see the headmaster!”

This son of a Penghulu Besar (his father was chief headman first in the sub-district of Parit, Perak, and then in the district of Kuala Kangsar) who now resides in Kuala Terengganu, actually entered MCKK at 13 in 1914, although his identity card showed he was 11, and left in 1919.

“During my time, the ‘big school’ (Forms 3, 4 and 5) could hold about 100 students but only 90 attended it. The ‘small school’ had about 28 students,” he recalls.
“Lessons included English Language and Literature, Arithmetic, Geography, History, Hygiene and Physical Training.”

Malay grammar and literature were also on the syllabus and this was where the college differed from other English schools at the time which offered Malay studies only as an option.

Games were obligatory, but encouraged, with football, cricket, hockey and tennis being the favourites. “Rugby was only played by yang kuat saje (the strong ones).”

The only other schools in the country at the time that came close to MCKK’s standing, according to Andika, were Kolej Sultan Abdul Hamid, Kedah, and Penang Free School.

“MCKK was not ‘tops’ because it had lots of students, but because of the type of students it had, namely the children of the elite. Our school was big — we had two buildings — but the student population (of the big school) was less than a 100, and we had only about 12 teachers.”

The best memories of the school?

“When we sneaked out to eat goreng pisang or bade in ‘New York’, before I was made head boy, of course!” guffaws the former head of the Forestry Department in Besut, Terengganu. “We would trick the Sikh jaga (guard) by throwing a stone in one direction and when he went to investigate, we scrambled out.

“We didn’t get up to much, just head for the riverside stalls to eat our goreng pisang or mee which only cost 3 cents then (pocket money was about $4 a month, which was a big sum then).

“We called the place New York because it was near the river, I guess. Of course, we were not supposed to go and if we were ever caught…kenalah dengan headmaster. Berjalur tangan! (You’d get it from the headmaster, stripes on your hands).

Retired CEO of Bank Pembangunan Salim Tan Sri Osman Talib, 72, likewise has fond memories of his MCKK days. Born in Kuala Kangsar, but now living in KL, Salim, whose father was a commissioner of land and mines, joined the school upon its re-opening in 1947 after the war.

“I was literally ‘ordained’ to go to MCKK,” he says with a grin. “It was an extremely reputable school in those days. Only anak raja (royal children) and sons of senior government officials get to go there. The father has to be at least a penghulu (headman).

“I remember the teachers were very strict but fair. A number of them were Europeans — English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and they did take some getting used to, the thick Scottish and Welsh brogues sometimes!

“Punishable offences? That would be not doing your homework, and disregarding school rules such as not being punctual. Everything was to the bell. If you were caught… you had to write lines. Caning was rare. The worst punishment that could befall you was to be deprived of your liberty to go to town.”

Students were allowed out twice in the week — Fridays, after prayers, and Sundays, whole day. “Being confined at school and not able to go to the cinemas, or to the coffee shop to buy your ice-cream and cakes — that was hell!” Salim says.

Students would also be fined if they spoke in Malay. “It was 5 cents per word, if I remember correctly. They said we couldn’t possibly improve much more in our Malay but there was certainly a long way to go with our English!”

The highlight of his years in MCKK was his stint at the school library. “I was the chief librarian. Even during the school holidays, I would come back to school to record the books.”

“Then there were the evenings when our English teachers introduced us to the finer things in English life, such as classical music, Shakespeare, films, etc. That’s why when I went to England later, I was very familiar with things.”

And when it came time to leave?

“You do get attached to the place which had shaped almost every part of your formative years,” he admits. “Happy, sad, it was all there. The school grew on you and there were feelings that cannot be described. I’m just grateful to have had that experience.”

Sprightly Zaharah Mokhtar, 75, meanwhile will tell you with pride that she actually broke a major tradition of the college way back in 1949. On record, she is the only female student to have ever attended MCKK.

“Actually, I was only at the college for the Post-School Certificate, and I didn’t stay on campus. But still, I remember the headmaster saying to the students on that Monday, my first day, ‘We’re going to have a student breaking the history of the college!’” recalls the vivacious grandmother, who was attached to the Cooperative Development Department prior to her retirement.

Having just earned a Grade 1 in her School Certificate examinations, Zaharah was actually not supposed to go to MCKK, but was enrolled at Anderson School in Ipoh.

“I had already registered, having been strongly persuaded by a Mr Hicks, the then State Education Officer, who insisted that I should continue with my studies and then go to university,” Zaharah explains.

“But at that time, I had moved from Batu Gajah to my mum’s home in Aerodrome Road (now Jalan Kapal Terbang) which was about 4.8km from Ipoh town.

“1948 was the start of the Emergency and things were incredibly unstable. People were scared to go out and bus services were not regular. Buses even got burnt on the road from time to time. My kampung was actually next to Gunung Rapat where the Communists were known to have a very big camp. It was targeted by the British military all the time and there were a lot of bombings so it was generally unsafe to move about. As such, even though I had registered to go to Anderson’s, I ended up just staying at home.”

With a smile, Zaharah, who now calls Bangsar home, continues: “Mr Hicks found out about it, and deciding that it was a transport problem, he made arrangements for me to attend MCKK. For one thing, Kuala Kangsar was a peaceful town, unlike Ipoh then. And also I had a niece who was a nurse at the district hospital which was across the road from the college, with whom I could stay.”

Were the boys an issue?

Laughing, the “old girl” replies: “Of course not! It never bothered me to be among the boys as my previous school in Batu Gajah was a co-educational one after all. And before that, I was in some other co-ed institutions too”.

“The boys never treated me differently; some are still my close friends today. There were of course others who found it a bit hard to mix with me but it wasn’t because they were unfriendly, simply a little shy. That’s to be expected, they had never seen a girl on the college grounds before.”

Unlike the other classes, the Post-Certificate regime was a little more relaxed, and students had greater freedom of movement.

After class, “we would just walk to town,” says Zaharah.

“There was really little to do except to walk, talk, and argue. Arguments were simply a part of life — we would argue over just about anything, just to be controversial sometimes.”

“Yes, it was a special school, a special time” she adds. “My father went there and his two brothers too. My husband was also there, albeit for a short while, just before the war, for administrative training.

Turning thoughtful, she offers: “I believe there is something to the Malay College. Maybe, it’s the tradition. When you are in a school like that, with all that history behind it, and all the people who have graced its halls, you do feel that this is no ordinary place. Perhaps, this is what inspires its alumni not only to be proud of the college but also to conduct themselves in an appropriate way. It’s a privilege.”

And the future?

After a pause, Zaharah says: “It’s difficult to say. Things progress so fast these days. They were largely predictable at one time — just by looking at history, you could plan ahead — but not today, definitely not today…”

So should MCKK remain basically a residential secondary school, albeit one with a grand tradition? Or are there bigger things that it could aspire for?

“Malay College is a national heritage. It belongs to the nation. It is also now the only remaining Malay institution, aside from the Conference of Rulers,” says ex-government servant, Saiful Bahari Atan, 63, one of MCKK’s staunchest supporters, a member of the 1952-60 batch.

“Its future must be considered seriously. It has achieved the purpose for which it was set up. It needs to move on. Should we consider upgrading it into, perhaps, a university? We could always enter into some twinning programmes, link up with foreign institutions of higher learning as well.”

The platform for it is in place, after all: the lovely campus with vast playing fields, and more importantly, the tradition and the foundation for educational excellence.

“Alternatively, it could remain a secondary school but be run on a corporate-type basis, short of it being corporatised. It could be an exclusive school like Eton, or Harrow, where the best education is given... the best teachers, the bestneducational content, the best facilities,” Saiful suggests.

This way Malay College will be able to stay true to its tradition and also relevant to the times, he argues. “There is nothing wrong with wanting the best for the country. People must learn to appreciate such aspirations,” he adds, in response to those who view the grand dame with cynicism.

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