IN these months of Merdeka and the formation of Malaysia, I wish to pay tribute to my old school, SMJK Hua Lian in Perak.
Why was my school experience so special? I was the only Malay boy in a sea of Chinese students, yet I felt no racial or religious pressures. I sailed through four years of education making friends, having fun and learning lots of things from my mostly non-Malay teachers.
While I take a few moments to recollect some incidents, why don’t we also take this time to ask just what is wrong with our country – to the point that racial and religious mistrust still prevails after half a century.
My childhood days from Standard One to Six were spent at the police barracks in Butterworth, Penang, where I would walk about half a kilometre every day to St Mark’s Primary School. My childhood friends at the barracks were mostly Malays, but there were several Chinese boys and the two sons of a burly Sikh sergeant major.
My father was only a police constable with the rank of “private” despite his 30 years of service. Mother tells of his reluctance to move too far away from his family in Pantai Besar and Batu Kurau (both in Perak), which resulted in his stagnant position. Though my father was educated only up to Standard Three, he could scold me effortlessly in Queen’s English!
But the most important thing that I remember is that he NEVER uttered a single harsh word against any Chinese or Indian, unlike the fathers of my friends. He had many Chinese friends whom he visited occasionally, with me tagging along on his Vespa.
At St Mark’s, I had many friends who were Indians, Sikhs and Chinese. I remember one particular boy, the “soft” kind who was always jeered at for being feminine. We both got on well because of our one common interest – Enid Blyton story books! We would exchange comics and books all the time.
At the police barracks, I flew kites and played gasing, football and hide-and-seek among the wreakage of armoured police vehicles.
One day, I was greatly saddened to learn that my father was retiring from the police force and that we had to move to Taiping. The family moved in June of 1976 to the police barracks in Taiping. At 14, it was difficult to make friends at the barracks, so I was hoping it would be better in the new school. Little did I realise that my life was about to take a sharp turn.
There was no school that offered Industrial Arts in the English medium of instruction. St George’s Institution was agriculture based and King Edwards was commerce based. We finally found a school … next to the oldest prison in Malaysia. SMJK Hua Lian at Jalan Lumba Kuda had two sessions and 99.7% of its 2,000 students were Chinese!
I had been in Form 2A in St Mark’s, so when I transferred to Hua Lian, the headmaster asked which class I wanted to be in. I asked if there were any other Malay boys and if so, in which class? He said yes, but the two other boys were in Form 2D1 – the last class with the naughtiest students! I said okay and stepped into the most interesting period of my school life.
Try to imagine me at 14, a scrawny, bespectacled four-foot-something guy amidst burly Chinese five-footers who were all a year older than me as they had been to Remove class. I was an “A” student among those who got Cs and Ds. Every time the teacher stepped out to go to the toilet during the monthly exams, the whole class would crowd around me for answers to all the subjects, except my weakest subject, Mathematics.
I excelled in English and Bahasa Malaysia (BM) and it was wonderful to see pandemonium breaking out among my classmates whenever it was announced at assembly that I had obtained the highest marks for English in the whole form, beating those nerds from 2A1 (all boys) and 2A2 (all girls). My old form teacher was all smiles when he told the class that he was pleased to have at least one student who passed all his subjects.
Two recollections are worth highlighting here. Once, a Malay teacher who taught BM was so incensed with some students for being rude to him that he threw everyone out of the classroom and we had to stand in the hot sun for the whole period. That included me. It wasn’t fair because I was always a “teacher’s pet”. So there we were, all 42 of us, being stared at by the girls in 2B2, 2C2 and 2A2.
The other thing that has stayed with me is how my Chinese friends loved to gamble. They would bet almost every single day on Malaysian football, sports or even whether it would rain that day. Once I saw a boy win RM1,000 in a football pool! I rarely saw a RM50 and had never even seen a RM100 note. My mother gave me RM10 a month as allowance but she cooked and packed food for me every day.
I was moved up to 3B1 after that year and left my colourful friends at 3D1. After the LCE exams (the equivalent of SRP today), I was placed in the top science class, which was co-ed. One thing about Hua Lian – I had never had any puppy love problems because of the racial difference. I was not interested in the girls and I was not much to look at anyway.
For me, the most memorable thing about being in 4Sc1 was that we put up a play during Teacher’s Day and was asked to restage it in front of the whole school.
Another fun thing was that I joined the Police Cadet Force with my tall Chinese friends, about 40 of us. We learnt to march and practise arms drill and withstand the verbal abuses of our drill masters. With our smart uniforms, and knowledge of security details during special occasions in school, we impressed the girls – one of the perks of being in that hot and sweaty, brown get-up.
In 5Sc1, we had a lot of class parties. I had never been to a party before, especially one with a mix of boys and girls. My Chinese friends were very tolerant of my faith and endeavoured to make sure all the food was “halal”, or so they told me. I had absolute faith in their sincerity. We played games at these parties and joked around. It was great fun and I had never felt accepted as much before.
The other great thing was the formation of the first ever multi-racial sepak takraw team. I loved the game and played the “killer” position. There were only three other Malay boys in school and we had to find five Chinese boys because of the compulsory three-team rule. We sought good football players and basketball players as takraw requires agile footwork, springing and ball-handling.
We managed to form the team and went on the inter-school competition league. We went up against three schools and, of course, lost all the games. But everywhere we went, we were the talk of the day as no one had ever seen a Chinese-Malay takraw team.
I was one of the top 10 students in the MCE examination (the equivalent of SPM), securing 6As. I was the only Malay candidate in the Science stream and all my Chinese and Indian teachers were most proud of me. I was the only one who had scored a distinction (A2) in the Overseas English Exam, finally beating that lanky nerd of nerds, the head prefect.
After a short stint in Lower Six, I left to study in the United States for six years on a government scholarship. By then, most of my friends had gone to Canada, Britain or Australia, sponsored by their parents. Some who did not make it to Lower Six or the local universities had to look for work.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my Hua Lian teachers from 1976-80 for their dedication and commitment. I used to joke that I was the best and worst Malay MCE student because I was the only one.
My Chinese friends and I studied, played (I never gambled although almost all my friends did), partied, took part in sports, marched in the cadet corps, went girl-watching at the Taiping Lake Gardens, had ice kacang at the Larut Matang Supermarket and talked about our future.
I sincerely believe that if narrow-minded politicians were to leave our multi-racial communities alone, we would probably live in better harmony than we do now. I not only survived, but thrived, at SMJK Hua Lian with my Chinese friends and teachers.
Happy Malaysia month!
By PROFESSOR DR MOHAMAD TAJUDDIN MOHAMAD RASDISource: The Star/Asian News Network