The Big School
A V.I. Odyssey
here was a heady, feel-good atmosphere when school reopened on January 6th 1958. We were in the post-secondary era now and in an independent country to boot. Everything seemed new; everything seemed possible. There were two batches of new Victorians milling around the porch and Sixth form block on that first day. The first group comprised the new Form One boys from Batu Road School and Pasar Road School. These meek and gentle lambs, still wet behind the ears, would soon be led to their respective classes by their Form Masters to begin their induction as Victorians. Outside the Sixth Form block, a motley crowd was assembled – seasoned Victorians like us and brand new ones from other schools. The latter comprised boys in white minus school badges – these would soon be purchased to complete their physical transformation into Victorians – and the new Lower Sixth girls, who were a mixed lot attired mostly in neutral white frocks. They obviously could no longer wear the uniforms of their previous schools and it would be a week or two before their light blue blouses and dark blue skirts were custom tailored so they could complete their transformation into V.I. girls. So, for a while, they would stand oddly out everywhere they went.
The science boys numbered about fifty and we were divided into Lower Six B1 and Lower Six B2. Joining us from last year's Form 5 Arts class was Arichandran who had obviously chafed away for two years in the arts stream waiting for a chance to be an engineer instead. I was assigned to the B1 class the majority of whom were my former 5B colleagues. We were given a briefing by Mr Toh Boon Huah who suggested, with a knowing wink, that the old Victorians should provide the new ones thumbnail sketches – flattering or otherwise - of all of our Sixth Form teachers.
Most of the male “foreigners” came from Klang High School which had supplied us with their best products for a number of years. The brilliant Tan Hong Siang, our senior by two years, comes to mind. This year though, a record number of boys came from Klang and Kajang to fill out our science and arts class rolls – science boys such as Tan Chee Hong, Chow Swee Yap, Haji Ariffin and others who did three terms work in two the previous year at Klang High School to qualify to join us. For our arts stream came Lim Meng Seng, M. Pathmanathan, Abu Mansor, and Moey Chee Seng. Kajang High School contributed Chai Kim Sin, Lee Chee Hing and R. Sankaran. These "new" Victorians were fresh blood for the V.I. body, another secret of V.I.'s greatness - the annual infusion of new talent from outside. They would prove as good if not better than we old timers in many ways. In fact, two years hence, the Lewis Scholarship – awarded to the best HSC student - would be shared by M. Pathmanathan and Lee Chee Hin, we old Victorians having being muscled out! Dr Lewis himself was apparently not beyond acquiring new staff from outside as well; the previous year he had poached maths teacher Mr Anantakrishnan from the Klang High School staff, in one stroke doubling the number of (very rare) maths graduates in the school.
I think there were only three or four girls in the science stream. One of them was Leong Siew Yue, kid sister of 1957 Head Girl, Leong Siew Mun. The main bulk of the female species, consisting of the best from all the girls schools in KL trooped to the arts encampment. And just about everyone signed up for Economics, taught by John Doraisamy. [I overheard Lim Eng Thye, grumbling loudly in his characteristic sing-song manner as demand for places for Doraisamy's class escalated, "Econs, econs, everyone wants to take econs!"] Arts girls included sisters or cousins of many of our senior Victorians - Chee Lee, sister of Chang Chi Yeh, Yoon Fong, sister of Goh Tuck Keong, Helen, sister of Koh Tong Boo, and so on and on. It was one big happy family. From far-off Kota Bahru came Mah Puay Koon. She wasn't alone; she was accompanied by her boyfriend (and future husband) Huang Chiew Siong who joined the science stream and became my classmate instead. And then there was... Fuziah, kid sister of our senior, Shuaib.
A day or two after term began, a few minutes before the bell sounded the start of the school day, a strange sight appeared. A Malay girl hove into sight chugging up the slope on a Lambretta scooter. Scooters were rare enough on the roads of Kuala Lumpur where most schoolchildren either walked, took the bus or cycled. But one ridden by an attractive, petite lass with a pony tail was doubly jaw-dropping. This was every VI boy's first sight of Fuziah binte Dato' Ahmad and it would be a sight to be beheld every morning and most afternoons for the next two years. Whooshing past the gaping clusters of boys between the yellow flame trees and the royal palms, she powered her blue-white machine round the corner where she parked her metal steed beside the bicycle park. Fuziah hailed from the MGS and was quite, quite unlike the rest of the girls.
Doe-eyed, friendly and ever smiling, she mixed easily with all and sundry and had her fingers in just about every extracurricular pie. She got along with her juniors Stanley Loh and Lee Kor Voon and joined in their singing before the lads became the Kaverly Duo. She mingled equally well with the cricket crowd, ending up as the official scorer for the school cricket team. Before the first term was out, Fuziah had made her dramatic debut in the annual school play, not as an extra but in the title role of Lady Precious Stream sharing the stage with the likes of the legendary Krishen Jit. She played netball for the girls and she debated for Thamboosamy House. She was inducted, too, as a committee member into the Editorial Board of the Victorian where I was now sharing the Sub-editor's job with Upper Sixer Zahariah binte Hashim. Fuziah's two-toned Lambretta certainly worked very hard every school day ferrying her from one busy schedule to another.
The Sixth Form Games
It was certainly an eventful first week for, in the first day or so, just as we were beginning to get to know our new classmates, another V.I. tradition was being born. A letter - nay, a challenge - was passed to the Lower Sixers from our seniors, the Upper Sixers. It invited us to a series of nine sports. The losers would have to organize and foot the bill for a Sixth Form Social! These were the Sixth Form games.
In the past few years our seniors in the newly created Sixth Form had welcomed new members with a tea party in the school hall and that was that. Now the stakes were raised - this was war and at stake was our pride. We naturally accepted the challenge and representatives of both sides met to agree on the sports. They were football, hockey, rugby, badminton, table tennis, basketball, water-polo, netball and cricket. As every sport had boys (and girls) who played for the school, it was a battle of the best in the school against each other. Lessons were practically forgotten in that first week, as Sixth Form teachers (with Dr Lewis' tacit approval) gave in to pleas to postpone all lessons until the Games were over. Raring to start her biology lessons but denied the opportunity, I overheard Miss Floyd grumbling to the effect, "All they want to do is to bash a silly ball around."
Sixth Form Social
[Left panel] Chan Kean Leong introducing himself to fellow Sixth Formers and teacher Mrs Creedy;
[Right panel] Mun Kong, Chakravarthy, self, Alladin, Choong Keow, School Captain Mustafa Ali in the back row
It was a carnival-like atmosphere in school at least until the following week. We arrived in school and straight away trooped to the field, or Hall or swimming pool to watch the day's contests while the rest of the school settled down to their lessons. Sports teachers or neutral referees from Form Five helped adjudicate the matches. With House loyalties and arts-science rivalries temporarily forgotten, it was in the sidelines that new friendships were forged amidst the cheers of "Lower Six, Lower Six!" Soon it became apparent, to our surprise, that we Lower Sixers were a match to our seniors. I cannot recall the exact games we won but think we definitely beat our seniors in water-polo as we had Hoh Wing, the school swimming captain, to lead the rout. The amazing score at the last day of competition was 4 - 4 and I recall some of the seniors were visibly worried. Would they be the first to lose to their juniors? All that remained was basketball which would decide the series.
Basketball was one rare sport where the best players came from the Fifth Form and below and there was only one school player from Form Six then. Unfortunately for us, he was Chong Foong Hin, an Upper Sixer! Our side should have had school basketballer Lim Hon Chew except he had failed to meet the mark in the previous year's Sixth Form entrance exam. So apart from Foong Hin, both sides had to fall back on average and middling players, including myself. The Upper Sixers obviously had to scrape the bottom of the barrel even harder for they had to field School Captain and School Football Captain, Mustafa Mohd Ali, who I doubt - with due respect to him - had ever touched a basketball. So it was a battle between an average team against another average team with one very good player. Tensions were high and the basketball court was lined with loud supporters from both sides. Cheers erupted when I netted the first goal! It was a ding dong battle and both sides, despite the skills of Foong Hin, were separated by only two or three points. In the dying minutes of the match I was given a chance at a penalty shot and I missed! The whistle went and Upper Six had won the series 5-4. It was so close. If only we had Lim Hon Chew; two more baskets would have turned the series around.
The Lower Sixers gamely collected four dollars per head and had about three or four days to organize a social for the following Saturday. All rivalry was forgotten as Upper and Lower Sixers mingled and made friends that January 18th evening. We had never seen our V.I. girls dressed in anything but the light blue-dark blue uniforms so they looked completely transformed into different creatures that evening. The headmaster and other teachers, including Dr Kathleen Jones and Mr Alec Milne, came along to grace the occasion. This new tradition would continue for the rest of the Lewis era.
Sixth Form Teachers and Subjects
The academic curriculum was quite different for post-secondary education. For us science students physics, chemistry and the General Paper were compulsory subjects. For the fourth subject we had a choice of either biology or mathematics. After trying out biology for a week, I decided I wasn't made out to be a doctor, dentist or a life science professional. So it was goodbye to Miss Floyd as I marched with like-minded classmate Hoh Wing to join Mr Ayyar's mathematics class in that tiny corner room at the corner of the main block and the science wing. This, as I found out later, used to be the living quarters of Mr F. Daniel, the immediate post-war headmaster. It obviously had been a science lab before the war as there was a demonstration bench at the front of the class with a sink at one end and gas outlets for bunsen burners. One could only imagine Mr Daniel cooking his meals and washing his cutlery at this same bench and sleeping in a corner of this fifteen foot by fifteen foot space a mere ten years earlier. Mr Daniel's choice of this room was strategic for, as Headmaster, he could look out of its many windows to survey the approaches to school.
Our teachers were now completely Asian for the first time. The form master was chemistry master ex-Johanian Mr Sim Wong Kooi. He had been a student teacher here in 1956 and now was a full-fledged graduate from the University of Malaya with a first class honours degree and a Diploma in Education to boot. The chemistry lab of the new Sixth Form Block was the venue for all his lessons and practicals.
For physics we had Penangite Mr Yeoh Chong Bok who held court in his physics lab in the centre portion of the ground floor. The most prominent thing about the physics lab was the adage, painted in large letters on the front of the classroom above the blackboard, "Practice without Theory is Blind; Theory without Practice is Empty." Chong Bok didn't teach us for long for we had two other teachers, both Old Boys, who drifted in and out - not very good for our Physics grades as our HSC results would eventually show. We had Mr C. Ganesalingam who later left for Hull University and Inche Mohd Ali bin Ibrahim, who had returned with a physics degree from the University of Queensland. He had been part of a batch of Victorians, including Miss Tang Mew Yoong (better known to most Victorians as Mrs Teh Khoon Heng), who had been sent to Australia in 1953 under the Colombo Plan.
The General Paper
General Paper was one strange beast, the common subject taken by arts and science students alike in both Upper and Lower Sixth Forms. Every Sixth form student sat for this same paper in the year end finals. It is interesting that even today, decades later, two of my classmates whom I consulted insisted that the aim of the GP was "to teach us to write better English essays"! So I took it upon myself to consult a GP teacher with many years' experience, an ex-VI teacher who had taught and marked answer scripts in the subject - Mr John Doraisamy. His take on the subject:
"Apart from a firm grounding in relevant science and arts subjects there is a need for students to develop a critical and analytical outlook. GP covers a spectrum of subject matter from the 'two cultures' - arts and science. C. P. Snow had, in a famous lecture, pointed out the danger arising from the isolation of the arts and science specialists. Through GP, each can obtain an insight into aspects of the other culture. A good GP teacher must introduce his students to some current issues confronting mankind, such as climate and environment, nuclear proliferation, population growth and many others. GP can help 'stretch the minds' of young people and introduce them to the importance of lifelong learning. At the same time students would acquire a greater confidence in English Language usage."
Thus GP was at once broad and vague in its scope; it was everything and anything! To help us navigate the uncharted waters was a new teacher, Miss Chiew Pek Lin, a petite teacher with an honours degree in Chinese studies from London. We had our GP lessons in that same corner room in which we did our maths. Miss Chiew tried many approaches with us - she made us write essays on esoteric subjects like the Malayan economy (did I have to learn some bare-bones economics fast), engineered class discussions based on news clippings and editorials she brought to class. Somehow she managed to get sets of the monthly newsletter of the Royal Bank of Canada (of all places) which carried rather well-written and thought-provoking essays on issues of the day - education, science, the arms race and so on. These she passed around for us to read and discuss during GP sessions.
In addition Miss Chiew urged us to listen to classical music so that we would be "more refined and cultured". And, of course, we were to read books - lots of books - to broaden our horizons. She even suggested to the more "capable" of us - she singled out me and Wee Kiat - to jointly read that famous Tolstoy tome - War and Peace. It wasn't clear if I was to read half that thick book and then turn over the book for Wee Kiat to read the other half or maybe I was to read the odd pages and he the even ones. I never quite figured it out. Anyway, to ensure that we all did read a book weekly, Miss Chiew demanded and got from us weekly summaries of the books we had allegedly read. I say "allegedly" because, with our extra-curricular load as heavy as ever - just about everyone was in school every afternoon for society and club meetings and for House games - I thought of a sneaky way to make my weekly book assignment less of a hassle. The Readers Digest in those days always carried a condensed version of a selected book in its last section. So instead of reading a weekly book, I simply read a condensed book version in the Digest and then summarized the (already skimpy) summary for the unsuspecting Miss Chiew!
Work hard, play hard - that was the rule for us in Form Six. We had to attend compulsory study sessions twice a week - on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. During these sessions, the entire Sixth Form would be packed into the air-conditioned library overseen by a teacher seated at the raised counter at the front of the library. By the time we were dismissed at 4:00 the day wasn't over, for extra-curricular activities would kick in - interHouse matches, society meetings, and so on. On occasion there would be some interschool match like the Laxamana Cup to stay back for to cheer the school on. On one of those study sessions, I was seated close to Leong Siew Yue when she slipped a chemistry problem to me to solve. I sensed that she clearly was struggling with the subject. After a month in Lower 6B2, Siew Yue defected to the arts stream. She had found her calling! If proof was needed, she topped the HSC General Paper at year's end and went on in later life to become Dr Siew-Yue Killingley, Professor of Linguistics. In her 2002 Ode to the Victoria Institution, her initial anguish and later fulfilment are all laid out:
Mystery of the chemical balance which the adept
Turned with such cunning art and sophistication,
But which in my timid untutored hands, trembled
Uncertainly, its dainty beam crashing to the echo
Of the sarcastic physics master’s loud bellow.
But then I savoured the joy of biology classes,
Where the barmaidish mistress had a large heart
That softened her sometimes severe rebukes,
Rivetting our minds with the mysteries of her science.
... Botanical drawings honed my poetic craft;
Formaldehyde-steeped dissections showed me mortality.
On hot afternoons we retreated to the border
Of trees round the vast playing fields,
And there I escaped from my fears of failure
As we collected leaves and fruit for botany.
What magic and poetry I found in their shapes
And their botanical names, as I flew with wings
On the wind with the delicately-winged angsana,
A respite from knowledge of certain failure
In physics-with-chemistry, of which I knew nothing,
Though fascinated with the symmetry of molecular structure.
I was charmed by the tall ever-yielding trees,
And completely drawn into the dark quiet womb
Of the library, where I was no longer a stranger,
Remembering my earlier VI days
Of French classes, where learning was like play.
Then I wondered how to lift the heavy bell-jar
Surrounding me as I fought for air to survive
In the drowning atmosphere of my vast ignorance.
Then by some miracle of schooling, the inspired insight
Of various masters, coupled with capricious fate,
Contrived to lift me suddenly out of my prison.
With delicate tact, the chemistry master
Showed some of us our sure ‘suicide course’,
And I entered the new world of the arts stream,
Where the kindness and learning of yet other teachers
Guided me with welcome into a familiar haven
Where learning was once more like play again.
History was no longer the Commonwealth, but China, India,
And even South-East Asia, where I actually lived!
English was just doing more what came naturally,
And even Economics and Principles of Government made sense
When taught by Mr. Doraisamy, so gentle, polite and tolerant.
There was time left over for frivolities like concerts—
The candle-dance, songs—and amateur dramatics.
I was no longer a gasping fish out of water,
Nor a parched oyster out of its gaping shell.
New Institutions in a new Era
V.I. Staff and the First Board of Governors
1958 was a historic year in the governance of the school. According to the terms of the Education Ordinance of 1957, citizens were now given the opportunity to assume some of the responsibilities for the education of the younger generation. Hence the running of the school was now being turned over to a twelve-member Board of Governors. By design or accident (more the former, I should think), eleven of the members were Old Boys of the school, the odd man out being the K.L. District Officer. The Board Chairman was Ya'acob bin Latiff (later Tan Sri) who, of course, was also President of the VIOBA. The rest included future Director-General of Health Dr Mohd Din bin Ahmad, Mr Tan Keat Chye, Mr S. Robert, lawyer T Rajendra, Dato Yahya bin Razak, a Malay chieftain who had forged with Old Victorian Ong Yoke Lin the 1952 Alliance between UMNO and MCA, and a businessman named Mahmood bin Ambak one of whose daughters, Endon, would one day marry Abdullah Badawi, the fifth Prime Minister. There was obviously great depth of talent, dedication and experience in the Board members and the feeling was that the good ship S. S. Victoria Institution was in very good hands.
The trickle of Asian teachers was growing as Brinsford College graduates returned home. One was 22-year-old baby-faced Mr Vincent Voo who was posted to the school to teach art and English. He was diminutive in stature but big in heart and a superb gymnast. He would later be famous for his trademark "Vulcan" shoulder pinch - for errant boys a torture as bad as Lim Eng Thye's notorious head knocks. For over a decade he would conduct the singing of the school song at the end of the weekly school assembly. On an early January morning, as Vincent waited outside Dr Lewis' office to report for duty, our new teacher was accosted by a prefect who demanded, "Where is your badge?" Our short, youthful-looking teacher, togged out in white shirt and pants, had been mistaken for a V.I. boy!
Returning to the school after an absence of five years was Mrs J. Devadason, a graduate teacher. She was the mother of Indran Devadason the Treacher Scholar of 1957 and elder sister of future 1961 Head Girl, Gnanasothie Duraisamy. Sadly, Mrs Devadason's second stay at the V.I. would not be too long for she passed away in 1961.
In the school office, Miss Loh had now been replaced by another temporary clerk, a Miss Anna Yap. The latter worked hand in glove with Mr Pavee, their fingers dancing clickety-clackety on the office typewriters, churning out endless reports, examination papers, testimonials and all manner of paperwork that a school's administration depended on. After the passing of Mr Pavee's wife, Anna became his new life partner in the 1960's.
Reflecting the realities of Merdeka, a new school Society was formed - the National Language Society - whose first chairman was Muhammad Embong from Trengganu. Other countries that used to have consulates in colonial times had now upgraded them to embassies. The Indonesian and Thai ambassadors were sending their sons to the V.I. The affable son of the Thai envoy, Likit Hongladarom, was accepted into Form 5A and would be made a prefect in his Upper Sixth year. Also dangling a VI badge from his chest was the son of the expat Chief of Police, who, like Dr Lewis, was waiting to be replaced under the Malayanisation scheme. The Thai and German ambassadors were even invited to the school to give talks about their respective countries. Three years down the road the Sultan of Brunei would begin getting similar ideas about his son and heir! Meantime independent Malaya was hosting its first international conference, the UN's Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East or ECAFE. Some conference delegates from Russia found time to pay the school a visit. There was also another visitor to the school on account of the conference - an elephant! The ECAFE delegates were treated to a pageant of Malayan culture at the brand new Merdeka Stadium, featuring, among other things, an elephant. So it was conveniently bivouacked at the school premises until her services were needed next door. Out of sight of the main school body, Mek Yah, as the elephant was named, grazed happily for a day or two in the verdant valley leading to the V.I. Hostel.
In his third year now, Dr Lewis was still not through with his cosmological tinkering of the school. He changed the school hours so that school finished early on Fridays at 12 noon instead of 12:40 p.m. The reason was a practical one - to allow the Malay boys to go for their Friday prayers. For that purpose he also decreed that all Malay boys should wear their national costume to school on Fridays, a practice that continues to this day almost fifty years later. In a stroke Dr Lewis had changed the Friday sartorial landscape of the school.
There was still more. With the memory of Gang 21 fresh in his mind, Dr Lewis conceived the idea of a "gang" for good, rather than ill - Club 21. This would be the antithesis of Gang 21, a group of boys recognized for exemplary contributions to the school, just a notch below the School Prefects. While the Prefects numbered around twenty or so at any time, there were now in the bloated numbers of new Sixth Formers sufficent numbers of achievers who deserved recognition other than the privilege of wearing white coats and blue shirts. In Club 21, the headmaster now found the answer - a second echelon of boys (and later on, girls as well), whose exclusive membership would number no more than the magical number of twenty-one.
One Friday morning in February we witnessed the installation of the inaugural fifteen members of Club 21. To thunderous applause each boy was presented with a special badge with yellow trim emblazoned with the words "CLUB 21 FOR MERIT". Sprinters such as Kok Lit Yoong, Chan Yew Kee and Bobby Lee were recognized for their prowess. There were also shuttler Billy Tan Gim Hoe, cricketer Hector Durairatnam, footballer Thiruchelvam and rugby footballer Fan Yew Seng. The non-sportsmen were not forgotten, a message that Dr Lewis wanted to put over - Shanmughalingam for his debating skills, Krishenjit for his contributions to V.I. Drama, and Leong Ming Tuck, the dedicated Company Sergeant major whose voice could be heard in the afternoons bellowing out orders to the by-now highly visible school Cadet Corps. In the fullness of time, some of these Club 21 members like Yew Kee and Thiruchelvam would be tapped to ascend yet another notch - to be prefects.
After two years of yeoman service blazing new directions for the school, Dr Lewis went away on well-deserved home leave in March just as our School Certificate results arrived. The acting headmaster was Mr A. G. Young, a gentle, soft-voiced Scotsman with a distinctive burr. It fell upon him to oversee the preparations for the forthcoming Speech Day on April 8. In addition, Mr Young had to handle the deluge of applications to Form Six from last year's unsuccessful Fifth Formers. Life apparently did not end if one failed the Sixth Form Entrance; there was still a glimmer of hope if one's School Certificate results were good enough - at least a Grade Two - and, importantly, one was active in extracurricular activities. So it was that Lim Hon Chew, our school basketballer, rejoined the school after a few months in limbo. If he had been with us during the Inter-Sixth Form games in January, I am convinced that he could have helped clinch that decisive basketball match against Upper Sixth and turn the series completely around. By the same token, Mr Young also allowed multi-talented Fuziah - who had a Grade Three - to stay. And just as well, for Fuziah was in the title role of Lady Precious Stream, the school's grand drama offering which was deep in rehearsal at that time.
Monitor, Secretary, Chief Supervisor, Actor
My plate was full even as the term began. I was elected to the Committee of the Science and Maths Society as Assistant to Teh Kein Seng, the Honorary Secretary. My job was to take the minutes of internal committee meetings, while Kein Seng minuted the proceedings of the general meetings. It was a great privilege to learn the running of the school's most prestigious Society by its best students - Khoo Choong Kheow, the president and future Lewis Scholar, Ooi Boon Seng the Vice-President and Rodger Scholar, Chang Chi Yeh, the Treasurer, and other seniors. For mere schoolboys, they displayed exemplary professionalism and understanding of meeting procedures. My classmates decided to punish me further by electing me monitor. This necessitated time-consuming daily visits to the office to collect the class register for Miss Chiew to note the daily class attendances in and the return of the same to the office. And whenever the chalk ran out, it was the class monitor's job to scurry off to get more from the office. Add to that the chore at the beginning of each month of collecting for the teacher ten dollars per head for school fees, the lot of the monitor (like that of Gilbert and Sullivan's operatic policeman) was not a happy one. In the classes of the lower secondary school the monitors as well had to collect money and prepare rosters for the daily cleaning of classrooms. (For us Sixth Formers, now sitting at the top of the totem pole, polishing hinges and sweeping floors were now, of course, quite beneath us!)
YKS Class 3 footballers - including three 1957 Thomson Cup players - topping their league
As well, I was joint secretary of YKS House with Yap Swee Choon. Why we needed two secretaries for a House was not quite explained by House Master Mr Ganga Singh who engineered that during the House elections. Now in his second year as a re-employed pensioner, old Ganga held his usual iron grip on the Yaps. Needless to say, our three football teams - I played defence in the Class 2 team - triumphed overall again in the InterHouse Football Tournament, carrying away the Challenge Trophy for the fourth successive year. The Speech Day programmes made two further demands on me. I was made Chief Supervisor of the Physics Section of the Science Exhibition. I made an innovative change by dividing the exhibits into various sub-sections with their own leaders - Mechanics and Heat under future Rodger Scholar Soo Suk Suet and Society Chairman Khoo Choong Kheow, Electricity under classmate Rasathurai, Sound under senior Lee Fook Yin, and Electronics and Radio under seniors Nagaratnam and Perinparajah. I put myself in charge of the Light sub-section. The Physics Section saw a flood of raw but enthusiastic recruits from the Form Four members of the Society. They included the likes of future Emeritus Professor Foo Yeow Khean, future UiTM Vice-Chancellor Ahmad Zaidee, future Physics Professor Tay Chong Young. I found myself enlightening them on the scientific principles behind their exhibits before they took ownership of them. I recalled that two years earlier I was in the same shoes as they. That was the beauty of the V.I. Science Exhibition - we learned from our seniors and then we passed the knowledge on to our juniors.
Dans un Amphithéâtre
The other drain on my time and energy of Speech Day was the Concert. And this time our class was ready. Recalling my appendectomy two years earlier, I suggested a sketch based on an operation. This was accepted with - guess who? - cast as the patient. I was also charged with writing the script. I recalled one of the French songs of my Form Three days, Dans un Amphithéâtre, the first verse of which went:
Dans un amphithéâtre, dans un amphithéâtre,
dans un amphithéâtre
which could be loosely translated as "In an operating theatre, there is a cadaver.." It seemed an apt title for our sketch which I adopted, not that anybody would understand it. Mr Bennett, in charge of vetting the concert entries, obviously understood the joke and voiced no objections. [In 1966, another V.I. concert item - La dance à travers les siècles (Dancing through the ages) - also took a French title!]
The plot was simple: a nervous patient panics just before his appendectomy which is to be witnessed by a group of students and is accidentally swopped with a medical student who is operated on instead. The role of Professor of Surgery went to our thespian, Alladin, who was already deep in rehearsal in the School's costume drama as a Chinese soldier, General Mu. I christened Alladin's character Dr Slott (for "slaughter"); the rest of the cast were nameless. The medical student who would be accidentally swopped for me had to be roughly my build and so we chose Khoon How for that role. We needed my character to panic and jump into the arms of one of the students which meant he had to be big and strong enough for the job. Lanky school football goalie Huang Chew Siong fitted the bill. The medical students included a future doctor, pharmacist and a Professor of Dentisty - not bad (fore)casting! The father of the latter, Haji Ariffin, was some high ranking doctor at the General Hospital and, through him, we were able to borrow real hospital gowns, masks and other gear for our cast.
(1) Dr Slott arriving to operate on me (barefoot)... (2) After carving up a student (with shoes), the surgeon discovers his mistake.
In the elimination rounds the curtains parted to find me propped up nervously on the operating table. Dr Slott now strutted in at stage right leading an entourage of students busily taking notes. Alladin - affecting a sing-song Eng Thyesque accent - was in his best comical element. For the surgeon's lines, I had combed the medical section of my father's Pears Cyclopedia for the longest tongue-twisting medical terms I could find. And now from Dr Slott's mouth spewed a stream of jaw-breaking medical terms for the edification of his students. Polycythemia and furunculosis were among the terms I slipped into the script but it is unlikely in real life for any sane doctor to use them together in any given situation. My panic-stricken patient attempted to escape and crawled under the table in the confusion. Student Khoon How was mistaken for me and got snatched and dumped on the table instead and was immediately put to sleep. This gave Dr Slott the opportunity to demonstrate his skills and extract all sorts of stuff like a rubber hose from the immobilised "patient" to gales of laughter from the audience. Watching the procedure throughout was my character, calmly standing around with the rest of the medical students. Eventually I was spotted by Dr Slott and sprinted off at stage left with the irate surgeon and students hot on my heels. It was all silly slapstick stuff but it was enough to give us a berth in the finals on Speech Day night, April 9th. Our class was back in show business again! (The following year would be even better but I am getting ahead of myself.)
Our modest effort was not destined to win any prize but appeared to have impressed future theatre producer and critic, Krishen Jit, who would write later in the Seladang's report on the School Concert:
The prospective doctors of Lower Six B1 couldn't wait until they obtained their degrees. They quickly donned surgical garbs and provided a most amusing and well-acted sketch. ... (Alladin) with his a-a-cute a-a-ppendicitis gave probably the best performance of the concert. Though the idea was by no means original the amateur and crude surgical operation of Lower Six B1 was thoroughly enjoyed.
It was gratifying to read that, to say the least, coming from the future doyen of the Malaysian stage.
A Speech Day Tragedy
As Speech Day approached I had a million and one things to do, so much so I felt I had to make final preparations in the physics lab the night before the big day. I had the key to the lab and, after letting myself in, worked some time alone before I called it a night. As I locked the door, I recall looking at the red glow in the sky in the direction of Bukit Bintang. The neon lights of the newly opened Cathay Cinema with its inaugural screening of The Bridge on the River Kwai probably added considerably to the wattage of that street with a growing reputation as an entertainment district.
I could not have known it but during the time I was in the lab, my grandmother had alighted from a bus at Pudu Road, in the glow of those same Bukit Bintang lights and had been knocked down by a speeding motorcyclist while standing at the road divider. It was in the early hours of April 9th - Speech Day - that our family learned of her fatal accident. As I turned up mournfully to school that morning after a sleepless night, the dreadful day that stretched before me presented some dilemmas. Should I skip some or all of the events of the day? I could let my Physics
The Physics Section
Bottom panel: Lam Ah Lek (l), Mr E J Hackling (partially hidden), the HM (centre), Foo Yeow Khean (r).
Section run itself - our VI boys could be relied on to run the show without much supervision. But I had to attend the prize giving (minus my parents who had originally planned to attend) as there was already a strict order to adhere to when trooping up to the stage (old Ganga had ensured that in our rehearsals). I had two prizes (Rodger Scholar and English Language) to collect and to be absent would disrupt the flow. And as for our concert item, to miss it would mean the cancellation of our effort since no one could take my place at literally the last minute.
Khir Johari's Ideas
For me it was an utterly joyless ceremony which began at 5 p.m. with Dr Lewis delivering his report for the past year. The School Hall was packed with dignitaries galore. The Raja Muda and his consort were present as was Yaacob bin Latiff, the VIOBA President, and, for the first time, Khir Johari, the new Minister of Education, who used the occasion as a forum to air his ideas.
Firstly he had a beef with the term student. "I should like to see the press and responsible people using the word school-children to describe those who are still in school," he said. " ...The press keeps on rather stubbornly using the word student [instead]."
To his audience in the School Hall, Khir gave an eloquent call for national unity which rings as true today: "..Over and above the ties of locality and race there are bonds of national unity, and transcending the loyalty of one's community or nation there is a higher loyalty to the entire human race. There is no ready made road towards this; we all have to unite to build that road. I am a Malay - born a Malay. I had no choice to be otherwise when I was born! But now I am a Malayan citizen - a citizen of a free and independent Malaya just like any one of you here. In other words, I am a Malay by accident but a Malayan by choice. You may be of Chinese or Indian or Eurasian origin but I want every one of you to consider yourself first and foremost a Malayan. It is only through having that attitude of mind that we can resolve our differences and prejudices and work solidly for the good of the country..."
Khir Johari then turned to the problems of combatting communism. Alluding to the current Emergency, he asked what would happen when militant communism moved from the jungle to the school, trade union or political party. "Sooner or later," he conjectured, "we may find that there will too many communists to shoot." Malayans had to consider seriously the introduction into our secondary schools subjects such as ethics, principles of behaviour, reasoning and logic, civics and instruction in political theory. "[We must have] a positive educational and intellectual programme aimed to fight communism or any other threat to democratic government in independent Malaya. Our children should be taught to develop a positive and informed anti-communist attitude so that they may have some solid intellectual ammunition with which they can, through reasoning and logic, ward off communist propaganda and at the same time prepare themselves for the world of today and the future in a realistic manner."
Another proposal, about school uniforms, was also floated. "In order to instill the spirit of unity among pupils [of all schools]," said the Minister, "I have been seriously thinking of the idea of having one set or type of uniforms for all boys in all secondary schools throughout the country and another type for all girls as opposed to the present practice of each school having its own set of uniforms. We can then only differentiate a pupil of one school from the other by the school badge that is worn on the uniform." So newsworthy were Khir's proposals that these and our Speech Day became the front page story in the following day's Malay Mail. The Honourable Minister of Education turned out to have so much faith in us that a few years later he would send his son Amir and daughter Roselina to be educated at the V.I.
Inche Yaacob Latiff, the VIOBA President then addressed the audience. The future of present day youth, he declared, would be the future of Malaya tomorrow. It was not enough that youth be taught to just read and write. They had to be provided an education "geared to developing in them feelings of self-confidence, faith in their fellowmen, intellectual curiosity, political responsibility, a sense of loyalty to Malaya and a conscious dedication to the principles of democracy." The prize-giving followed Inche Yaacob's address. One by one we trooped up to the stage as Ganga Singh called out our names. It was with a heavy heart and forced smile that I accepted my prizes from the Raja Puan Muda.
During the intermission at the end of the Prize-giving the parents and guests viewed the displays and exhibits in the various classrooms. At 8 p.m. all action was focussed on the School Hall again. Now in its third year, the concert was honed to a fine art. The school captain would give a welcome speech after which another prefect, usually one with the best public speaking voice would be the M.C. of the evening. This year it was Khoo Choong Keow, a school debater.
The offerings were a mix of cultural items and sketches. The girls choir conducted by Miss Floyd kicked off the programme with the school song and they came on again at the end of the concert with the National Anthem. There was yet more singing by the U6B2 boys (with blackened faces) who presented negro spirituals and the Form 1C with calypsos belted out by a high-pitched, pint-sized Harry Belafonte. During the interval the Rhythm Boys of Form 4C entertained the crowd. More than singing were the dances galore - the Scottish reel, the Filipino tinikling performed with bamboo poles, square dancing, and the lion dance. Sketches and skits came mainly from the Upper Forms. U6B1 put on a hilarious dramatization of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man. The "mewling" babe of the first Age was played by stocky rugger player Fan Yew Seng. All wrapped up like a baby in a pram and grasping a giant bottle of milk, he brought down the house as he was wheeled in by a nurse. The winning item though was 5B's Voyage through Time which introduced the audience to great men of the past and present like Julius Caesar, Archimedes and even Elvis Presley. With their manic cavorting, the comic pair of Indran Devadason and Chan Heun Yin stole the show.
Of course I didn't expect our operating room spoof to have a ghost of a chance especially with the terrible emotional burden pressing on me. I mouthed my lines and went through my paces woodenly and was thankful when the curtain came down to wrap up our act. And finally Miss Floyd took the Girls Choir through Negara-ku to wrap up another successful Speech Day, except it was memorable to me for all the wrong reasons. My grandmother's funeral was the following day. By tradition, the cortege in those days would wind through the heart of Chinatown with cymbals crashing and trumpets blaring before passing along Birch Road to the cemetery. My classmates sent a wreath - bless them. As I followed the hearse I looked upwards at the V.I. where I knew my physics section would be jam-packed with visitors that morning. The following day was the last day of term and as school ended so did a terrible personal ordeal.
Dans un Amphithéâtre
Front: Chong Khey Cheow, Chong Su Nyan, M. Jeyasingam
Back: Huang Chew Siong, Omar Ibrahim, Haji Ariffin, Kok Wee Kiat,
Chong Khoon How, Alladin, self, Chakravarthy
Vibrant Clubs and Societies
In the second term, the pressures of Speech Day were out of the way and every society, club and uniformed body could now pursue its own agenda. The whole extracurricular scene was now at a fever pitch. Final exams were a term away and it would appear that V.I. boys and girls simply could not find enough to keep themselves busy outside school hours. New organizations kept popping up or rebranding themselves. The National Language Society had been inaugurated in February with Trengganuan Muhammad bin Embong as its first chairman. It was only in the second term that the Society found time to pass its constitution. Its first activity was to organize a debate among members on the motion "that the present system of Romanized Malay spelling should not be changed." Shortly after, it arranged a debate in the National Language with Klang High School in the lecture theatre. The debate was recorded by Radio Malaya for later broadcast.
Meantime the Art Club renamed itself the Art and Craft Club with new art master Vincent Voo as Vice-President. It made an excursion to the Gombak waterfall for outdoor painting. The Middle Literary and Debating Society which had catered to the Third and Fourth Formers was dissolved and the Junior Literary and Debating Society expanded its membership eligibility to include boys from Form One to Form Four and below. So we were back to the status quo of 1954 with regard to debating. A new uniformed organisation joined those of the scouts and cadets - the Junior Red Cross Link. Its first chairman was Leong Yoke Hong who convened a meeting of the body every Tuesday.
The Chess Club was led by senior Choo Min Wang who in April pulled off the astonishing feat of becoming the Malayan Chess Champion. A modest, unassuming individual, the maestro gave me a few pointers in chess. "If you assign the pawn a value of one point, then the queen is worth nine points," was Min Wang's unorthodox way of explaining the game to me. He could play simultaneous chess with a roomful of people and beat them all. His love for chess has not diminished one jot as Min Wang is still involved today in the Malaysian chess scene with fellow ex-Victorian and mentor, Datuk Tan Chin Nam. The Drama Society, though, took a break in the second term to recover from their great enterprise in April which was the staging of H. I. Hsiung's Chinese costume "Lady Precious Stream". It broke with its own annual tradition of staging a Shakespeare play but the play was a resounding success, playing to packed houses for six consecutive nights.
There was a dizzying choice of quizzes, film shows, excursions, visits, debates, competitions or talks every week. To keep track of them a large activity board was installed at the foyer which was maintained by Mr Vincent Voo. Inscribed in the respective daily columns in his neat cursive handwriting were the house and society activities for a particular week. One could get a sense of the spectrum of seemingly non-stop activities - the Aeromodelling Club was holding a design competition for its club crest; in June it was staging a friendly racing and combatting competition against St Johns. The rest of the year there would be many "flight meets." The Horticulturalists were having a "flower shop" every Saturday during which it would be selling to members. The Historical Society was headed by Krishen Jit, a future History Professor in the University of Malaya; his Vice-Chairman, Rollins Bonney, would follow his footsteps into the same department. The Historians organized interform and interschool quizzes and screened films including "Merdeka". They also invited Dr Lamb of the University of Malaya to talk about his recent archaeological expedition to Kedah. Not to be outdone, a little later, the Geographers got the same busy Dr Lamb to talk about Tibet. A member of the Japanese Embassy, the Public Relations Officer from Shell and an officer from the Survey Department were also invited by the Society to the school to give talks on their areas of expertise. An April excursion to the East Coast helped kick off the Geographical Society's busy roster of activities. An outdoor project involved a survey of Kampong Bahru where members surveyed land use and population distribution. It was indeed a common sight on Saturday mornings to see a chartered bus or two waiting by the school porch to fetch members of some Club or Society on their excursions.
And indeed, the Science and Maths Society certainly went on many of those. It was not one to rest on its laurels after the Speech Day exhibitions. Members visited the RRI, the Forest Research Institute, and even ventured into the leper settlement at Sungai Buloh. The Society introduced an InterHouse Science Quiz for the first time, with two science teachers conducting the semi-final rounds and the Headmaster, Mr Young, presiding over the final round with the four surviving Houses. Davidson House won the inaugural championship. I was in the YKS House team. I shall always remember the fiendishly beautiful mathematics question posed to me in his distinct Scottish burr by the Acting Headmaster cum quizmaster, Mr A. G. Young:
What is the sum of all the possible permutations of 1234?
I was unable to come up with the answer in 30 seconds. Yes, yes, in a calmer mood, I got the answer: 66,660. But when one was expected to do it all in one's head without a mistake - a quick computation of factorial 4 and instant knowledge that 1+2+3+4 = 10 and faultless addition of 4 sets of 24 numbers in half a minute with a hundred pairs of eyes drilling into one, that was a different story... !
The Society introduced a discussion forum which I was asked to chair. The topic was "Radiation." The Society also invited Mr Sim Wong Kooi to give a series of weekly lectures on "Some Aspects of Biochemistry". His lectures were invariably delivered to packed audiences, which sat in awe of his erudition. Once when Mr Sim drew out on the board, with disarming ease, the chemical structure of a certain complex organic molecule, hanging each and every radical in its place and accounting for every single atomic valency, the lecture hall erupted in incredulous applause.
The Society's restless membership was over a hundred and fifty with many diverse interests. The previous year, a sub-section had been created for electronics buffs. The Electronics Section had use of the basement space underneath the book shop at the back of the hall. There, its enthusiasts happily tinkered with their valves and resistors, building receivers, while loud music blasted away from amplifiers they had assembled. This year, another two new sub-sections were created to cater for specialist tastes - the Biology Section and the Chemistry Section. Members were allowed full access to the school laboratories. The Biology Section, with about 40 members, busied themselves with projects such as labelling the trees of the school, assembling skeletons of small animals from their bones, setting up a small aquarium and studying the embryology of the rainbow fish. The Chemistry Section offered its members a chance to do extra-curricular practical work. Among its members was Chang Chi Yeh, who was destined to become the V.I. Senior Science Master in the mid-sixties!
The Senior Debating Society saw an innovation under the chairmanship of M. Shanmughalingam (a Datuk today). The VIOBA Chairman, Yaacob bin Latiff, presented a challenge shield for interHouse debate which he named the Latiff Trophy for his late father, also a Victorian and the country's first Malay doctor. The interHouse debates were run on a knock-out system and were held in the lecture theatre before packed audiences - V.I. boys and girls loved debates. As in the interHouse science quiz, Davidson House won the finals and became the first winner of the Latiff Trophy. The annual Thuraisingham Shield debate between the VI and the MBS was held on July 8. This was the prestige debate amongst KL schools. The venues alternated yearly between the two schools and this year we were the hosts. The hall was packed with VI and MBS supporters as well as pupils from other schools. The donor of the shield, Sir E E Clough Thuraisingham, was himself present for the first time and chaired the debate. Representing the V.I. were Shanmughalingam, Ooi Boon Seng and Khoo Choong Keow. Leading the M.B.S. charge was Cheong Choong Kong, their best student of Lower Six and a future Chairman of Singapore Airlines. Ng Yew Ken and Miss How Joo Looi made up the rest of their team. The V.I. had won in the inaugural debate in 1956 but had lost it the following year. Now this year, there was a different twist to the format. The motion of the debate - "that examinations are no test of fitness" - was only made known at twelve noon of the same day. The teams had four and a half hours to prepare for it in the afternoon. In the event, Sir Clough announced that the three judges had decided unanimously that the V.I. team had won. I was there with my camera to record the victors' triumphant moment.
Only decades later did I learn of some of our debating team's strategies. The V.I., Shanmughalingam revealed to me a few years ago, would always oppose a motion whatever it was. Reason? We would then be the last team to summarise, getting the last word in without any further rebuttal. Score one for the school. Choong Keow also told me some years ago of a ploy his team used. Consulting school library reference books, they would concoct fictitious but impressive sounding names. Then, in the course of the debate, the V.I. team would throw in remarks that seemingly supported their argument, remarks attributed to these non-existent eminences, for example, "Lord Keelingworth has said that ...." or "According to Baron Augustus von Glockenspiel, ..." The dumbfounded opposing team would not dare challenge the validity of such statements as they probably thought that in doing so their ignorance of such famous "people" and their pithy sayings would be sadly exposed. Score yet another for the V.I.!
One, Two and a Half Past Two
Even individual classes took the initiative to organise their own extra-curricular activities, like the thirty-five boys of Form 4A who made a visit to the Sentul Railway Workshops during the second term. The school, too, arranged talks from time to time by diverse personalities. The Controller of Posts and Savings Bank came along one day and gave a talk to the Sixth Formers. Mr S. H. Tan of the Malay Mail turned up in June to talk on Malayan youth. A household name in Kuala Lumpur, the journalist was a keen observer of Malayan foibles and his witty commentaries were eagerly devoured by his readers every week. He usually began his column with "Tootling along in my jalopy the other day, I saw ..." That same month at one Friday assembly the executive secretary of the Malayan Youth Hostels Association took the stage to talk about his organization. A week later the Thai Ambassador appeared to talk about his country to the Fifth and Sixth Formers. One month later that same audience heard the German Ambassador, Herr Hans Pallasch, do the same for his country.
Not all visitors to the school came for serious business though. One Friday afternoon in July, two Pakistani brothers turned up to give a magic show, with the permission of the school authorities presumably. Charging twenty cents for admission, they drew quite a large crowd in the school hall. The usual staple of magic tricks was performed - card tricks, rope tricks, objects that disappeared and reappeared in the most unexpected places, escaping from a bound sack, and so on. Instead of the usual "abacadabra!", our two magicians had their own choice phrase, "One, two and a half past two!" to go with each trick. If they had assumed that they could fool our smart V.I. boys, they were mistaken. The boys refused to be awed or stumped by the "magic" or to applaud politely even if they knew it was all a trick. Safe on home ground, they heckled the performers with "up your sleeve!" or "in your hand!" and even "refund my twenty cents!" during the acts and laughed derisively at the magical incantations. A few sneaked up to the gallery above the stage to spy on the pair who looked up nervously when they realized they had another audience above their heads. When one boy was invited to go on the stage to write a sentence on a board for a blindfolded magician to read, he scrawled in big letters, "This show is a bluff". No sirree, the V.I. was certainly no magician's paradise.
There was another "magician" of sorts who came to town at that time - Miss Sakuntala Devi of India who had made worldwide headlines for her ability to compute square roots and cube roots of large numbers in her head. She had appeared on American TV in a contest that pitted her speed of computation against that of a computer and had won. Now, on a world tour, she was appearing in a show at the Chinwoo Stadium. Thousands of K.L. school children including myself turned up to gawk at this human computer's prowess. Classmate Chia Ah Bah even went up to the stage to submit a 10-digit number for Miss Devi to crunch in her head. This same prodigy would return to K.L. again in 1966 and would appear on the V.I. stage to give a special performance for the school. By then, the world had forgotten her and she had become a pitiful itinerant performer, working the school circuit.
Photo and Movie Fan
V.I. Photographic Society
Seated (L. to R.): Loh Yoon Kwai, self, Hwang Ting Mun, Yap Pee Pee
Standing (L. to R.): Tang Wing Chew, Foo Thiam Meng, Wong Kim Loy, Liu Tai Fung, K. Kuppusamy
As if membership in three other societies was not enough, I took on the mantle of the Chairman of the Photographic Society in the second term. I immediately set about upgrading the facilities of the darkroom. I installed shelves and a table for the equipment and bottles of chemicals. More significantly, I got the plumber to install a sink right inside the darkroom. Running water was obtained by running a 30-foot extension from the tap next to the basketball court straight into the dark room. With all the added conveniences, membership soared to 80. This was a period when I was into many photographic innovations, experimenting with close-up photography, trick photography, movie making. I won the second prize in the Speech Day Photographic competition. Later in the year, still bitten by the photographic bug, I purchased an enlarger for myself and did a lot of enlargements at home. I arranged talks and quizzes for and by our members, acting as speaker and quiz-master in a few. The society's advisory teacher was Mr Chan Bing Fai, an Old Boy and ardent photographer, and a great role model for all of us. In fact Mr Chan became first Malayan to be awarded the ARPS, Associateship of the Royal Photographic Society, thereby increasing our estimation of him by a few notches.
My pursuit of photography took me beyond the confines of the school. I cycled around with my camera on weekends and snapped many of the landmarks of Kuala Lumpur, including one of the then shophouse headquarters of UMNO in Batu Road! The Malayan Photographic Society held an annual competition of its own and I attended the official opening of the 1958 Photographic Salon by none other than the Sultan of Trengganu, a keen photographer in his own right. The Malayan Photographic Society once staged a screening of the winning entry of its amateur movie competition. It turned out to be a silent colour comedy starring our own Fourth Former Ahmad Zaidee, whose acting talents were already quite formidable. This inspired me to churn out my own movies starring my cousins and screening them to squeals and laughter of the young "stars"!
Of course the local cinemas screened the more professional stuff for K.L.'s legions of die-hard film fans. This was the golden age of cinema after all, with television not due to make its debut in Malaya for another five years. There was at this time a wave of second run movies in the Cathay Organization and Shaw Brothers cinema circuit. To Malayan audiences these were first run movies for they were movies that had been released in the U.S. domestic market just before or during the Pacific War and so had failed to come to this part of the world. They included classics such as For Whom the Bell Tolls and Gone with the Wind. I like to think the re-releases were the doing of the Cathay film magnate Loke Wan Tho, our own Shakespeare-educated ex-Victorian who well appreciated the draw of good films. I caught most of these films in the Pavilion, the Odeon and the Cathay, adding, doubtless to the coffers of Loke Wan Tho's Cathay Organization empire. The Shaw Brothers' theatre chain, too, screened its share of arty re-runs such as Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Sometime in the middle of the year at the seedy Madras Theatre, of all places, I caught another Chaplin classic, his 1941 The Great Dictator, a wicked parody of Adolf Hitler.
V.I. goes to the Movies
It turned out that Dr Lewis, too, was quite a film afficionado after he returned from home leave in August and resumed his duties. Cecil B. DeMille's epic remake of The Ten Commandments was opening at the Odeon amidst much breathless hype in the press. It starred a constellation of Hollywood stars and featured leading edge special effects like the parting of the Red Sea. So Dr Lewis arranged for the entire school to watch the three-hour long movie on Friday October 3. Perhaps he felt it was an educational movie or whatever. I suppose that Mr Loke Wan Tho, and Old Boy and owner of the Cathay Organisation which included the Odeon in its stable of cinemas would have been contacted by our headmaster for a special deal for the school. One surely cannot imagine this happening today.
Money for the tickets was collected from the pupils a week before the showing and seat numbers (written on the tickets by the box office) were assigned randomly. On the day of the show, school was dismissed slightly earlier, after our house meetings, so we could all make our way to the Odeon Cinema. It was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle to see the entire school making its way by foot, bus, car or bicycle to the Odeon. There, one could look around in the cavernous hall and verify that every seat was occupied by a V.I. boy or girl or even a V.I. teacher. If anything untoward had happened during the screening of the movie, the V.I. would have been wiped out from the educational map in one fell swoop! The Ten Commandments had an incredible eight-week run in Kuala Lumpur, setting an all-time record that eclipsed the one set in 1952 by DeMille's own Samson and Delilah.
Another Sports Season
By now the school sports activities had settled into its annual calendar. Athletics would be the main sports of the second term with the cross-country kicking off the season on the very first Friday of the second term (with the following weekend to rest tired limbs). Qualifying rounds (with accompanying house practices once or twice a week) took through most of the second term culminating in heats to select finalists for Sports Day. Actually not all finals were run on Sports Day otherwise that would take two days to complete as was the case in the pre-Lewis era. So certain selected, less glamorous or time-consuming events were run off before the Big Day. (An example was the cross-country run, a one-off event which was best held beforehand). Sports Day, on Saturday, June 28, would have a representative mixture of choice Class One, Two and Three events. A spectator sitting at the main tent would enjoy a continuous visual feast all afternoon as running events played out continuously on the track. If he were ever bored, he could witness, smack in the centre of the field, the 110-yard hurdles events being run and, in between, burly athletes would be hurling discuses or javelins across his field of vision from the right to left. At the fringes of the field, if he craned his neck, the spectator would just be able to see the finals of the high jump, triple jump and long jump.
I qualified for the Class Two 100 yards sprint finals and found myself matched against the school's fastest runners. Class Two sprinter Chan Yew Kee, in particular, was the school's best starter off the blocks and, as can be seen in the photo, I am frozen at the starting line while Yew Khee is already off like a bullet! Krishna, our YKS Captain was also the School Athletics Captain this year and so led the athletes contingent in the opening ceremony. He took the oath of sportsmanship before the Chief Education Officer, who was none other than an ex-V.I. Headmaster, Mr J. N. Davies, who had helmed the school in 1952 and 1953. Mr Davis, like acting H.M. Mr Young, was staying on in Malaya post-Merdeka until replaced by a suitably qualified Malayan.
This year's Sports Meet witnessed a titanic battle between two equally matched athletes in virtually mutually exclusive events - Krishna, a lanky-legged middle and long distance runner and specialist in throwing events, and Lit Yoong, a stocky, muscle-packed sprinter, jumper and Selangor quarter-mile champion. As the afternoon wore on, it was thrilling to watch them pile up points for themselves (and their respective Houses). In the end Krishna pipped Lit Yoong by a few points to win the Challenge Trophy and be declared Victor Ludorum (Champion Athlete).
Our sprinters ushered in a heady era of athletic achievements. Just about every weekend, other schools or Government Departments like the Telecoms or the Central Electricity Board would be holding their own meets to which we were invited and, inevitably, our Class One and Class Two teams would come away with the first or second prizes. Indeed, our Class One sprinters - Kok Lit Yoong, Wong Yin Fook, P. Nathan and Lee Yuen Hon - were already showing their championship quality by first crushing the opposition in our own school sports and setting a school record for the 4x220 yard relay race. They confirmed their prowess two weeks later with a record time in the same event against all comers in the Selangor Combined Schools. A scant three weeks later, our fleet-footed boys ran a shorter race in the Malayan Telecoms athletic meet and effortlessly smashed the Malayan record for the 4x110 yards relay in a time of 44.6 seconds.
The brand new Merdeka Stadium was now used for many sports events and on a Monday afternoon during the August term holidays, it hosted the MBSKL Diamond Jubilee Sports. I was there to report for the Seladang and witnessed for myself a typical day's work by our school runners. In the first interschool race, Lit Yoong was the anchor man in the 4x110 yards race and finished five yards ahead of the St John's team in a time of 45.4 seconds. Then it was our B-Team boys' turn with Bobby Lee starting. He was in the lead as he passed the baton to Cheong Yong Quay who in turn led by five yards before handing over to Lum Tho Sang. Anchorman Kenny Siebel wrapped up the school's second victory quite comfortably. The third victory came from the 4x440 yard team. Krishna completed his quarter mile five yards ahead of the next runner. Kenny Siebel, a Class Two athlete running for the seniors, lost some of Krishna's lead and passed the baton to Nathan as the competition closed in on him. The latter increased the lead to some twenty yards. By the time Lit Yoong received the baton, it was all over. Our quarter mile specialist burned up the track and breasted the tape fifty yards ahead of the nearest competition, from ACS Klang!
A Lost Relic
One afternoon late that year - I forget the date - I was walking around the porch area when something caught my eye. In the empty spot in the wall on the left side of the porch (as one faced it), there was a brass plate attached. I had never seen it before. On closer examination I saw it was the 1893 foundation plate of the school. Here was the actual object that was unveiled by Mrs Treacher, wife of the British Resident 65 years ago in High Street, in the presence of many distinguished personages! I had never known of its existence and neither was its image portrayed in school publications as far as I knew. The plate now served, of course, as a counterbalance to the foundation stone of the present building on the right side of the porch.
But where did it come from? And how did it get there? There had not been any announcement about it by Dr Lewis at the school assembly nor was anything mentioned in the school publications. The plate obviously must have been in the High Street premises until the relocation of the school to its present site in 1930 and must have been installed somewhere (possible at its present site). After all, other objects - the sun and moon plaques - presently hanging in the school hall had also come from the High Street premises. What more this priceless historic foundation plate of the school itself. And yet, when I was in Standard 5/Form 1, I had not seen it. My classroom was just behind the plate and I had sat no more than 15 feet from where the plate was now located.
A partial answer came in 1991 when Dr Lewis published his autobiography.
In his final chapter on his tenure at the V.I., he wrote:
So that was it. But there was more. Some ten years later, I was given some class photographs by Mr Harry Lau, by then long retired. One class photograph caught my eye. It was taken in 1949. I figured out the year by comparing the photo with those of other classes taken that same year. There was no official school uniform yet in 1949 and more strikingly that was the year some, but not all, boys had the school initials optionally sewn above their left shirt pocket. In the left side of the photograph, behind the boys, was the porch and there, attached to that same spot as in 1958, was the 1893 foundation plate! It was unmistakable, with the four truncated corners making it so distinctive. There was also a smaller oblong plate below it, probably a descriptor plate.
Harry Lau's 1949 class
This photographic evidence suggests that the 1893 foundation plate was present in the school premises in 1949 and that between that time and before 1953 (when I joined the V.I.) it had disappeared, to be recovered in 1958. Yet nothing was reported at all in the school magazine on this matter. (The Victorian was the only school publication at that time.) Were the school authorities too embarrassed by the loss? I guess we shall never know the story behind this. But most fortunately, thanks to Dr Lewis, the foundation plate was rescued in the nick of time for posterity!
A Close Call
My junior by two years, Tai Kon Heng, lived a stone's throw away from me in the same type of single-storey government quarters as mine. As we were both in YKS House, we often found ourselves playing in the same sports teams against other Houses and at the end of the day, we would cycle home together, tired but happy. Kon Heng was a scout and talked a lot about his scouting experiences. One day he offered to teach me some scouting skills. I accepted.
That weekend, in the late afternoon, we cycled to the tin mining area at the southern end of the Kampong Pandan quarters, where Taman Maluri is today. We parked our bicycles in the bushes and hiked across a narrow plank which led from the quarters area to the tin mining area. For an hour or two we trudged across the moonscape of tin tailings and open cast mines, stepping over pipes and hoses strewn near the edge of those mines. We watched as monitors directed by workers sent powerful jets of water to wash tin-rich soil from the slopes.
Before we knew it, darkness was falling. We hastened back to our starting point in the semi-darkness. This was 1958 and the emergency was officially on, though Kuala Lumpur was not known for any more bandit activity, unlike other parts of the country. Then suddenly, in the darkness a powerful searchlight blinked on, bathing the two of us in a blinding light. We were like two prisoners in a movie escaping from a prison and being discovered! The dreadful thought occurred to me that we might be mistaken for real bandits sabotaging the mining equipment. Any second I expected a volley of shots from behind the searchlight and then there would be two fewer boys turning up for school on Monday! "We'd better stop," I said to Kon Heng. "Keep going," he whispered and continued to walk briskly. I suppose the fact that Kon Heng was in his scout uniform (while I was in civvies) helped allay the suspicions of whoever it was behind the searchlight. After following us for what seemed interminable seconds as we moved further and further away, the beam was switched off. Despite it being almost pitch dark, Kon Heng managed to find our hidden bicycles (here's to his scouting skills!) We mounted our steeds and pedalled home with great relief. But a few scout demerit points to Kon Heng for not planning to turn back before darkness fell!
Starting a Seladang Feature
The Malay Mail newspaper had a columnist by the name of S.H. Tan who wrote weekly columns on the local scene. Indeed so popular was he that his weekly column soon became a daily column. I broached the idea of a similar column on V.I. matters to the Seladang co-editor, Foo Yeow Khean. He was most receptive and so I conceived of a column entitled "Around the V.I." I decided not to use my name but a pseudonym, "Choong". The column first appeared in the September issue of the school newspaper. It was featured in page 3 with an introduction by the Yeow Khean: "Choong makes his debut today as a regular nosey parker, peeping Tom and snooping columnist of the Seladang. He is a tall, dark and handsome stranger who prowls around the V.I. with notebook in hand - so watch your step! He invites comments, complaints, gossips and extortion letters from you but, unfortunately, he does not engage in personal correspondence". The inaugural column which continued into page 9 discussed late mugging, too many science students running arts societies, and a funny announcement on the school notice board. A few inaugural letters to Choong were planted and described as "Stolen from the Editor's Mailbag".
The column took the school by storm. In fact, it prompted a letter to the editor by my own classmate, Alladin, who, unaware of my role in it described the feature as a "tonic" for the school! The next "Around the V.I." in the October issue took up two and a half pages! A sample of the tidbits I offered: "The swimming of two lengths of the pool during the swimming qualifying rounds seemed formidable to many Victorians. However it was most inspiring to witness the feat of Sankaran. He literally fought with the water of the V.I. swimming pool for seven minutes before he thrashed home to the finishing mark amidst loud applause. 'Determination always wins,' he gasped as he waded out." The letters to me/Choong - genuine ones this time - filled a whole page, with "Choong" gamely offering responses or comments.
Start of the Sixty Laps
Sankaran's battle with the swimming pool was not unlike my own experience around that time. While I swam the two lengths easily and scored a point for my House, I had a harder time with the optional one-mile swim. The reward was not a point for one's House but a certificate. I think that was 60 lengths or so of the pool. This was on an honour system - one needed another person to keep track of the lengths swum. If he certified that I had completed it, the swimming master would have to believe him. So on the appointed afternoon, I managed to persuade a Lower Form boy to keep count for me. There must have been some thirty or forty boys gathered for the event, with another thirty on the sidelines armed with pen and paper. The whistle went and the whole mass of us plunged in. Now the troubles began. With different people swimming at different speeds, we began to string out and collide with others coming from the opposite direction. It was total chaos in the pool. It was so draining on one's energy that I finally gave up, exhausted, after several lengths. Not for me the one-mile certificate!
A Near Tragedy
It was a heady time in this first year of Merdeka. This was the year which the authorities chose nominally as the hundredth anniversary of the Federal capital as no one was sure if it was 1858 or 1859 when Hiu Siew and Ah Sze Keledek poled up the Klang River to set up a trading store at what would later be Cross Street. Special supplements were distributed with the Straits Times and the Malay Mail. An exhibition on the town’s early history was mounted in the Chinese Assembly Hall which I visited. The Ministry of Education also decided to do a V.I. – staging a public science exhibition in the St John’s Institution hall. In my first visit to SJI, I and several Sixth Form Boys including Ooi Boon Seng were chosen to man the exhibits along with our counterparts from the MBS and SJI. There was no choice of the exhibits, as everything had already been set up by the ministry. So all we had to do was to explain our exhibits to the curious public for the two-day duration of the exhibition. I recall my exhibit had something to do with a photo-electric cell.
In addition to athletics, the stadium where independence was declared was put to other good uses. Tunku Abdu Rahman, who was also the president of the Football Association of Malaya (whose secretary was Old Victorian Kwok Kin Keng), organized an annual Merdeka football tournament to which other Asian nations were invited. A junior championship was also organized and run before the main tournament. Malayans, especially Kuala Lumpur residents, were treated to a festival of football at the Merdeka Stadium in the months leading to August 31st. The stadium became the venue of the Merdeka first anniversary celebrations. The King took the salute in a parade that marked the formal part of the ceremony. Then came light-hearted entertainment by the armed forces and police. The former put on precision drills and acted like toy soldiers, falling over like nine pins on cue when “shot”. Not to be outdone, the police entertained the stadium crowd with precision motorcycle riding, their machines performing spectacular jumps over human barriers and doing perfect figures of eight without colliding with each other.
Rugby, too, was given a high profile, thanks to the same stadium. The national rugby champions were held to the stadium sometime in the second term and, amidst much hype in the papers, Dr Lewis urged us all to watch it. So one Saturday evening I was at the stadium side entrance, the one on the Birch Road, just below the school swimming pool. Admittance was free and an enormous expectant crowd of school children and members of the public had gathered before time outside the twenty foot-wide locked gate. The gate was at the end of a funnel formed by two stone walls. This design became the setting of a near disaster. As soon as the gate was opened, the crowd stampeded forward. I was propelled forward by the wave of humanity pushing from behind. There was no escape; one could only move forward. As the walls narrowed, people became more and packed like sardines; movement slowed as legs could not move or even touch the ground. I was pinned against a wall on my left and if I hadn’t pushed outwards from the wall with all my strength, I would surely have been scraped against the rough stones. Inch by inch, I shuffled forward until I got near the gate where I saw a horrifying sight. The front phalanx of people was sprawled on the ground. They could not move as behind and on top of them was another row of unfortunate souls. These, too, could not budge for, on top of them, was yet another row of humanity, and so on and on. I just managed to squeeze past the gate post and away from the tangled mass of humanity. It was strange that there was no shouting or screaming from the mass of humans piled on each other. Some of us started pulling trapped persons from the pile. I did not realize it then but, decades later, I recently heard from a V.I. Old Girl that, under the pile of humanity that evening, was her brother, a frail Form Two boy. He was badly injured, suffering severe abrasions over his body and had to miss school for many months as a result. At the VI we had been taught to queue up and move smartly from one place to another, without any pushing or shoving. That near tragedy showed me that not everyone was like us. As an independent country we had a long way to go in public behaviour.
One day in mid-October, the School Captain, Mustafa Ali, came to our classroom and asked to see me. I followed him to Dr Lewis' office, where the Headmaster looked me over without a word and nodded to Mustafa. It was part of the ritual of Prefectship. About twice a year, the Prefects Board would nominate among themselves additions to their Board. This was in anticipation of the imminent departure of the senior members of the Board. After long discussions of the merits and demerits of the candidates, a final list would be passed to the Headmaster for approval which was given once Dr Lewis had looked each candidate over.
I was told to get a set of blue shirts ready for the next assembly. On the morning of Friday, October 24, I was installed as a Prefect together with four others - Wong Ket Keong, Wong Seng Gay, Lim Hon Chew and Chan Heun Yin. It was a great honour, of course, and a great challenge. If my cup wasn't already full, being a Blue Shirt meant even more time and energies devoted to the discharge of duties. That same morning, during the recess I was assigned my first duty, patrolling the perimeter road. Many more in the offing!
There were now 26 prefects, old and new, in the Board, a rather large number. And now I learned of a Prefect tradition that I hadn't been aware of. The freshie prefects had to treat the oldies to a mighty feast and a cinema show! So the following weekend, all twenty-six prefects packed into the makan stalls at Campbell Road and gorged themselves on the satay, noodles and everything nice, the bill being footed by the hapless freshies. With tummies full, we next headed for the nearby Odeon Cinema for a movie, "The Inspector-General" starring Danny Kaye. After the movie, there was one last surprise. We all adjourned to the Lake Gardens for supper at the restaurant next to Sydney Lake. There we freshies were ragged by our seniors and made to drink a vile concoction of all the drinks ordered. We didn't get home until the early hours of the morning.
If there were some perks to Prefectship, it was that we were given free bicycle parking. We now parked our bicycles in the main shed used by Loh Weng and his sons. There was a separate table in the refectory for prefects to sit at. Occasionally the laksa lady would give heap some extra tow foo on our orders. Small rewards for the hard work of patrolling the school, leaving class early for duty and joining class late after duty!
In early November, the Fifth and Sixth Formers went on study leave, with the Upper Sixers never to return to the school again for any formal lessons. This reduced the Prefects' strength by half. Form Four boys were recruited as Temporary Prefects and moved in to share the Prefects Room with us. Our Lower Six HSC exams were held at the Chinese Assembly Hall, there being insufficient space in the VI Hall to accommodate all candidates for both the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate examinations.
HSC exams over, school was off for the December holidays. My classmate Amlir and I decided to see the country. On December 12th, we took a bus down to Malacca putting up two nights at my uncle's house. On borrowed bicycles, we pedalled around taking in the famous Malacca attractions. Returning to Kuala Lumpur, we now set our sights for something further afield - the East Coast! On December 16th we set off by bus first to Kuantan, traversing the Main Range that we had read about in Dr Lewis' geography book. We overnighted either in hotels or Government Rest Houses. The latter were dotted around the country to cater for itinerant civil servants. When they had vacancies, they took in others as well, including adventurous schoolboys! The following day we headed north to Kuala Trengganu, beholding for the first time the famed white sandy beaches of the region. Wandering the main street in the Trengganu capital on our first day there, I heard someone call me. Who would know me here? It turned out to be our V.I. junior, Yeoh Kok Wah, a Fourth Former, who happened to be standing outside his father's shop and had spotted me! Kok Wah, of course, was back in his home town for the school holidays. Small world! We paid a visit to Muhammad bin Embong, one of the East Coast Malay boys who was studying at the V.I. Amlir, struggling with the East Coast dialect, managed to locate his kampong called Merbau Patah. We were graciously welcomed and entertained by our senior at his house on stilts.
Malaccca/East Coast trips:
At the KL-Malacca Bus Stand; On a ferry in Kuantan; On an East Coast car ferry; With Chew Siong and Puay Koon at the Beach of Passionate Love
We pushed further north to Kota Bahru and again we made contact with another two nodes in the vast VI network! They were our classmate Huang Chew Siong and his Arts girlfriend (and future wife) Mah Puay Koon. They showed us around the town as well as the famous Beach of Passonate Love. Leaving Kota Bahru for home, we decided to avoid tracing our route; so we took the train instead to Kuala Lipis. After overnighting at the Lipis Government Guest House, we took a bus the following morning, December 22nd, back to Kuala Lumpur.
Go to Part 7: 1959
Last update on 29 September 2017.
Pagekeeper: Chung Chee Min