The Early Years
ard as it may be to believe but for the first thirty years of its existence, the V.I. had no publications of its own. Its activities were reported only in the local newspapers, whatever and whenever they saw fit to print. (We were rather fortunate in that the editor of the Malay Mail, Mr J.H.M. Robson, was a good friend of the school and so reported rather favourably on school events.) Still, it was a welcome development when, in 1923, the V.I. finally found its own voice. A publication, The V.I. Echo, - a semi-serious publication that combined jokes, riddles, cartoons, staff and student articles, and Sports and House reports - was launched under the aegis of the Headmaster, Major Richard Sidney. After a few months the V.I.E. changed its title to The Victorian, dropped its lighter fare and became the school's chronicler and official magazine through the years. By the early fifties, though, the need was beginning to be felt for a school newspaper, a less formal publication that would be the voice of the pupils and act as an outlet for their creativity. By 1952, the Junior Literary and Debating Society had already been publishing a newsletter of its own and, in early 1953, one class, Standard 7C, was actually enterprising enough to be publishing its own class newspaper which it hawked to the rest of the school. Its contents were general articles, jokes and riddles, and was edited by Hamzah bin Majeed (now Datuk).
Inspired by its popularity, an editorial board headed by the School Captain, Zain Azraai (later Tan Sri), was selected during a meeting of the newly formed Students Representative Council - which was a sort of student mini-Parliament with representatives from every class - to launch the school's first newspaper. On June 1st 1953, the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the V.I.'s first newspaper made its appearance. The exquisite timing ensured that all the pupils would be able to enjoy the paper at home as the school adjourned for a week of festivities. Indeed, front page carried an exulation over the momentous event: "... Tomorrow, June 2, 1953, is the coronation of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II... All of us far away who are her faithful subjects will give our whole-hearted blessings to this new Queen ... GOD SAVE THE QUEEN! LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!"
This first newspaper, named The V.I. Voice, was a cyclostyled affair, consisting of 16 pages stapled together. Producing it was a horrendous nightmare – the laborious cutting of stencils by typists, one stencil per page, the hassle of applying correction fluid to patch up an unintended perforation whenever a typist made a mistake, the trial-and-error fitting of articles in a page (whatever was typed would appear exactly like that in the final copy - nothing could be changed or moved), the minimal stylus-drawn illustrations, the inky chaos of churning out hundreds of copies from each stencil, all the time ensuring that both sides of each sheet were printed correctly (for example, page 5 and page 6 must be the same sheet and not page 6 and page 7), and the back-breaking collating and hand stapling of the loose sheets. The School's cyclostyling machine that was pressed into service in the library where the Voice was born broke down after being cranked 150,000 times, according to one report. It was definitely worth the 20 cents a copy for all that trouble. The V.I. Voice had a crude hand-drawn banner with its title in perspective following the prevailing style of 3-D movie titles in cinema posters. And, of course, no photographs were possible with that level of technology.
For this effort Zain used nine associate editors, which included two sports editors and two news editors. There were three publishers, presumably the guys who actually cranked the printing machine, and, equally important, five typists. (One of the latter five is still in the newspaper business today, except he doesn't type any more. He is Tan Sri Kamarul Ariffin, Executive Chairman of Utusan Malaysia (M) Berhad!) The editorial board had no advisory teacher. The V.I. boys and girls (there were two of them) did everything by themselves. Zain's editorial declared cautiously, "We make our debut today. It is with feelings of apprehension, trepidation, joy and excitement that we greet this memorable occasion when we appear for the first time on the stage of V.I. life. Whether we shall survive the tests and trials which lie ahead, time will tell. It will depend to a very great extent upon the support that we receive from the pupils of the school." The first issue had a mix of jokes, letters to the editor, sports reports, poems, a hand-drawn crossword puzzle, a short story and club and society announcements.
Zain Azraai's anxiety was justified. He had been editor of the 1952 Victorian whose appearance had been delayed until late 1953 for reasons which are unclear today. By the time he helmed The VI Voice, Zain was also the School Captain as well as the Chairman of the Students Representative Council. In the Bouquets and Brickbats section of that very first issue were already several letters critical of the manner of selection of the editorial board by Zain. The writers felt that the editorial board should have been elected by the members from the Students Representative Council themselves. There was a feeling that the School Captain himself should not be editing the school newspaper as there was a conflict of interest. [It is an amazing thought that the V.I. boys, with no prior experience in writing letters to any publication, could have dashed off letters to a publication that had not yet seen the light of day. It is also astonishing - and it shows the evenhandedness of Zain - for the inaugural issue of a publication to have anything other than congratulatory messages!] Zain, in his reply, countered that the School Captain was of sufficient maturity to be able to distinguish between the two roles and to be fair in all his dealings.
Among the society announcements in this first issue was one that presaged another new V.I. publication later that year - a small item invited articles for the soon-to-be-launched Scientific Victorian, the organ of the Science and Maths Society. The editor was to be Tay Chong Hai (now Dr Tay), the current Literary Editor of the V.I. Voice. Also writing pseudonymously in the first issue as "V.I. Columnist", Chong Hai had penned the first episode of a planned serial, The Adventures of Ah Fatt - Ah Fatt comes to the Victoria Institution. It told of a rather overweight boy arriving by bicycle one morning at the V.I. to seek admission. The story poked fun at various aspects of V.I. life in the early fifties including the fact that all four faces of the school clock tower showed different times, much to the puzzlement of Ah Fatt, and that everybody who cycled to school in those days had to pay parking fees to the bicycle shed lady, whom Ah Fatt in the story cleverly managed to evade. This story must have struck some hidden chord in every Victorian reading it because they immediately identified with him and Ah Fatt became an instant hit throughout the school. That first episode ended with Ah Fatt waiting outside the Headmaster's office to be interviewed for admission: "Ah Fatt is so absorbed .... that he is deaf to the summon behind him from the office. However he recovers, and he goes to the H.M.'s office for the interview." The reader was promised that "what happens to Ah Fatt next will be published in the next issue."
Alas, this was not to be so. According to Chong Hai, he had a falling out with the editorial board and resigned to devote his energies to the forthcoming Scientific Victorian as its first editor. When the Ah Fatt sequel failed to appear in the next V.I. Voice that appeared on July 6, which happened to be the first day of the annual athletic meet, readers were acutely disappointed and blamed the editor for it though the editor's view was that if the writer failed to produce his sequel, then the editor was not to blame.
The second V.I. Voice looked pretty much like the premier issue - typed, cyclostyled and hand-stapled, although there were 20 pages this time, including the programme for the annual athletic meet on July 6 and July 7. The logistics of producing The Seladang continued to be formidable. In the Bouquets and Brickbats section, letters to the editor continued to voice discontent over the issue of the selection of the editorial board. In his second editorial, Zain gave a hint of the turmoil still swirling around him, "We have, we feel, made a fairly auspicious start; and yet, the future is uncertain, dark clouds are looming above the horizon. Our position on the Editorial Board seems to be the subject of much controversy." He called for the cooperation of all Victorians for "…if this publication is to overcome the hard trials ahead, which will surely come, it will need and demand the whole-hearted and selfless support of each and every boy and girl who proudly carries himself and herself as a Victorian… This project is a venture into a hitherto unexplored field." He concluded, "Shall we gloriously succeed or miserably fail?"
The third issue of The V.I. Voice was a definite change. It was not cyclostyled but printed. Unfortunately, it was printed in vivid red ink on every page. No explanation was given for this choice but it made reading this issue a dizzy and nauseating experience.
Before the fourth issue made its appearance in September 1953, Zain Azraai had left the V.I. and was on his way to the U.K. for his university studies in London and Oxford. A brief notice by Jagjit Singh Chand, the acting School Captain, said that most of the editorial board had either resigned or left school (as that was the time the Universities in Singapore and in the U.K. took in students) and that Sung Wing Choon, previously one of the Associate Editors, was producing the current issue number four. Wing Choon's editorial summed up the first few months of the V.I. Voice's existence: "The task confronting us is colossal. We are just like a young plant growing on an exposed rock. Storm after storm thundered on us…. The tornado created by the much debated controversy [over] the Election of the Editorial Board [made] the headlines, [and] almost uprooted us from our infantile foundation. Now the last gust is almost spent. …He (Zain) had calmly taken the helm and steered our battered ship to safety; and then has guided us to a harbour for refit."
On a lighter note, readers were delighted by the announcement on the front page of that fourth issue that "contrary to general speculation that Ah Fatt will cease to appear in the columns of The Voice", the fictitious school boy was making a comeback. Yes, Ah Fatt was back again, in page 6, in an adventure that obviously assumed that he had been accepted as a V.I. student by the headmaster since the last episode. Entitled Ah Fatt at the Sports, it saw him breaking the high jump bar instead of clearing it and creating pandemonium at every corner of the School padang, The authorship of this post-Tay Chong Hai episode - identified again as "V.I. Columnist"- was unknown.
Issue 5 in October 1953 saw the disappearance of the name The V.I. Voice and first use of the name The Seladang, complete with a logo in the masthead comprising the seladang's head from the school crest and a scroll below it with the motto "Be Yet Wiser". This was taken from the proverb - "Give instruction to a wise man and he will be yet wiser; teach a just man, and he will increase in learning."
style and zany irreverence could easily have given Douglas Adams' A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy a run for its money, except the latter wasn't written until 1979. All in all, it was a great training ground for aspiring writers. At least five of the Victorians whose works are featured in the VI web site’s Literary Archives first cut their literary teeth in The Seladang.
By 1957, the supportive and relaxed attitude of the school authorities towards The Seladang was beginning to pay off. A succession of editors having giving their assurances that there would no censorship of articles, the first of many pseudonymous columnists and commentators emerged, with a certain Prof Rowinsky, airing his views in I write as I please. He was followed by others - Prof. Katowski in 1960, Prof Ching-Tze in 1962, Prof Shastri in 1965. These pundits mounted their respective soap boxes and held forth on just about any topic under the sun: Malayan culture, discipline, apartheid, liberalism, censorship, mysticism, education, citizenship, communalism …
But not all columnists were deadly serious.
In 1958, this writer started a column called Around the
V.I. using the pen name "Choong". This was a light-hearted
monthly column - page would be more correct - that looked
and laughed at the ironies and foibles of V.I. life. It
even had its own letter sub-section and, at the height of
its popularity, took up three full pages per issue. "Choong"
took to mildly berating any transgressions against the
Victorian spirit for, indeed, by this time that nebulous
quality called the "V.I. Spirit" was distinctly palpable
in the student body. In June 1959, the Choong handle was
changed to the more neutral "Vic", with a story cooked up
that "Choong" had left school (whether anyone believed the
editor was another matter!) The column name remained unchanged,
though. This turned out to be a master stroke because, for
the next dozen years or so, a legion of columnists of every
shape and form – whose identities were known only to the
editor of that time - would in succession take on the mantle
of Vic or his later mutations - Vicky (September 1959) and
Vikki (1962) - and Vic/Vicky/Vikki would hold forth, comment,
gripe, snicker or laugh at and laugh with his fellow Victorians.
Every change to a new Vic was fairly obvious to the reader
who would notice a wrenching twist in the writing style, tone
and persona. Around the V.I. became the longest running
column in The Seladang. In 1964, a female counterpart
to Vic's column was launched, Around the Cloakroom by
Windy but somehow the gentle female persona could not match the irreverent manic rantings of Vic. Windy's appearances were rather irregular and she blew away after a few years.
The first Malay sub-editor, Amlir bin Aziz, was taken aboard in February 1958 and, through him, Hari Ahad written by one "Adah Sham" became the first Seladang article in the National Language. A favourite genre was writing up one's classmates - the fat ones, the nerdy ones. Anyone who had a quirk, an odd mannerism or a facial tic found himself fingered, nickname revealed to the world, and described in exquisite detail in the Seladang's pages. In one 1957 issue alone, the denizens of Form 5C and Form 1C were celebrated in print, while Chong Sun Yeh turned his sights on his Form 3A teachers instead! Poetry, which had appeared even in the first V.I. Voice, became the rage in 1957 and 1958, with poems penned by a horde of seemingly smitten V.I. boys. But all was not what it seemed as many of the poems which escaped the editor's blue pencil, were actually acrostics, with the initial letters of each line forming secret messages or the lady love's name!
In June 1957, a front page article entitled Frailty, Thy Name is Woman took the school by storm. Written by a precocious Third Former, Foo Yeow Khean, it took a humorous dig at the fairer sex. The fire storm it set off was evident in the following issue of the publication: Naïveté, Thy Name is Youth! shrieked a rebuttal by an obviously piqued female, huffily signing herself "Hutan Terbakar". An adjoining article thundered, Brutality, Thy Name is Man! and took the young Foo to task as well. Elsewhere in the same issue, Hamzah bin Majeed rushed to the male defence. It made for riveting reading for a few issues.
By September 1958, Yeow Khean, then a Fourth Former, had won his spurs and was appointed co-editor of The Seladang with Sixth Former Goh Yoon Fong, and in the process the pair set two records - he as the youngest Seladang editor, she the first female to helm a V.I. publication. As editor, Yeow Khean introduced the first of many cartoons in the October issue. That half-page cartoon, by Chan Poh Lum, was a vignette of V.I. life, showing many unkempt urchins in ill-fitting uniforms and ties, scurrying about in the school compound, ogling at a passing V.I. girl, swinging about in the trees and causing general mayhem. Poh Lum's artistic genius helped preserve the icons of the times: Mr Lim Eng Thye, rugby players revelling in their celebrity status, aloof prefects, studious V.I. girls and many others. Reflecting The Seladang's potpourri of offerings in addition to news, the editorial duo made a change in its designation. Its masthead now proclaimed it as The Newsmagazine Published by the Pupils of the Victoria Institution.
The V.I. Voice and The Seladang had always covered sports but sports writing reached a certain peak in the late fifties. The more successes that were chalked up by V.I. sportsmen, the more jingoistic the tone the sports headlines took. This is how Chan Heun Yin, the 1958 sports editor, summing up a cricket finals match against poor M.B.S. Sentul, took headline writing to new heights:
* Singh bags 31 runs
* Young Dibakar nails them down
* Yew Chin gets 28 runs
… and the Vanderholt trophy comes to the V.I.!
The headlines took fully a third of the page. Another time Heun Yin wrote of a famous relay victory by the school's sprinters:
They left no doubt whatsoever as to who the better team was. Right through from the start to the finish, they displayed the supremacy that they had always held since the advent of competitive relays this year. When Lit Yoong streaked down the outer lane and burst the tape more than 10 yards ahead of our keenest rivals, the F.M.C., the gigantic V.I. crowd let loose the biggest roar that ever deafened this historic ground.
For the first time, the school relay team ran in front of the whole V.I. crowd and what a run it was! And how fitting it was that they should do it in a smashing record of 1 minute 33.4 seconds for all the school to see. NOBLY DONE, you four aces!"
Very bracing stuff. One suspects that Heun Yin could have walked into a newspaper office anywhere and got hired on the spot as Sports Editor.
It would be untruthful to say that the V.I. was perfect. It wasn't; it had its share of imperfections - gangsters, lazy and undisciplined students (oh yes!). But The Seladang, complementing the school authorities, was in the forefront in highlighting these shortcomings. Together with the celebrations, congratulations and exultations over each victory, there was the constant goading and exhortations by countless writers, the gentle chiding in the editorials, in the various columns and features, in the sports pages and in the reported speeches of the Headmaster.
It was as close to a democratic institution as it could have been. No one dictated who should or could write nor the subject. Somehow, once The Seladang jump started in 1956, there was this sharing, caring, self-policing culture that automatically kicked in. There were enough Victorians who cared or took the trouble to make their views heard in The Seladang. And not everyone who wrote was necessarily top of his class; even boys in the C or D classes took up pen and paper and dashed off articles as the fancy struck them - that was the wonder of it all!
"Did you read what the latest Seladang
said?", "I'll write a complaint to The Seladang editor!"
or "When is The Seladang coming out?" were oft-mouthed
phrases that betrayed the invisible hold the school newspaper
had on the V.I. mind set. There was a large degree of freedom,
independence and autonomy entrusted to the editorial board by the authorities, and in return the pupils turned to the Seladang to share their joys, musings and gripes - gripes about prefects, about recalcitrant club officials, about traffic rules, about the library, the tuck shop food and a myriad other things. Sometimes the gripes went the other direction. On the front page of the October 1959 issue was a photograph of the reading room in the gallery showing newspapers scattered carelessly about. "What has come over you Victorians recently? Neatness requires no great effort and it creates good impression." scolded the writer.
Few events escaped the attention of eagle-eyed Seladang reporters like Chan Heun Yin and M. Shanmughalingam (now Dato' Dr.). Sure, some of those events were reprinted in the Victorian under the respective society reports but that was only at the end of the year. But with The Seladang, the reported events had an effect of immediacy as they were read by the pupils within a month of their occurrence. At times, with last-minute cyclostyled insertions given with the latest issue, Victorians could read the latest news flashes literally right off the presses. The flourishing of The Seladang was intertwined with the rising fortunes and prestige of the school in the late fifties and early sixties. Many and frequent were the achievements of the school in all fields of endeavour. Every week there was some trophy or scalp brought home by school footballers, cricketers, athletes and other sportsmen from some sporting arena. V.I. debaters, dramatists and essayists would regularly win their lion's share of the glory against other schools. And every March when the School Certificate results were announced there would be gleeful exultation over the brilliant performances of V.I.'s scholars. All these would then be dutifully and glowingly captured in The Seladang's pages for posterity.
Thus The Seladang become the chronicler, the soul, the standard bearer, the crusader and the conscience of the school. Few institutions in the school - apart from the headmaster, the staff and the prefects - wielded the pervading influence it had. Teachers and pupils willingly wrote for it, looked forward to it, bought it, read it and constantly referred to it. The Seladang became synonymous with the V.I. It was a remarkable instrument for moulding the culture and values of Victorians. As it reported the successes of the school, The Seladang in turn inspired more successes, which it then reported on. It had become an institution on its own right by the late fifties, an inextricable part of the Victoria Institution.
If nothing else, The Seladang gave the V.I. its "motto". By 1958 The Seladang had, for some reason, stopped displaying its logo and its motto on its front page banner. However, by that time many pupils, when writing to The Seladang, found it fashionable to end their messages with the salutation "Be Yet Wiser". This motto soon began to be used out of the context of The Seladang and started to be quoted in the Victorian and elsewhere as well. Eventually, over the years, everybody assumed that this was the school's motto, although the school still does not officially have a motto!
In 1963, The Seladang celebrated its ten anniversary with a special 62-page booklet instead of the usual tabloid format. Under the editorship of Yap Moo Len, it printed congratulatory messages from two former Headmasters, Mr G.P. Dartford and the newly-retired Dr G.E.D. Lewis. In addition to nine new articles, it reprinted 36 of the best reports or articles that had appeared in the past decade. The newspaper was now appearing 5 or 6 times a year, a considerable triumph considering that it had to compete for advertising income with its sister publications - The Victorian, The Scientific Victorian and The Analekta. (One can only sympathise with incredulous Kuala Lumpur merchants when solicited for ads by four separate business managers from these publications, each one swearing, quite truthfully, that he was from the V.I., and so would Mr Tan be interested in placing an ad in my V.I. publication?)
In the mid-sixties, The Seladang's offerings had become more refined - there were previews of school plays or important matches, in-depth analyses of examination results, interviews with its top students, new staff members and new pupils, and even a limerick competition with a V.I. theme, won, incidentally, by future writer, actor and producer, Thor Kah Hoong, whose entry went:
Thought he'd save time climbing the locked gate,
It was a sad fact,
He was caught in the act,
And the jaga is now the target of his hate.
The fictitious Ah Fatt of 1953 made a brief return in 1966 to the pages of The Seladang and, in one memorable episode illustrated with a cartoon, the Billy Bunter of the V.I. managed to empty the School swimming pool when he decided to take a plunge. A Junior Section was started in 1967 to cater to the interests of the Lower Formers. It was filled with articles on codes and ciphers, astronomy, word play and study techniques. It also staged competitions for which book prizes were awarded. It was hoped to attract and train future Editorial Board members from the junior ranks as competition with the other three publications for editorial manpower was extremely keen. So keen that, one year, an agreement had to be hammered out between The Seladang and The Victorian to share members of their two Boards. Applicants for both publications would first serve on The Seladang Editorial Board where they would learn reporting skills and, after a probationary period, sixty percent of the recruits would be transferred to The Victorian with the remainder absorbed by The Seladang.
As The Seladang matured, it introduced a VIOBA corner for the Old Boys as well as investigative reports which explored, with much hand wringing, issues like "Are we were a nation of bespectacled youth?" backed by a chart showing alarming percentages of V.I. pupils wearing glasses in each class. Even as far back as 1955, The Seladang, scooping even the local newspapers, had breathlessly printed what it claimed as an exposé on The Apemen of Trolak, allegedly Malaya's own Sasquatch creatures prowling the Perak jungles. In 1965 it published the results of an opinion poll on the reading habits of the Upper Formers. The results were surprising: 31.9% of the respondents read Ian Fleming (The James Bond author); followed by 18.9% who admitted to reading Charles Dickens and 14.8% who were H.G. Wells fans. Shakespeare was fourth at 11% with Agatha Christie fifth at 10.6%. As for magazine readership, the survey found the following preferences for a list of magazines presented to respondents: Reader's Digest 40.8%; Life 17.2%; Time 16.0%; Mad 15.1%; Movie News 5.2%, The Seladang 3.4% and Her World 2.3%. Clearly, the newsmagazine of the Victoria Institution still had some catching up to do!
Still, through The Seladang, Victorians had their say on national and even international issues as well. The 1954 troika of editors - Khoo Teng Bin, Anandakrishnan and Kamarul Ariffin, mere schoolboys then - had started the ball rolling by commenting rather presciently on the frenzied pre-independence political party manoeuvrings in the then colonial Malaya: "It might be beneficial for our wise elders to pause and relect on the various responsibilities that would be ours to shoulder when their venerable bones are mouldering in insensible graves. Will the generation to carry on where they leave off be conscious of a nationalism as opposed to communalism? Will the youths be willing to sacrifice race and creed for a Malayan Nation? These are questions which our politicians have not asked; these are problems they will not solve. It is quite obvious. How else can our matured elders quarrel like petty schoolboys over trivialities?" The irony of three schoolboys saying this of mature elders was not lost. The following year, after the first national elections were held, Seladang co-editor Robert Abraham weighed in with some scathing criticisms of the campaigners and the way the election was conducted, criticisms that would not have been out of place had they appeared in the editorial pages of The Straits Times or The Malay Mail, instead of The Seladang.
In the mid-sixties, Azmi Khalid (later a law lecturer and human rights activitist) wrote a piece in which his vision of how the various communities could co-exist in Malaysia was cleverly dressed as an allegory of three groups of animals in a fictional lush green valley. His tale told a group of cows and goats that wandered into the valley where some mousedeer had settled and how the three groups eventually learned to live peacefully together. Within The Seladang's pages a lively public debate raged in 1966 between two V.I. teachers of English, Messrs Edward Dorall and Bernard Koay, on Where are our Malaysian writers?, a question that, arguably, is still valid today. Seladang cartoons became outspokenly political; during a time of intense debate in Britain over the limiting of Asian immigrants into that country, The Seladang printed a cartoon showing Indian soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder against a World War Two background of search lights raking a sky filled with planes with a caption that asked the British, in essence, "We were with you during the war. Why are we not wanted now?"
David Chow Kok Wai - a classmate of Azmi - conceived a series of satirical cartoons for The Seladang that gave expression to his cartooning talents. Through a character named Mat Chin - a cleverly ambiguous blend of Malay and Chinese, both in name and in appearance - Kok Wai made wry social comment on Malaysian mores and attitudes. Kok Wai never left journalism - he seriously considered being a cartoonist on graduation (and would have given Lat a run for his money) but settled instead on reporting. In 1994 he founded Flavours, the country's first gourmet magazine; he is now a Business Editor in a national newspaper. And to think it all started with The Seladang!
For some two decades The Seladang actively chronicled and shaped the direction and soul of the School. But it was literally (pun unintended) touch and go the first two years of life. It only managed to find its feet in 1956 when it consolidated its format and direction. It was fortunate in having a series of dedicated editors - drawn from the ranks of the V.I.’s top scholars - to guide it through those crucial years. The close support from the first two advisory teachers, Messrs Ganga Singh and Gerald Fernandez, and from the headmaster and staff in general, gave The Seladang the impetus to carry its mission through the rest of the fifties and well into the sixties and seventies. In the process it became the voice and soul of the School and an icon. The Seladang was the V.I. and the V.I. was The Seladang.
Created: 31 May 2003.