Malaysia has a lot of use for that school in Kuala Kangsar


You and I, fellow Collegian, are part of the ‘Malay College Mafia’ that’s being whispered about these days. Indeed, the Malay College Old Boys’ Association has become the nearest thing to a masonic lodge this country’s ever known outside the Chinese clans. MCOBA is a code with special access into every corner of governance in Malaysia: the government, the civil service, the private sector, academia, the palaces, everywhere.

Old Boys of the Malay College can be found among the country’s foremost politicians, administrators and businessmen, bankers, doctors, lawyers and engineers. It remains the school of royalty. Not because the sons of the Sultans still study there – they do not, for valid enough reasons – but because their fathers once did.

The Malay College stands tall in the national conscience – even, perhaps especially, among those who never went there. Abdul Kadir bin Jasin, Group Editor of the New Straits Times, recently wrote about his feeling of inferiority at not having attended one of the nations’ top residential schools: you’re not so eager to tell people where you went to school. But even a char koay teow seller is elevated by being an alumnus of the Malay College.

(Yes, it remains possible to be an MC Old Boy and never know wealth or position. We are not all as rich and powerful as the richest and most powerful of us are. But the qualities remain the same. Diamonds in the dust sparkle just as brightly as those on a crown. Or a Rolex.)

Why? Simple: Because MC was a good school, enrolling the best of Malay youth, having them live and compete with each other as equals, giving them good teachers and splendid playing fields. But let’s see what this means. Let’s attempt a definition:

The Malay College is the most important school in Malaysia, because it’s the most important school for the Malays.

Unconscionable arrogance? Of course. It is a grotesque overstatement of the point: the greatest strength of the Malay College is that it teaches pride. And pride is the one thing the Malays have been striving throughout history.

The NEP is about nothing else. It is simply today’s stage of the process that began with Onn Jaafar cycling through the hinterland in 1946: the crusade to lift the Malays out of their humble, dispirited, apathetic inertia and ensconce them on a plane of dignity in their own country – a country that they had never been able to save from foreign conquerors. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Japanese, the British again… oh those damned British ! …And now the Chinese, whom too many Malays remain wary of regarding as fellow countrymen.

Today’s Malay political ethic – and this feverish battle for dominance- stems from there having nothing but humiliation in the past five hundred years of Malay history. And what was Parameswara himself but a fleeing refugee from Temasik.

The Malays of Malaysia have no heroes to compare with the national deities of Indonesia, for example. (Indeed, for the example that matters most.) We have no Iskandar Thani, no Cut Nyak Dien or Singgamarajah. No Hatta or Sukarno or Kartini. No martyrdom ever bloodied our soil, no valour stood triumphant in war. Why else this endless fuss about Hang Tuah and Jebat, a pair of melancholy poseurs with long libidos and short tempers?

The Malay concept of heroism is fatally flawed in this one regard: it celebrates the defenders of the throne, exalting loyalty, and not the focus of the loyalty: the throne itself.

History reserves heroism for conquerors, regardless of whether they are brutal or enlightened. But the various Malay States were never united under one emperor king; on the contrary, they were fromed in the dissolution of the biggest single Malay state in our past – Malacca – and spent their subsequent sovereignties squabbling. What we long to remember as the Golden Age of the Malays was in fact a drawn – out decline.

We were never conquerors, only the conquered, and that galls many Malays today. Hence this political obsession with the need to be vigilant against losing everything to the Outlanders. Ensuring Malay pre-eminence – cultural, linguistic and parliamentary – is the central theme of Malay politics. It is really the fear of Malay eclipse; hence the durability of Hang Tuah’s famous utterance about the Malays never vanishing from the world.

The Malays’ greatest weakness is their sense of weakness. The aggressiveness now associated with Malay leadership stems from an ingrained inferiority complex. (“You don’t know what it’s like,” Dr. Mahathir once told me in a recorded interview, “to be considered on par with dogs and other animals.”)

This is not a common weakness, however, among those who went to Malay College.

The Malay College was singularly effective in curing its students of their sense of inferiority. Since its earliest years, the school has brought together young Malay men from every state, rich and poor, aristocrats and commoners, and educated them to the highest standards expected of them. In the process, three important truths were revealed to every boy who went to Kuala Kangsar on his first journey away from home and family: First, intelligence had nothing to do with birth or breeding. Second, there was indeed a unity of Malay states. Third, education was synonymous with leadership; there could not be one without the other, if either was to be done right.

In teaching them to respect quality, ability and excellence (and having it proven year after year in examination halls and on playing fields alike), the Malay College raised its boys to see themselves as equal of their country’s greatest conquerors.

The English-ness of the Malay College – all that Eton-of-the-East business – reached its height in the Forties and Fifties, when the Fives Court was actually in use. Old Boys of that vintage must look back at their youth with a mixture of fond nostalgia tinged with a little embarrassment at those very pukka times. (In William Shaw’s biography of Tun Razak, there is a 1948 photo of Tun and a few friends in London. In stylish tweed suits they elegantly pose in St. James Park, each of them holding a pipe in the style Sherlock Holmes made famous.)

But the Anglicisation was never quite as complete as it may have seemed to passers-by on Station Road or the Strand. For one thing, these were intelligent and well-educated young men, living in the heart of Empire during a time of great global change and intellectual energy. Giants walked the earth: the Churchills, Roosevelts and MacArthurs of the West giving ground to the Gandhis, Nehrus, Sukarnos, Chou En Lais and Ho Chi Minhs of Asia, as the British Empire, blown to smithereens by the Second World War, crumbled before the rising tide of history.

To be young, bright and Malayan in London at such a time must have been to feel part of a great rebirth: to be the fledgling leaders of a new world of many nations where once there were only the empires of a few.

And there was something else, too, that served to continually remind these young, elite and English-educated mean of their Malayness. “You felt like a fool at their parties,” says one who remembers, “standing around with your orange juice while they were all drinking gin and tonics and talking to themselves.”

What was irritating about this was not the inability to do everything the British way, but the perception that the British would always look down on those who did not. This irritation has persisted, because the British are notoriously slow to relinquish their historical pride, and we are notoriously slow to acquire ours. I believe this explains Dr. Mahathir’s remarkable campaign to settle scores with the British the moment he became Prime Minister. The Carrington snub, the Buy-British-Last policy, and the final triumph of his first official visit to Britain in 1987: the attention of Mrs. Thatcher and instant tickets to a West End musical with a six-month-long waiting list.

Ironically, those Malays of Mahathir’s generation who received a British education are less impressed by Britain’s standards. Those educated at the Malay College began meeting those standards at the ages of ten or twelve.

When you know you are the equal of your conqueror, he is your conqueror no longer. He may be big, you may be small, but you both know your minds are equal. So you set aside the machinery of conquest, tell your bodyguards to wait outside and keep the peace, and start using your brains. You talk, negotiate, deal for what you both want. When your negotiations are successful, you know you have moved beyond barbarism. You are civilised men.

The architects of Malayan Independence were conquerors too. But their weapons, with which they regained a country that had been lost to us for 450 years, were ideas. Not the Tamingsari, the kris of Hang Tuah, that ubiquitous symbol of Malay power; which as recently as October 1987 was still being proclaimed thirsty for Chinese blood.

There were Malays among those men of Independence, as there were in the highest echelons of the first national administration of Malaya. Many of them were Old Boys of the Malay College.

But because MC was founded to create an administrative elite, and because that ethic predated the emergence of politics in this country, relatively few Old Boys have become politicians. The persistent need for ‘grassroots’ support is partly to blame – College boys have long tended to leave their kampungs behind once they’ve been through Prep School.

Also, I feel, Old Boys are inherently uncomfortable with the premise that political power is the only defence against the Chinese because they’re shrewder, smarter, harder-working and generally better than the Malays at everything else. College boys tend to consider themselves capable of being as shrewd, smart and successful as anyone. They’ve been taught to believe they can do anything as well as anyone and God knows better than most.

Those who regard the Malay College as a self-important bastion of neo-colonialism despise us for this. They see the Malay College as having done nothing but turn out generations of smug Anglophilic Melayus sneering at their peasant ancestors, while the foreigners were freely looting their lands. Malay College boys may have thought they were the leading edge of their people, but in fact they were leaving their people entirely behind.

It is not an invalid view.

But I prefer to regard those cocky brown men with their clubby English accents, proudly wearing their little white wigs at the Inns of Court, as having learned how to negotiate the return of a purloined booty. The crowning moment of that skill was, and remains, Merdeka Day 1957.

But fundamental to Independence was the success of the UMNO-MCA-MIC Alliance. Independence could not have been won without the political linkage of the Malays, Chinese and Indians of Malaya. Negotiating that linkage could only have done by the top men if each community, those versed in a common voice. Speaking on behalf of the Malays, ensuring their primacy in the Alliance and laying down so strong a defence that Malay political pre-eminence is today unchallenged, were many Old Boys of the Malay College.

One of them, Abdul Razak bin Hussein, will be remembered as Malaysia’s first truly significant Prime Minister. Tunku Abdul Rahman, Bapa Malaysia, was an appointed representative. He was so full of happy linkages. A royal prince chosen by his people, fond of the Chinese and Indians and accepted as the best possible interface between them all. Tunku was legendary for being the most Anglophile Malay of his time – a dilettante aristocrat with a fondness for sports cars, horses and English university towns in autumn.

Tunku’s premiership was as the Chief Malayan Witness to the end of Empire. He was a sweet, gentle and hopeful way to say goodbye to the old order. It was left to Tun Razak, Bapa Pembangunan, to design the blueprint for the new.

And how’s this for iron: The NEP, designed to elevate the Malays, was responsible for the rapid decline of the Malay College, which had done so much to make the NEP possible. In an astonishing display of wrong-headedness, the qualities of the Malay College were deemed detrimental to Malay pride.

I was still at the College in the early Seventies, when the Education Minister at the time, Musa Hitam, declared “elitism is out”. (The statement was made in Hargreaves Hall, during that year’s Speech Day. Musa had prefaced it however, with the statement that he had always wanted to attend Malay College, but had to settle for Johore’s English College instead.)

“Elitism”, in the sense Musa intended, referred to the grooming of a few selected Malays to stations above the mass of their people. This was apparently unjust. The Malay College had to be no different from other schools.

Had that signified an intention to raise all schools to Malay College standards, it would have been laudable (if a bit far-fetched). But the most important thing was uniformity, “equal opportunities,” and if other schools could not be raised to the stature of MC, MC would be lowered to the level of other schools.

(I remember it becoming very rapidly ludicrous. Suddenly we found Pak Shaari driving us in the school bus to lesser-known places for inter-school games. Not just KE and RMC and Star and VI (and TKC, formerly the Malay Girls’ College, Seremban, ah, sweet the memory of it…) anymore. SMJK Lenggong. I remembered it well. We won the football match 14-0. It was carnage. Even our goalkeeper scored. I have nothing against Lenggong – I was practically born there – but this was not a nice thing to do to them. How we strutted, and how they must have hated us!)

And then Headmasters began coming and going every couple of years, and the turnover of teachers trebled. Times changed very rapidly. Today the College no longer has a Sixth Form, (for reasons brilliantly perceived in a prescient essay by Ramli Mohammad in the College Magazine, Vol. VII No.3, 1973.)

Standards declined precipitously. Because they were doing so across the board in Malaysian education, which was struggling to accommodate the new expectations of the NEP, the College retained its reputation as one of the best schools in the country. But that was relative to other schools, and not to the standards the College had traditionally set itself.

Now, after nearly twenty years and the active involvement of MCOBA, the decline has been arrested. We now hear the Sultan of Kedah call for the formal recognition of the College as a leading institution. An adulatory story on the College appears in the ‘Tatler’, of all places. And the ‘Malay College Mafia’ is now perceived as increasingly influential at all levels of Maalysia’s government and economy.

‘Elitism’, it would appear, is back with a vengeance.

But then it had never gone away. What was once decried as ‘elitism’ the elevation of some above others – is now recognised as the process by which leaders emerge. As long as a nation needs leaders there will be a need for schools in which good minds are encouraged to reach for glory, recognising no limits to their potential other than those imposed by decency, discipline and compassion for the less favoured.

The Malay College has traditionally turned out men with a sense of responsibility to things greater than themselves, which is perhaps another reason for MCOBA’s rosters being notably short on politicians. But not on managers (a category in which I include all good businessmen, administrators and successful people in general). Successful management requires copious measures of the qualities MC has been known to cultivate: a vision of the Big Picture, and understanding of hierarchies and networks, a keen sense of identity and much self-confidence.

Good management is impossible without such qualities, but the worst management emerges when those in authority know they are not there because of their professional competence. This is why there are pejorative overtones to the word ‘elitism’ – it can also mean elevation for reasons other than ability and merit.

Such positions are political, and those occupying them know that their tenures have little to do with how they do their jobs. This is a fearful state to be in, and doing their jobs becomes secondary to serving the connections that are keeping them there.

I see this as part of the reason for the mediocrity that has come to afflict so many Malay ventures in both the public and private sectors. Success can only be measured in merit. That is as true in management as it is in the classroom, exam hall or on the running track – or Benches of Parliament.

The NEP may be a step towards leveling the playing field for a true meritocracy to emerge in Malaysia, at which time the Malays can be said to have ‘arrived’. But while anxious gazes are fixed on the future, many seem to have forgotten that the Malay College has been a meritocracy since its inception.

Thanks in part to schools like MC, the Malays are not entirely alien to success honestly earned and well deserved. Out of that comes pride, and out of that pride comes the confidence the Malays need if they are to negotiate constructively with their fellow countrymen – especially those their politicians claim to distrust and fear. Much of that fear is cynically inflated for the sake of ‘Malay unity’, but it is nonetheless rooted in that damnable inferiority complex.

That fear, while doing obviously nothing for Malay unity, has earned us the scorn of the non-Malays.

But when the Chinese in particular realise that the Malays have begun losing their fear of being economically stripped, and are instead ready and able to deal intelligently with their partners as equals, there will be a burgeoning of opportunities to do so.

This allows me to end this discourse on an optimistic note, for I believe the process is well underway. We can be certain that in boardrooms and corner office suites across the region, exemplary Malay executives, intellectuals and professionals are doing the talking on behalf of their people, thinking well, speaking intelligently and looking good; making the Malays look good and winning the confidence and respect of their partners.

We can also be sure that some of them are known to wear a certain striped tie on Wednesdays, deriving from that one item of apparel all the evidence they need of their capacity for success.

It would be nice to hope there are some politicians in them.


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