In search of Malaysian scholarship

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Carlyle has said that history is the essence of innumerable biographies and, if you believe in Emerson, then there is probably no history, only a biography.

In Malaysia there is not a decent biography on the founding father of the nation Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, since Harry Miller’s Prince and Premier, first published 40 years ago.

There is none on Tun Razak as a piece of history, nor on Tun Hussein or on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad or on the founding president of Umno and the man who defeated the Malayan Union, Datuk Onn bin Jaafar.

In the case of Mahathir, I can understand. Perhaps, it is a bit too difficult to relate, describe, evaluate and interpret him and his records because he is still actively running the country. However, there are no good excuses vis-a-vis Tunku, Razak and Hussein and his father, Onn.

At the risk of boring you, I must caution biography is more than just a narration of a person’s life. Nor does it mean that just because one knows some details about a person’s life, it means he or she knows the person. Otherwise, the product will be something which does not have much to do with the person’s real life.

It is, I am afraid, a blot on Malaysian scholarship. We hardly write anything about our leaders – not even adulatory biographies! Tunku’s life and Razak’s were “the best and the worst of times” in our country. If a writer dares to explore many aspects of Tunku’s and Razak’s lives he or she will make them more impressive and interesting than what is generally known about the statesmen who adored their people and loved good living.

The few which have been published are neither good history (or history at all) nor good journalism, and because it is unreadable it remains virtually unread, certainly not outside Malaysia.

To make biography not doomed from the start it must not be a hagiography. The biography must also include who their friends and who their enemies were.

I think the most significant period of our modern history begins with British colonialism. The two world wars, World War II, particularly, which led to the Japanese occupation of Malaya was vital because it destroyed many old ideas and carefully tended myths.

The defeat of the Japanese in 1945 led to Malaya being absorbed by Britain as a crown colony in the form of the Malayan Union 1946 (which was decidedly crushed by Umno), which led us through the Federation of Malaya and the Emergency in 1948, the struggle for Merdeka and its achievement in 1957, the formation of Malaysia in 1963 followed by the Indonesian Confrontation, race riots in 1969, the advent of Razak and his New Economic Policy (NEP) and Mahathir.

All these changes have brought us a good standard of living, peace and harmony. We have widened our canvas and are acquiring new dimensions and scopes as we move on.

The real heroes of these various periods are, of course, the rakyat, “the commons”, those in the rural areas, in particular. None of what we have now could have been attained without the loyalty and contribution of every race.

But the greatest contributions came from the leadership of Tunku, Razak, Hussein and Mahathir, the civil service, the armed forces, the police, the law and the judiciary, the private sector and Malaysian journalism which chronicled and is recording our achievements, hiatus and mayhem.

I was very lucky with regard to my Malay College generation. I could have been luckier had I paid more attention to my studies but that is quite irrelevant now. I did not attend formal schooling until nine. After barely a year at the Malay School at Padang Garang in Kota Baru I was despatched to the Malay Collge Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) in 1948.

I was in Prep School from January 1948 to January 1950 and moved to the Big School in 1950 until I left after completing Form Five in December 1954. Between the years there, I bade farewell to numerous friends and contemporaries who had gone to the University of Malaya in Singapore and for further studies overseas. Some left because of poor performance in term examinations, and only one on account of death.

My generation at MCKK included those who were in school before the second world war and others, like myself, who had come straight from Malay-medium schools. But, there were many who came from English-medium primary schools. I must elaborate: In 1948 there were about 200 of us whose ages ranged from nine to 23, perhaps older especially those in forms five and six such as Yusof Zainal, the headboy. He was the Malaysian ambassador in Iran in the sixties and now spends his retirement alternately between Malaysia and Australia. The last time I saw him was about 10 years ago at the Selangor Royal Golf Club. A nice, handsome and good sportsman.

Then there was Sidek Lassim. I believe he is now president of the Penang Turf Club. He was also a good sportsman. Once he was demoted from the first eleven soccer team to the second eleven by an angry H.R. Carey, the headmaster and also an excellent all-rounder sportsman.

Sidek’s classmate was Tunku Adnan Tunku Burhanuddin, the current president of the Malay College Old Boys Association (MCOBA) and brother-in-law of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Ja’afar Tuanku Abdul Rahman. Tuanku Ja’afar was headboy, succeeding Tun Abdul Razak. Both Razak and Tunku Jaafar (“Jeff” to his classmates and contemporaries) were all-round sportsmen.

Yusoff was in sixth form in 1948 while Sidek and Tunku Adnan were in form five. Tunku Adnan kept goal for the MCKK first eleven soccer team and 1948 was a good year for our soccer team. All three were from Negri Sembilan.

During my time, most of the students were from the former Federated Malay States (FMS) of Negri Sembilan, Perak, Pahang and Selangor, and most of them were from the royal towns.

Enrolment changed drastically when scholarship became the vital criterion for admission before I arrived.

The others in my generation were the late professor Ungku Omar, a brilliant scholar and a King’s Scout, Justice Tan Sri Azmi Kamaruddin (president of MCOBA for more than two decades), Dato Malek All Merican, scholar-sportsman, who, accompanied by longtime wife, Gaik, visited me in New York in September. He was the “strongman” at the Arab-Malaysia Bank until he retired a couple of years ago. Then there was Raja Azlan bin Raja Ngah All, a good athlete and the first Malay collegian to participate in the Olympics. He represented Malaya in the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956.

Apart from these men there are many more, older as well as younger than me, such as Dato’ Manan Osman (former minister of agriculture), Tan Sri Zainol Mahmood, executive chairman of Pos Malaysia, Tan Sri Khalil Ya’acub, Mentri Besar of Pahang, Tan Sri Khatib, ambassador to Japan, and Dato’ Abdullah Zawawi, Malaysian High Commissioner to Canada.

I was lucky where my contemporaries were concerned; I was even luckier with the teachers who taught me: the late Chegu Abas (Malay), Chegu Lazim (Geography), Chegu Arfffin Mohd. Nam (Geography and Art) and now a Dato in his eighties, living in Kampong Pandan, Chegu Salleh Hussein (History), also a Dato’ and in his eighties and living in Butterworth, Drennen (History), the late James Reid Davidson (English and English Literature), Wilson (otherwise known as Anthony Burgess, English), Chegu Vivekananda (English and English Literature), Haji Ghazali (Agama Islam), Jimmy Howell (Mathematics, and I never passed this subject all my life), Nelson Morley, Ahmad and Peter Northon, the chemistry, biology and physics teachers – I could never recall anything I learnt in these subjects except H20!; Joseph Partridge (English), Yogam (Maths) and Miss Holroyd. None of these subjects are relevant to me in my career except English, Malay, history, geography and English Literature. I owe much to an these teachers and to several others who taught me intermittently.

I shall only mention figures who are recognizable nationally. One is Professor Dato’ Mokhzani Abdul Rahim, the Powertek boss. This is not to say that those I have omitted are not successful. They are very successful if less well-known.

Along the way to Form Five I was joined by Tun Haniff Omar and two others. Haniff was headboy, a good training for a policeman. He was an acceptable scholar. His English was and is better than his Malay and yet he got distinction in Malay and only a credit for his English. He played no games for school or Ahmad House of which I was the House Captain. I know Haniff was destined for either the police or the military.

Behind his back, his detractors in school – and there were many – all called him “Mate gelap” (detective). He lives to be what they had conjured him to be even then. Despite my detention, we remain friends which infuriates as well as amazes a senior politician. This senior politician would have fallen off his chair had he seen me and my wife laughing and being particularly nice to my “Chief goaler” or “Ghulam” at a wedding reception at Hilton Hotel Petaling Jaya two years ago. Another friend at a neighbouring table could just sigh: “Oh dear, oh dear!”

What would the senior politician have wanted me to do? Slap “Ghulam?”

Mokhzani and I made a point to see each other at least once a year, sometimes more and at times none. Mokhzani was never perceived as a scholar at MCKK so his classmates and contemporaries were surprised when he opted to teach instead of rushing like others to join the then presigious and well-regarded Malayan Civil Service (MCS) whose members then were luminaries such as Tun Razak, Tun Mohamed Suffian, Tun Ismail All, Tun Raja Mohar, Tun Abdul Aziz Majid (the first Chief Secretary and Cabinet Secretary to the Government), and Tan Sri Kadir Shamsuddin (died in office as Chief Secretary) among others.

Over the years Mokhzani and I have had many substantial conversations. We also reminisced and had good laughs. What I did not recognise in Mokhzani until many years after leaving school was his liberal and pluralist ideas which I believe he acquired at the London School of Economics or somewhere like that. We shared and agreed on many of these and, in part, disagreed.

As a professor he was, however, surprisingly cautious, perhaps, even wise especially in the heady heydays of the sixties. As a result of the likes of my good friend, scholarship suffered and has never really recovered from their self-imposed self-censorship. Jomo Sundram perseveres but then he is an economist, not a historian!

It is never easy to look back on one’s youth or past (ever read Tengku’s book On Looking Back?) and reflect on the decline of Malaysian scholarship. Is or was there ever a Malaysian scholarship in the Oxbridge traditions in the first place?

I suffer to watch the decline of old institutions. As far as I can judge many institutions seem to have got worse, while others are unquestionably much better than they were 50 years ago. Unfortunately, and I agonize a lot about this, my alma mater is not one of the latter.

For whatever reasons, the decline must be corrected and speedily, whether at MCKK, Sultan Abdul Hamid College, Victoria Institution, St. John’s Institution or the Penang Free School. We must reclaim these institutions and the likes and nurse them back to their golden days when they produced first rate and gifted students.

Dato’ Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia’s Special Envoy to the United Nations

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