Eggheads and streetsmart students

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It was a clear, cool (by Kuala Lumpur’s standard, that is) Sunday evening, on Jan 25 this year when Tun Haniff Omar and I talked – as we never talked – of our 1954 classmates at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) during berbuka puasa in the second-level garden by the swimming pool of Education Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s sprawling residence at Jalan Duta.

NajIb didn’t attend MCKK (he went to St. John’s Institution) although his younger brother Johari did, like their father and grandfather.

Another classmate Anuar Jusoh (Pekan, Pahang), known as “Joe the Silent”, a practising lawyer, was also present as were many mutual friends and acquaintances in government and the private sector.

Haniff was stunned when I told him that another classmate had died. “Who?” he anxiously asked. I told him. Anuar Yahya of Kuala Kubu Baru, thus reducing the number to eighteen still around.

The death of Colonel Arffin Muda (Kuala Trengganu) our military attache in Jakarta, and Lieutenant General Datuk Nik Mahmood Fakharuddin Kamil (Kota Baru), the deputy Chief of Army, were well reported in the media but Anuar’s was not.

Anuar returned from Britain without completing his degree course in civil engineering because of “personal problems”. He never really had a regular job and stayed until his death with his parents who were relatively well-off, a retired director of land and mines and his headmistress mother, a hospitable and gracious lady.

Though small, physically, Anuar was a good sportsman. He was particularly good in hockey and besides playing for the college he also represented the Victoria Institution (VI) when he was a Sixth Form student there. All three would have been sixty plus had they lived.

In our conversation we recalled fondly about the departed and those still alive. Hanfff said he never met Ibrahim Mat (“Tua”) (Kangar, Perlis) and Mohamad Noor (Kuala Kubu), and Mohamad Nasir bin Talib (Rembau) since we parted in late December 44 years ago.

Ibrahim, a good fullback in MCKK’s first eleven soccer team retired as a storekeeper, Mohamad Noor, a rubber replanting inspector, and Nasir’s last job was that of a school principal.

Nasir was fondly called “Buncit”. Most of us have nicknames. None, I am glad, was derisive. Despite being called Buncit, Nasir was not as pot-bellied as conjured by his nickname. We gave him the nickname because he was fond of drinking cold water in the middle of the night when we were in B dormitory at the Prep school, a habit he discontinued in higher forms but Buncit stuck. We then believed drinking too much water would make one’s stomach bulge!

Although all of us are now compulsorily retired, a few, like Haniff and I, are at what might be called the awkward stage of our life (being healthy and active) to do nothing. So, he and I and a few others have begun a second career. The former policeman has become a business tycoon and I, you know what.

Abdul Wahid Shamsuddin (Tapah) the former deputy director-general of the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) first became a courtier at Istana Negara after retirement, and now, I understand, runs his own business, Abu Bakar Mahmud (Temerloh), otherwise known as “Buku”, (bookworm), I hope, is writing his memoirs especially about his special assignment in Taipeh now that Taiwan seems to be in vogue economically-speaking in Southeast Asia following the Asian economic meltdown; Abdul Razak Bahaman (Kuala Pilah) whose goatee beared is becoming whiter and his pocket deeper still runs his lucrative engineering firm, architect Razak Hitam (Malacca) plays golf all over the world having made enough money in Johor and Negri Sembilan to do so and has always been a good sportsman; Abdullah Bakri (Menette from Tales of Two Cities) Wahab (Seremban), a successful architect together with his wife, Khalidah Mohamad, a jeweller, is busy making money.

I understand that Rawi “Baka” Abdul Rahman (Kota Baru), spends more time at his neighbourhood mosque than anywhere else. (This Kirkby-trained teacher was a clever student who somehow never made it to university), Sidek (Tembam) Embong (Kuala Terengganu), also a former teacher and a sportsman, might have achieved more had he worked in Kuala Lumpur; Mokhzani Abdul Rahim (Arau), a globe-trotting businessman (annually to Geneva) should now stop traversing the earth, and start putting pen to paper, at least about his time teaching economics at Universiti Malaya when it was a premier institution and a sought-after place of higher learning.

Syed Zainal Wafa “Arab” (Kuala Kangsar) runs a private clinic in Langkawi after teaching medicine at University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and subsequently, as a private practitioner, specialising in looking after Bangladeshi immigrants and remains the only friend I know who still guzzles gulai tempoyak! He did it when he was married to an Irish woman and living in Northern Ireland in the sixties when I visited them.

Neither Haniff nor I have an update on Megat Ahmad Megat Yunus (Kuala Kangsar), a former government servant. Then there are Salleh Nordin (“Kuda”) (Kalumpang, Ulu Selangor), whose deportment was always erect and soldier-like and a non-commissioned army officer who knows more about world military history than both Fakharuddin and Ariffin put together, and Saad “Doa” Jusuh (Kangar), a teacher who got his nickname from his white cotton socks which perpetually crumbled round to his ankles, resembling the two hands in a “doa” position. To date, we know none of the eighteen has left us yet.

The “intellectuals” among us then were the two Razaks, Abdullah Bakri Rawi and Bakar while the streetsmarts were headed by guess who, followed by Nasir, Saad, Ibrahim, Syed Zainal,Mokhzani, Fakhruddin and Sidek. Haniff and the rest were studious and generally clever, Haniff and Ariffin in particular.

All of us relentlessly worked to achieve our goals in life and as you can see one or two achieved what they wanted but several never reached their potential. However, none suffered nor was deprived much of the fun of life as a result.

Case histories of my classmates clearly show one thing which parents should always keep in mind, namely, passing examinations is not the be all and end all, nor the sole yardstick to determine a student’s or a man’s worth. I failed my examinations twice but I never ever let that affect my self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth.

However, students must strive hard to pass examinations with good results and if you still failed, don’t be too dejected.

Friends said: “What? You failed again Dollah?” To my classmates it was not unexpected. The headmaster of MCKK, the late Mr J. D. R. Howell, wrote in my leaving certificate that I was not expected to pass because I had devoted myself to everything except my studies. But my classmates also knew that failing examinations would never stop my determination to pursue the career I had chartered for myself. I self-taught and through reading and thinking developed creative, critical and analytical skills. I was, and still am, not good at learning by rote, especially poetry, mathematical equations and scientific formulae.

Then, as now, parents must believe this: there was and is little interdependence between a student’s success in examination and his/her success in later life, nor is there a correlation between a child’s results in examinations at primary or secondary level and his or her performance at college or university.

Rawi was put on a pedestal as a potential scholar to be emulated. Mokhzani was not. But, in the real world, it was Mokhzani who became a professor after returning with a Ph.D from the London School of Economics. Rawi should have gone to university after a stint as a teacher but he declined Mokhzani’s and my offer to arrange for him to return to school. I recall him telling me: “Cukuplah … enoughlah, lah.”

I never – perhaps because I suffered in examinations – put too much value in the marks or grades people get in any examination. Instead I look for character, personality and communication and thinking skills. In other words for what they are.

Examination results do not tell as much about a student’s talents, capabilities and potential because all he or she needs to do to pass an examination is a good memory and the ability to regurgitate facts.

Of course, it would have been a remarkable achievement for any of us to obtain good grades, a first-class degree and success in life. But in real life, things do not work that way. Being sagacious (and acceptable) is more important.

We have many streetsmarts who continually outclass and outperform the eggheads. Anyway, nothing succeeds like success itself and it has many suitors and fathers. Failure is and will always be an orphan.

Twenty one of us were a competent lot. However, not all attained success but each did his best for himself and the nation. Those who know us know that. I became a symbol of sorts. I think if I had passed my high school examinations I might have not been able to live the same life.

The society in the fifties, even in the dying days of British colonialism, put too much stress on excellent examination results. Those who performed well in the Cambridge Overseas Certificate examination were adored and admired whilst those with mediocre and average results were sidelined and failures virtually ignored. Such was the attitude of the colonial society.

By design, I started looking towards the post-colonial era idealism which was emerging and inhaled the whiff of growing nationalism. Then, as now, I believe anything is possible.

It was a depressing environment albeit a changing one. The Malays,except for the royalty and aristocracy, were at the bottom of the social scale in their own country. Whites, Chinese, Eurasians and the Indians were above them. Coming next after the Malays were the Orang Asli.

My parents had sent me to MCKK to be in the world of Malay royalty, aristocracy, wealth, tradition and privilege that was several galaxies away from Kampong Bandar, in Kok Lanas-Pulai Chondong in rural Kelantan. Rawi and I had been singled out to represent the underclass and neither he nor I became what our parents and the authorities had mapped out for us whatever that was – Oh, yes, to be the abiding loyal civil servants of the British Raj despite knowing that that era was soon to be ended and for us to succeed the departing British civil servants.

Malay self-assertion, self-respect and independence caused by nationalism and resentment came three years after we left Kuala Kangsar, and not a few of us contributed (at various levels) to hasten the inevitable process first started by Datuk Onn Jaafar, an old collegian and founding president of Umno (1946-51) and successfully completed by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra (Penang Free School). He, however, sent his only son, Tunku Ahmad Nerang, to MCKK.

Borrowing from John Buchan in Pilgrim’s Way, we “disliked emotion (we have become unMalay), not because we felt lightly but because we felt deeply”.

The acute feeling of loss and pain of classmates (and close friends) dying young – Fakhruddin, Ariffin and Anuar two of whom were members of the influential “Cabal”, has never left me. I have tried to live each day of my life to the utmost because I do not know when my own rendezvous with death might come.

I know my rendezvous with destiny has passed.

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

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