Learning English in Kuala Kangsar

By Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad


When I arrived at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) prep school in early January 1948, I was ready, so I thought, to study English.

I had gone there unprepared: out of 21 enrolled, several already knew some English while I knew not a word of the language.

On the first Saturday, we marched to the Big School for our first weekly school assembly which was always held between 12.30pm and 1pm in the library where attendance was recorded, at first verbally.

I was coached to say “present” after the headmaster, H.R. Carey, a Cantarbrigian, called out my name.

The word was one of the half-dozen I picked up and learned by heart.

As weeks and months went by, my vocabulary gradually increased but it is sad to say my vocabulary is now limited.

Though I was not intimidated, the first few weeks were a difficult transition from Malay medium to learning everything, except Agama Islam and Bahasa Melayu, in English.

The Malay medium group struggled but fortunately not for too long. It was invigorating to know we could cope.

After a test we were streamed into A or B class. I was sent to Form 1B while Rawi Abdul Rahman, my mate from Padang Garong Malay School Kota Baru, moved to Form 1A.

Even at Padang Garong Rawi was in A class and I in B.

I recall two Tengkus who regularly competed for the bottom place in my class.

I was always in the middle of the class of 21 except once when I was among the first ten.

I learned what I liked fast but could not remember much of any subject I disliked, mathematics and science amongst them.

It was said I was already destined to be different from my contemporaries.

By the time I was in form five, slightly half of the original class remained.

In my class, Ahmad Rasidi Abdullah and Abdul Jalil Abdullah already knew English. Their fathers were in the Malay Administrative Service and both had been old boys.

Rasidi, the first boy I knew at MCKK remains a close friend, and is now a retired banker. He travels about, otherwise he spends time doting on his grandchildren. Jalil died several years ago.

The other pupil who already spoke and read English then was Abdul Rahim Ismail from Penang, later nicknamed “Mr. Lambert” as he was perpetually lambat (late) for any function.

He is now vice-president of the Lake Club, a jazz aficionado and a wealthy retiree.

In 1949 I was double-promoted, leaving behind my three “speaking mates” to join a new class where most of the pupils came equipped with English.

I caught up with Rawi who eventually went on to a Malaysian Teachers’ Training College in England, at Brinsford Lodge, I think. He now lives in retirement in Kota Baru, Kelantan.

I became a journalist with the Straits Times.

I enjoyed enormously my two years at the white-washed building whose western facade overlooks Jalan Taiping and the southern side faces Jalan Hargreaves.

A new playing field was created behind the prep school and J.D.R. Howell’s bungalow.

We were told it was converted into grounds for field games, it was filled with disused Japanese tanks!

It was here that I learned to play soccer, not much good at it though good enough to play for my House’s first eleven.

I was in Ahmad House as was Rawi who in the final year in 1954 became the secretary and I the captain.

I am not overstating when I say even after 45 years since I left MCKK, my alma mater gave me unalloyed pleasure and good training and experience which put me in goodstead later in life.

My time there was a well, filled and wonderful six years. We were all made to join wolf cubs, altogether 68 of us.

I was in the 1st Kuala Kangsar cub pack under Chegu Abbas whose assistants, called “senior sixes”, were Salim Osman and two others.

Salim subsequently became a King’s scout. He is now a retired banker living in Bukit Tunku.

After four years in the scout movement, I left with Ariffin Muda, Nik Mahmud Fakhruddin Kamil, Syed Zainal Wafa, Megat Ahmad and Salleh Nordin among others for the College Cadet Corps.

Ariffin, Fakhruddin and Salleh eventually joined the army – the first two have since died.

At the time of their death Ariffin was a colonel while Fakhruddin was a lieutenant-general. Salleh is still alive and retired as a non-commissioned officer.

Ariffin and Fakhruddin, like many old collegians before them, had gone to the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England.

I, too, tried to join Askar Melayu di-Raja (Royal Malay Regiment). Ariffin, Fakhruddin, Salleh and I made a pact to realise our military career. Only Ariffin joined the army with ease.

He obviously reached sufficient academic standard and passed the physical test at the pre-officers’ training school in Port Dickson after a week’s intelligence and gruelling endurance tests.

Fakhruddin succeeded after two attempts and followed Ariffin to Sandhurst in 1956. Because he loved the army too much, Salleh decided to join the army as a recruit.

I never tried again after the humiliating failure in Port Dickson: thrown out in the 1st round!

We celebrated Ariffin’s success at the Bukit Bintang cabaret in Kuala Lumpur. In a sense, whatever the background, those who successfully survive MCKK and move on into the real world through further studies whether at Cambridge, London School of Economics, Inns of Court, universities in the US, Australia or at Sandhurst, became an elite in their own right.

It is like a stamp of Malaysian recognition. Tun Razak and Tuanku Jaafar were the embodiment of everything which MCKK strives to achieve.

The sixth form was established in 1948 to cater for 18 Malay students destined for universities.

From Kelantan came Ezanee Merican (now a doctor); and from Negri Sembilan were Yusof Zainal (the head boy now a retired ambassador residing in Australia), Abdul Rahim Jalal (retired ambassador living in Kuala Lumpur).

Azizul Rahman bin Aziz from Perak was for a long time secretary of parliament.

Those who are alive have all retired. Ali Abdullah, a former diplomat from Perlis, had died.

In 1949, Zaharah Mokhtar and in 1950, I think Zainab or Kak Nab joined tie sixth form, making history as the only girls to ever attend MCKK.

The birth of the Federation of Malaya on Feb 1, 1948 was celebrated with great enthusiasm at the college as it was deemed a restoration of “Malay power”.

The Malayan Communist Party which opposed the restoration of the Anglo-Malay government, started a revolt in June in Sungai Siput when the communists brutally killed three European planters.

In response, the British colonial government declared a state of emergency in July which was to last until three years after Merdeka.

Howell temporarily left MCKK to become a supplementary police officer to help organise special constables to fight the communists which the British colonial government called bandits.

Howell said he was proud of the thousands of Malay young men and women who came forward so readily to defend their country side by side the British, the Gurkhas, Malay troops and anti Communist Malayan Chinese and others.

Despite the emergency, the progress of prep school and the Big School towards rehabilitation (following WWII) was little affected.

For students from Kelantan, the emergency was a blessing in disguise.

Before the emergency, I had to travel to Kuala Kangsar by train via southern Thailand. It was cheaper, the journey was shorter though not as safe.

The war against the communists made travel very dangerous whether through Thailand or the long journey via Gemas in the south and up to the north via Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Kangsar.

The Kelantan government, not wanting to risk the lives of 18 of its scholars including four girls from Malay Girls’ College (now Tunku Khursiah), decided to fly us to Penang and then by train to Kuala Kangsar and the girls onto Kuala Lumpur.

Flying then, let alone for students, was expensive and a novelty for most Malayans.

Hundreds of relatives came to Pengkalan Chepa Aerodrome Sultan Ismail (Petra Airport) to send us of many were seeing the Dakota plane for the first time.

Many more had come to say prayers for safe flight. We exchanged forgiveness in case the flight might be our last.

I recall little about the flight except that I felt as if my ear drums had exploded and the attention lavished by what I thought was a very beautiful and well-mannered Eurasian hostess.

I had a window seat and remember seeing the Kelantan river, the kampungs, the padi fields in particular looked like postcard pictures – beautiful and clean from a few thousand feet above the ground.

Distance is always deceptive I would soon learn.

After more than an hour of flying the captain announced we were approaching Bayan Lepas, Penang and to fasten our seat belts and prepare for the landing. It was a bumpy landing.

It was just before noon when we landed. My first historic and uneventful plane ride was over. A hour before sunset that evening we left Penang for our final destination by train.

(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is our Special Envoy to the United States.)


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