Those perfect days of prep school fun

By Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad


Memories of the prep school – of growing up before moving on to the imposing Big School across Jalan Station have stayed and will have to be recounted someday.

Fifty-one years on, I have mourned the deaths of many school friends and classmates, associates and contemporaries, felt sad for those who floundered, and happy for those who succeeded.

I have always been saying good-bye to people and it has not been easy for me.

Malaya, now Malaysia, has greatly changed. Even more so, my alma mater. It is no longer the school I knew, though still an excellent institution given the present setting.

The prep school has been the cradle of the college ethos, yet it is hardly celebrated. It is always the Big School which is written about and glorified.

What I missed most at prep school was a library even a reading room, and yet that was the time when most of us between the ages of nine and during my time – wanted to know the entire history of the people who populated the earth.

I would hope by now it has a small library at least, if not computers and a cyber library. If I am only marginally literate and lacking intellectual curiosity I can always blame my prep school days.

At the most intellectually curious age or stage of our lives, eating, games, being mischievous, classes, sleep and no reading other than text books were the only activities which occupied our time.

I recall a most exciting time I had at prep school, a perfect time, completely fascinated with school life, inventing, reinventing and always improvising.

That was why I was never bored or had troubles with the teachers and prefects.

I sent all my three children to prep schools and boarding schools in England.

They enjoyed boarding school. They told me they would also send their children to public schools.

I first learned to write for publication at my prep school when I was chosen to write about a class trip to Taiping.

It was published in the 1949 MCKK Magazine. That was the first and the last successful attempt until I started work at The Straits Times eight years later.

I would like to reproduce my early magnum opus here – Form II visits Taiping by Abdullah Ahmad of Form II:

“On the 9th October, 1949, thirty two of us, with Mr. Partridge, went on a day’s outing to Taiping. We left Kuala Kangsar at 8.00 a.m. by truck and arrived at Taiping at 9.00 a.m. We went straight to the Taiping aerodrome and stayed there for about an hour. Mr. Partridge went to the “Malayan Airways” office to ask permission for us to visit it. We were given permission and a Malay Officer-in charge took us round. He showed us the wireless room and the fire engine too. In a short time a plane came down and took the passengers who were going to Kuala Lumpur. Then it flew off again. Fifteen minutes later another aeroplane came down and took the passengers who were going to Penang.

“We thanked the Malay Officer. and went on to the museum. At the museum we saw many interesting things. We left the museum for the lake gardens, where we had our lunch. After lunch we had a short rest. Then we left the lake gardens for the town. We stopped near the Malay Bazaar. Unfortunately the rain started, so we could not walk round the town. We decided to return home and left Taiping at about 3.00 p.m. We reached the college at about 4.00 p.m. We enjoyed the outing very much. We thanked our Headmaster for the use of the truck and Mr. Partridge for taking us.”

Thus began my life as a scribe. During my first year, I won a book prize for geography I also contributed three out the 18.5 points to Ahmad House for excellent work in academic performance. Rawi contributed three, Ariffin one. The balance was contributed by five other pupils.

That was the first and the last time I ever won a prize and points for excellent schoolwork.

Despite that, I became chief librarian of the Hargreaves Library while still in form four. Hargreaves Library is not a modest library by Malayan school standard. It was somewhat grand compared to other school libraries.

I am, never was and never will be a bookworm, but I revere books as material objects and as the quintessence (or distillation) of a nation’s history.

I love to be surrounded by books (and beautiful people), and received a few as presents, but I bought them (including bargain books) mainly as practical tools and references for my work as a politician-turned-diplomat and a sometime columnist.

When I finally left school (Rida College, forerunner of the Institute of Technology Mara) in 1957, it was also my first year of freedom and that of our nation.

At The Straits Times, I became part of a group of fortunate people. These Malayan newspaper men and women were chosen to work on what was considered a fine English language newspaper in the East – and of the finest promise too – when we consider the majority of the journalists were working in what was and is a foreign language.

I have not been back to MCKK (Malay College Kuala Kangsar) for almost 14 years now. I would like to return to see it this summer, to walk the grounds and meditate at my favourite spot.

The college may no longer be as privileged as it once was but I know even after 94 years the ethos of the school remains largely unchanged.

Like every other Malayan youth who came into his teens in the early 50s, I learned the language and admired its literature but felt closer to Malay literature.

MCKK is an extraordinary institution, conceived with uncompromising determination to educate and train young Bumiputras for the leadership of their nation.

It was at MCKK – I was given my first glimpse of local and national British and Malay VIPS who came to attend the Board of Governors annual meeting, prize and speech day, sports meet and to give talks. They inspired me to emulate them.

It was at MCKK and from these VIPs that I knew what freedom meant. It is a value we do not realise as long as it is with us. One must lose it (in my case, detained by Ghulam’s police in 1976-81) to know how precious it is.

The prep school had given me a dream or two, but Jalan Dato’ Onn gave me realities of power for a good decade and more.

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


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