I had had an uneventful childhood; I had been a quiet, bookish child. My father had led a peripatetic career as a teacher (which was why he hadn’t been present at my birth), and he had taken his young family with him to successive postings across the length and breadth of the Malayan Peninsula. And it was a growing family; my two brothers were born, at three-year intervals, in Johor Baru at the peninsula’s southern tip, and in Kuala Krai in the interior of Kelantan, where my mother’s equally mobile family had come to a temporary rest. Eventually my father had received what would be the last posting of his abbreviated life, as a senior lecturer at the Language Institute in Kuala Lumpur.
It was in our house in Kuala Lumpur, on a dark and rainy night in 1967, that my father first spoke to me about my future. I was twelve years old then, in Standard Six of primary school; the next year, I would be moving on to secondary school. My father had always been a fairly remote figure to his three young sons; stern and affectionate in equal measure, but still remote. Much, much later, I would console myself with the thought that he had been saving himself for later in our lives, when we were out our infancy and could understand more of his strong and complex personality
That night, my father said to me: “The Malay College is not just any school. It is the school.” That’s about all I remember, although there must have been more. I do remember not being sure what he was on about. I knew that I would be sitting for the Malay College entrance examinations very soon, and I was vaguely aware that this was a place, a big boarding school way up in Kuala Kangsar, spoken of with much respect by my teachers. But merely sitting for the exams was no big deal; practically every Standard Six Malay boy in the country did so, and I had by no means excelled in school so far. I usually made the top class, but I was also usually at the bottom of that class. But here was my father talking about the Malay College in a way that made me feel, for the first time in my young life, that he actually had hopes for me. And he went on: “You must take the Sciences. There is no future in the Arts,” What was this? “Sciences”? “Arts”? I couldn’t even draw! And I was certainly no whiz at arithmetic.
The day of the entrance exam came, and the four of us who were the only four Malay boys in our primary school’s top class went to take it. Ghani and Azizi were deadly serious about it; Muslini and I larked about. The other two were always in the top five of our class; Muslini and I were usually in the bottom five. Ghani and Azizi were the great hopes of our school, which would apparently be honoured to send off a ward or two to the Malay College; Muslini and I were there to make up the numbers.
So of course, when the results came out a month or two later, Muslini and I made the cut and the other two didn’t. Nobody could believe it, least of all Muslini and me. I think Azizi cried. I went home a very happy kid that Friday. My father was at home when I got there, reading the newspaper. “Papa,” I said, struggling to keep the excitement from my voice. “I’ve got the results. I passed. I have to report to Malay College on January seventh.” He didn’t even lower the paper “Good,” he said. Years later, my mother would tell me it was one of the proudest moments of his life. He certainly fooled me then.
Five days into 1968, my father bundled his wife and sons the car and set off on the 200 kilometre drive north to Kuala Kangsar, a small, sleepy town dozing by a bend of the River not far south of Taiping. For all its somnolent torpor, Kuala Kangsar had a distinguished air about it: it was the royal town of Perak, site of the Sultan’s Palace, and the esteemed Malay College. The school was grand indeed: great sprawling colonnaded buildings gazing serenely out upon vast green playing fields. Even the College’s Prep School, the traditional clearing-house for the school’s youngest charges, was a stately edifice, tucked away on its own corner of the campus. The Malay College looked for all the world like an upper-crust English public school, transplanted brick for brick for Corinthian column from the vicinity of Eton or Harrow, and that impression was indeed quite deliberate.
The Malay College had been founded by the British in 1905 as a place in which the sons of the Malay sultans could acquire the rudiments of a sound British education before moving on to tertiary institutions in Britain itself. Early in its history, its portals were opened to the sons of commoners as well, provided they could make the entrance grade. (I might be charitable here, and mention only in passing the possibility that not all of Malaya’s royal princes were always keen on a Western education, and the stem discipline considered an indispensable part of it at the time.)
From the grooming of princelings the College had turned to the creation of an “administrative elite” for Malaya. It was intrinsic to the British scheme of things in Malaya that the Malaya would administer the country on their behalf. This is not to say that the other races were denied educational attention—other, even more venerable, schools were already functioning in Kuala Lumpur (the Victoria Institution, founded in 1890) and Penang (the Penang Free School). But none were expressly reserved for the Malays alone, and consequently there were relatively few Malays in any of them. This was not due to a lack of ability, as the Malay College was to be instrumental in proving, but of opportunity. Until well into the 20th Century, to be a Malay in higher education was to be a royal Malay. The peasantry (and of course, this was long before the development of anything like a Malay middle class) was virtually immobile.
The Malay College changed that, and by the 1980s and 1940s had begun turning out the country’s first Malay lawyers and men of letters. They would come to play a crucial role in the genesis of Malay, and Malayan, nationalism, and many of them would be intimately involved in the courtly dance of legalities that would eventually result in the blueprint for Malayan Independence. And more: Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein, the Tunku’s successor, of whom there will be more to tell, would be an alumnus of the Malay College.
It was indeed a grand old school, and its reputation was well deserved. My first impression, however, was of bedlam: a horde of twelve-year-olds and what seemed to be their entire extended families, seeking out their allotted bed-spaces in the dormitories, being endlessly hugged by weeping mothers, grandmothers and aunts. I was happy to find Muslini amidst the chaos, although he seemed altogether too dazed to be coherent.
The day drew to an end; the families were waved a tearful goodbye. We had our first mass meal in the dining hall, in which were hung framed group photographs of the College’s previous First-Form intakes, and were sent to our beds at nine. There were ninety-two beds in the four dormitories of Prep School. Within the soft white drapes of their brand-new mosquito nets, ninety-two young boys fell asleep on their first night away from their homes and families. From that day on, home would be a place we would only visit on holidays. It was all for the best that we were utterly exhausted.
I awoke the next morning in the Malay world, and it felt as if I had never so much as seen it before in my life. I had never heard Malay spoken so naturally and easily before. Mine had been an English-speaking upbringing, my father had insisted on it, as that was the language that would “give auto world”. But here was the Malay world, and in all its diversity of regional tones; Kelantanese in particular was a delight to the ear, but virtually incomprehensible. This being North Perak, however, most of us from the rest of the country would soon shade into the particular patois of Northern Malay in our speech, adopting with ease its rotund simplicites.
English remained, thankfully for me, the medium of our instruction, as it had been throughout our education so far. But soon after I went home for the first term holidays, I overheard my father tell my mother, his voice thick with disgust, ‘You hear the boy? He sounds like a Sayong Malay!” (Sayong being a decrepit little village buried amidst banana groves across the river from Kuala Kangsar.)
I think he meant for me to overhear the exchange, rather than address the point directly to me. I think he understood that the damage done to my speech was the result of a young boy’s effort to fit in with his peers in an alien environment. My first months at Malay College had indeed been difficult. I had never realized how un-Malay I looked. I was one of the tallest among us, even at that age, my shoe size matched most of their fathers’, and my various Indian bloodlines had unmistakably manifested themselves in my facial features and complexion. Coupled with my limited command of the Malay language, I was the butt of taunts and sarcasm.
Once, at a meal-time, one particularly vicious lad had gleefully emptied out half my cup of black coffee and topped it up to the brim with soy sauce. Downing the noxious concoction with unknowing gusto, I reacted in the expectedly spectacular manner, spraying the walls with coffee, soy sauce and spit. “There!” chortled that scum-sucking little baboon, “Now you’ll be even blacker!”
I wasn’t the only one mocked by the juvenile racists among us; this may have been the Malay College, but this was also Malaysia, and more than a few of us betrayed on our faces the Chinese or Indian elements of our ancestries. But I was nonetheless one of the least “culturally Malay” all. For there was something else that set me apart from others, and this only the most irredeemable joked about- I didn’t know how to pray.
I knew I was Muslim, and I had taken some pride of identity in being so. But my instruction in the faith of my forefathers had been largely left to an irregular succession of mumbling religious teachers in primary school, and what little I gathered from their lessons seemed mostly to do with ancient Arabian history. They had instructed us in the Arabic script, and I had earnestly traced the slithery curlicues and spirals into my copybook—it was greatly more akin to drawing than writing. My father had seemed pleased with those efforts, but he himself never played much of a role in imparting to me the details of ritual and prayer, beyond an annual trip to the mosque at the celebratory culmination of the holy month of Ramadhan. Was he derelict in his duties as a Muslim father? Enduring the humiliations of Prep School, I thought so. But later I was to think not. I believe my father was again holding himself in check until such time as I was old enough to understand a glimmering of his own profound, numinous, almost mystical faith in Islam. The ritual observances, with their mumbles and chants and prostrations, were merely a mechanical underlay to the true transcendence of the religion. He would leave it to the mechanics to drill me in the a/if-ba-ta of it all, and come in to apply the vital finishing touches when I was older.
But perhaps my father underestimated my growing capacity for discernment. Even as a child of eight or ten, I had found it well-nigh impossible to attend to instructions delivered with a disregard for what all these arcane sounds, these “‘ashaduillah”s and “bismitlah”s, meant. This was lslam? Sounds? Snaky script and goateed gurus? After the first few teachers had rebuffed my first curious questions, I had simply ceased to pay attention to any of them.
And then it was all too late. Six months after I’d gone to Malay College, in July 1968, eleven days short of his thirty-ninth birthday, my father died.
My mother was widowed at thirty-two. Alter a compassionate interval, she had to leave our quarters at the Language Institute and make do as best she could for herself and my two brothers, who were ten and seven respectively. She managed with such energy and, ultimately, success, as to reveal the true depth and power of a personality that had been hitherto held in abeyance to her husband’s. But my father had lived long enough to have seen me to the Malay College, and I had a new family, of sorts; certainly, a new scaffolding within which to brace myself against loss.
When I returned to Kuala Kangsar after the funeral, it was to find a quiet gift of sympathy waiting for me. My father’s death had been reported in the newspapers, and it had emerged to my schoolmates that he had been a man of Malay letters, a lecturer and librarian, who would be remembered with affection and respect by those who had known him. If I remember rightly (and if not then let me be thankful for the gloss of memory), even the scum-sucking baboon of the soy sauce incident offered me his condolences. I was glad to receive them.
But he would revert to form soon enough, and later that year I would be begging my mother, through streaming tears, to get me the hell out of that awful place, so full was it of vicious racists.
The despair would pass, however, for at the core of it the Malay College was still a school of the elite, the cream of Malay youth, intelligent, inquisitive, alert young men, and once I discovered my niche there the unpleasantness of the first year would fade. The friends I made there would remain as close to me as brothers for the rest of our lives. And there was no question but that we had the ministrations of some of the best teachers we would ever have.
It was engaging to watch the new patterns of friendship emerge and develop among us. We were divided into the College’s four “Houses”, named after the first rulers of the four Federated States of colonial Malaya: Idris of Perak, Ahmad of Pahang, Sulaiman of Selangor, Mohamad Shah of Negri Sembilan. This was a daily framework of association- Prep School’s house divisions were arranged according the four dormitories—and it swiftly supplanted the more natural tendency among us to aggregate according to home states. Few of us had know any of the others prior to coming to Kuala Kangsar (Muslini and I were an exception proving the rule), and our first year at the Malay College was a safari through an exotic terrain of new friendships.
Some would form tight little cliques: there was, for example, the cabal that for two years called itself “FANS” and daubed the title everywhere in chalk. This was an acronym formed of the initials of Fauzi Omar of Kedah, Amin Ariff and Salman Ahmad of Perlis and Nik Mohamad Nassimof Kelantan—a quartet of prideful bosom buddies, flamboyant and loyal to the core, and one which demonstrated the growing irrelevance of home-town loyalties to Malay College boys.
It was one of the most important benefits of the Malay College, once the school had been shed of its royal pretensions. The College brought home to its charges the truth that intelligence and potential had nothing to do with birth or breeding, and that there was indeed a unity of Malaysian states. The College trained us to see ourselves as part of a national Malay identity, and to take pride in that. Some sons of sultans were indeed among us, but there was nothing to set them apart from or above the rest. (The Sultan of Perak’s son, for example, afflicted with a slight malocclusion of his upper jaw, was universally known by the sobriquet: “Bugs”. As in a certain well-known Hollywood hare.)
My niche was what had seemed such a liability and embarrassment when I first got there, the English language. I became a school debater and a fixture in the College magazine. English, for our generation, was an effortless alternative language, yet there was still considerable respect for those of us most fluent in it. It set a certain seal on the Malay College’s quality, that our English debating team could hold its own against those of the nation’s other great schools, notwithstanding their more expansive resource of Chinese and Indian youth. For a mere Malay to stand up and strut the oratorical boards, his arguments prevailing, his eloquence and arrogance more than match for those of his Worthy Opponents… there was some pride in that.
I made the debating platform my personal bailiwick in the five years I would spend at Malay College, and although I would still rather have been a sporting superstar or a scholastic wunderkind, I held my own, helped my school satisfy its addiction for winning, and was as a result largely forgiven for my cultural deficiencies as a Malay. Rehman (kind of name is that? “Raymond”? You sure it’s not a spelling mistake?) might not have been able to extricate himself from the slightest literary tangle in Malay, but in English, ho, you should have heard him! That guy could talk!
AH, KAMIL, you great gruff bluff bear of a man, what’s with you these days? If only life were a rugby match, eh? We could make something of it then, no joke, hey, we could charge across the touchline like avenging giants, they’d be blowing in our slipstream like rags … well, you could, anyway … I’d just be cheering you on from the sidelines, shredding my throat in exultant praise of your heroism…
Sure, we know the truth here: you made the First Fifteen, while my College rugby career lasted ten minutes. (Joe Baker, lah, the bastard, made me run two laps of the field for turning up late for our first rugby practice, remember? Prep School? 1968? Wrecked my rugby career before it even started…) But you had some good times on that field, didn’t you? I’ve remembered that one moment from that one game ever since, not that I give a shit which poor school we destroyed that afternoon on the Big School field—no, there was just that one try you scored, mate, that was sheer brutal poetry. You charged the last ten yards to the line with three of their players streaming from your torso like banners in the wind. It looked like your jersey was in tatters, but no, the tatters were your opponents. There was no stopping you that day, Kamil, you were magnificent.
Yeah well, we’re not there anymore; we’re here now, late thirties already. Marriages and families … maybe the less said about them the better. I didn’t go to yours, you didn’t come to mine, and see what happened? But what the hell. We’re still young. Young as we’ll always be. Sure, it’s a bit disconcerting going back to Kuala Kangsar for the Old Boys’ Weekend having the present boys call us “Uncle”. Kinda focuses mind that, doesn’t it? First it was “Abang”, which was cool really; made one feel quite grown up. But “Pak Cik”? O unkind cut!
Do you get the impression they’re not like we were? Sure you do. Hell, we were unique! Last of the pre-69ers, that was us. And the first batch to score 100% passes at Form Five AND win the national schools rugby championship in the same year—now there’s something to be remembered for! But the changes came thick and fast after 1969. “Elitism out,” “Malay College no different from other schools.” But the school remained true to its founding ethic even then: it was still reflecting the Malay ideal. First it was for the royals. Then for the “Malay Administrative Elite”. Then the new nationalism. And then, during the years of uncertainty and drift, the College was drifty and uncertain. And we were there to watch it happen. Headmasters came and went every couple of years, and after Ryan and Aziz they all seemed to get progressively smaller, didn’t they? What kind of weird culmination was Charlie Tot, for instance? Flailing around like a dervish with his cane—you got it once, didn’t you? For some stupid macho stunt like smoking, or something. But I never did. I was an angel. I didn’t smoke my first cigarette until I was twenty, the same year I lost my virginity. (Come to think of it, it may have been the same night, so much for the evils of smoking.)
But you weren’t afraid of being a rebel. Perhaps we expected it of you. After all, we kept electing you President of our year all the way up to Fifth Form. You did all right, though. Remember the Great Food Revolt? We were in Form Three or Four. There was schoolwide unrest over the slop they were serving us to eat every day. There was a call for a food boycott on a particular night. Some of the Fifth Formers were saying we should overturn our plates and walk out. This was serious— there was something deeply offensive, even immoral, about doing that to a plate of rice. The night arrived. We milled about the dining hail, uncertain of how far this should go. Everyone waited for someone to tip the balance one way or the other: would we sit down and eat, or would we walk out? And you did it. You said, “Ah, enough!”, and you picked up your plate of rice, banged it upside down on the table, and walked out. And we followed you, feeling positively revolutionary.
Yes, and maybe that’s why you got caned … but hey, it may have been stupid and juvenile, but you acted like a leader, Kamil. And we made our point; the food wasn’t quite so bad after that. I know you enjoy this memory too—after all, it’s one of the reasons Aji and Mae and even Lan still call you Our Leader when you turn up at one of our bashes at MCOBA.
Not that you turn up at the Old Boy’s Association all that often. Neither do I. We have our reasons, I suppose. I so much respect Wan Katak for all the work he does for MCOBA. Meli, too. But Wan’s the One, isn’t he? The Main Man, the Lynchpin. There’s one guy with his life in order. CEO of a finance company, penthouse office, Mercedes Benz in the parking lot, gorgeous wife, lovely kids, always on the blower talking megabucks … and still the least pretentious dude in the world, happily keeping in touch with the rest of us. Katak’s a credit to everything MC stood for.
But it seems most of us are doing okay these days. Aji’s still sharp as ever. (His was the most memorable criticism I ever received as a writer. Many were telling me to lighten up on the bombast, but Aji put it this way: “Kalau budak Kolej pun tak faham, apa tah lagi lesser mortals?”) Mae’s going great guns in the Foreign Service. Mat’s Assistant Editor of The Malay Mail and winning journalism awards hand over fist, the sod. Wano’s rich, full stop, and Ali probably owns a chunk of Saudi Arabia by now.
Ah, but you know all this better than I do; at least you’ve been here while I’ve been arsing about all over the world for lack of a home to believe in. But you know, I’ve been back a while now, wandering around the country. I stopped by KK. I stood on Station Road and watched a football match on the Big School field. It felt strange, and strangely exhilarating, to stand with all those geeks and their bicycles on the other side of the fence where they’ve been since the dawn of time, watching from the cheap seats. College boys still seem to play a game of football. Ah, that glorious field! Those grand buildings! From that distance, I could believe nothing had changed; they might have been us in those white uniforms, in that black-yellow-red kit. They might have been us
…eating paus in Yut Loy and toast in Double Lion. Sneaking out to watch films at Kapitol. Feeding the jukebox at Pak Kassim’s, annoying the girls from GEGS. (But come on, were ever really annoyed? We were MC boys, we were the Best and the Brightest, and if they didn’t think so it was their loss, right? The boys from Clifford School, now they were annoyed.)
Maybe I’ll see you back there, Kamil, come the next Boys’ Weekend. Whoever gets there first books a bed in Pavilion for the other. Any bed will do; you know how soundly we all sleep when we’re back at MC. Something in the air I suppose.
Or something else; something in our pasts; something in our souls. Something to do with being children growing up together; meeting at the age of twelve, parting at eighteen-but never really parting at all. That’s the best thing MC did for us I think. No matter what cars we’re driving these days, nor who’s high and who’s low, who’s rich, who’s not, who’s “made it and who hasn’t and whatever any of it means … none of it really mailers when we’re with each other. No bullshit between College boys, Kamil. We know each other too well. Maybe that’s all an “Old Boys’ Network” is: a mutuality of knowing.
Given the ordure we’ve had to swallow since we last swaggered around Kuala Kangsar on a Saturday morning town leave in our white uniforms, the constant remaking of the Malays cording to models that change with the moon, that’s something to be grateful for. None of us is truly alone, and when the changes come, we change together.
Fiat Sapientia Virtus, hey? Let Wisdom be Virtue. (But what does that mean, exactly?)