This year, the Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, turns 100.
Yesterday, there was a traffic jam of sorts on the north-south expressway to and from Kuala Kangsar in both directions as alumni from several generations balik kampung to join in the centennial celebrations at the school.
I was only 12 and just over four feet short in January 1968 when I took my train journey from Wakaf Baru in Kelantan to Kuala Kangsar.
It was the first time I had travelled out of Kelantan and I was unaccompanied, but was happy and full of anticipation. I had been circumcised kampung style just two weeks before that and the wound had not completely healed, but to be accepted into MCKK was the ultimate in childhood achievement and no amount of pain or fear was going to dent my spirits.
For the next five-and-three-quarter years, the school would be more than a place of learning and passing examinations for me. It would be a home and sanctuary as well, shielding me from the vicissitudes of a nascent nation trying to find its way in a turbulent era.
I am now half a century old and will not miss the centennial celebrations for anything. This, for my class, is the 50/100 year, or 50/50 year, depending on how you look at it.
The Malay College was different, and still is different. The characters it has produced – sultans, a prime minister, deputy prime ministers, ministers, opposition leaders, entrepreneurs, corporate and civil service leaders, generals, police chiefs, doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, professors, and bankers – contributed in immeasurable ways to the ascent of this nation. In many ways good, in some ways not so good, but mostly in ways that are different and would evoke opinionated discussions.
In time, perhaps the Malay College would be judged and remembered for its cricket and rugby glory years when it was run by the British. Or perhaps for producing Tun Abdul Razak. Or perhaps for producing Anwar Ibrahim. Or for producing a group of people who don’t know how to mix with anyone else. Or for the rebels and radicals who have passed through the school.
The one thing that I am certain about is no one who ever went to the Malay College can say that the school did not change their lives.
Children in shorts would go there and graduate as men, wiser, braver and more importantly, more tolerant to the idiosyncrasies of others.
Most Malay Collegians do not judge each other, especially if they are from the same class. Most of us have not really grown up or become much wiser than when we were at the school.
It’s as if whatever you remember of one classmate in his last year at school will be what you assume he is like today, no matter what his age, no matter how many children or grandchildren he has, no matter his position in society or the state of his financial health.
Yes, he may be extremely highly educated or extremely rich or extremely poor, but his mannerisms, attitudes, outlook would not have changed much. If he was clever then, he is likely to be clever now. If he was organised then, he is likely to be organised today. If he was a crook then, he is likely to be a crook now. If he was stingy then, he is likely to be stingy now. If he was manipulative then, he is likely to be manipulative now. If he was radical then, he is likely to be radical today.
Whether the Malay College alumni realise it or not, all their growing up was done at the school. The mould was so powerful that nothing that happened afterwards changed the shape of the man substantially. The school shaped and froze our characters permanently.
And I believe all who went to the Malay College have one common factor in their character – the desire to be different, to make a difference.
Being indifferent or neutral is just not acceptable. And this more often than not causes problems, because we are a species which evolved almost in isolation. Our ideals are often beyond the comprehension of the rest of the world. What we value and cherish are sometimes meaningless to others.
What we admire in others, if we can find anything to admire, are reflections of ourselves and our egos. We fight and are willing to die for principles which others see as not worth being agitated about.
We want so much for a whole nation to trust us, believe in us, to follow us, but our efforts will mostly be futile because of the very reason that we are trying to force that shift in mindset – because we are different.
But I, like most Malay Collegians, will stubbornly battle on. In time, perhaps the world will see our point of view.
In time, perhaps one of us will lead again and will persuade the nation to agree with our beliefs. In time, perhaps we will have enough money to buy the changes we seek. In time, perhaps there will be enough Malay Collegians to shift votes and influence elections. In time perhaps there will be an Aristotle or Keynes or Einstein or Marx among us who will influence and revolutionise human thought.
We survived a hundred years, we waited a hundred years, we have been trying for a hundred years. What’s another hundred years, or two hundred, or a thousand, to change the world…
It would be a sin to pass our lives on this planet and to be remembered for being ordinary. Let’s continue to be different, so that we can make a difference.
The writer attended the Malay College from January 1968 to August 1973. He is Chairman and CEO of Macroworks Sdn Bhd, a management consulting firm.