I was awoken very early that dawn. My mum dressed me up smartly. After a cup of Milo, we boarded a trishaw. Cars were few and far in between, and only the very wealthy can afford. I was still too young to cycle on my own, not that I owned a bicycle then.
The morning was still grey and cool. The trishaw ride was my first. It was exhilarating with the wind caressing my face whilst eyes feasting on the scenery beyond my familiar neighbourhood. Uncle trishaw was whistling a tune gaily until we reached the bottom of the hill when he stopped and started to huff, grunt and pant. A few of us jumped off to help push the trishaw uphill. Uncle trishaw could not but smile gratefully. In no time we were at the gates of the school, my school. It was my first day of school.
Bright eyed brimming in anticipation I was left in the care of an Indian stranger in a strange room with 30 other boys of different shapes and shades of skin. I was anxious and excited. I had no fear. I shed no tears. I even waved goodbye to my mum trusting her to her promise to fetch me in a few hours time, so brave so trusting. The Indian stranger turned out to be my 1st teacher, late Mr Raman, a gentle giant who stood towering over all of us, and the strange room was my classroom at St Theresa’s Primary School back then in 1970.
A few were bawling their hearts out as if they were being led to a slaughter, refusing to let go of their parents as if their lives depended on. Another few who had lost their grips earlier, sat whimpering and sulking, withdrawn and shocked from their parents’ sudden and brutal abandonment. Some quieter ones just stared into the distance forlornly in their own thoughts wishing off the nightmares. Their eyes still red, distant and vacant.
The rest were like me either brave or just bravado as if we were not new to this experience. Admittedly, butterflies did flutter mightily in our bowels that morning, and one was just too strong and caused premature bowel movement into his pants and onto the floor in the middle of the classroom.
We wore dark blue shorts instead of the school’s turquoise green. We didn’t have text books until almost the end of the years due to translation delays. We studied all subjects in Malay, except for Communication English. Only years later that I became aware that we were the 1st cohort of the nationalised education experiment post May 13. Indeed, a noble aspiration for racial integration and nation building through national education.
Such high aspiration was alien to our young and innocent minds. We were sent to school to learn, make new friends, and most importantly to play. Yes, we studied enough to earn our parents’ smile, more to avoid their wrath. We made friends with all regardless of skin colours, religious inclinations and status. We played hard like there was no tomorrow.
Two of my favourite classes were arts & craft and physical education. Normally, we were given a drawing board, some brushes and a palette of colours to be creative, and we were creative indeed not just on our boards but also on each other’s faces. We were also rather creative with Plasticine modelling clay. Physical education was simply play. I should include UTC (Ugama, Tamil & Chinese), where most of my classmates were “forced” to attend, and we the mischievous few were exempted for there was no Mandarin classes. In any case, the lingua fraca for us was Penang Hokkien.
Recess was the highlight of any school day. We would quickly gulp down whatever fare our school canteen sold. Kosher (halal) or not was never on our mind. However, we did occasionally complain that our fried noodles were cockroach-flavoured, but we gulped them down anyhow for playtime waited for no one and always too short. We played police & thieves, kung fu fighting or combat with all the usual sound effects ala Hollywood.
We were always happy, care free and uninhibited, innocent and truthful. We were race-blind. We were friends for life. We did not even bother to bicker about race or religion, as the habits of some despite being in an all boys Catholic school, even one named after a fiery lady saint. Years passed in a blink and we were going into secondary school.
Inequality started to rear its ugly heads where some of our Malay friends were selected and segregated to further their studies elsewhere. Once again, more were selected and segregated after Form 3, and there Form 5, leaving most of the non Malays and some remnant Malays to study Form 6, and finally most ended up on Papa-Mama Scholarships to continue their tertiary education overseas as spaces in the local universities were limited along racial quota, rather than merits.
The national integration agenda driven by politics tainted by corruption and racialism slid rapidly each cohort down the slippery slope of disintegration. The nation’s once proud and par excellence education system regressed over the praecipe into utter catastrophe and failure. Quality was sacrificed for quantity. Diplomas and degrees were as worthless as toilet rolls. Once envied today of suspect.
The smarter ones and more affluent ones went overseas. The initial trickle turned into a torrent over the years, draining the nation of her most valuable resources, brain power. Better anaemic and alive than retarded and brain dead. One modern sage even hypothesised that value is inversely proportionate to weight. Software is definitely more valuable than hardware. Indeed, how very true, and indeed how very wise.
Private tertiary institutions birthed forth by and through adversity managed to stem the rot and brain drain to a certain extent. All signs, however, were pointing to an already ailing education system, just dying a slow death. National integration is but a distant dream. Preferential treatment and segregation along racial line had taken its tolls and failed, and failed abysmally. Utter disaster. Citizenry grew angrier and more intolerant, more polarised. In the end, sadly, the nation suffered.
I was the 1st cohort. I went through the rot. I suffered the inequality. I experienced the segregation. I almost saw the failures. I was lucky. I was at the beginning of the end. I had the chance to study in Singapore where I saw the success of quality education based on meritocracy.
My country beckoned. I could not but heed her call. Despite a good stint in Singapore, and contrary to reasoned advice, I migrated back home. Yes, my home despite her shortcomings. Ergo, I know what I am lamenting. Bear with me. Sigh.
Yes, I was, actually we were lucky to be in the 1st cohort when the rot has yet to turn gangrenous. We were lucky to have friends who stayed true to each other despite the attempted division and segregation. We saw through the malice, the evil of racism and bigotry. Colours of skin don’t bind. We were friends for life, regardless, and forever. We were undamaged.
O how I missed those halcyon days of my early childhood at St. Theresa Primary School. My deepest thanks to Rosli, Md Radzi, late Julius, Chot, Shaari, Praba, Nantha, Zulrahim, Abdul Rahim Aziz, Rama, James, Lesley, late Bulat, Joseph Wang, Kok Peng, Noor Azli, Fook Kheong, MTP, Bunyamin, Azmi, Yew Seng, Suhaimi, Azmi. Visva, Dana, Boon Beng, Subra, Selva, Soon Lye, Joseph Goh, Andrew, Gerard Danke and many more, each I could still recall fondly, for those happy memories and bonds of friendship. Truly, one Malaysia.