I spent the last 6 days in Singapore with my nieces, Mariam and Hannah and stayed as usual with Jai, a friend of my former student and who has been for the last 20 or so years a warm and dear companion to me and my spouse. Jai and his family are what I would describe as the indigenous Malays of Singapore. They were from the Southern Islands , a mini archipelago of small islands located to the south-east of Singapore. They consist of Pulau Merlimau, Pulau Seraya, Pulau Ayer Merbau, Pulau Bakau, Pulau Sakra, Pulau Ayer Chawan and Pulau Pesek. Don't even try to look for them on the map because they have been "integrated' into Jurong Island after being used for target practice by the SAF for years.
When I started teaching in 1967, I was made the form teacher and teacher of the lower forms in Yusof Ishak Secondary School even though as a graduate teacher I should be teaching the upper forms. The senior (in age ) teachers decided for their own reasons to keep me in the lower rungs .If I had been a 'bin' instead of a 'binte'it would have been a different scenario.
But I was grateful that I had the chance to teach and take pastoral care of these youngsters who came from the Southern Islands. They would leave their island kampung as early as 5 in the morning to take the sampan to Jardine Steps and then an almost an hour's journey by bus to get to school. It took me some time to realise why they sometimes turned up late for school, or why after about an hour of lessons, they looked sleepy and found it difficult to concentrate. One day, I ticked off one of the boys for failing to submit his Mathematics exercise book. Being the usual tyrant teacher (you can ask Rocky) I came down hard on him and had the poor soul in tears. Then one of his friends intervened and said "Cikgu, buku dia jatoh dalam laut - angin kuat , sampan dekat-dekat tebalek" (Teacher, his books fell into the sea because the sea was rough and the sampan almost capsized ). On hearing that, I wished the earth would open and swallow me up. From that day on I learned to listen and learn from them. I became their bouncer to protect them from the Teacher in charge of the Prefects because they were constantly harassed for arriving late to school, for not tucking in their shirts/blouses, for skirts/shorts that were not of the same hue as the standard school colours. I made a number of enemies for 'looking' out for them. With another sympathetic teacher, Che'gu Ayesha Bevee ,we did out darndest to get them to survive the system, but they were too poor, too unmotivated and too tired however much they tried. Some teachers get apples from their students but I take pride in being given a leafy -looking orange coral by one of my boys. They are all natural divers!. When I tire of teaching such tired minds and bodies; I visualise them moving gracefully in the blue waters surrounding their islands, free and beautiful spirits. They don't deserve to be trapped in the classroom. Of all the minds I have taught, my island kids have a special place in my heart.
That brings me back to Jai, the kampung boy from Tanjung Keling who used to study under the street lights of his housing estate . Today he teaches media studies at various colleges in Singapore after a self-financed Masters Degree from Glasgow University. Mariam said "If Uncle Jai had been a Malaysian, he would be a Professor by now." Never mind Jai, what you are doing in your home patch is just as honourable as a title in a University. You do not need the window dressing to be appreciated.
Going back to Singapore is like visiting a house that is bereft of its garden, it's furniture, curtains, and clutter - all the paraphernalia that makes up a home. This time I also learned about the death of Mansor Sukaimi, just a year older than me. We were all kids from Pasir Panjang Road, we all knew one another even though we were in different schools. Mansor was a high flyer, good-looking, a sportsman and brainy too. I think half of all the girls at Pasir Panjang - Malays, Chinese and Indians and Eurasians were in love with him. But at that time my heart was set on the Eurasian boy who took the same bus as me from Telok Blangah Road. Alas it was love from afar, and we could not find the courage to speak to each other. But he always made sure he sat in the seat just behind me or if the bus is crowded, he would stand next to my seat . Young love sighh !!
Mansor paid a price for being outspoken as an MP but he made good despite his problems. People from Pasir Panjang are tough and as youngsters would say today, cool and brill. My condolences to Zaiton and his family. The Pasir Panjang we grew up in doesn't exist anymore. It has become a road for container godowns, the sea has disappeared, the hills are occupied.
But the dreams we had are still the same.
And Mary Hopkins' "Those were the days, my friend" begins to sound like an epitaph.