Wednesday 18 April 2012

The X Factor

We're familiar with the 24th letter of the English alphabet in words like x-rated, x-ray, 'x' as the unknown factor in mathematics or Mr. X as someone whose identity is not revealed to the public.

'X' is such an elastic letter and can be adapted to describe a variety of aspects, ranging from the sacred to the irreverent to the undisclosed.

When used for words like Xtian, Xtianity and Xmas, the letter 'x' comes from the Greek letter chi, the first letter in Xpiotoc  which means Christ.  'Christ' as in Jesus Christ means Messiah.

More crucially, for many today this extraordinary letter is very popular with the media in their search-for-talent programmes.

For me, at the moment, the letter 'X' is appropriate to recount my 1978 one-month stint at ACJC (Anglo-Chinese Junior College).  It was indeed an odd trip (quite acidic most of the time) into the sacred and almost secretive world of the affluent and privileged.  Together with the new non-ACSian (pronounced Xsian) Pre-U I students, I found myself embedded in a kind of nursery or crib for the elite, rubbing shoulders with the scions of the Christian and mainly Chinese Gentry of Singapore.  These students were seconded to this Made-in-Singapore Eton because there were not enough places for them in the Government JCs.  Like me, these newcomers represented the "hoi polloi" in the eyes of both students and staff of the blue-blooded ACSians - and were regarded with patrician aloofness as if they were barbarians knocking at the Squire's portals.

The ACSians had good reasons to be sniffy.  Founded in 1886 as an extension of the Methodist Church by Bishop William Fitzjames Oldham, their school grew into one of Singapore's most prestigious English medium schools.  It produced very successful men in both business and the professions.  It had a very powerful and committed Alumni who were prepared to dig deep into their pockets for the betterment of the Alma Mater.  Former students were also encouraged and assured of getting appointments in the school -except, that is, for the 'vernacular' Malay and Mandarin teachers.  Both staff and students had a strong sense of exclusivity and loyalty to the school.

ACS as a Junior College was just one year old when I was there.  Because of my proletarian background, I was quite overawed by the ambience and facilities of the College.  It was the first JC to have a sports complex and a 400m bitumen track on the campus itself.  The Shaw Sports Complex left all the other JCs standing.  They had state-of-the-art lecture theatres, a state-of-the-art air-conditioned library and a huge state-of-the-art Tan Chin Tuan Auditorium.  For the first time in my life I got to fondle a large grand piano donated by a former ACSian!  My Ford Cortina Station Wagon looked out of place compared to some of the students' cars!

Like poor country mice, the new non-ACSian students and I were quite prepared for the classy habitat of the well-heeled town mice.  But we did not anticipate the cultural shock on our first day.  On that first day, we were assembled before the Singapore Flag to read the Pledge, a daily, secular requirement to affirm loyalty to the Republic.  That over, we were all (except for the true-blue genuine ACSians) ready to march to our respective classrooms when we were stopped in our tracks.  We heard a Senior student reading The Lord's Prayer accompanied by a chorus from the ACSians.  I must admit I was stunned, and I saw it on the faces of the other 'alien' students there.  Like them, I was not informed  by the MOE (Ministry of Education)about this additional religious requirement in a secular state like Singapore.

Today I can still recite the Girl Guides' oath off the top of my head.  The National Pledge before the Singapore Flag, both in English and Malay, is still ringing in the recesses of my 68 year old brain.  And after one month in ACJC  The Lord's Prayer kept echoing in my head for months after I had departed for foreign shores.

And I was there for just one month.  I shudder for the non-Christian students who would remain there for the next two years!

I have often wondered.  What if I had no choice, if there was no alternative of another job in Brunei?

But first let me relate a true story to complement the above.

Once upon a time (in 1982 actually) in the city of Hull, there was a 5 year old spunky little boy called Shah.  Here he is - with his old man Mus - posing in his school uniform trying to look like Mr. Atlas.

His first school was Newland St John's  Church of England Primary School:

On his first day at school during the School Assembly, when they were reciting The Lord's Prayer he cried out loudly for all to hear.

"I cannot say this.  I am a Muslim."

Shah's parents were called up for a talk with the headmistress.  She said that Shah still had to attend Assembly but he did not have to recite the Lord's Prayer.  She also said there were other Muslim children in the school but this was the first time she had encountered such a protest.

You see, this was not just another little Muslim boy.  He was Cucu-si-Hamid,  the grandchild of Hamid!

How on earth do you expect a child or a Pre-U I student to mentally shut out a daily religious mantra?  Shah's parents taught him to read the Fatihah instead.

For that month of January, during the daily morning Assembly at ACJC,  I psyched myself to switch off the incantation but it was hard - very, very hard.

But this was not all.  I met head-on the next challenge to my faith .........!

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Another Tale or Two.

.........  and to continue where I left off.  I was writing about the nail in the coffin that the Nanyang cabal at Jurong Secondary School had prepared for Miss Hamid.

But first, here are a couple of images from that inglorious era.  JSS had grand plans such as  running seminars during the school holidays to rejuvenate and inspire laid-back and browned-off  members of staff to be better teachers, to turn the school into the A-Team of Education.  That of course assumed that the teachers did not "know better" before this.  At thirty-two, I "knew better" : you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Oh Yeah?  Tell us something new!

Blah! Blah! Blur! Blah! Blur! Blur .....zzzzzz
Of course every seminar must have a theme.

Towards Change for Betterment
 Remember, this was 1976 - so little old JSS was quite a pioneer in catchy slogans and self-advertisement.  But that "Towards Change for Betterment" was not my idea.   In response to the wishes and objectives of the gaffers the words were chosen by Mr J,  another  English medium teacher who was in JSS way before I turned up.   He was 'appointed' the general factotum for any task requiring the English language - doing tedious and time-consuming tasks that nobody else in the English stream wanted to do - like writing the minutes of every Staff Meeting.   Poor Mr J!  He 'co-operated' with the system because he was given the hope by those in power in JSS that they could help to expedite his application for Singapore citizenship.  Mr J. was from Johor.

By late 1976 and early 1977 I was feeling the strain of being a minority Malay in a minority English medium in an Integrated Chinese-English School  like JSS.  I was getting weary, having constantly to look out for my kids in the English stream, having to negotiate a way out of every nook and cranny of overt and covert discrimination.  This was like a re-run of my years in Yusof Ishak Secondary  School  (1967-1974)  when I played out the role of a 'bouncer' for the Malay medium kids vis-a-vis the English medium.

Sometime in early 1977 I responded to this advertisement  for teachers in Brunei.

I was called for an interview at Shangri-La Hotel on 12 April 1977.   In mid-1977 I was informed that my application was successful.  I got cold feet and tucked that letter away in a file.  They sent me another letter asking for my reply in November ( if my memory served me right).  I kept on thinking of  SLL's - my good friend and confidante - advice:  "Maz, as a Malay graduate, you won't go far in Singapore.  Your future would be better if you were just a factory worker.   If I were you I'd leave for Malaysia."

Well, as usual, circumstances and fate (?) helped me to make the right move.  Just a few days before January 2 1978, the beginning of the new academic year at JSS, I received a letter from the MOE (Ministry of Education) stating  that I had been transferred to ACJC (Anglo-Chinese Junior College).   I knew something sinister was afoot.   It was a plan that the Nanyang Mafia had drawn up to get rid of the craw in their throats.

In the first place, such transfers were usually given out weeks before the beginning of the new term.   This was like the rabbit that the Nanyang Mafia had pulled out of their hat.  Secondly, as a teacher in a Christian Missionary Sixth Form College, albeit one of Singapore's pukka schools, my future was doomed.  Moving you sideways meant that your upward mobility was extinguished.

I was told that during the first School Assembly at JSS,  no mention was made of the whereabouts of Miss Hamid, one of the school's Senior Teachers.  Usually the Principal would announce the arrival of new teachers and thank those who have been transferred.  I was quite simply airbrushed out of the picture.  I would  whenever possible, make several visits to the school to meet up with my former colleagues.  At times I would 'bump' into the Nanyang Mafia and their cronies on the school premises but they very quickly slunk away for an escape hole when they see me about.  I do enjoy re-visiting my /their sins!!

I dutifully reported for work at ACJC on 2 January 1978.  The day before, on 1 January I handed in my one month's notice of resignation to the MOE.  On that same day I wrote a letter of acceptance to the post of Education Officer in the Government of Brunei's Department of Education.

That transfer would be the biggest favour that the MOE of Singapore had given to me.

Syukur Alhamdulillah.

To be continued .......

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Time Traveller

I fancied having a little break from recording life's travails.

Take a trip with me into the past. 

This is Guitar Berbunyi, a 78 r.p.m. vinyl  played on my 1950s/1960s  player.  I regret I cannot recall the names of the singers because the record is kept in Kuala Lumpur and all I have here is the video.

During our courting days the spouse introduced me to Tino Rossi (1907-1983) a  popular French (actually he was Corsican) singer.  Guitar D'Amour  (1935) was my absolute favourite and I fell in love with this song as soon as I heard it. 

Years later in Kuala Lumpur we were sorting out our collection of  Malay 78s and imagine our surprise and joy when we heard  Guitar Berbunyi.   We allowed our minds to wander to the mid-1930s thinking  how someone from Indonesia or The Straits Settlements heard Tino Rossi's Guitaire D'Amour  and decided to record it  in Malay.  It's all the more fascinating because this is a French song.  Just imagine!!

Here is Guitare D'Amour by Tino Rossi

Sit back.  Let your mind drift to the 1930s.  It's something I indulge in, more and more.

Monday 2 April 2012

A Tale or Two

In the light of the recent brouhaha about the "Christian threat" Seminar in Johor,  I recall some instances of my encounters with Christians and Christianity.

Like the merchant houses and various types of carpet baggers,  missionaries and Christianity came to our part of the world on the coat-tails of  Portuguese, Dutch and British invasions and imperialism.  One very potent vehicle for lubricating the colonial system and for conversion of the natives was the setting up of schools - for both boys and girls.  The missionaries undoubtedly contributed a great service to education in the far corners of the British Empire but it was a very successful enterprise which brought in bountiful dividends, both  financially and spiritually.

One very, very successful story is that of the Anglo-Chinese School in Singapore.  It could even be regarded as the Eton of Singapore.

I can claim  two very peculiar  flings in my education in Singapore.    The first - which also marked the beginning of my education -  was my one-day sojourn at Pasir Panjang Malay School - that beautiful school by the sea at 6 milestone Pasir Panjang Road.  The last was at Anglo-Chinese Junior College, better known as ACJC.  That was just for one month, for January 1978.  That year also marked my final break from teaching in Singapore and the beginning of a new, wonderfully weird and wandering life.  Like my ancient ancestors who were maritime nomads, I became a terrestial one.

The background goes like this.  When I came back from my study leave at London University in 1975, I was posted to what the likes of the wealthy well-scrubbed boys in ACS would describe as a sink school.  Jurong Secondary School was initially a Chinese medium school tucked away in the 'jungle' of Jurong.  It expanded when Jurong became the hub of Singapore's industrial revolution.  It had to take in the English medium teachers and students but the reins of 'power' were held - or should I say, monopolised - by the Chinese stream Nanyang University graduates.  After a year spent in JSS, I dubbed them the Nanyang Mafia and sometimes the "Gang of Four" (as in Chairman Mao's PRC at that time).

The English stream students were treated like second class citizens.  They were constantly picked upon by the Disciplinary Teachers, mainly  Nanyangians.  Those from the Chinese stream were treated with kid gloves. 

My best friend  KT  was a brilliant English Literature teacher but she was relegated to teaching English as a Second Language in the Chinese Stream.  As she was not a Graduate she had to give way to someone who was .  KT and I will never forget this Graduate's excuse for not wanting to teach Shakespeare's  "As You Like It".  She did not study that particular play while she was in University!!!!  Do they still make graduate teachers like that today?

So  KT went to her first ESL lesson in  Secondary Two  Chinese Stream .  When she greeted them with the usual "Good Morning Class" , they responded with grumpy mutterings - almost hostile.  Then one of  the girls stood up and haughtily asked KT,  "You are Chinese, why do you teach English?"  For a moment, KT was stunned.  She simply told them,  "I am here because I was given this duty by your Principal.  Whether you like it or not, English is an  important language for you to learn."

A few days later as KT was walking past these Chinese stream classes the students had prepared another greeting for her.  They snapped shut very loudly one by one, a series of louvred windows as KT walked past every classroom on that floor.  She was assailed by the sound of snap, snap, snap from the louvres of each window frame as she walked along the corridor.  There was no one to be seen - just that serial clattering of  snaps.  KT kept calm and when she got to the Teachers' Common Room, she broke down.   How cruel, these snaps of bigotry from such young souls.  All said and done, the Principal attempted to assuage KT's anger and explained to her why these Chinese stream students did what they did  blah, blah, blah and all they had to do was to make a curt apology to their  "Sen Sen".

Hats off to you Malaysia - in making Malay the National Language and the medium of education.   Fifty-five years on and I can still hear those snapping louvres!!

By my second year in JSS, I was promoted to  Senior Teacher for the English Stream.  I made it my duty to 'correct various anomalies' in the administration of the school.  For instance, the winners of the oratorical and story writing competition were usually given prizes of Mandarin Dictionaries.  I put a stop to that practice.

There was "a problem", they said, of getting the right prizes.  I offered to get it done, to select the most suitable English  language books for each  level .    That would be too costly, they said.   I asked them how much they allocated for the Chinese stream.  On that basis, I had no problem getting the kids the right books.  It took me several  trips from Jurong in the west to MPH and other bookstores in the  city centre, but they loved what they got.  That did not win me any hearts from the Nanyang Mafia.

When the school was organising a trip to West Malaysia for the students who had done well,  I stood my ground and made sure the English stream students were duly represented.  And on the first lunch break of that 'holiday' in Malacca, I blew my top when the non-Chinese students were told to have their meal in a Chinese restaurant with the rest of the entourage. The Organising Committee lumped everybody's diet to be the same as theirs.  I remembered one statement I made which made them turn purple with fury.  "Is it that difficult to get Muslim and non-Chinese food for us in West Malaysia?  This country has more Malays and Muslims than Singapore!"   So I bundled my non-Chinese ( not just Muslim) students off to a suitable place to eat. And  I did that for every meal at every stop.  The expense came from my own pocket.  The Committee expressed no sympathy or culpability.  I made no claim because it was all too dingy and sickening.

I reckon that was the last nail for the coffin the Nanyang Mafia had prepared for me, for Miss Hamid.  As a Senior Teacher, my next step was to move up - to a Principalship.  I had all the qualifications, the experience and my CV was immaculate.  But they had other plans.

The link with Christians and Christianity?  Wait for the next instalment.