Wednesday 30 October 2013

Sekolah Menengah Yusof Ishak - In the Beginning

I did an earlier posting on the school bearing the name of Singapore's first and (so far) only Malay President just about 2 months ago .... .  But I think I did too much ambling with the preamble.

My thoughts about the first school I taught in, about the first set of students that I was responsible for, about my first encounter with colleagues (teaching and non-teaching), about my first job at 23 after University, were all too complex and difficult to relate.  It's like recalling a first marriage, full of hopeful happiness ......

Rookie teacher in the Art Room of Sekolah Menengah Yusof Ishak, 1967

....... but it ended like in  P.Ramlee's song :  Ku sangka panas sampai kepetang, tetapi hujan ditengah hari.

In 1968 during my second year as a rookie teacher , I was given an extra-curricular duty that most teachers avoid like the plague.  Koh Sei Hian and myself were the only graduate teachers in YISS and the old guard in the school reckoned that these two must be made to jump the hurdles and  climb the ropes - just to teach them a lesson : nudge, nudge, wink, wink???   We were given the onerous task of producing the School Magazine. It involved having to organise articles from the students and getting reports from the teachers running the school's various activities.  These two jobs were comparable to extracting blood out of stone. Then we had to go with begging bowl in hands to extract donations and advertisements. I learned how to grow a thick skin while doing that.  Choosing the printers and supervising them (and the cost) needed the executive skills of a CEO.  Arranging the photo sessions for the Staff, all the classes and all the School's activities for the morning and afternoon sessions required the dedication and tenacity of a sheep dog rounding up a flock of errant sheep in the wilderness of Wales. 

When the Magazine was finally produced we were  bombarded by tetchy queries like "Why didn't you do this? or that?  What a lousy photographer! The students' articles are hopeless - can't you get better ones?  The printer must have cheated you - it's such poor quality paper!" Blah! Blah! Blah!  Koh Sei Hian and I did this thankless job for year after year until one year I decided to join the Army and run the Girls' Unit of the school's National Cadet Corps (NCC).  

Below is the 'dummy'  cover of the 1968 school magazine JASMANI ....

....... and the members of the Editorial Board.
The Editorial Board 1968.  Seated from left to right: Che'Gu Maznoor and Che'Gu Shukur (Senior Assistant Malay Medium)  representing the Malay Medium,  the Principal Mr Charles Lazaroo,  Mr John (Senior Assistant English Medium) and Mr Koh Sei Hian from the English medium.

I liked the starkly simple design of the Cover,  the 'Jawi" font  and especially the two 'lines'  above and below the title.

That design incorporated the structure of YISS.  It began in 1965 as Jubilee Integrated  Secondary School, comprising of the Malay and English mediums.  It was tucked in between West Coast Road, Jubilee Road and Upper Ayer Rajah Road.  In 1966, the then Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew officially opened Yusof Ishak Secondary School - a more respectable designation than the run-of-the-mill  Jubilee Integrated Secondary School.  

In terms of  the development and demise of Malay education in Singapore, the context has to be understood. During the Colonial period, education  was never planned to be a leveller - as a means of improving the life and fostering the unity of the so-called "multi-racial" population.  Education in English was provided by the Colonial Government with the 'co-operation' of Christian missionaries. Their function was to oil the machinery of the Empire and as a bonus, especially for the latter, to enlarge the Congregation.  The Chinese mercantile community had always been very regardful  and supportive of Chinese education.  They were willing and able to put their money where their mouth was.  All for the tong pao.  The 'graduates' from  Chinese schools faced no problems in getting gainful employment because of their community's domination in Singapore's economy.

Education in the Malay language was never regarded with much seriousness by the Colonial Authorities other than to perpetuate the Malays' ghettoization in the unprofitable, primary economic activities like farming and fishing as can be seen in their curriculum.  In 1959 in Singapore, there were only 26 Malay primary schools and the highest level was up to Standard VII.  "Graduates" from these Malay schools ended up in the lower levels of the administration - as peons, soldiers, police and postmen.  In the private sector they were mainly  employed as drivers, gardeners and servants for the upper and middle-class European  and Chinese employers.  Although there was a request for the provision of English language lessons way before the Second World War, the Colonial authorities did not oblige until after the War itself.

As a matter of interest, the Colonial Government gave a grant of $30 per pupil  for the English schools.  In the Malay schools, it was only $17 per pupil!  We hear a lot about the massive contribution of  Christian Mission schools to education in Singapore and the Peninsula  but it should be noted that their collaboration with the Imperial Order was well-rewarded.  They were generously subsidized and granted a hefty leg-up by the British Colonial Government to the tune of $30 per pupil.

My career as a teacher began in Sekolah Menengah Yusof Ishak  in 1967.  From  Primary 1(1951) to University I was educated in the English stream, quite a rarity for a Malay, especially a female.  My exposure to learning my mother tongue in Primary and Secondary School  was very limited and sometimes non-existent at all.   Yes, I took the Examination for Malay language during my Senior Cambridge - and I got a mere Pass at S7.  I'm not too proud of that today but in the 1960s, Mathematics, English Language and Literature, Physics and Chemistry took priority.  After all, my preparation for my Senior Cambridge Malay Language paper began only in the latter part of  Secondary 4 (Form V).  We Malay girls from Crescent Girls' School were directed to a weekly class at Gan Eng Seng Secondary School on a Saturday afternoon.  We met up with other Malay pupils from several English schools who were in the same boat as us.  For my first Karangan we were told to write about any topic we wanted.  So my title was Darihal Kuching!    

Six years later, I was given a simple idea on how to teach in Malay.  This time it was Darihal Rokok.

That will be in my next posting.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

The Canonisation of Lim Chin Peng - Blood or Ideology?

"The sense of still belonging to China is shown in this Victory Day celebration at Kuala Lumpur below the portrait of Dr Sun Yat -sen, founder of the Kuomintang and Father of the Chinese Republic."

A commemorative plate to celebrate V-Day.  The spouse bought this in a shop in Chinatown Singapore in1987.

Now that I'm at the cusp of my seventh decade, and having started on a regime of pill-popping after  breakfast, lunch and dinner, I thought I'd give myself a break and take a sabbatical leave from writing.  So, I looked up my embroidery books, my boxes of silks and aida fabric with the idea of getting back to a more placid domestic activity like sewing.

I'm still bemused by a comment made a couple of years ago by someone (obviously a male) who was  so narked with me for challenging his opinions that he ordered me to get back to my wifely duty of ironing my husband's shirts!  But AsH doesn't do ironing.  At least not shirts.  Instead she got tempted into ironing out crooked thinking - after she'd caught sight of an obituary on General Vo Nguyen Giap  in the Guardian, 4 October 2013.  Why?  Because it reminded her of Giap's contemporary Lim Chin Peng who'd died just a month earlier - and the question of context.

Giap (1911-2013) was a lawyer trained at the University of Hanoi.  "As a child," said the obituary, "his sense of nationalism had been nourished with stories of heroic Vietnamese generals and their victories against the Chinese and Mongols".  He was a brilliant general, "well-versed in Marx and Mao Zedong's writings on guerilla warfare".  But he often said, "We fought our wars in a Vietnamese way.   My only influences were the great strategists of Vietnamese history". Together with Ho Chi Minh, with the support of the Vietnamese Kinh, largely regarded as the 'standard Vietnamese'  identity, Giap orchestrated the defeat of the French in 1954 and of the US and its puppet South Vietnam in 1975.

South Vietnam was not only strongly Catholic. It had a concentration of the Hoa or Sino-Vietnamese, who'd migrated to Vietnam after the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644.  Before the fall of Saigon in 1975, these people had dominated Saigon's business and commerce.  Inevitably they also made up the bulk of the 'boat people' who subsequently fled Vietnam. Today, however, the Hoa make up only a small percentage in an economy which is now run mostly by Vietnamese.


History, as we know, is written by the winners. So, our analysis of history, its events and personalities, needs to be considered within a clearly-stated context to be understood.  In particular, who stands to benefit from the writing?  And who defines the terms: who defines the crooks and the heroes, the monsters and the saints, the terrorists and the freedom fighters?

Take those last two labels.  They have been bandied about, and manipulated (implicitly and explicitly) to fit into many different agenda by accredited academics and other opportunistic 'rogues, rascals, and scallywags'.   "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter"- how many times have we heard that cliché?  Often, no doubt, when talking about Palestine. And increasingly, nowadays, when talking of our own recent history here in Malaysia.

Now that LCP has departed, there seems to be a revival of the urge to rewrite Malaysia's history - most especially that of the period from 1930, through the Japanese Occupation and the 'Emergency' to Merdeka. And especially the role of LCP.  So how do we make sense of the various events and personalities that make up that history over that time?  Perhaps we need to look at the context - the context of both time and space.

In particular, the time of the post-1948 Emergency (or perhaps 'Insurrection" is a better word) coincided with the demands and wars for independence from European imperial powers.  It was also the period of the Cold War between two competing ideologies, Communist and the (so-called) Free World - and it especially saw the rise of Communist China and the war in Korea.  But the 'Emergency' had a longer  (and more particular) formative history than this.

In any analysis of the 'Emergency' the context of space is crucial.  It was the space of the Malay Peninsula or Semenanjung Tanah Melayu, not just such British appellations as The Straits Settlements, The Unfederated Malay States, The Federated Malay States, The Crown Colonies, Malaya or the Federation of Malaya.  And this space of the Malay Peninsula, before the onset of colonialism, was not a void, any more than Africa was a 'dark continent' to be discovered, carved up and exploited. No, the Malay space was already a complex cultural and political reality.

It was made up of several sultanates each with a long history of its own.  Of course it was feudal, just like Britain, France, Holland, Spain, China, Russia, India and many others once were. These sultanates had systems of government that presided over their society and economy.  If academics and liberals in Malaysia and overseas, choose to describe this part of the Semenanjung's history as decrepit, corrupt, piratical and unrepresentative, well, so were all other feudal (or not so feudal) societies.  And let us remember: the history we were brought up with abounds with Malay pirates - but is very shy of talking about the many white ones (like Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and other "privateers")) who crowded the colonial past.

Anyway, from the 16th century on, our space was invaded, 'carved up and exploited' by Christian Portuguese, Dutch, and British soldiers, adventurers, merchants, carpetbaggers and missionaries. These people came, they saw, they conquered - they  ravaged the landscape for profit.  Not only that, they (and especially the British) re-designed and manipulated the original demography of the Peninsula.......

British Immigration Policy very almost made the Malays a minority in their homeland.
........ creating a landscape of entrenched economic disparities, language and educational  exactions and toxic issues of race and religion.

The Peninsula was like the Goose that laid the Golden Egg. Naturally the ones with the right tools and better techniques and loadsofmoney, those from the Metropolitan nest, got the best. In the middle were the 'enterprising' immigrants - loaded with business acumen, thrift and a good dose of what the Brits saw as the good old 'Protestant Ethic' of diligence and hard work.  They knew what, when and how to harvest the benefits, playing the role of the deserving and dependable middle man.  It was an economic playground where the native denizens were outside the fence looking in - picking what they could - except, that is, for a few carefully cultivated members of the elite.  

So, this was the situation, just after the Second World War.  Soon, almost all colonies in Southeast Asia were involved, in one way or another, with fighting for independence.  And the 'Cold War', of course, was always there.  The Malay Peninsula, like Vietnam, was sucked into a bloody conflict fuelled by Communist ideology - each with its leaders, its victims and its heroes.  Each had its own particular context - or versions of context, as defined by the observer.

It is the context that defines the heroes.  And this is what I thought when I read about General Vo Nguyen Giap - and Lim Chin Peng.  Each man is considered to be a hero and a 'freedom fighter'.  Now, I can understand giving Giap such a label: after all, the Vietminh and the Vietnamese people fought a long war of independence from first the French and then the Americans.

But  Lim Chin Peng is a different kettle of fish. For LCP, the Malayan Communist Party, the Min Yuen, the Malayan People's Liberation Army, the Chinese squatter-supporters and the Chinese language teachers and students, it was not just a matter of ideology - of a revolution to overthrow the capitalists and install Communism, to replicate the victory of Mao Zedong in China in 1949, or a struggle for (Malayan) 'national' liberation. It was, as much as anything, a matter of race.  The table below tells enough.


It has to be made clear that LCP's and the MCP's agenda did not begin with the insurrection of 1948 . Chinese nationalism - both in China and in the overseas territories where Chinese migrants had ventured, and whether inspired by the Kuomintang or the Communists - was born in the early 20th century as a result of foreign incursions into China, the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty and China's humiliation in the wars with a smaller Japan in the 1930s.

In the Malay Peninsula, LCP's much lauded service in defeating the Japanese ( in alliance with the British imperialists) was not fired by love or loyalty to the Semenanjung : to Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Pahang, Trengganu, Johor, Selangor, Perak, Penang or the island of Singapore.  Crucially, their spiritual fount for participating in the MPAJA  was their Middle Kingdom - and the desire to kick the hated Japanese in the teeth.

Responses to Japanese advance in Southeast Asia
Likewise the goal of 'liberating' Semenanjung Tanah Melayu from British imperialism was to a large extent a a fig-leaf to hide the intention of setting up a 'People's Republic of Malaya' which would to all intents and purposes be Chinese-inspired and Chinese-dominated - an Ali Baba revolution and republic.

But these days, such things are conveniently forgotten by many a well-heeled (and hardly leftie!) commentator. The Friends of LCP now use the Japanese defeat and the achievement of Merdeka to rewrite history - with a particular eye to justifying the consecration of their hero from 'terrorist' to 'freedom fighter'.  They claim that LCP was traduced by the authorities and other Malaysians (especially the Malays).  Even before his demise, a noisy  'agitprop' had been organized among the DAP, MCA and some 'holier-than-thou' academics.  There were, of course, some liberal Malays jumping on the bandwagon - sporting fashionable ideas without giving them much thought.  These are the proverbial 'kacang lupakan kulit' and in  Belacan Malay parlance we call them Pak Torot.

Yes, we all know that in its attainment of Merdeka, the Malay Peninsula was uniquely ( and boringly) devoid of fiery, charismatic leaders - of  'National Freedom Fighters' - like Mahatma Gandhi, Sukarno, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela.  Now, some want to fill the gap.  But with Lim Chin Peng??

For many, like myself, the choice seems bizarre at the very least.  Until, that is, we ask one or two pertinent questions.  And perhaps the key question is about the motives of LCP's  present advocates.

Had LCP and the MCP come to power, the urban "bourgeoisie" (middle class) of financiers, merchants, academics, lawyers and other professionals would have had a pretty hard time - in theory at least.  If LCP had won, the compradors would be out of jobs - in theory at least.  And yet some of LCP's most ardent advocates are precisely such people.  LCP, they say, was a 'nationalist' and a 'freedom fighter'- but whose nation, and whose freedom was he fighting for?  So, another question poses itself: is LCP's promotion, by people who cannot possibly share his ideology, more to do with political opportunism and the tangle of racial politics in Malaysia - and rather less to do with honouring our national heritage?

And that raises more questions.  Have they taken into account those Malaysians  (mainly Malays)  whose fathers, husbands, brothers and sons - and other civilians - were victims of  Lim Chin Peng and his ethos that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" (Mao Zedong, 1938)?   In addition, is there any reason whatsoever why Malays should celebrate LCP as a 'freedom fighter'?  This, I think, is the nub of the issue about "context".


Of course LCP and the MCP  despised the British capitalists and their presence in the Semenanjung.  But would they have been averse to using the same tools that the British used to run the economy - and to 'manage' the native Malays?  Imagine LCP in power in Malaya.  How would the Peninsula's wealth have been re-distributed according to the Communist ethos of  "no private ownership of the the means of production and "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need"?  There would be no taukehs, no tycoons, no rubber king, no rice king, no sugar king, no Genting moneypot, no property developers, no stock exchange speculators.   You'd get jobs through a Politburo.  You may even have to serve in the Army - and/or suffer National Service to boot.

Or would you?  Perhaps LCP, as the son of a petit bourgeois (self-employed) from Sitiawan, may have come to realise that you do not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.  Perhaps his Communism would have been re-oriented to enable the bourgeoisie (shopkeeping and mercantile middle class) to "have its cake and eat it too"- as with Hong Kong.  Furthermore it would be very easy to achieve and sustain because the Chinese-based economic/capitalist infrastructure had already been secured during the period of Imperial British Capitalism.  Perhaps LCP's modern advocates know this was his intention - or at least what he'd end up doing.

And what of the Malays?  Culturally of course, the Malays and the Chinese are as different as chalk and cheese - and a Communist ideology largely inspired in China would hardly have bonded the two on fair and equal terms. Besides, strictly speaking, the Malays were the wrong kind of proletariat: they were not wage earners and industrial workers, they were mainly yeoman small-holding peasants, self-employed on their own  or rented land growing rice and small-scale cash crops.  Certainly padi-farming would be nationalized and national rice targets would be imposed.  Would the kampung survive?  Or would private property like kampung houses be replaced with some sort of communal barracks?  As for all the other native 'running dogs' of imperialism (especially those in the police and armed forces) - well, such 'traitors' would naturally have to be 'encouraged' to recant and abandon their ways.

For the Malays it would have been merely a Changing of the Guard, from a White Christian Britain to a larger Sino-Communist Order.  But there would have been nothing like the arrangement back in the time of the Melaka Sultanate, when - despite the tribute of Bunga Mas - China left the Malays to rule themselves, and to flourish or fall within their own system.  No, this New Order would have all the trappings of a much more rigid subjugation.

An irrational fear?  No, not then.  Remember, the 'Emergency' had come hard on the heels of the aborted (by the Malays) Malayan Union - which had already shown the Malays a measure of how their 'patrons' would betray them, given half a chance.  And Malays had seen too what had happened to Muslims in the Soviet Union - and what was happening in China.  Let us not forget this context.  For my grandfather's and father's generations, there was real fear that LCP and the MCP were on the side of those who wanted to turn their Tanah Pusaka into something very dreadful.  Malays would end up like the First People of North America, or like the natives of Taiwan.  They would be a people who "Hidup Segan, Mati tak Mahu", (too embarrassed to live, but unwilling to die).

The first cut was when Christian Europeans came to exploit and subjugate their world.  LCP and MCP would have given the finishing stroke.

An so, to the admirers of LCP, to those who want to consecrate him as a 'national hero' and a 'freedom fighter' who deserves to "come home", I say this: just consider the context of your self-serving whimsy - and be a bit more sensible.

Remember, it is not only Malays who would have suffered.  If the Peninsula had been turned into the People's Republic of Malaya, we might be celebrating LCP's birthday on 19th October.  Chairman Lim Chin Peng's Little Red Book would be a compulsory text in all schools - where Malay would certainly not be the language of instruction.  (Remember how Malays and everyone else had to learn Japanese during the Japanese Occupation?)  Religion, as the "opiate of the people", would be banned - no Hari Raya or Ramadan (like in Xinjiang), no Deepavali or Thaipusam, no Vesak Day or Easter or Christmas.  Luxury western products, holidays to Disneyland, gambling at Genting would be banned.  The Internet, Twitter, Facebook and the whole IT caboodle would be closely regulated.  As for Campaigns like Bersih and Seksualiti Merdeka - dream on, babe!

Just think of the 'creativity' which would have been stifled.  Think of those arty salons and liberal talking shops in Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur.  Think of the joys of Central Market for our younger (and freer) generation.

You can be sure that there would be no such thing, in Chairman Lim's Malaya, as "The Emergency Festival".
And I wonder too: would Alvin and Vivian dare,  or even want,  to show their faces (?) - and mock Chairman Lim enjoying his caviar, pate de foie gras and his Dom Benedictine?

The prospect would be too awful to bear, wouldn't it?  Think of the exodus there would be. Think of all those (including our liberal Malay Friends of LCP)  who would be scampering to get on the first boat out of Malaya - with or without gold bars.

So, really, it's not about ideology at all, is it?  If it was, most of LCP's latter-day advocates would be switching off their mobiles and running for cover.  No, in the end, this farce about LCP's legacy is really about blood.  Tong Pao. Race. And it always has been.  And when blood trumps ideology, principles, justice ..... there is always a cause for serious worry.

.... And the Moral?

Today the Peninsula is a part of Malaysia - a federation comprising the southernmost fingertip of Eurasia and - a thousand miles away - two chunks of the largest island in Asia. Geographically, it seems absurdly disconnected.  It has some things in common: most especially, it was all once part of the British Empire. But   I cannot think of any political configuration that is so complex and so diverse in terms of its geography, its people, culture and religion.

In the Semenanjung itself, the Empire left us with a vulnerable economy and an easily-combustible demographic structure. One huge explosion was put out in May 1969.  Since then our fire-deterrent system has been quite effective - but only because the residents were more keenly aware of the peril of another fire. We all have a lot to lose if that happens.  Some of us, of course, can afford to get on a boat/plane and like other earlier migrants make a better life elsewhere.   But many can't or won't -"hujan emas negri orang.....". This Tanah-Air is all they have and for people like our two road sweepers, Man and Aisha  - they will stay put, and live and die where they were born. There are millions more, of different shades and hue, like them in Malaysia.
[Just to save us all the hassle of snide comments later: I happen to be in England just now because it is my husband's homeland and he needs to be here.  I have not acquired a British Passport and I am no Mayonnaise Malay - just an old-fashioned  Melayu Belacan.    End of story]

When Winston Churchill talked of giving  "blood, sweat and tears"  his nation was facing a dire situation. We have shed enough blood and tears in this country of ours.  Because of more than a hundred years of self-serving British economic and immigration policy, we cannot now have the luxury of a homogenous population like Japan, or one where one group forms a large majority like in Singapore. It's comparable, maybe, to a ''marriage of inconvenience"!   Keeping together involves a lot of hard work in the spirit of "give and take".  This is a blessed, bountiful country - let's do a lot more giving instead of taking.  Let's be more "timbang rasa" - to balance and to feel - for others.

So let us all be thankful.  Be thankful and think : "There, but for the grace of God, go I - and my country."  Be thankful too for the older generation of patriots, who were willing to put their lives on the line for a freer and more inclusive "Malaya" - and to secure the "good life" most Malaysians now enjoy.

And, for all our sakes, leave  Lim Chin Peng alone.  As terrorists go, he didn't do too badly.  He lived to almost 90, died in a hospital bed, and was duly cremated with family and friends and admirers around him. If we consider the fate of other terrorists/freedom fighters in recent times, LCP in the end was a very, very lucky man.

That is the final context.


Happy the people whose annals are blank in history books.  (Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881) 


For more details regarding the activities of the Kuomintang, the Min Yuen etc. , read the Unrepentant Malaikwai's posting

Malaikwai or Malay devil is a derogatory term for Malays used by the Chinese in Singapore.  In similar manner they also use Kalingkwai and Angmokwai.  These terms are not much articulated nowadays but the underlying spirit of contempt is still there, albeit in  different formats.