Sunday 17 November 2013


From this .....

A field of common poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

........ to this.

Royal  British Legion paper poppy

Each year, when I was in Pasir Panjang English School  (1951-1957), around November, we were so delighted to be given the above paper poppy  - in exchange for a donation placed into a tin.  In those days the poppy had four petals, but no leaf.  It was one of those so-called freebies which kids loved to get.  It was just like those cake and drink coupons you get on Sports Day.  Mind you, even the smallest donation of five cents meant a lot to us because a plate of mee siam cost fifteen cents at the school tuckshop.  Did we care, or were we told about the significance of that poppy? No.  But it marked the beginning of my love for the poppy. My whim of running across a field of common poppy has yet to be realised although my dream of my favourite kampung flower, the bunga tahi ayam ( lantana camara) blooming in my garden did come true.

Lantana camara 
The paper poppy is worn here and in the Commonwealth (especially the white Commonwealth nations) on the weekend of 9-11 November to mark Remembrance Day and Armistice Day as a symbol of recognising the sacrifices made in past Wars.  Scarlet red poppies grow naturally on disturbed land.  It's quite heartwarming  to observe tiny parcels of red poppies dotting the construction site along a motorway in spring and sometimes summer.  In fact the seeds of the poppy can remain dormant in the soil for almost eight years.

After the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, fields which had been trashed during very fierce fighting - between the French on the one hand and the  English and various other European countries on the other -  were transformed into fields of red poppies growing around the bodies of the dead soldiers.  This was seen again in the fields of Flanders and Northern France during the 1914 First World War, a bitter bloody battle that was described as "a war fought by lions and led by donkeys."  Almost 37 million perished.  However no lesson was learnt as the Second World War (1939-1945) followed, not much later.

These two "World Wars" which started in Europe were basically tribal wars between rich, powerful, imperialist European nation states ( and Americans) , no different from the "civil wars" raging in the continent of Africa and in the Middle East today.  The underlying causes and the nature of these wars were very similar except that the two "World Wars"  dragged in the rest of the non-European world.  It's not to say that the "civil wars"  during the late 20th and early 21st century developed in isolation.  This time it also involved the Western world in terms of  their   " interferences",  the gains they could make from selling weapons of destruction and profiting from playing one side against the other.   However, there are no poppies growing in the fields of Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Somalia, Libya, Egypt and most recently Syria, - to mark the bloodshed!  (As for the opium poppies grown in Afghanistan and parts of Southeast Asia, they are of the Papaver somniferum variety)

This Poppy Appeal in November has however brought criticisms from those who feel that the occasion has been used to justify wars of aggression by Great Britain  against other nations - where there was no threat of an actual invasion like during the First and Second World Wars.  The most telling view was expressed by a 90 year old survivor of the Wars, Harry Leslie Smith.   On wearing the poppy, he wrote ......

"...... it will be the last time that I bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph.  From now on, I will lament  their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world.  I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy. "

Read : 

This year about one million Muslims will be wearing (and donating )  Remembrance Poppies to demonstrate their patriotism to Britain, their country of adoption.

Read :

The community had been castigated (and threatened) for not participating in the Poppy Appeal, for mocking Remembrance Day and Armistice Day because some amongst them refused to support  the establishment and the soldiers who had invaded and caused so much bloodshed in Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.  By the way, for many years, Irish Catholics also boycotted the Poppy Day Appeal because of the British Army's involvement in the 'Troubles' in  Northern Ireland but understandably they were not pariah-rised like the Muslims.

So, as far as Muslims are concerned, all's well that ends well for Remembrance Day - at least in Great Britain.  Their loyalty and patriotism is unquestionable.

What about Malaysia?  Will we have a Bunga Raya Appeal to remember the sacrifices of our soldiers during the Second World War, the Emergency, Confrontation and Lahad Datu?  There was no question that they died defending their country - their multi-cultural country!  Should we remind our children by asking them to wear the paper or plastic bunga raya each year and make a little donation to support the veterans and the family of those who died?  We, the schoolchildren of the 1950s, did it when we were ruled by the British Empire.

Just 10 cents from each student for each year will go a long way.  It's not too much to ask, is it - from all Malaysian children and all Malaysian adults?  If Malaysians are committed enough to various causes by buying and wearing pink and red and green ribbons, surely pinning a little bunga raya  on your shirt is no great sacrifice.  It would truly be a wonderful demonstration of patriotism,  integration and unity if all our religious organisations, political parties, NGOs, Media and other concerned Pressure Groups will participate in a one-minute-silence to remember  "our glorious dead" in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown, Kota Kinabalu, Kucing and every city and town up and down the country.

Pardon?  Did I hear someone say, " Forget it, this is Malaysia.  This is not the UNITED Kingdom or GREAT Britain!!!"   Oh well!  One can dream, can't one?

Operation Daulat -Lahad Datu :  Bearing the body of fallen soldier Ahmad Farhan  Ruslan in Kota Baru, 13 March 2013.  (Image from New Straits Times)

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Darihal Rokok - The Road to Sekolah Menengah Yusof Ishak

Picture this.  In 1967 an Indian graduate and a Chinese graduate from the University of Singapore, both holders of a Teaching Bursary were directed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to take up their posts as teachers in the Tamil medium and Chinese medium schools, respectively.  No, they would not be teaching in English ( their language of instruction since primary school), but in the vernacular - or their mother tongues!

I do not think any policy maker or bureaucrat in the MOE would have dared to suggest such an undertaking. It would have ended in tears, both for the graduate-teachers and especially for their students.  

Within a week of leaving University in 1967, I received a letter asking me to report to the MOE.  I knew it would be about my posting, my first school, my first job!!  At last I would be a bona fide working member of society.  It meant we could now persuade my Abah who had had a heart problem since I was in Sixth Form, to retire. 

At the Ministry, I was told which room to go to.  I met this bureaucrat, a Malay man somewhere in his fifties, I think.  His reaction to my presence verged between severity and haughtiness.  We spoke - in English - about the usual details, of my previous schools and my subjects in University.  Then he dropped the bombshell.  I was to report for duty at Sekolah Menengah Yusof  Ishak the next day.  I must have looked very bewildered so he added that I would be teaching in the Malay medium.  I looked even more aghast and I exclaimed, "How am I to teach in Malay?  Malay is not my medium of learning.  I have been in the English medium from Primary One!"

He was then standing by his office window.  "Senang", he said as he nonchalantly removed a packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, "Just say 'Ini rokok!' to your class".

"But, Che'gu, I'm not teaching about 'Rokok', am I?"

That was the first sign of my bolshie attitude, my rebellious make-up and that did not bode well for me and my future career in the Ministry of Education.  Call that what you want, but I don't suffer fools.  His posture and his behaviour were very, very unprofessional and unbecoming for an Inche Guru.  That was my introduction to my first Malay bureaucrat and Malay language professional.  With that nasty taste in my mouth I started my teaching career in the Malay medium of Sekolah Menengah Yusof  Ishak in February 1967.

So, I duly reported for work and here I have to confess that I did not make a good impression on my new colleagues.  I drove into the school  in my new, second-hand MG Midget.  Nothing remarkable because there was another teacher Che'Gu Suradi who had an  Austin Sprite and the Principal Mr Charles Lazaroo drove a Triumph Spitfire.

How the spouse remembered me from the old days.  But he was an atypical male who knows nowt about cars!  He cannot tell the difference between the kopiak  Morris Minor for learner drivers and my terror-on-four-wheels, the MG Midget.

But I faced a problem.  I was female!   Not only that, I was young, drawing a salary second only to the Principal's, and a free and blithe spirit to boot!    Of my two Principals in YISS,  Mr Charles Lazaroo was the best.   He understood me and helped me in adjusting to a  teaching career that was rife with prejudice, double standards and indiligence.   Mr Lazaroo was a pianist, a composer and a musician and he had no over-riding ambition for himself.   He wrote the school song for YISS and when the kids sang that song after his departure, I could not hold back the tears.

In his time I was called twice into his Office.   I had been supervised by an Inspector from the MOE for my confirmation ( in my post) and he made a  complaint to Mr Lazaroo about me.   I explained to Mr Lazaroo that this Inspector told me off from his seat at the back of the class that teaching my students to measure the length of a river on a topographic map by using a thread or a string was not good enough.  I said to Mr Lazaroo that any School Inspector worth his salt should not reprimand a teacher in full view of the students in the class.    He should call the teacher aside privately.    That was what I learned when I was doing my teacher-training.    In response to his crassness, from the front of the classroom I asked Mr Tan,   " Can you advise me on another method?"     Mr Tan had nothing to contribute.    On hearing  my version Mr Lazaroo smiled and assured me that I have nothing to worry about being confirmed in my teaching appointment.

Just after I had completed my NCC Officer's Training at Maju Camp, I had to make another visit to the Principal's Office.  Mr Lazaroo had a piece of paper in front of him and he said,  "Do you want to know your Final Report?"  I nodded.  He continued, " It says you would make a very good Officer but you're not obedient."  He gave me a knowing smile as if to say,  "So what?"   He's a good egg, dear Mr Lazaroo.    When - in 1970/ 1971(?) - he was transferred to be Director of Music at the MOE, I knew he would be happier than he was as a School Principal.    But for me, YISS would never be the same again.  There came a new order, a new regime of ambitious men and women.   And as I came to learn, there's nothing more pathetic and nasty than a bunch of opportunistic and ambitious teachers/educators - of both the male and female variety.     Self-serving opportunism may work in corporate politics; it's not good when you are responsible for bringing up impressionable children.

The next part will be about my time at the Teachers'Training College and about how I was 'trained' - jumping through silly hoops and dancing to all kinds of demanding tunes..

P.S.  Just to mention an interesting addendum in my career.  A colleague expressed interest in what I did at the University especially with regard to my favourite subject Political Science.  He asked if he could read some of my essays.  I handed over a couple.  A few weeks later he asked, "Hey Maznoor, would you like to join the PAP?"   I gave him a look which said, "Over my dead body!".  He walked away.  I never got back my essays.  He had a brother holding quite a responsible post in the Singapore Government - a sort of Political Secretary, a safe post for a Malay in the PAP.    Did I make a mistake then?    Should I have taken this golden opportunity?    Imagine what I could have made for myself!  I wonder what Mr Lazaroo would say to that!

Perhaps this was the  Rokok  that I had to draw from my pocket.  Burn, baby, burn!