Posted in Uncategorized by s.j. aznan on 20/01/2017

Menjunjung Duli – A loyalty pledge to the King.

Posted in Uncategorized by s.j. aznan on 28/11/2016


*This article is an edited translation of the original article titled “Istiadat Menjunjung Duli” written in Malay on 7/12/2013.

In front of the Singgahsana (the Throne), at Istana Iskandariah, Kuala Kangsar, Perak, 19 April 2010.


The “Istiadat Menjunjung Duli” in the state of Perak is a royal tradition in the court of Malay kings practiced for generations in the state. It is an official ceremony held to confer a royal title to any member of the royal family or any subject of the king.

Literally the phrase “Menjunjung Duli” means to be “at the foot of the king”. But in modern times, it is a ceremony to pledge loyalty to the king, by a subject upon being bestowed with a royal title.

In April 19 2010 I participated in the Menjunjung Duli ceremony as a requirement to receive the royal title Toh Muda Orang Kaya Besar Maharaja Di Raja, a successor title to the Orang Kaya Besar Maharaja DiRaja, one of the four major chiefs in the court of the Sultan of Perak. This title was first awarded to me in 2003.

I was awarded the title Toh Muda Orang Kaya Besar Maharaja Di Raja, Perak as a cognatic heir of a male line from a previous holder. Fifteen generations ago my ancestor Syed Husain al Faradz Jamalullail was one of the Orang Besar Empat during the reign of Sultan Muzaffar Shah I (1528 – 1549), the first sultan of Perak. My grandfather Syed Abdul Hamid bin Syed Safi Jamalullail and his grandfather Syed Jaafar bin Syed Yunus Jamalullail were also once holders of the title.

Briefly, the Menjunjung Duli ceremony which I participated was conducted in four stages:

  1. Morning of  ceremony day, at the entrance to the palace
  2. At the Balairong Seri (the throne room)
  3. Leaving the palace and entering a period of seclusion
  4. Return to the palace, after a period of seclusion.


Morning of ceremony day, at the entrance to the palace

At dawn of the ceremony day on 19 October 2010, I performed the Fajr (dawn) prayer at Masjid Ubudiah, a short distance from Istana Iskandariah, Kuala Kangsar where the main ceremony was to be held. After prayer, my family and I proceeded to a specified location at the outside stairs of Istana Iskandariah. This was where the ceremony started.

I was dressed in the traditional Baju Melayu (Malay dress). There were two other would-be-recipients of royal titles with me that morning. Together we stood in a row at the lower stairs of the palace gate. With folded arms, we stood in silence. A broad banana leaf was held by a bentara or palace official over our head. The shelter by the banana leaf symbolised protection by the king over his subjects.

Start of ceremony. Arms folded and observing silence.


 The Menjunjung Duli ceremony was conducted by the Toh Seri Nara DiRaja (Toh Nara) from beginning to the end.

Toh Nara  took his position on the upper stairs of the palace gate and started the morning ceremony referred to as the Sumpah Chiri (literally: a pledge based on the Surat Chiri). He gave some introductory words of advice, before proceeding to read the ancient royal address called the Surat Chiri. In his introductory words of advice Toh Nara, among other things mentioned the following:

  1. The names of the would-be-recipients of royal titles for the day,
  2. A reminder on the daulat (sovereignty) of Malay kings of the past.

Toh Nara reminded us of our sacred pledge of loyalty to the king. Subject to the laws of Allah and his Rasulullah, all recipients of royal titles were required to pledge complete loyalty to the king.

  Sumpah Chiri – Toh Nara reading the Surat Chiri.


Toh Nara then read the Surat Chiri, which had its origin from the courts of Malay kings of the ancient kingdom at Bukit Siguntang, in Palembang, Sumatera. The original Surat Chiri was written in the old language of Sanskrit, but the copy in present times has some old Malay and Arabic words added. The language of the Surat Chiri was poetic and the text glorified the greatness of past Malay kings up to the current ruling king.

(For further reading on the Surat Chiri please see W.E.Maxwell, “An Account of the Malay Chiri: A Sanskrit Formula” 1881, (Reprint: Forgotten Books: Hong Kong 2013),  and  “The Chiri or Coronation Address” in R.O.Winstedt and R.J.Wilkinson, ”A History of Perak”, M.B.R.A.S. (Reprint No.3,  1974) pp.175-176.)

Sprinkling the tepung tawar and rose-scented water


Toh Nara sprinkled the tepung tawar (literally: pure rice flour) and air mawar (rose-scented water) on all three participants, as a sign of blessing on the ceremonial process so far, and to mark the completion of first stage of the Menjunjung Duli ceremony.

All three participants then were allowed to enter the palace ground, waiting to be called to the Balairong Seri (the throne room).


At the Balairong Seri (the throne room).

All the would-be-recipients of royal titles were then attired in full ceremonial dresses according to their titles, and assembled at a specified waiting area just outside the Balaiong Seri. We waited for our turn to be summoned before the king.

I was then in full ceremonial dress for the occasion. I wore the Baju Melayu made of full songket material, and put on a tengkolok or headdress. The tengkolok is a piece of cloth of the same material as the dress, which was folded to form a headdress of certain shape according to Perak tradition.

Tengkolok (headdress)


The tengkolok or headress worn by the king and members of his nobility in Perak are folded in many ways, each given a name of its own. The tengkolok shown above is styled as Lang Menyusur Angin (The Eagle Flies With The Wind).

I was attired in light green, which was the colour assigned to the title holder of a Toh Muda Orang Besar Empat. I had a ceremonial keris (Malay dagger) tied with cloth, and the keris was slipped at my waist. In addition, all participants had to put on all our decorations, if any.

Soon it was time to enter the Balairong Seri. I heard a loud announcement from the Balairong Seri: “The King summon …(my name).. to enter”.

?????????????????   Entering the Balairong Seri.


As I entered the Balairong Seri, I observed that members of the nobility and other guests were then seated , both on the left and right sides of the aisle. At the far end of the aisle I saw the king and the queen seated on the throne.

At a specified spot along the aisle I sat down on the floor, in a position called bertenggul, that was to sit on the left leg with both hands clasping the right knee. As a custom when facing the king I took the sembah, which was to raise both hands, clasped together, at the forehead. This was done several times.

The Toh Nara was already there at the specified spot. As head of the ceremony he accompanied me in my ceremonial progression to the throne, and until the end of the ceremony for the day.

    Bertenggul at the Balairong Seri.


I then removed the keris from my waist, and placed it on the floor, on my right. My ceremonial keris was a Keris Semenanjung. The blade had five lok (curves), and the hilt was styled as Ayam Teleng. As customary, when appearing before the king the hilt was turned to face sideways, i.e. not in a combat position, denoting good and peaceful intention. The keris was also tied with a piece of  cloth to prevent it from being unsheathed.

My ceremonial keris – a Keris Semenanjung.


While still in a bertenggul position, I lowered my head and observed silence. At that moment the Secretary of the Dewan Negara (the royal council) Perak read the royal proclamation granting the royal title by the king. This was followed with a cry of Daulat three times by all members of the nobility and guests present, as symbolic acceptance of the king’s decision.


     Hearing proclamation of royal title .


Immediately after the cry of Daulat the progression to the throne began, with the first step forward to be taken by the right leg. Both my left and right hands remained clasped on my right waist.


Nobat Di Raja, Perak


The royal Nobat music was then played during the progression and this lasted until the end of ceremony for the day.

  Progression towards the throne accompanied by the Nobat music.


In my progression towards the throne I had to make three brief stops to perform the intai-intai, which was to look at the throne from a distant. This was done by raising the head slightly to the right as if to see from far the image of the king at the throne.

In a bertenggul position in front of the throne.


A few feet from the base of the throne, I began the mengesot movement, that was to move forward on one leg while in a bertenggul position. This lasted in three leg movements before I reached the base of the throne.

The king then came down from the throne to where I was positioned.

The king performed four ceremonial actions:

  1. The king unsheathed the Pedang Chura Si Manjakini, the hereditary sword of ancient Malay kings of Perak. He placed the tip of the sword on my head and on both my left and right shoulders.
  2. The king then placed the Pacak Ketor on the right side of my tengkolok (headdress). The Pacak Ketor is a metal flower with a spring-type stalk. The spring gave the flower its movement while worn on the head.
  3. The king then sprinkled the tepung tawar (flour) and rose flower to bless the ceremony.
  4. Finally, the king awarded the official document awarding the royal title. He then returned to the throne.

  Touch of Pedang Chura Si Manjakini on my head and left and right shoulders.



   Pacak Ketor (metal flower) placed on the headdress.


  Receiving the official document of title.


After the king has returned to his seat on the throne, I began my movement of retreat, back to the spot where the ceremony started in the Balairong Seri, where I had earlier left my keris on the floor.

The movement began by mengesot in reverse way, that was to move on one leg in reverse, for three steps. Subsequently I stood up facing the king, and with Toh Nara at my side we began moving backwards, starting with the left foot.

In this reverse movement I had to make a few brief stops to perform the sembah. The reverse movement ended at the starting position, where my keris was placed on the floor.

   Leaving the Balairong Seri with head covered. Beginning of period of seclusion


Subsequently the departure from Balairong Seri began. I sat in the bertenggul position and took the sembah a number of times. After the last sembah I picked up my keris from the floor and placed it back at my waist.

Then I turned my head away from the king and faced the door of the Balairong Seri at my back. At this moment a bentara covered my head with a large piece of cloth, such that the king and the Balirong Seri was no longer visible to me. The period of mandatory seclusion began.


Leaving the palace, and period of seclusion.

With my head covered I was taken to a waiting car. The cover on the head was to remain until I had crossed the Perak River, north of the palace. I proceeded to Kuala Lumpur where I was to be in hiding for seven days.

During this period of seclusion I was forbidden to see any image of the king, whether in printed form or any other form of media including the internet.


Return to the palace, after a period of seclusion.

After being in seclusion for seven days I returned for an audience with the king at Istana Iskandariah, Kuala Kangsar. I was accompanied by my wife, children and relatives.

This return ceremony was attended by a small group of guests. They included the titled rajas, members of the nobility and some civil servants in the state of Perak.

At this return ceremony I was not required to be attired in full ceremonial dress. I wore an ordinary Baju Melayu in light green, that is the colour of my full ceremonial dress. It was the official colour for the Toh Muda Orang Besar Empat.

I brought seven trays of presents each carried by a member of my family and my relatives. The presents included the customary pulut kuning (yellow rice), two pieces of cloth for the king and queen, and other gifts. The practice was for a receiver of royal title to bring five or seven trays of gifts, and the contents were to be according to what one could afford.

  Sprinkling of tepung tawar and rose water. The Menjunjung Duli ceremony officially completed.


At the end of the ceremony the king sprinkled the tepung tawar and rose water on my wife and I. This indicated the completion of the Istiadat Menjunjung Duli to confer the title of Toh Muda Orang Kaya Besar Maharaja Di Raja, Perak.



The greatness of a civilisation in any country does not depend merely on its material wealth. It includes the existence of a rich culture and tradition. The Istiadat Menjunjung Duli as practiced for hundreds of years in the past reflected richness of the traditions of Malay kings in the past. This ceremony exists in similar ways in other Malay states in the Nusantara. The Surat Chiri, Pedang Chura Si Manjakini and the Nobat are all rich heritage from past Malay kings in Perak.

It is my hope that the brief note above would generate interest among the younger generation , and would inspire them to know more on the rich cultural heritage of Perak.

(Written by Dato’ Dr. Syed Jaafar bin Syed Aznan, Toh Muda Orang Kaya Besar Maharaj DiRaja, Perak).

15. Family Emblem

Posted in General by s.j. aznan on 02/05/2014


I have three children: sons Imran and Aiman, and daughter Syahirah.

When they were growing up we always had our family meal at the kitchen dining table, while the family was in Jeddah and also here in Kuala Lumpur. I always encouraged my children to engage in an intellectual discussion during meal time. My daughter, Syahirah called it ‘education talk’ time because it often centred on education and knowledge. During such session information was shared and ‘crazy’ out-of-the-box ideas were tolerated. The family always prides itself in this.

On one occasion Syahirah who was then in her early teens asked me a difficult question: “Are we rich?” Apparently, she was asked the question by one of her schoolmates at an International School which she attended in Jeddah. I had to give a response. I said: “We are not rich in material wealth, but our family is always rich in ideas”. To my mind this was a fitting reply to her friend, who no doubt measured richness mainly in terms of big houses, flashy cars and frequent holiday trips overseas. We had little of those. My children knew this.

I told my children that our mind should always open up for new ideas. Subject to the laws of God, we should open up our mind wide, think out-of-the box, and entertain remote possibilities of overcoming challenges. In other words our mind should cross all frontiers. This is where we are rich.

The tradition of democratic freedom of thought and tolerance of crazy ideas and opinions has been a family hallmark. It covered politics, economics and contemporary issues. Of course I needed a lot of patience to absorb this. Religious issues were allowed but often subject to serious restraints by me. Democracy and freedom of thought stop here. I told my children that God is always right.

One day, here in Kuala Lumpur, my son Aiman suggested that we should immortalize this family tradition of freedom of thought. It is something that could be handed down generation to generation. It sounded a good idea to me. I do not have much material wealth to distribute. But this is a legacy to preserve. Thus the idea of a family emblem came up. We agreed on the parameters. Aiman designed the emblem with the help of a graphic designer, incorporating all the family values.

The family emblem was created!

The emblem shows padi grains at the sides. In the centre are three arrows pointing upward, criss-crossing in the centre.

In the Malay world  padi  grains denote prosperity and all that is good. We coloured them green as the padi have not ripened. This denotes that the prosperity sought is  on-going, and thus effort must be continuous. The three arrows in the centre represent my three children. The arrows are shot into the air and so they point upward. This means that the three children are released to the world and will overcome all challenges that they face. They will cross all frontiers!

The three arrows criss-cross in the centre, meaning that in their journey they will always be guided by a common factor, denoting parental guidance and wisdom.

The family motto in Malay at the bottom states “Merentasi Sempadan” or “Crossing Frontiers”.

Tagged with:

14. A Smoking Experience.

Posted in General by s.j. aznan on 12/02/2014

It was long ago in late summer of 1978 when I stopped smoking cigarettes. I was then a post-graduate student at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, USA. I had my last cigarette at my student apartment in Graduate Towers, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. If you ask me now whether I had a secret formula that did it, then my answer is ‘no’. I did not have a formula or a recipe. This is my story.

I was 18 when I entered sixth form in 1965, at a boarding school in Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia. Somehow or rather joining sixth form was a bit magical. Suddenly the subjects I learned in classes, especially General Paper, encouraged me to think. Facts and events seemed secondary to reasons as to why they happened. My mind suddenly opened up wide. I started to question almost everything. The child-like desire of trying to know what-happens-next was pushing my inquisitive mind to higher limits. I had entered the age of youth, a fragile state of mind. A rebellious mind.


Smoking cigarettes was not allowed among us  students in boarding school. But then some of the teachers smoked. Some of my elders smoked. Many world leaders and famous personalities smoked. Even men of religion smoked. They all seemed to be reasonable people. They seemed to be strong and healthy. There were no criminal laws or religious prohibitions against smoking at that time. What then was so wrong about smoking cigarettes? The facts did not seem to justify the prohibition?

True, the school prefects would catch students who smoked cigarettes. Offenders would be sent to detention classes. But many school prefects did not seem to be very clever people to me then, and so they lost credibility in their action. I had then slowly developed the arrogant attitude of respecting people whom I perceived to be cleverer than me, and not just for their badges. In my mind, I asked the question: what was so wrong with puffing away some smokes!

It was at this stage of mind that I and some of my like-minded colleagues tried smoking cigarettes. So during outing in the weekends, when students were allowed to go to Ipoh town for movies or any other purposes, some of us tried smoking. We had to be discreet so as not to be spotted by our school prefects. I must admit that hiding was difficult since we were all dressed up in school uniforms (white shirts, white trousers and school badges), and so were easily noticeable. But then there was always a way, especially in the darkness of cinema halls while watching movies.

I never brought back cigarettes to the school dormitories, because our cupboards could be subjected for inspection by the warden or prefects during inspection days. But not to worry, at that time we did not have to buy a whole packet of cigarettes to smoke. Most of us needed only one stick or two, and they were  available from the restaurant counters which sold loose cigarette sticks in a can. A cigarette stick would cost only ten Malaysian cents then. Some students did brought back cigarettes to school dormitories, but they were those who were more daring?

What were the favourite brands of cigarettes then? Many of us then started with either Peter Stuyvesant, Rothmans or Benson & Hedges. Other famous brands then like Players or State Express were not so popular among us. Peter Stuyvesant was the more popular brand since it had a slightly mentholated filter. But I found the mentholated filter a bit too strong, and had always preferred the traditional Rothmans. But among us students then, the real test of being macho was to smoke the American cigarette Lucky Strike. It was supposed to be ‘toasted’ cigarette and at that time was still without filters. Lucky Strike was strong cigarette, and many of us novices would feel giddy when smoking it.

Looking back at those school days, I have always wondered what was the pleasure of smoking? The plain answer was probably ‘none’. There was no real pleasure in inhaling tobacco smokes. But, it was thrilling. Having a cigarette between your fingers would make us feel like heroes in movies and was exciting. Puffing away circles of smokes into the air like smoke signals was satisfying. And of course, being non-conformist and challenging school rules and not being caught was always an achievement of sort.

I guess now if anyone wants to discourage smoking by a young person, avoid talking about health, legal or religious prohibitions, or even logic. At their state of mind this approach is not likely to work. Try something else!

In 1967 I was admitted to the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur to read economics. I was almost 20 years old. I was no longer staying in boarding school where board and lodging were taken care of. I had to look for my own accommodation. Together with some colleagues we shared a small terrace house a few kilometres away from the university campus and managed the house keeping ourselves.

I had a bed and a small study table beside it. The study lamp was standard equipment for us students to work at night. But I had something extra on my table, an ash tray for my cigarettes. Sitting at night and looking at my lecture notes would not be complete without a cigarette.

At the University of Malaya campus I noticed that many people smoked cigarettes, students and lecturers included. There were no rules disallowing smoking in campus, except in specific buildings like the library. Otherwise, in the corridors of the offices and lecture theatres I saw people smoking. Some students were daring enough to smoke even in lecture theatres causing inconvenience to other students. They were normally the backbenchers, those who sat at the back rows. Most lecturers did not bother about it, but I do recall a good professor walking up the theatre aisle to confront the smoking students, asking them to put off their cigarettes. The good professor had his way!

By this time my cigarette consumption was about six sticks a day. Normally I would buy a box of ten or twelve cigarettes and it would last for almost two days. At that time I was still changing brands between Rothmans and Benson & Hedges. I guess I was not really addicted to cigarettes then, because I was not brand specific.

I noticed that when I was reading I had the tendency to light a cigarette and held it between my fingers. Sometimes I had only a few puffs and the rest of the cigarette turned to ashes. Sometimes a lighted cigarette would just burn away on an ash tray. But when I was deep in thought, like when doing calculation in mathematics or statistics, I just had a pencil or pen in my right hand and that was all. I guess having a pen or pencil between my fingers was in a way a substitute for holding a cigarette.

In 1970 I started working after graduation. The number of cigarettes I smoked per day increased. From a box of twelve cigarettes per day I increased my consumption to the bigger box of twenty. At the height of my consumption it went up to more than that, especially on weekends.

Why the increase in consumption? One reason was that I could afford it. I was then working. There were also more opportunities to smoke. People smoked in their office rooms. People smoked during office meetings. Ash trays were available on meeting tables. When I was riding a motor cycle during my university days it was difficult to smoke, though some did. But now that I was working and had a car, it was different. Smoking cigarettes while driving was acceptable. It was also stylish. You could see this in movies. That was why cars were equipped with cigarette lighters and ash trays. Further, during those days most cars were not air-conditioned as today. We drove with the glass-windows down, and as such smoking was easier as the smoke would find its way out through the car windows.

Having a cigarette box in my shirt pocket was important. Somehow or rather whenever I stepped out of my house it would seem incomplete if I don’t have a cigarette box in my shirt pocket. Not that cigarettes were not easily available in town, neither did I had an irresistible craving for tobacco at all times. But somehow or rather, a cigarette box in a shirt pocket became some sort of a dress code and a lifestyle.

The status symbol in smoking was interesting. I guess a real smoker enjoyed smoking for its tobacco. But for me, having a good and expensive cigarette lighter was important. At that time I used a Ronson brand lighter. It was metallic and shining and was a beautiful equipment to place on the table. At one time I upgraded myself to using a sterling silver Colibri brand lighter, as a status symbol. Just imagine, when I and my colleagues sat down at a table for any purpose, and we started smoking, the lighters looked more stylish than the match boxes. At least so we thought?

How do you define addiction to cigarette smoking? Some are addicted to tobacco while some are merely tied to a smoking habit. In my youth days I rarely saw people who were seriously addicted to tobacco, in such a way that they would lose self control without it. Many of my friends, despite being heavy smokers, survived the fasting month of Ramadhan, when they could not have cigarettes during the day. I guess our addiction was more in the mind than in the biological system.



View from my bedroom at Graduate Towers, Philadelphia (1977). Note the ash tray on the study table.

In late summer of 1977 I started my post-graduate studies at The Wharton School, Pennsylvania. I was accommodated in a student apartment at Graduate Towers, a short distance from the school. I shared a two bedroom apartment with another student. During my stay there I remember moving apartments several times and having different apartment mates. None of them smoked cigarettes. That was my first problem. I had to smoke in my own bedroom so as not to inconvenience them. But then the bedroom was air-conditioned and there was very little air circulation. Soon my bedroom and my blankets started to smell of smokes. Once in a while I had to slide open the heavy glass window to let some fresh air in. It was the first signal of my problem with smoking.

The rules on smoking were stricter in USA than in Malaysia then. In the university most places were non-smoking areas. Even in the town the big stores did not allow smoking. So my smoking sessions were limited to open air places during lunch breaks or during my walk between apartment and classrooms.

Then came the winter of 1977.  It was wet and very cold, very different from the hot weather in Malaysia. The weather did not permit smoking while walking in open air places. It was just not smoking friendly. It was even difficult to hold a cigarette when I had my winter gloves on.

Cigarettes were also expensive in the USA. Most of my colleagues smoked American brands, like Marlboro which came in soft packs. But I was used to Rothmans which were packed in boxes of twenty sticks. Rothmans were imported cigarettes. They came from Canada and were relatively expensive. They were also difficult to get since the brand was not popular among Americans. So after a short while I changed brand to a close substitute, Benson & Hedges. This brand was more easily available in Philadelphia.

Not all stores sold my brand of cigarettes and as such I could not buy it in single box at the grocery stores. I had to get them from special stores in down town Philadelphia. My normal purchase was by cartons of ten boxes. I would normally buy two or three cartons at a time and keep them in my bedroom cupboard. They were almost priceless things.

During the winter of 1977 I spent more time in my bedroom. Daylight was short and I did not like being outside in the cold weather after dark. Even going to the library at night was not encouraging due to the extremely cold weather. Time was then mostly spent on doing class assignments and watching TV in my bedroom. I became an armchair sports experts – especially on ice hockey and American football in winter.

I continued to smoke cigarettes. But the motivation was changing. Smoking was no longer a means to emulate others whether they were the famous or the great, nor was it a means to emphasise non-conformity to current norms. Challenging social norms was less attractive then. The rebel in me was fading away. Even the show-off attitude of carrying an expensive cigarette lighter was no longer there. Nobody was fascinated by it in campus.  At 30 years of age, my youthful state of mind was slowly leaving me. I was becoming more logical, and my head was gradually taking over from my heart in decision-making. I was then entering an age of reason and maturity.


At 30, reason and maturity.

In the summer of 1978 I spent most of my time in campus, doing extra courses to enable me to complete my M.B.A. program by December. It was a very boring experience, attending classes when most of other students were enjoying themselves elsewhere.

Smoking was easier in the summer since the days were longer and I had more outdoor time. But I recall that the thrill of smoking was no more as it was earlier.  I did not have many smoking friends and so most of my smoking sessions were alone, in my apartment or outside the building. The compulsive behaviour, the habit of reaching out for my cigarette box, tapping out a cigarette stick from the box and lighting it was still there. It was still like an automatic action whenever I had nothing else to do. But somehow or rather, there was not much crave for tobacco and the real pleasure of smoking cigarettes was slowly diminishing.

In late summer of 1978 I was finishing my extra summer classes. The Fall semester was approaching. I had only one more semester to complete before I could go home to Malaysia at the end of the year. Then the magical event happened. I fell sick.

The worst experience for a student was to fall sick alone in a foreign land. And the worst period to have it was summer when not many people were around. I had a bad cough and a slight fever. With self medication the fever subsided after a few days, but the cough persisted longer for a few weeks. It was then I began to part ways with the smoking habit.

I always had a few cartons of cigarettes stacked away in my bedroom cupboard and I could see them every time I opened my cupboard. The large supply was to ensure that I never ran out of it. Remember that smoking cigarettes was a daily routine, and there were no days off. But when I was down with fever and had a cough, cigarette smoking became an unpleasant experience. While taking out a cigarette and lighting it was a habitual movement, inhaling the smoke became less pleasant. My cough and smoking did not go well together.

I did reached for a few cigarette sticks per day during the early period of my illness but it was more out of habitual compulsion to smoke rather than for the pleasure of tobacco. At this juncture the stuffy air in my bedroom and the smelly blanket in my bed became noticeable. It had been like that for some time but I never really bothered about it before. The blame game then began. The culprit was cigarette smoking in the room.

One day I ran out of cigarettes from the boxes on my table. To smoke I would need to open a new carton from the top shelf in my cupboard. The extra supply was always there. But I was too lazy to get on top of a chair to reach for the carton at the top shelf. I told myself, “I’ll get it later”. That was the magic turn of event. From a smoking postponement of hours it became a day, two days and more. It stretched for weeks, months and that was it. I already had my last cigarette.

The strange thing was that during the early period of my illness when I did not smoke it never occurred to me that I wanted to stop smoking. It was never the plan. In fact I saw my cigarette cartons every day when I opened my cupboard. I never declared war against my cigarettes. It was just that in my mind I told myself “maybe later”.

Was there ever an issue of ‘strong will power’ to stop smoking? No, there was none. I never thought of it and I never had it. Even now I do not believe that the average smoker anywhere in the world would have  the will power strong enough to stop smoking.

Perhaps, as a guidance I would not encourage any counsellor to use the argument of ‘will power’ to persuade a person to cut smoking. It is not likely to work.

In Fall 1978 my final semester began. I had now stopped smoking. It was initially an awkward experience. My bedroom then had less stuffy air and my blankets smelt fresher. I had removed the ash tray from my study table and the cigarette box was no longer a permanent feature there. I admit that was an initiative. If you call it will power then it was at most a very mild form of deliberate action.

When I went outdoors I no longer had a cigarette box in my jacket. Our partnership had ended. Most times I never realised that I was not carrying a box of cigarettes.  Of course, there were occasions when the habitual action of reaching for a cigarette box in my jacket occurred automatically. This sometimes happened after having lunch at the lunch truck in the campus, or after a cup of coffee or tea. But the compulsion to look for a cigarette was no longer there.

Was there an immediate withdrawal syndrome? I did not have any significant signs in the early period. My friends told me to take sweets or chewing gum to keep my mind away from cigarettes. But I did not need that. I did not deliberately keep away from the sight of cigarettes. In fact, every day when I opened my cupboard in my bedroom I would see the unopened cartons of Benson & Hedges there. There was no problem with that. They were expensive items and so I just left them there. In fact I only threw them away when I did my room cleaning before going home to Malaysia.

In late December 1978 I completed my MBA programme and headed home to Kuala Lumpur. Within a short period I was back to my office routine. By early 1979 I had stopped smoking for about six months. Then I experienced the effects of stopping smoking.

The first effect was on food consumption. When I was smoking cigarettes I never really enjoyed eating. Maybe the tobacco had dampened my taste buds. Now that I had stopped smoking food became tastier. I ate more. I enjoyed eating.

The second effect was that I became much affected by secondary cigarette smokes. In a closed area if someone smoked, I quickly smelt tobacco and it affected me more than others who did not smoke. In fact, today I would quickly detect secondary smokes from nearby smokers. Nowadays, even when I check in into a hotel I always insist for a non-smoking room. The smell of tobacco on the bed linen would deprive me of a good night sleep.

Now in 2014 I had quit smoking for over 35 years. I had not touched a single cigarette since late 1978. At the rate of about 20 cigarettes a day this means in 35 years I had skipped over 250,000  sticks. Wow! That is a lot!

What lessons can I share with others who want to quit smoking?

I have no secret formula or recipe to prescribe. But, the above is my story.

12. A Taste of Authority

Posted in The Civil Service Years 1970-1997 by s.j. aznan on 13/11/2013

In  February 1991 I was transferred from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, Perak and appointed as the Pegawai Kewangan Negeri or State Financial Officer of Perak.

I was to be the eleventh State Financial Officer of Perak. The first State Financial Officer of Perak was Mr. H.J.A. Cassidy, appointed in 1958.

For 22 years since 1970 I had been a civil servant at the federal level in Kuala Lumpur. I had been involved in many high level policy matters. But, beyond minor administrative decisions my role was limited to providing information and making analysis. Major decisions were only made by the Minister or senior officers.

However, as the State Financial Officer of Perak I was a Head of Department. More than that, as per the Law  I was the Financial Authority of the state. I was an ex officio member in the State Executive Council and the State Legislative Assembly. These were appointments not enjoyed by civil servants at the federal level, no matter how senior they were. At the state level I had some of the power of the Minister of Finance and the Secretary General of the Treasury. This meant that, beyond the administrative power of a head of department I had many discretionary powers in terms of financial management in the state. I had my first taste of real authority.

I had consulted my friends in the state audit department on limits of my financial authority. They had advised me that once the state budget was approved by the State Legislative Assembly, as the state financial authority I had very wide latitude to operate. I would not be faulted on a discretionary financial decision unless there were elements of bad faith in decision-making.

Legally, State Financial Officers in most states in Malaysia had extensive financial authority. But some of my colleagues in other states surrendered their authority to others higher up in the state heirachy. That was their choice. In my case I chose to do what was right.

I was very aware of the pitfalls. Authorities and pressure groups always had their own interests and preferences. They always had their suggestions. But responsibility and accountability rested with the Financial Authority. The rule was simple: if I approved and signed up for something then I had to bear the burden of the decision.

How then did I exercised such authority?

There were many laws on financial matters of the State, including civil service regulations. But, the written laws were often not well understood by administrators like myself. Only lawyers understood them well. When the written laws were explicit there would be no debate. But when discretion was allowed and sometime even required then detailed operational guidelines were needed to help administrators make correct, quick and practical decisions.  More important there should be consistency in decision-making.

As a civil servant I gave my loyalty to the Civil Service, next only to the Nation, and God. Although I was the Financial Authority of the state, I was also entrusted with promoting economic development. There was therefore a need to balance “correctness” and “practicality” in decision-making.

My mission as a civil servant was to carry out my managerial responsibilities well while at all times maintaining a minimum level of disquiet in the organization. As a matter of principle, a little bit of disquiet in management was always acceptable. After all a completely quiet organisation was symptomatic of a dead organisation. Too much disquiet in an organization would have created management difficulties.

In decision-making my strong inclination was usually  to be “left-of-centre” (see my earlier blog post on ‘past wisdom, old values’). But the development mantra of the day then was about promoting businesses and generating rapid economic development.  As a civil servant I had to give due respect to the philosophy of the government of the day. Sometimes these values did not rhyme in harmony.

So, I adopted three governance principles in making decisions:

  1. Follow all financial procedures. There were many financial procedures to comply in the form of Treasury Instructions and other Government circulars. As a first rule, I insisted that matters considered for approval must as far as possible complied with all financial procedures. This was a basic requirement for a good decision. Exemptions, where provided by law, were only considered only on exceptional bases in the interest of state development.
  2. No self-interest. There were many laws on self-interest in the forms of anti-corruption laws and various government regulations and circulars. Lawyers could argue continuously about their limits. But, as an administrator I needed simple and straightforward guidelines on decision-making. So I took a simple approach. Unless clearly specified in the written laws, it was sufficient that ‘no self-interest’ meant that, as a minimum, I and my immediate family should not gain materially from my decision. This way, my conscience would be clear and economic development would be expedited.
  3. Avoid hurting a third party. This third principle was basically a rule of caution. In making a decision which favoured one party, one should also look at its effects on competing parties. If a decision caused serious negative effects on a competing party, then if discretion was allowed by law the case merited a second look. For example, transferring state financial deposits from a small rural bank to a large city bank may have generated higher efficiency or even higher financial return. But, I normally avoided making such decision if it seriously affected the viability of the small bank and may lead to its closure. My philosophy was that development was about generating positive growth and overall development in society, and not about promoting one and destroying another.

The above three principles worked reasonably well as operating guidelines. But they were not perfect. Some of my colleagues and peers hinted that I was too strict. I was regarded as a bit too rigid with the rules and not flexible enough to be business-friendly for rapid economic development. But that was my brand of financial administration. In the later years this characteristic was to slow down my career progression in the civil service.

I served as the State Financial Officer of Perak for the period February 1991 until March 1993.  I was subsequently assigned to another civil service position in Kuala Lumpur.

11. Past Wisdom, Old Values!

Posted in The Civil Service Years 1970-1997 by s.j. aznan on 20/10/2013

Joining the Civil Service

In  early 1970 I joined the civil service of Malaysia. It was the beginning of a long career in public service at the state, federal and international levels, until my retirement from full-time employment in 2009.

In 1970 I was only 22 years old. I had just completed my three year degree course in late  1969. All I wanted to do then was to go home to my kampung for a while and be with my parents.  But I had barely time to relax when I was asked to report for duty as an Attachment Officer at the Treasury, Kuala Lumpur. It was a temporary posting until the university results came out. I would be paid an allowance of RM400 per month, slightly more than what a junior clerk’s pay.

Changing from ‘student’ mode to ‘officer’ mode was not completely smooth. As a student my life centred around the University of Malaya campus, mostly at the Arts Concourse. My normal dress code was a long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. They were clean but seldom smoothly pressed. Unlike most of my friends, I never wore a belt around my waist. That was just not my style! I wore shoes, and put on socks. Yes, I wore socks! I moved around on my faithful Honda Cub 60cc, to everywhere I wanted to go. In my pocket I would have usually around ten to twenty Ringgit only, enough to cover petrol cost for my motor cycle, lunch and snacks, the occasional movies at the State cinema at New-Town Petaling Jaya, and contingencies. That was already a lot of money by my standard then.

In March 1970 the university examination results were announced. Attachment Officers who secured honours degree were placed as Temporary Officers in the  Malaysian Civil Service  (later transformed into the Administrative and Diplomatic Service). We were then paid a basic monthly salary of about RM590. Those who did not obtain their honours degree were placed in a lower category with lower pay. Some of them left to join semi-government bodies and the private sector where no such differentiation  on pay was made. As it turned out years later, this group progressed very well in their career. Many of them became better off financially than me.

As an officer I faced changes. My shirt and pants had to be pressed smoothly. I had to put on a neck-tie. Yes, a neck tie! Learning to knot a neck-tie properly took some time. I had to keep my hair well groomed. As an officer I had to look presentable. I had to learn office protocol.

The image issue was important. As an officer I had to supervise  clerical staff  some of whom were much older than me. The Chief Clerk himself was old enough to be my father.To gain respect authority alone was not enough. An officer had to look matured physically , put on a serious face, or gave an impression of being a clever person. Perception was important. It did not help that I was physically small built and had a rather boyish face. So getting respect from them involved lessons of trial and error, including some humorous episodes!

At the Federal Treasury I was assigned to the position of Assistant Secretary, in the Tax Division. I had the opportunity to learn in much depth the tax matters of the nation. I had an office room, sharing with two other officer colleagues. Our room was just below the big clock tower in the State Secretariat building (Sultan Abdul Samad building), in front of the Selangor Club, Kuala Lumpur. Every time the big clock reached the full hour, we obviously heard the loud sound very clearly! One floor below was the office of the Minister of Finance, the late Tun Tan Siew Sin. That was where all tax policies were discussed!

On 1st October 1970 I was formally appointed as an Administrative and Diplomatic Officer. To the traditional Malay community I had become a Pegawai MCS (Malaysian Civil Service officer), something held with pride by many Malay mothers then.

Three Principles

As a new entrant into the civil service I had to undergo training. During that time training was done mostly at the old Training Institute for public servants  at Lorong Elmu  near the University of Malaya. I had to undergo a two-week training programme.

Many things were taught during training. They included the General Orders, the Financial General Orders, the Treasury Instructions and Diplomacy. These were important for us since they were subjects for examinations for confirmation in the civil service.

I learned a lot from the various speakers during training. The speakers were mostly trainers from the Training Institute itself, but there were some senior officers from other government departments. I was keen to know what it meant to be a civil servant, to be part of this powerful organization, particularly in the premier Administrative and Diplomatic Service. I learned that there were three guiding principles to note.

First, A civil servant  serves at the pleasure of the King.  So, although I was likely to have security of tenure in practice, I did not have a contract of employment as those in the private sector. The speaker, from the Attorney General Office tried to explain the legalities but I must confess now that I did not really understand them then. But this did not matter. For me then, joining the civil service was a very honourable decision, a chance to serve king and country. The fact that my friends in the private sector had higher income did not matter much. After all, my parents in the kampung were definitely very happy to have a son as an MCS Officer in Kuala Lumpur! A parent’s dream fulfilled!!

Second,  A civil servant WILL earn enough, but MAY NOT be rich. This meant that my salary as an officer would be enough to maintain a certain minimum standard of living, but I should not expect to have the lifestyle of my colleagues in the private sector. Salaries of civil servants in those days were generally low compared to the private sector and this was deliberate. Those who wanted higher salaries were expected to leave and join the private sector. The Government provided limited assistance in terms of housing and car loans, and free medical benefits for the civil servant and his or her family. In return for a dedicated service to king and country, civil servants enjoyed stature in society. For example, if you were an Assistant District Officer then you could expect to be given seniority in a public function in your district. In terms of state and national honours, civil servants would also be given priority for recognition when they had the seniority. And when they retire after a long period of service they would be given a small pension to keep them out of poverty.  This was some sort of a social contract.

Third,  In making recommendations on public policy, a civil servant is expected to adopt the position Left of Centre. I was not expected to be a champion of Socialism, but should lean to be slightly left of centre.  In the context of development economics in Malaysia then, this meant that whenever I was confronted with a choice, between one that favoured the majority and the less fortunate,  and another that favoured the minority and more fortunate, then I was expected to support a policy favouring the majority. The economic efficiency of the decision was of secondary importance.

That was the idealism of the time. For someone like myself who had just studied development economics those ideal principles were attractive.  After all, this was a chance to put all those economics ideas we learned in the university into practice.

Fast forward a decade later, all these started to change.  It was then the Mahathir era in Malaysia. His brand of economics was dominating. The guiding principles that made up the  idealism of the 1960s and 1970s began to crumble and fade away.  The three principles that I learned became past wisdom and old values. Service to king and country was forgotten. ‘Left-of-centre’ thinking was substituted by a business friendly and economic efficiency approach. Civil servants no longer enjoyed high stature in society, being replaced by politicians and businessmen. The institution of the civil service  gradually descended to a footnote of history.

Many reasons led to the changes above. I was a witness of the time. But, I will not go into the details here. I will leave this to historians and political scientists.

10. Masuk Kaabah

Posted in The IDB Years 1997 - 2009 by s.j. aznan on 06/03/2013

kaabahKL 1997 001

Pada tahun 1997 saya telah berpindah ke Jeddah untuk bertugas sebagai Naib-Presiden di Islamic Development Bank (IDB), se buah institusi kewangan pembangunan antarabangsa.  Apa yang  bermula sebagai satu persinggahan telah  menjadi satu pengalaman apabila khidmat saya di situ telah berterusan selama dua belas tahun, sehingga tahun 2009.

Dalam dua belas tahun di Jeddah banyak pengalaman saya perolehi. Sebagai seorang Muslim, bermastautin di kota Jeddah yang hanya satu jam perjalanan kereta ke kota suci Mekah merupakan satu nikmat hidup. Saya dan keluarga berpeluang menziarahi kota suci Mekah ratusan kali,  mengerjakan ibadah umrah berpuluh kali,  dan mengerjakan ibadah haji beberapa kali.

Kota Mekah ialah tempat Masjid al-Haram. Dalam masjid inilah  terdirinya Kaabah yang menjadi qiblat kepada semua orang Islam di dunia. Di sini lah satu-satu tempat di dunia ini di mana kita boleh solat pada bila-bila waktu, dan  kearah utara, selatan, timur atau barat  asalkan kita menghadapi kearah Kaabah.

Solat di Masjid al-Haram dan di hadapan Kaabah lain ganjaran dan perasaannya jika dibandingkan dengan di tempat lain di dunia, walaupun di masjid-masjid yang di bina indah. Ganjaran yang diberi oleh Allah swt untuk solat di situ melebihi solat di tempat lain. Masjid al-Haram ialah satu-satunya masjid yang di buka setiap masa, dan setiap masa ada umat yang solat dan berdoa terhadap Allah swt.

Diwaktu larut malam dan awal pagi, di hadapan Kaabah yang berdiri gagah,  di bawah langit cerah, dan di atas batu marmar yang sejuk, di situ kita kerap melihat umat Islam solat  dan menadah tangan berdoa kehadrat Allah swt. Bagi saya inilah tempat dan ketikanya yang baik untuk bersendirian, merenung akan erti hidup ini, memohon ampun atas dosa-dosa yang lalu, dan bersyukur atas sergala nikmat kehidupan dunia ini. Dan doa saya kerap bermula dengan ungkapan yang sama; …”Ya Allah ya Tuhanku, aku bersyukur atas segala pemberian Mu kepada ku. Segala kesenangan hidupku ini adalah semuanya pemberian dari Mu, dan kepada Mu jualah aku bersyukur untuk segala-galanya…”

Namun demikian, satu pengalaman yang tidak dapat saya lupakan ialah apabila saya selaku Naib Presiden di IDB, Jeddah dijemput oleh Kerajaan Arab Saudi untuk memasuki Kaabah sempena acara membersihkan Kaabah. Saya telah bernasib baik mendapat jemputan seperti ini dua kali dalam tempoh khidmat  saya  di IDB,  kali pertama dalam tahun 1998.

Apa yang ada dalam Kaabah?  Kaabah ialah rumah pertama dibina sebagai tempat untuk manusia menyembah Allah swt.  Kaabah ialah qiblat atau arah di mana manusia di seluruh dunia menghadap apabila menunaikan solat. Bangunan Kaabah sebagai tempat ibadah dibina oleh Nabi Ibrahim a.s. dan Nabi Ismail a.s. dan dalam sejarahnya ia  telah dibina semula beberapa kali. Kini Kaabah merupakan sebuah bangunan batu. Lantainya kini telah dinaikkan ke paras yang tinggi, untuk mengatasi masalah banjir yang boleh melandai kota Mekah.  Dengan itu sesiapa yang memasuki Kaabah perlu menaiki beberapa anak tangga. Ada beberapa tiang dalam Kaabah yang menyokong bumbungnya.  Di penjuru  rukn syam ada tangga untuk naik ke bumbung yang sekarang  di ditutup dengan dinding merupai bilik. Lantai dan dinding  dalam Kaabah dilapisi dengan batu marmar.

Saya merasai keadaan dalam Kaabah tidak panas. Ini  mungkin kerana panas  matahari tidak menembusi dinding Kaabah yang tebal dan kebetulan juga saya berada di situ di waktu pagi selepas subuh. Lantai marmarnya juga sejuk kerana tidak disinari matahari dan mungkin juga kesan aliran air dari telaga zam-zam di bawah tanah di kawasan itu.

Mengikut pesanan orang-orang dahulu sesiapa yang memasukki Kaabah tidak boleh melihat keatas. Saya telah bertanya perkara ini kepada beberapa warga  tempatan di Jeddah tetapi merika tidak dapat mengesahkan pantang larang ini. Bagi saya, oleh sebab perasaan ingin tahu itu terlalu tinggi, saya telah memandang  ke atas sekejap. Bagaimanapun, tidak banyak dapat saya lihat pada masa itu. Ini kerana Kaabah tidak mempunyai tingkap dan tidak ada banyak sinar matahari yang masuk dari pintu. Lampu yang di bawa masuk hanya sekadar mencukupi untuk membantu merika yang masuk untuk bergerak. Oleh itu pemandangan dibahagian atas dalam Kaabah adalah gelap sedikit pada masa itu. Mungkin ada beberapa alat kelengkapan tergantung di tengah Kaabah seperti kata rakan-rakan saya. Tetapi saya tidak dapat menelitinya dengan jelas pada masa itu. Mungkin merika yang lain semasa dalam Kaabah itu dapat melihat dengan lebih jelas.

Apakah tertib apabila memasuki Kaabah?  Dari nasihat yang saya terima kita boleh solat sunat dua rakaat apabila memasuki Kaabah, seperti mana kita lakukan apabila memasuki mana-mana masjid. Bezanya, di dalam Kaabah kita boleh melakukan  solat  sunat ini empat kali, sekali di setiap empat dinding Kaabah menghadapi empat penjuru alam, dari dalam menghadapi ke luar. Saya telah mengerjakan solat sunat ini, dari dalam menghadapi  setiap empat dinding. Inilah satu keistemewaan berada di  dalam Kaabah. Tidak ada tempat lain di dunia ini di mana ini boleh dilakukan.

Selepas solat sunat saya telah berdoa. Saya lihat merika yang bersama saya melakukan perkara yang sama. Kata orang berdoa dalam Kaabah biarlah secara terperinci. Segala hajat perlu di sebut dengan jelas. Nama-nama orang yang didoakan biarlah disebut  dengan kuat dan jelas. Bagi saya segala ini saya lakukan. Dan doa saya seperti biasa bermula dengan ungkapan  kesyukuran…”Ya Allah ya Tuhanku, aku bersyukur atas segala pemberian Mu kepada ku….”

Saya  berada dalam Kaabah lebihkurang dua puluh minit.  Kawasan dalam Kaabah itu tidak besar dan saya jangka hanya boleh memuatkan dengan selesa  lebihkurang dua puluh orang setiap masa.

Saya telah memasukki Kaabah dengan memakai Baju Melayu berwarna biru tua, bersampin dan bersongkok hitam. Apabila keluar dari Kaabah saya dapati pakaian dan badan saya berbau wangi kerana bahagian dalam Kaabah itu diwangikan dengan asap kayu oud (agarwood).

Saya bersyukur kerana telah berpeluang memasukki Kaabah dua kali. Begitu lama masa telah berlalu sejak saya pertama kali memasukki Kaabah pada tahun 1998. Kini, di usia warga emas ini, apabila saya renungkan masa-masa saya merantau di Saudi Arabia dan di tempat lain di dunia, banyak kegembiraan nikmat alam telah saya alami. Tetapi, memasuki Kaabah memberi perasaan gembira yang mengatasi segalanya.

8. Childhood Pastimes in the 1950s

Posted in Early Childhood by s.j. aznan on 22/11/2011

In a normal weekday formal schooling and the afternoon mengaji lessons would take up to around 4pm. There would then be house  chores and errands to do.  After that, and during weekends and school holidays  I had a lot of free time.

Like most of my friends in the 1950s we were active children and we always had something to do to keep us occupied. Those days there were no internet and computer games. There were no televisions. Our activities were largely confined to day activities. They included playing a number of children games, wandering around the kampungs including the bendangs or padi fields, fishing in the canals and catching fighting fishes in the parits or small streams, and a host of other activities.

Main bola (football)

Some games like main bola ( football) and rounders  were played almost the whole year round in the evening  when the weather was fine.  There was a small field in front of my house and we would play football in the evening whenever somebody brought  a soccer ball to the field. Soccer balls at that time were expensive.  A  leather ball cost around $10 depending on the quality and so outside the school it was difficult to play football. The soccer balls that we bought from the shops at that time were of very low quality, mostly imported from India. Leather pieces  were hand-sewn together by thick jute threads which often snapped when wet, and our playing fields were often wet. As a precaution we usually put grease on the thread lines and dried the balls under sunlight to strengthen the threads. Every ball had a rubber tube which we inflated by using a bicycle pump. And the balls were seldom completely round as we see today. Anyway, that was a ball which was good enough for children to kick around barefoot. Yes, we played barefoot. Shoes were not allowed as it might cause injury to those without them. Some used ankle guards in place of shoes.

Skill  in playing football was defined by the ability to dribble right to the goalmouth, and to score. Among the children those who could kick the ball harder were considered better players.  On a lighter side, I remember an instance when I was still in Malay school  in the mid 50s when our school team played against a very weak visiting side. At half time the scoreline was almost double digit. The football master at half-time  proudly remarked to the team , “Sapa belum score gol lagi?” (Who has not scored a goal yet?). To him all players, probably except the goalkeeper, were expected to score goals. It was his brand of football strategy. No 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation as we have today or anything like that. It was a 0-10 formation. Every player other than the goalkeeper should attack  and defend  and every player should score goals.  This  style of play  was similar to the ‘Total Football’ strategy used by the Dutch world cup team led by Johan Cruyff  in the 1974 World Cup!


Rounders was a game similar to  modern day softball. There were two sides in a game; one side will be fielding and pitching and the other side will be batting. We used a small hard rubber ball and batsmen used wooden bats. This game was played by both boys and girls.

Some games were seasonal. There were seasons for main guli (play with marbles), main kotak (play with cigarette boxes) and main gasing (tops spinning). I will describe them briefly.

Main guli (marbles)

Guli or marbles were of two types. One type was made of limestone and was the size of a golf ball. Every player had one guli  and the game was played over three small holes about three feet apart. The game required skill of the fingers as each player tried to roll his guli into all the holes using fingers only, and at the same time to knock other players’ guli away fromm the holes. The player who completed the game first won. This was a boys game.

A second type of guli were glass marbles. Each marble was about one centimetre in diameter. Players would  put in one or two guli each which were spread across a certain line drawn on the ground. The first player able to hit an assigned guli as a target wins and collected all the marbles. The winner ended up having many marbles, while losers would have to look for new supplies.

Main kotak

In those days cigarettes were sold in boxes of tens. The inner part of a box could be taken out leaving the rectangle shaped outer cover. These outer covers were the collectors  item and children played a game to win them.

The most common cigarette box at that time was the ‘Rough Rider’ brand. Some children at that time referred this brand as ‘koboi menembak’ (a shooting cowboy) because the box pictured a cowboy firing a rifle while riding a horse. This box had a nominal value of one. The light blue Players cigarette box was assigned a value of two boxes since it was less common, probably because it was more expensive. The Torchlight brand had a value of three boxes. But, the most sought after was the gold coloured State Express box with its 555 sign. This was assigned a value of five boxes.

Each player would contribute an agreed number of cigarette boxes according to value. The boxes would be arranged to stand up like a building on the ground. From that position each player would throw away his ‘tagan’ which was a small flat piece of concrete or rock. From those positions each player, starting by the furthest position, would aim to knock down the boxes. He would collect those boxes that were hit.

There were of course certain rules attached to the game. For example, when my friends and I played the game we disallowed the usage of iron chain as a ‘tagan’. We considered it to be an unfair advantage.

Main Gasing (Tops spinning)

Wooden tops or gasing were fitted with pointed steel  nails. A player would wound up the top with a thick cotton rope and forcefully  smashed  it on the ground to spin it.

The game was basically a destructive game. The objective was basically to chip off or break another player’s top.

A group of boys would draw a circle on the ground and then agreed who would place his top first as a static target in the circle. All the other players then would take turn in smashing their tops on the target with the objective of chipping or destroying it. But when a player spun his top into the circle  he risked having his top becoming a moving target by the other players as well. If his top failed to roll out of the circle after his spin ended then his top would be kept in the circle as a static target until it is knocked out of the circle.

Wooden tops with fitted nails were available in shops. They were factory made using soft wood. But some oy us kids, myself included, preferred to make our own tops. The  preferred wood were kayu limau (lemon) and kayu nangka (jackfruit)  which were difficult to chip off but they were light in weight. The best wood was kayu jambu batu which had good weight and was very hard and strong. The problem with kayu jambu batu was that it was difficult to carve into a top due to its hardness.

Wandering around

When there were no games to play we had other group activities. We often wandered around in the kampung. The kampung included the house, the bushes and the trees around them, and the bendangs or padi fields. We climbed trees, and learned to recognise the animals and plants.

Most of us then would have a home- made lastik or catapult to shoot at mango fruits on trees and even birds. Yes, many children had a destructive tendency during those days. Until today I could not reason out why many chose to trap birds or to shoot them down with catapults just for the fun of it.

The bendangs or padi fields in Bagan Serai always fascinated me . During planting and growing season you could see vast acreages of flat green padi fields. The green padi fields stretching to the horizon gave a sense of peace and tranquility which  even the golf courses of today could not match. During harvesting season when the padi ripened the field would have dried and would change from green to yellow.

During planting time you could see  men and women  young and old planting padi in the bendang.  During harvesting time  the planters and their families were in full force cutting the plants.

During those time in the 1950s mechanisation was not known. Almost everything was done manually. The effort these village folks put in would not be easily understood by the generation today. Hard work definitely has a different meaning today.

I enjoyed the harvesting season. The bendangs were then dried up. We used to play on the  high ground between each lot of padi fields. In some fields the farmers planted mango trees there and their fruits usually ripened close to the  harvesting season.

Fighting-fish (Ikan Semilai)

This breed of fish were found in the parits or streams of water, the edges of the bendangs or anywhere where there were plants growing in water. These fishes were very small and often dark in colour. These fishes get excited when they see another of their kind. And when that happen their fins would open up and glow beautifully. I do not know its scientific name but in the local language then we called it ikan semilai. We normally caught and put them into individual jars, separated by a paper or board partition. When the partition was lifted the fish in one jar would see the other in the other jar and they would get excited. Sometimes, some children would put two into a jar to watch them glow and fight. The loser would end up getting its beautiful fins damaged: another destructive sport of the time?


Menimba in Malay means to remove water by using a timba or pail. During the dry season the parits tended to dry up and fishes were there to be caught. What the bigger boys of those time did was to block off two sides of the parit trapping fishes within a 20 to 30 feet area. Then the hard work began. They would get down barefooted into the parit and start removing the water using pails, hence the term menimba. They would continue until the water level was minimal and the parit became very muddy. Then they would start catching the fishes with bare hands.

Two types of fishes were normally caught. The haruan and the keli. Both were dangerous. The haruan is a big fish  in muddy water. It is brown in colour and thus sometimes difficult to detect in the mud. It doesn’t bite, but it is a big and strong fish and can hurt the catcher through its struggle. The keli or catfish is famous for its fangs. It is not as large as the haruan but its sting  can really hurt. Remember, these fishes were in their own territory of muddy water and the barefooted  boys had to be extra careful.

Well, there were of course other creatures in the muddy waters. Water snakes for example. But to the boys, this was a minor occupational hazard.

Perhaps an extra note on the haruan needs to be made. During those times it was just an ordinary muddy water fish and of not much value. Today, the wild haruan  from the parit is highly demanded for various purposes: it is said that a haruan soup would heal internal injury faster than any western medication! This explains why people who have just undergone surgery take haruan soup!

This were some of  my activities during non school hours. These were some of the pastimes of a child during my early childhood. There were of course other  activities and two need special mention: the Main Wau (kite flying) and the Wayang Padang .

Main Wau (kite flying)

Kites were sold in shops those days, but I made my own kite. The frames were made of bamboo shafts which had to be dried up to ensure that they were light. Balancing the frame was important to ensure that the kite would soar up in a straight direction.

The kite was generally a toy for enjoyment, to see it soar into the sky was  an excitement. But some of the bigger boys chose to turn kite flying into a destructive competition. The cord that we used was normally the Griffin Brand Number 10 thread. It was a strong thread. But some boys coated it with glass powder, made from crushed light bulbs. The glass powder was mixed with glue paste and would be coated around certain parts of the cord. Thus  when two person were flying their kites and if their cords touched each other in the sky, then the glass-coated cord would cut the plain cord. The kite of the loser would be flown away and lost.

I kept away from anyone flying kite with glass-coated cord. Its easy to recognise it since the cords were usually coloured as compared to the plain white cord. But, why on earth would a person wanted to turn simple kite flying into a destructive pastime? I haven’t  figured out the answer?

Wayang Padang (Open air movies)

Once in a while a car would pass through the road in front of my house announcing that there would be a movie shown in the  town padang (field) that  night. Yes. It was the wayang padang.  These public screening of movies were usually sponsored by companies selling consumer products. The notable ones during those times were companies selling Brylcreem and beverages like Ovaltine and Milo.  They would show the movies from a projector on a large truck to a large white screen on the field. Half way through the movie would be stopped to facilitate sale of the products. Sometime they gave free sample drinks. The show usually attracted quite a large crowd since people took this opportunity to have a night outing. For many people this was a rare treat. The movies shown were usually westerns which included lots of actions.

My parents  seldom allowed me to be outside the house after dusk. But on the occasion of the wayang padang permission was usually granted. After all, many of my friends were there.

7. Quran Reading Lessons.

Posted in Early Childhood by s.j. aznan on 20/06/2011

My day as a child in the 1950s was quite routine. In the morning, like most children, I went to a government school. At around 12.30pm  the morning session of school would end and everybody would go home. I was  fortunate never to have attended schooling in the afternoon session.

The Government English School, Bagan Serai was only a few hundred metres away from my house along Andersen Road and so I walked to school and back. When I reached home at around 1pm I was already very hungry. Remember, there was no real breakfast in the morning and the 10  or 15 cents pocket money, though a lot at those times, could not fill an empty stomach. But, food was always ready at home, thanks to my super efficient mother.

But after lunch a second schooling session would start. Although already attired in my khaki shorts and shirt, I would pick up my kain pelikat or sarong and my kopiah or songkok as we call it today and  set for my mengaji lessons or Quran reading lessons. This was not held at a formal school but at the house of a religious teacher a few miles away. Again, I walked to the class and back.

During those times, Muslim parents wanted their children to know how to read the Quran properly at an early age. Apparently, the ability to read the Quran properly was a basic requirement of a literate Muslim. Understanding the meaning of the Arabic verses was a secondary matter; the primary requirement was the ability to read. If a Muslim could not read the Quran properly then he or she was considered to be not properly brought up.  For a male, how was he to lead a prayer at least for the family if he could not recite verses of the Quran properly? For a female, the responsibility was even bigger for she might in later years as a mother  be called upon to start Quran reading lessons to her children! In fact some parents even  insisted that prospective  suitors to their daughters  had this quality before they could be accepted as sons-in-law.

As for me and my siblings we had our first Quran reading  lessons at home, taught by our super efficient mother.  We normally started by reading the Juz Amma which is the last chapter of the Quran. In this chapter the surahs are shorter and easier to read. We would then graduate to reading the full Quran.

When I completed my Juz Amma  I was sent by my mother to a Quran teacher. I was to begin reading the full Quran.  In my case it was an elderly grandmother who taught a number of children how to read the Quran. We referred her as Tok as she was a grandmother. The students paid no fee. It was sheer dedication on her part, a quality we hardly see in present time. I am grateful to her for her dedication.

My Quran teacher lived with her daughter and family and conducted Quran reading lessons in the afternoon. A group of students would sit on the floor in the hall of the house . The house had a zinc roofing and no ceiling and as such it was very warm in the afternoon. We wore our kain pelikat and we put on our kopiah. We sat bersila or cross-legged on the wooden floor and read our own Quran which was placed on a wooden rehal (Quran stand). The standard routine in class was for each student to read his own Quran. We were all at different levels of progress and so the verses that we read were different.

Tok  would sit at one end of the hall doing whatever she had to do but always keeping a sharp ear as to what we were reading.  If she detected a wrong note in recitation then she  quickly corrected it. Sometimes, in the heat of the afternoon we tended to get sleepy and our loud reading would be reduced to mere murmurs. Our Tok  would then take her long cane and hit the floor with a cracking sound. She would at the same time in a loud voice said ‘baca’ or read. That was enough to awaken us to continue reading.At the end of the day we would be called , one by one, to read our assigned surahs in front of Tok. If we showed proficiency then  Tok would allow us to progress and she would teach us  how to read subsequent surahs. As class  ended  in late afternoon we would fold our wooden rehal and kiss the Quran and stowed them away. Class was then over. It was now time to go home. It was now play time.

When my mother approached the Quran teacher to enrol me as a student, she literally handed me over to the teacher to be taught in any manner the teacher deemed fit. As a rule, if I misbehaved in class then I was to be punished by the teacher. When that happened I was expected to take punishment quietly. It would be a grievous mistake if I were to report the incident to  my mother at home. As a general rule if a child was punished by a teacher at the formal English school,   parents were likely to be sympathetic to the child’s case. But, if a child was  punished by his or her Quran teacher then it was folly to report to his or her parents. Not only would there be no sympathy for the child,  in some cases parents would doubled up the punishment at home. This was the unwritten law of the time! In fact this was one main reason as to  why the success rate of Quran reading classes was  high during those times! The saying “spare the rod, spoil the child” was never more aptly applied. The long cane of a Quran reading teacher, especially its cracking sound when it hit the floor, was always enough to let students learn through sheer fear.

I never completed learning Quran reading from Tok. This was because in December 1960 my father was transferred to serve in a village near Bidor, also in Perak. I was to continue learning from my mother for a number of years. It took some time, but I eventually completed my lessons and attained my Quran reading proficiency.

6. Moving On To An English School.

Posted in Early Childhood by s.j. aznan on 10/06/2010

The Special Malay Class

Studying in a Malay school in the 1950s will only take a person up to Standard Six. At a time when schooling was not really compulsory reaching Standard Six in a Malay school was an achievement. Some would drop out along the way to do other more urgent things like helping in the padi fields. Those who survived that long will then join a transitory class called the ‘Remove Class’ for one year in an English school. This was to enable them to pick up the English language. They will then move on to Form One in an English school after seven years of education. Students who joined an English school directly from Standard One will only have six years of schooling when they entered Form One. They were likely to be one year younger than their colleagues coming through Remove Class.

When I was in the Malay school in the early 50s I noted that there was no automatic promotion of students from one level to another. A student who did not make the grade in the examinations would be asked to stay in the same level. Exceptionally, students who were considered very bright were allowed to lompat or jump one level higher, like jumping from Standard One to Standard Three, without going through Standard Two. The decision was entirely up to the school teachers. I noted that when I moved from Darjah Out to Standard One, some of my colleagues who joined Standard One directly were retained and became my classmates. One result of the retention system was that you could have very old students in a class, if they had been retained for a number of times. This system of jumping and retention was changed by the Government some time in the mid 1950s, when automatic promotion was introduced until Standard Six. I recalled a situation, under the automatic promotion system, when a student who had been retained in a lower class for a number of years was suddenly moved to higher class because he was considered too old for the class. Today, a student only has evaluations at Standard Six and Form Three but no qualifying examinations. All students move up automatically to Form Five when they will sit for  their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia. That is their first real examination.

The transfer of students from a Malay school to an English school was done at several levels. Students at Standard Three or Four or Five in a Malay school were allowed to sit for a special entrance examination to enter an English school. Those who passed the special entrance examination would be placed in ‘ Special Malay Class 1’ in an English school. This was equivalent to Standard Four in an English school. The next year they would move to ‘Special Malay Class 2’ and then to Standard Six where they will be put in the same classroom with those who joined the English school directly from Standard One. By that time they were expected to be able to converse in English with their teachers and colleagues.

Anyway, in 1956 while at Standard Three I sat for the special entrance examination. This was a rarity then as most students chose to sit for the examination at Standard Four. I was the only student from Standard Three in Bagan Serai to pass the examination. Thus in 1957 I left Sekolah Melayu Bagan Serai and joined the Government English School, Bagan Serai at the level of Special Malay Class 1.

I was among the youngest in the class since I came from Standard Three in a Malay school. The others had completed Standard Four or Standard Five.

Learning English at that stage was interesting. Classes were conducted in English and the textbooks were all in the English language. In fact most of the textbooks came from England and they were based on life in England.  Most of the students in the class had almost no knowledge of the English language. Thus it was an uphill task for the teachers. How the teachers did it I really did not know. But the beauty of it was that we survived!

After two years in a Special Malay Class I moved on to Standard Six when all students including those who started Standard One in an  English-stream school had to sit for an important examination.  Those who passed would be promoted to Form One. That was considered to be a great achievement.

At Standard Six students learnt some interesting things. We  learnt very little about our country but many things about Europe. Among others, I had to memorise all the major train stations of the Trans-Siberian Railway lines from Leningrad to Vladivostok although I did not have the slightest idea where those places were on Earth. I learnt that King Harold died by an arrow shot in his left eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066; he was defeated by William of Normandy. I learnt about Horatio Nelson’s remarks of ‘Thank God I have done my duty’ before he died at the Battle of Trafalgar, and I learnt that the battlecry was ‘Santiago’ when Alfonso D’Albuquerque attacked Malacca in 1511. Until today, I do not know whether I learnt the right things then and why they were considered important for students then. Were they real knowledge or just information? I never studied the geography or history of Malaya  at that time?

Anyway, I sat for the important Standard Six examination in 1959. I did very well and obtained an ‘A’ grade with second highest marks in the whole school. I  was awarded a book prize which was given by the headmaster at a school assembly. I remember the book was titled ‘The Wonder Book’ and it was a collection of children stories in Europe. The student with top marks was a girl. She was very clever in class.

 A Short Note On Some Of My Teachers.

Although it was over fifty years ago when I was in primary school, some of the teachers who taught and guided me in and outside the classrooms are still in my memory and they deserved special mention. At the Malay school I remember very well the Cik Gu  who taught me reading and arithmetics. He had that fearsome look and I was  scared of him, especially that he was a good friend of my father. He lived across the road in front of my house. But I consider him to be an excellent teacher because I learnt a lot in his class. Until today I believe that  teachers who exert authority in their  classes are likely to impart more knowledge to their students! I had a few other teachers who taught and guided me well in the Malay school, including lady teachers. Some of them supervised games  and athletics after school. I was a member of the ‘Anak Serigala’ or wolves, a club for those who were too young to be a Boy Scout. We had our own uniform including badges and cap. We had outings after school hours. Occasionally, we had camp-fires at night together with the older Boy Scouts. The teachers who supervised these activities were all dedicated but I could not remember their names clearly now.

At the English school I remember a number of teachers who I learnt to respect a lot. Miss Sarojini  taught me during the special Malay classes and she must have had a tough time teaching a group of Malay students who could not converse in English. But I remember her to be  very kind and patient. I remember Mr. Goh  who taught me in Standard Six. He was rather soft spoken but exemplary in his patience in dealing with students.  Then there was Mr. Sidek. He taught at the upper levels but occasionally came to my class at Standard Six. He was a disciplinarian and I was scared of him.

All these teachers, and some others were exemplary in their dedication. I will say more on my teachers including those at secondary schools later on.

%d bloggers like this: