Joining the Civil Service, 1970.

Joining the Civil Service, 1970

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

(First published in WordPress on 8/9/2017 ) ( ed.17/5/18, 14/12/21 ).


I joined the Malaysian Civil Service in early 1970. It was during the time of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia (31.8.1957-22.9.1970). The Chief Secretary to the Government was then Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Shamsuddin. This was the beginning of my long career in public service at the state, federal and international levels. I retired as a Malaysian civil servant in 2001.

Back to my Kampung.

In December 1969 I was 22 years old. I had just completed three years of study at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and sat for my final examinations. All I wanted to do then was to leave the city for a while and go home to my kampung (small village). I wanted to spend some time with my parents and renew my acquaintances with old friends.

The house where the family lived was a wooden kampung house located in a small Malay community just about one kilometre outside the small town of Slim Village in Perak. My father was then the local penghulu there, but we lived in a rented house since there was no government quarters built there.

The small town of Slim Village had electricity supplied from a private commercial generator owned by a local tycoon, but it could not generate enough power supply to be extended to my kampung. The national grid power lines could be seen a few kilometres away from my house, but national electricity supply took some time to reach us.

The standard sources of lighting in the community were traditional oil lamps (pelita minyak) and the gasoline pump lamps. The “Butterfly Brand” and the “Eye Brand” gasoline lamps were popular. Even the sole street lighting at a junction near my house was from a gasoline lamp. We had a portable petrol generator for electricity in the house and it was good for a few light bulbs for a few hours. We experimented using the generator to power a television, but the picture quality was poor due to unstable power supply.

The community had piped water supply, but the water pressure was often very low. The quality of the water supply was also doubtful, due to poor piping connections from the main pipes.

In terms of economic activities many in my kampung were self-employed and farmers. Some were rubber-tappers while some had ventured into small-time business like selling foodstuffs at food stalls.

The educational level was low. There was no secondary school in the nearby areas, and the few that attended secondary schooling had to go elsewhere.

My kampung friends were special. They had little or no education reflecting the effects of social neglect of pre “merdeka” days. But they had strong survival skills. I had friends who specialised in bringing out from the deep jungle seasonal produce like the petai (parkia speciosa) to trade in the town, and others who grew sugarcane and other plants alongside the river. The petai is a fruit from a very large and tall tree which grew deep in the jungle. Only expert climbers could climb up the trees to bring down the fruits. One of my friends was a sugar-cane water and apambalik (turnover pancake) seller near the local bus terminal, while others did odd jobs in the kampung. Some of them were younger than me in age but they were then already earning income from gainful employment. At my last visit to the kampung a few years ago one of my old friend, then in his sixties was still running a small coffee stall there. After over four decades since our young days he survived all on his own.

At university I had studied about poverty in the context of development economics. I was at times introduced to the effort factor as a cause for poverty. There was this notion then that people were poor because they did not put in enough effort in work. But here in my kampung reality painted a different picture. Sometimes I heard at the early hours of around 4 o’clock in the morning, sound of people outside my house moving to their workplaces. They included rubber-tappers, some of whom were only working on somebody else’s land. They put in lots of hard work to earn their daily bread and what they earned was below the poverty line.

The story of the kampung rubber tapper has to be told to understand better the meaning of local poverty. I had earlier lived in other kampung in Perak and the stories of rubber tappers there were similar.

The rubber tapper at my kampung was already on his way to work at around 4 in the morning. He worked on family inheritance land which had multiple owners and even on land owned by others. In all cases income from the land had to be shared. The rubber trees were normally located a distance from his house, and he would have to cycle there in the dark. The rubber trees were old trees in need of replanting, and thus the tapping spots were usually high up on the tree trunks. Thus the tapper had to carry a ladder from tree to tree for this purpose. Sometimes the trees were on uneven terrain, and this made the task harder. Some tappers had to use oil lamps for lighting in areas of darkness in the early morning. Some also brought cheap cigarettes which had almost no tobacco content, not for the purpose of enjoying tobacco but just to produce smokes to keep away mosquitoes. Tapping was normally done in a few hours, but the tapper had to return to the trees later to collect the latex. The process of pressing and rolling the latex into rubber sheets continued later in the afternoon.

That was the tapping technology at a kampung at that time in the 1960s. It was less sophisticated than the process in plantation estates. To the kampung rubber tapper, if it rained in the morning then tapping was affected and the latex of the day could be lost. In a worst-case scenario the rubber tapper would have no income for the day.

The work of a kampung rubber tapper was hard. Return was low and further subject to disruption from weather.

I was never a rubber tapper. But I have lived in the same community with rubber tappers. I noted the great effort tappers put in daily. I had the opportunity to listen to their stories and noted their strong sense of survival. Their plight was almost similar to the padi planters working in bendang (padi fields) elsewhere in Perak.

What I learned debunked the theory of the lazy native as cause for poverty.

At the Federal Treasury, Kuala Lumpur.

My stay at the kampung this time was short-lived. I had barely time to relax and enjoy kampung life when I was asked to report for duty as an Attachment Officer at the Federal Treasury, Kuala Lumpur.

In January 1970 I reported for duty to the Administration Division of the Federal Treasury, Kuala Lumpur. It was the department in charge of human resources. The Head of the Administration Division was Mr. Bhupinder Singh.

The Permanent Secretary (now styled Secretary-General) to the Treasury then was Tan Sri Shariff Samad. But I never had the chance of meeting him as he was to leave the ministry later in the year. The Minister of Finance then was Tun Abdul Razak who held the finance portfolio briefly since mid 1969, until the return of Tun Tan Siew Sin to the Cabinet in late 1970.

My posting as Attachment Officer did not place me under any scheme of service of the Malaysian Government. It was a temporary appointment on a month-to-month basis until the release of university examination results. I did not get a salary but was paid an allowance of M$400 per month. This was just slightly more than a junior clerk’s pay, but it was very welcome as my first taste of income from employment.

Graduation ceremony, University of Malaya, 1970.

In March 1970, the university examination results were announced. It was the second graduating batch from the new Faculty of Economics and Administration of the University of Malaya. I graduated with honours in Applied Economics. The assessment standard at that time was definitely very high. Some of my colleagues who had done well in school previously were not able to secure honours degrees. Just slightly more than half of the class graduated with honours, while the rest had general degrees.

Attachment Officers who secured honours degrees were placed as Temporary Officers in the Malaysian Civil Service (later transformed into the Administrative and Diplomatic Service after the merger with the Foreign Service). We were paid a basic monthly salary of M$592. Those with general degrees were placed in a lower scheme of service with lower pay. Technically, they could apply for admission into the premier Administrative and Diplomatic Service after a three or four year period. This would place them three or four years behind in term of seniority of service when they were admitted into the premier service. Some of those with general degrees left to join semi-government bodies and the private sector where no such differentiation was made.

Changing from ‘student’ mode to ‘officer’ mode was not completely smooth. My normal dress code at university was long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. They were clean but seldom smoothly pressed. But as an officer I faced changes. My shirt and pants had to be pressed smoothly. I had to put on a necktie. Yes, a necktie! Learning to knot a necktie properly took some time. I had to keep my hair well groomed. As an officer I had to look presentable in office.

I learnt office protocol. Senior officers were to be accorded much respect in office for their rank. They were also older in age and had more working experiences.

I learnt to write official documents like office memos and letters to other ministries and departments, prepare minutes of meetings and even drafts of cabinet papers which ultimately was to be signed by the minister himself. These skills were never taught at university.

I learnt that all official letters had to begin with the phrase “I am directed to…” and end with the statement “I am, Sir, your obedient servant”. Letters were always written for and on behalf of the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry.

I noted then, with slight humour and curiosity that every officer in the Ministry of Finance was a “secretary”. At the very top was the Permanent Secretary. Below him was the Deputy Secretary, then the Under-Secretary and so on until the Assistant Secretary.

Drafting and editing a Cabinet Paper was a good experience. Cabinet papers had a minimum security classification of “secret” and placed in a light red colour file. Only selected typists were allowed to type secret documents and a small number of officers were involved in preparing the papers. In the case of those files marked “top secret”, i.e. those yellow files with a large “X” marking in red on the covers, handling was further limited only to very few authorised officers. These files had to be carried around in big envelopes or locked boxes.

There were no word-processors then, and electric typewriters like the IBM typewriters were still uncommon at those times. The standard typewriters were usually the manual Remington brand. To make multiple copies we had to get the documents typed on stencils and then duplicated using the Gestetner cyclostyle machine. When an error was detected on a draft cabinet paper the process of correction was tedious, particularly under requirement of secrecy.

I recalled with some sense of humour that one day in 1971 a certain Mr. Sarwan Singh, a senior clerical staff from the office of the Minister of Finance had rushed to my room with a cabinet paper which I helped to draft. Apparently at the concluding line I had written as follows: “Cabinet is therefore requested to approve as follows: …..”. Mr. Sarwan told me that there had to be a dash (-) after the last colon as in “:-”. I was surprised and slightly amused. Was it really a grammar mistake? More importantly why can’t Mr. Sarwan himself asked the typist to make the correction. On this Mr. Sarwan told me that it was the Minister of Finance, Tun Tan Siew Sin himself who wanted the correction made. Since this was a secret document he had directed that the officer responsible for the cabinet paper itself should rectify the mistake. This was a lesson to me on the need to be meticulous in work to a standard set by the boss, and to understand better the meaning of document secrecy.

The image issue was important. As an officer I had to supervise clerical staff many 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 or put on a serious face. One colleague related to me an amusing story of a very senior officer during the British era who grew a moustache to put on a serious look! For me personally, it did not help that I was physically small built and had a rather boyish face, and that I could not grow a moustache. So getting respect from my office staffs involved lessons of trial and error, sometimes even humorous episodes!

At the Federal Treasury I was assigned to the position of Assistant Secretary, the entry level rank in the first division hierarchy. I was placed in the Tax Division which at that time was headed by a distinguished civil servant who later rose to be the Chief Secretary to the Government.

In the Tax Division my job scope covered revenue analysis and direct taxation. I had the opportunity to learn in much depth revenue and 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, Tun Tan Siew Sin. That was where all tax policies were discussed!

Tax matters in the Federal Treasury were placed very high in security classification. Some of the subjects handled were classified as “secret” and some even “top-secret” . To enable me to have access to highly classified tax files I had to undergo extensive security vetting or what was then referred to as positive security vetting. I was interviewed by officers from the Security Office. This was a much more rigorous process than the normal negative vetting done on most of my colleagues in other ministries.

Appointment to the Civil Service.

On 1st October 1970 I was formally appointed by the Public Service Commission as an officer in the Malaysian Administrative and Diplomatic Service (ADS). This was after an interview selection process.

In the initial period after appointment I had to pass several civil service examinations before I could be confirmed as a permanent officer. I was also required to contribute to the Employees Provident Fund scheme for at least three years before I was emplaced in a pensionable scheme of service.

I had then become a member of an elite group of civil servants in a fast developing country. To the traditional Malay community I had become a Pegawai MCS (Malaysian Civil Service officer), something held with great pride by many Malay mothers then.

In September 1970 Tun Abdul Razak succeeded Tunku Abdul Rahman as the second Prime Minister of Malaysia. He held the post until his untimely death in January 1976. The finance portfolio was again placed under Tun Tan Siew Sin on his return to Cabinet ministership.

Malaysia under Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak started an ambitious programme of economic development. The New Economic Policy was introduced in late 1970. It was focused on the twin-pronged objectives of poverty eradication and restructuring of society. As a new and young officer close to the nerve centre of government planning I was excited. My appointment into the civil service and placement in the Federal Treasury was a dream and justified my rejection of more monetary rewards from employment in the private sector.

As a new entrant into the civil service I had to undergo training. During that time basic training was done mostly at the old Training Institute for public servants at Lorong Elmu near the University of Malaya campus. I had to undergo an initial basic two-week training programme. This was followed by several other training programmes in the following years.

Civil service training at INTAN, Petaling Jaya in 1971

Many things were taught during the short training period. They included subjects like 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 learnt about the structure of government, and how ministries and departments worked. More importantly I learned about the relationship between politicians and civil servants, particularly in the working of a ministry.

I learnt that at that time the Minister of Finance was the chief policymaker in the Treasury, being a member of the cabinet of ministers and also being bestowed with various powers under several laws on financial management. Below him was the Permanent Secretary who reported to the Minister. All civil servants in the Treasury reported only to the permanent secretary. At that time Deputy Ministers and other political appointees around the minister were not part of the hierarchy of command in the administration of a ministry.

I learnt 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 ministries and departments.

I was a very enthusiastic participant. I was keen to know what it meant to be a civil servant, to be part of this powerful premier Administrative and Diplomatic Service.

Three things were impressed on me during the training sessions for new civil servants:

1. As a civil servant I was expected to be a proud servant to the king and country.

2. A civil servant was expected to lean slightly left-of-centre in terms of economic management. Thus, in making policy recommendations I was expected to have the welfare of the masses at heart and to work towards their wellbeing.

3. The guiding principle of remuneration was that a civil servant would earn enough but would not be rich while in service. 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 lead the lifestyle of colleagues in the private sector. Salaries of graduates in the civil service in those days were generally lower compared to the private sector, and we had no annual bonuses. But it was acceptable that those who wanted higher salaries could leave the civil service 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 civil servants would enjoy stature in society. In terms of state and national honours, civil servants would also be given priority in recognition of their social service. 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.

Political Changes

Fast forward a decade later, all these started to change in the 1980s. It was then the Mahathir era (1981-2003) in Malaysia. He had succeeded Tun Hussein Onn (1976-1981) as the fourth prime minister of Malaysia. His brand of economics was dominating.

The Mahathir premiership era was marked by the pursuit of rapid growth in the country. Malaysia was then trying to achieve developed nation status quickly. It was a nation in a hurry to achieve its targets. This led to the implementation of unorthodox measures in economic management.

The private sector was then considered as the primary engine of growth in the economy. More resources were allocated to it. Selected individuals from the private sector were identified to be more efficient and productive than others and were entrusted to manage large development projects. They were expected to generate more wealth for the country and the government would benefit through more taxation income from their profits. The additional income earned by the government would benefit the rakyat as a whole. This was a major paradigm shift in economic management and the basis for the new Privatisation Policy of the government.

The Privatisation Policy enabled government projects and operations to be given to the private sector for management. This policy was formulated based on the belief by some policymakers that the superior management efficiency of the private sector over the public service would ensure greater chances of success in implementation.

The government Privatisation Policy started in the Treasury in 1981. There was then around 1000 “public enterprises” and many were not performing well financially. It was then thought that these non-performing public companies could be privatised to the private sector. It was expected that the companies would be turned around financially through better private sector management and this would benefit the country.

But the Privatisation Policy quickly changed direction. The private sector was not overly eager to help revive losing companies using its own resources without major compensation.They preferred taking over projects which had much assets to dispose. It was in a way some sort of insurance to the private sector to maximise returns on their investment. To facilitate this policy shift, management of privatisation policy and related government procurement matters were taken out operationally from the Treasury which was considered conservative financial managers. These matters were then placed in the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Ministers Department. They would then be under the direct control of the Prime Minister himself.

I would not venture here to argue whether this move was legal or proper in administrative terms. It was largely a political decision on which the civil service had no comment to offer.

Economic planning then borrowed a page from Keynesian economics. Aggregate spending and investment had to increase through government spending for more development. Spending had to be accelerated to have rapid growth. To achieve this the machinery of the government, centered on the civil service had to face some overhaul.

The new economic planning approach at that time was a novel idea. It was based on thinking big and thinking out of the box to achieve rapid growth. It had required simplification of processes in planning for quick decision-making. But while process simplification was desirable it required the civil service to be more alert and efficient to ensure end objectives were achieved. The civil service always had a duty to ensure good governance prevailed.

But, when the civil service was seen to be slow and weak, politicians gained entry into the operating domain of civil servants. The lines demarcating the roles of civil servants on one hand and politicians on the other became blurred. The civil service began to lose ground on its own terrain.

Erosion of civil service role and authority crept to almost all institutions of government. Mahathir had resigned as Prime Minister in 2003 after 22 years at the post*. The trend of a weak civil service continued in the following decades, during the period of successive Prime Ministers.

The period after Mahathir (post 2003) saw more uncertainty in economic management. Mahathir was a tough manager with aggressive economic policies. But he understood well the complexities of the economy to ensure the country moved forward even during difficult economic times. His successors were however less able and resorted to importing large number of advisors into economic management.

During post 2003 period there was formalised intervention into government administration through the creation of “pseudo civil servants” around the Prime Ministers and other ministers. They were non-civil servants who were advisors to the ministers but assumed the roles of civil servants in economic management. They assumed authority of the ministers but accountabilty was largely left to the civil servants. Soon this group of advisors became de facto point of reference for many civil servants. It was obvious that the structure of government machinery was severely compromised.

Politicians ascended from being “political leaders” to aggressive “political masters”. Civil servants were expected to execute the command of their political masters. The principle that civil servants should be obedient to the government-of-the-day was pushed to the extreme. They lost their strength to say even a polite “no” to politicians.

Civil servants continued to lose leadership in management and became subservient to the political masters. The institution of public service as a whole lost its strength and stature.

In my view, the decline of the role of public service in economic management and national planning then was largely due to the aggressive role of politicians in the country’s management.

However, I could not help but noted how weak was the leadership in public service then and how easily it gave itself to submission.

Much more could be said about the above changes in economic management and national planning. But I would leave this to future historians and political scientists to analyse in more details.

Posting at Ipoh, Perak 1991 – 1993.

From 1991 to 1993 I was posted as State Financial Officer of Perak, and based in Ipoh. The family and I moved residence to Ipoh, Perak.

I had been in the Federal Treasury at Kuala Lumpur since I joined the civil service in1970. I had progressed very well career-wise. In the twenty year period 1970 – 1990 I had been extensively trained academically and in treasury management. I had been assigned positions in taxation, government financing, and federal budgeting. I completed my Masters in Business Administration degree at an Ivy League university in USA in 1978, and subsequently obtained a Ph.D degree in the United Kingdom in 1989. In addition I also attended several in-service courses domestically and abroad.

In 1990 I was a middle-level officer in the civil service. I was then a deputy secretary in the Tax Division of the Treasury. It was then I was informed by my superiors that career-wise I had spent a long time at the Federal Treasury, and had undergone sufficient academic and operational training. It was time that I should experience management at a state level, where many operational decisions had to be made. This was to prepare me for possible senior positions in the coming years.

My posting in Ipoh, Perak lasted from 1991 to 1993.

Back to Kuala Lumpur.

From1993 to 1997 I was back in Kuala Lumpur taking senior positions in several federal ministries. But the civil service then was undergoing drastic changes. My skills as a conservative technocrat were no longer considered good enough to keep me on the fast-track in career development. I was slow to adapt to the new norms of the civil service. The criteria of “suitability” for a position and “acceptability” to policymakers had become crucial factors in deciding appointments to very senior positions. Those who failed to adapt to the new realities would find themselves placed in the slow-track for appointments and promotions. They even risked to be conveniently forgotten and left to fade away to retirement. That was the new civil service way.

From 1993 to 1996 I found myself in several unproductive appointments at the federal level. I had been trained well in various aspects of economic management, but then had to undergo two successive postings dealing with administrative house-keeping matters of ministries. These postings did not match my expertise nor my preference. In the culture of the civil service this was a clear sign that my skill was no longer appreciated.

My career in the civil service was then no longer on the fast-track. At 49 years old my progress to join the top echelon of the civil service was approaching a premature end.

As an International Civil Servant abroad.

In 1997 at 50 years old I successfully competed against a number of candidates for a professional appointment in an international financial development institution located in Jeddah. I was offered an appointment as vice-president in the organisation and be a senior member of the management team. There would be a new work and life environment in the new place, and many challenges to overcome. But there was the attraction that my skill as a technocrat would be better appreciated there.

It was a difficult decision to take the family with school-going children to a foreign land at my age then. The family had to live in a new environment. I discussed the subject with my family for a decision. Working abroad did not only mean leaving the country for a while. At 50 years old I was just 5 years away from mandatory retirement age. Time was not on my side in term of career. It also meant that I had to forgo any opportunities locally that could revive my chances of reaching the top level in the Malaysian civil service. But, my wife and I were confident that the move was for the better and the family would overcome all new challenges.

Retirement and after.

I retired officially from the Malaysian civil service in 2001 without achieving totally my dream of success. I continued to work quietly as an international civil servant in the new organisation. As vice-president and at various times as acting president of the organisation I continued to work on promoting economic development among its many member countries. It was a very satisfying 12 years experience in international development financing. I left the international organisation in 2009 at age 62, and returned to Malaysia with my family.

* Mahathir resigned as Prime Minister in 2003. He returned to the post in 2018 and again resigned in early 2020.



Menjunjung Duli Ceremony in Perak.

Menjunjung Duli Ceremony in Perak*

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

*This article is an edited translation into English from the original article titled “Istiadat Menjunjung Duli” written by the same author 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” (Menjunjung Duli Ceremony) 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 conferred a royal title.

On 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 an agnatic 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 (1886-1949) 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. The Sumpah Chiri ceremony, outside the palace side gate
  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.

1. The Sumpah Chiri ceremony, outside the palace side gate.

Masjid Ubudiah, Kuala Kangsar.
Istana Iskandariah, Kuala Kangsar.

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 side gate 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.

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, all recipients of royal titles were required to pledge complete loyalty to the king.

Sumpah Chiri ceremony – Toh Nara (in black) reading the Surat Chiri. Also present was the Pawang DiRaja (in red) at extreme left.

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.

Sprinkling the “tepung tawar” and rose-scented water

(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.)

Toh Nara sprinkled the tepung tawar (literally: pure rice flour) and air mawar (rose-scented water) on all three participants to mark the completion of Sumpah Chiri, the 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).

2. 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.

Tengkolok (headdress) – styled as “Lang Menyusur Angin” (The Eagle Flies with the Wind).

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.

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 curved 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”.

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.

The ceremonial Keris (Malay curved dagger)

Ceremonial Keris, secured with cloth.

I then removed the ceremonial 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.

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.

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.

(For further reading on the Nobat of Perak please see W.Linehan, “The Nobat and the Orang Kalau of Perak“, J.M.B.R.A.S. Vol. 24, No.3 (156), October 1951, pp. 60-68).

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.

“Mengesot” towards the base 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 hairpin 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 the royal sword “Pedang Chura Si Manjakini” on my head and left and right shoulders.
The “Pacak Ketor” placed on the right side of the tengkolok.
pacak ketor
“Pacak Ketor” (metal flower hairpin)
Receiving the official document of royal 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

3. Leaving the palace, and 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.

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 seclusion for seven days.

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

4. 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.

His Majesty sprinkled the tepung tawar and rose water. The Menjunjung Duli ceremony was then officially completed.

At the end of the ceremony His Majesty 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 Istiadat Menjunjung Duli as practiced for hundreds of years in Perak reflected richness of traditions of Malay kings in the past. This ceremony exists today 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.

An Officer at Perak State, 1991 – 1993.

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

( First published in WordPress on 29/9/2017 ).

Appointment as State Financial Officer.

In February 1991 I was appointed as the State Financial Officer of Perak. I was transferred from the Federal Treasury, Kuala Lumpur to the State Finance Office in Ipoh, 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.

Receiving letter of appointment from Regent of Perak.

For 21 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 administrative decisions my role was basically technical.

Article XXXVIc (1)c of The Constitution of Perak states that “the State Financial Officer shall be the principal officer responsible for the financial management of the State”. The State Financial Officer is also the State Financial Authority as provided under the Financial Procedure Act 1957. These laws govern the functions of the State Financial Officer.

Administratively, as a civil servant and as the State Financial Officer I reported to the State Secretary, the highest ranking civil servant in the state of Perak. Functionally, I was responsible to the State Executive Council headed by the Mentri Besar (Chief Minister) who was a politician. This was some sort of check and balance in state financial management through separation of powers.

I was an ex officio member in the State Executive Council and also in the State Legislative Assembly. In other words the State Financial Officer was a mirror image of the Minister of Finance at the federal level, but on a lesser scale.

Managing Authority.

At the state level I had to a lesser extent some financial and administrative authority similar to the Minister of Finance and the Secretary General of the Treasury at the federal level. This meant that, beyond the administrative power of a head of department I had some discretionary powers in terms of financial management in the state. I had my first taste of real authority.

I was very aware of the pitfalls in having some financial authority. In the state there were others with their own preferences. But responsibility and accountability rested with the Financial Authority. The rule was simple: if I made a financial decision and signed up for something then I had to bear the burden of the decision personally.

How then did I manage such authority?

There were many rules on financial management in the state, including civil service regulations. When the written laws were explicit there would be no debate. But when discretion was allowed and sometimes even required to facilitate development then operational guidelines were needed to help administrators make correct, quick and practical decisions within limits of the law. More importantly there should also be consistency in decision-making. There was a need to balance “correctness” and “practicality” in decision-making within limits of the law.

My mission as a civil servant was to carry out my managerial responsibilities with good governance while at all times maintaining a minimum level of disquiet in the organization. Past experience had taught me that as a matter of principle, a little bit of disquiet in management was acceptable and had to be managed. After all a completely quiet organisation was symptomatic of a dead organisation!

In economic management my strong inclination was usually to take a position slightly left-of-centre i.e. to be more sympathetic to the need of the masses. This was mainly an influence of the social and economic environment during my growing up days in Perak where poverty was very visible in the environment. I also had strong preference for observing governance in administration.

The development mantra of the day then was about promoting businesses and generating rapid growth. The nation was in a hurry to achieve its growth targets. In certain cases administrative procedures had to be simplified for quicker decisions. That was the policy of the Federal Government of the day. As a civil servant I had to give due respect to the government of the day.

So, I adopted three governance principles to facilitate financial decision-making:

  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 comply 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. 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, I 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 could lead to more efficiency in financial management, but such decision could also affect the viability of the small bank itself and consequently the community it served. My approach was that development was about generating overall positive growth and development in the state, and not about promoting one agent of growth and destroying another.

The above three principles worked reasonably well as operating guidelines. I never had major problems with the authorities in the state on financial management. It was testimony to good governance in the state at that time that professionalism by civil servants was well accepted.

But my strict management principles were not totally free from criticisms. Sometimes I smiled at whispers from my civil service colleagues that I was too strict in managing state finances. I was regarded as a bit too conservative and rigid with the rules.

Living in Ipoh.

When my family and I moved to Ipoh, the state capital of Perak we were provided with an official residence, a government quarters located at No. 1, Jalan Towers, Ipoh, Perak. It was an old bungalow with a separate garage and with a very large compound It was a housing relic from the British colonial time.

1 Jalan Towers, Ipoh 1993

Living in a bungalow with a large compound in a way imposed on the family a feeling of seclusion as neighbours were a distance away. We were used to living in a smaller house in Kuala Lumpur where the presence of neighbours were felt. But here in Ipoh our accomodation was a bit more private.

Moving to Ipoh brought some feeling of nostalgia. I was born in Perak. I had all my primary and secondary schooling in Perak. My father was a penghulu, a small-time civil servant, and the nature of his job took the family to live in many villages and small towns of Perak to be closer with the rakyat. We experienced living in the less developed parts of the state where poverty was apparent and life was simple. It was therefore exciting that I was returning to the state capital as a senior civil servant.

I had to make adjustment to my social interactions. The social community in Ipoh was relatively smaller than what we were used to in Kuala Lumpur. Although we lived in a house a distance away from neighbours, our life as family of a senior civil servant was very much visible to many people in Ipoh. What the family did and what we did not do became important to some quarters in the society.

Ipoh being just a town, the community that we were in was limited to familiar faces. At social functions I could guess with some certainty who would be seated around the table! Even the subject of discussions soon became predictable and familiar. This was a learning experience to the family and we had to cope with it.

Receiving award from Regent of Perak.

State Honours.

In 1992 I was awarded the D.P.C.M. and made a Dato on the occasion of the Sultan of Perak birthday. At that time the Sultan of Perak was the Yang Di Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, and thus the award was given by the Raja Muda as Regent. This was a great honour to me and my family to be decorated by the sultan of my home state.

Moving on.

I served as the State Financial Officer of Perak for two years (1991-1993). Living in Ipoh as a senior civil servant was a great experience to the family. In 1993 I was assigned to another civil service position at a federal ministry in Kuala Lumpur.

A Smoking Experience.

A Smoking Experience

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

( First published in WordPress on 12/2/2014 ).

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.

Boarding School in Ipoh,1966.

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. The school was impressive and the teachers were excellent. I was very motivated to learn. Suddenly the subjects I learned in classes, especially General Paper, encouraged me to think more intensively and at times out-of-the box. Facts and events seemed secondary to reasons as to why they happened. My mind 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 was in the age of youth; a young man with 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 prefect 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 leave the school premises 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 brought back cigarettes to school dormitories: they were among those 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 and had income. 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.

A Colibri lighter

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, 3600 Chestnut Street, 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.

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.

8. Childhood Pastimes in the 1950s

Childhood Pastimes in the 1950s

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

(First published in WordPress 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 bladder 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.

Quran Reading Lessons

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

(First published in WordPress on 20/6/2011 ) (Rev. 1/10/2017).


Al Quran on a wooden ‘rehal’

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.

10 cents notes.

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.

A ‘Kain Pelikat’ and a ‘Kopiah’ (Songkok).

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, kissed the Quran and stowed them away. Class was then over. It was then time to go home. It was then 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.

Moving On To An English School

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

(First published in WordPress on 10/6/2010 ).

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.

5. Going To School

Going To School

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

(First published in WordPress on 1/6/2010 ).

In the 1950s children went to school at an early age of five years. Some even entered school earlier, usually the children of school-teachers. I suppose it was a good way to get children out of the house and do something productive during the day!

Some time in 1952 when I was approaching five years old I remember my parents having some discussions about me going to school. Age was one criterion, but there was another!. They asked me to put one of my arm over my head and to try to reach my other ear. If my fingers could easily touch my ear then I was physically ready to go to school. I was physically small for my age and the physical test was a tough one for me. One day I passed the physical test. Hooray! I was ready to go to school.

I was admitted to Sekolah Melayu Bagan Serai in January 1953. The school was housed in a large wooden single-storey building, and it had several classrooms. Many of the classrooms were separated from each other only by wooden screens, and if you sit at the back you could always communicate with your friends in the next class. But beware! The male teachers at those times were fearsome or what we students termed as garang. Most students did not want to get into their bad books.

Just outside the school building were patches of vegetable gardens. Students in the upper classes were taught to do a little bit of gardening, including the planting of vegetables. It was good exercise and definitely useful education then!

The school offered only standard one through six. But, when I joined the school I found out that I and a few other children who were physically small were put in a special class called ‘Darjah Out’ (standard zero) and not Darjah Satu (standard one).

Going to school was exciting. I had to dress properly in the morning, in khaki shorts and short sleeved shirt. I had to put on shoes; yes, white canvas shoes which I had to clean every week and whiten them with liquid chalk. School was about a mile away and I was too small to walk that far alone. So my parents put me on a trishaw with two other children going to the same school. At school I sat on a bench shared with a few other children. Being in Darjah Out I had no books. All that I had was a ‘Papan Batu’ which was basically a carbon slate or board. We wrote on it with a pencil-like instrument made from a hard carbon material which we called ‘kalam’. I really don’t know where that terminology came from but I guessed it had an Arabic origin. School was half day in the morning and I spent my time writing the alphabets or numbers on the Papan Batu. At the end of the day my Papan Batu would be completely full with my work. The teacher would look at it and would give a long tick of approval across the Papan Batu as a sign of work well done. This was an achievement and I would take it home to show to my mother.

The Papan Batu had to be cleaned in order to be reused. I did not know what was the proper way to do it then, but what I and my friends did was to use the roots of a certain plants which we cut and used as eraser. The roots were watery and they erased the writings on the Papan Batu easily.

I stayed in Darjah Out for a year. The next year I was in standard one. The Papan Batu was discarded and I moved on to writing with lead pencil. I had an exercise book to write in. Lessons were then more substantive.

I stayed in the Sekolah Melayu until standard three. During that time I learnt to read and write Malay in both Rumi and Jawi. On reflection today, I must say that it was quite an achievement. I also learnt the ‘Kira-kira’ or arithmetic. We learnt how to add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers. While addition and subtraction were quite easy, I found multiplication and long division being quite tough. Sometime we learnt the chongak or mental-arithmetics, where you calculate in your mind without writing on paper or even using your fingers. The learning process was good , partly due to the quality of the teachers then. At the end of standard three I could read and write Malay in both the Rumi and Jawi, and I could manage numbers including making mental calculations. I guessed I was quite literate by then.

Being able to read enabled me to read the Malay newspapers. Back then, my late father who served as a Penghulu was provided with the Government newspaper called ‘Warta Negara’ . It was in Jawi. Sometimes we read the Utusan Melayu also in Jawi. It was my role to read the newspapers occasionally to my maternal grandmother. She could not read very well but wanted to know the news. My mother needed no help then. Although she only had two years of schooling in the 1930s, that was enough to enable her to read and write and manage numbers. I guess education during those times were more effective in certain ways, but I would not want to get into a debate on this with the educationists of today!

4. The Houses Along Andersen Road

The Houses Along Andersen Road

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan.

(First published in WordPress on 1/6/2010 ).

A short drive out of town led us to a minor road on the left side of the main road to Taiping. This was Andersen Road in the 1950s but now has been renamed Jalan Matang Buluh. This particular area of Bagan Serai had always been referred to by the local residents as Matang Buluh, probably due to the growth of many types of bamboo (buluh) plants there, including the bamboo hedges around many government quarters. The narrow road was however named Andersen Road by the Britishp authorities then. This road stretches for a few hundred metres from the main road to the irrigation canal just after the English school at the other end.

Most of the houses along Andersen Road then were government quarters, except for a few private houses. On the left side the first house was the house of the British engineer. Then there was the house of a Malay schoolteacher. There were then a few more government quarters before the school, then named the Government English School, Bagan Serai. On the right side of Andersen Road the first building was the ‘Sekolah Cawangan’ or a branch of the Malay School in the town centre. Then there was the ‘Balai Penghulu”, a government office. My late father worked here. A few buildings down the road was house number 313, Andersen Road. This was one of the many Government quarters along the road. My family temporarily occupied this house from 1948 to 1960 when my father served as Assistant Penghulu for Bagan Serai. Further on there were a few private houses until the irrigation canal. The school then was only on the left side of Andersen Road.

The British Engineer’s House.

In the 1950s the first building on the left side of Andersen Road was a huge double storey bungalow occupied by a British engineer, probably attached to the Public Works Department. As other large government quarters in those days it had a separate kitchen at the back, connected to the main building by a covered corridor. At the edge of the large compound were the workers’ quarters. They were the cooks and housemaids and the gardeners. The workers maintained the large garden around the house, including trimming the long bamboo hedges which made up the perimeter fences. Like other government quarters during those times, there were no gates to the house compound. Petty thefts were yet unknown at that time! I wonder why things are so different today? When my friends and I played in the vicinity we would just stared with curiosity into the compound from the wide entrance, but none dared to be more inquisitive to enter. All that I knew then was that the house was occupied by an English couple and their dog. This was the residence of the person the locals referred to as the ‘Tuan’ or master. He had, after all, a large house with many workers, and he had a car. In those days the locals were sometimes referred to as ‘natives’ and should stay away from the ‘Orang Putih’ (white-man).

At this visit in 2010 this large house was no longer there, demolished and replaced by a newer building.

Next to the house of the British engineer was a small wooden government quarters. This was the house of a Malay schoolteacher, a respected gentleman in the community. He was a family friend to my parents. He was also my teacher in the Malay School, teaching me arithmetics or what we called at those time as ‘kira-kira’.

A few metres down and across the road was Government quarters number 313, Andersen Road. I lived there during my very early childhood.

The house at Andersen Road, Bagan Serai in 2010. Now long abandoned and waiting demolition.

313 Andersen Road

This was a standard design government quarters. It was a wooden house on concrete pillars. The kitchen was a separate building attached by a short covered corridor. This was the house where I spent most of my early childhood.

The house was on a large piece of land, probably over an acre. Behind the house were many fruit trees. I remember there were two durian trees, a setoi tree, a rambai tree, a machang tree and jambu susu. There were also two rambutan trees at both sides of the house. All these trees grew naturally from seeds and thus they were huge in size compared to present day grafted plants. There were also some pisang plants which we planted around the house. In short, the whole house compound was like a mini orchard.

The Fruit Trees

The fruits of the two durian trees were of very good quality. Thus my family seldom had to buy durians from others at that time simply because the fruits we had were not only more than enough but also of better quality the most others. During the durian season it was a practice among me and my brothers and sister to get up early in the morning to run to the back of our house to search for durians. There is one thing about durians: you do not pluck the fruits from the trees. You wait for them to drop naturally. Searching for durians in the early hours of the morning was a bit of an art. Imagine being in a ‘kain pelikat’ (night time dress for boys) and barefooted and moving about in the semak (roughs) looking for durians at dawn. During the day we normally studied the location of the durian fruits up high on the tree branches but when they dropped to the ground we had to estimate how far they would have rolled away into the roughs. One thing was certain: if in the early hours of the morning your feet stepped on something sharp then it was a pleasant feeling of pain! Most likely it was a durian that you had stepped on.

In fact during the fruit season my family had enough supply of good fruits. The only fruit that we liked but did not have around our house was the manggis (mangoesteen). Normally I got a lot of manggis from my friends’ orchard a few hundred metres down the road. It was said that when you eat the durian then you should also eat the manggis after that, simply because while the durian was heaty the manggis was supposed to be cooling.

The manggis tree was easy to climb since the tree trunks had lower branches. It was not as difficult as climbing a rambutan tree. The rambutan tree, grown from a seed, normally grew high with long tree trunks. The branches were usually up higher from the ground and thus the tree was more difficult to climb. Also, there were sometimes the kerengga or large red ants on some branches, and their bites were quite painful. Some of my friends at that time splashed mud on their arms and legs when they climbed trees infested with kerengga. But, for the love of the fruit this was a minor obstacle! Today, rambutan trees are usually grown from grafts and the trees are normally smaller.

3. Bagan Serai, in the 1950s..

Bagan Serai, in the 1950s..

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

(First published in WordPress on 26/1/2010 ).

In the 1950s the town of Bagan Serai basically stretched for about half a kilometre. Coming from Parit Buntar in the north the town stretched from the road junction to Alor Pongsu right to the Chinese school just before the old police station on the road to Taiping. As my family and I drove through the town on this visit the main road looked wider. There were new buildings but the changes were not beyond recognition. Significant development have taken place on other parts of the town.

I remember there was a cross junction along the main road as one travelled southward. On the left there was the Raja Syed Tauphy Road and on the right was the road going to the jetty. I could not remember the name of this road but it was then probably named Jetty Road. This small street brought many memories to me.

The Market

Along Jetty Road there was then a wet market, a place I frequented to do my regular chores of buying fish and vegetables for the family in Bagan Serai. Fish and vegetables were much lower priced then although I am not sure that they were relatively cheaper than now. One of the favourites of the lower income group was ‘ ikan rebus’ which was basically steamed ikan kembong and would cost about 30 sen a kati. These ikan rebus tasted very nice when fried and eaten with a bit of sambal belacan. Today I do not see them anymore in the wet market, perhaps due to higher standards of living now and that people today can afford fresh fish. There were good supplies of fresh fish in the wet market because Bagan Serai was near the fishing area of Tanjung Piandang and fresh sea catches were landed at the jetty near the market. Thus we had very fresh ikan kedera or belanak, bawal hitam and bawal puteh and senangin available. As today, the bawal puteh and senangin were priced higher and were consumed by a selected few only. My standard ‘bakul ikan’ or grocery bag would have some ikan rebus or very fresh ikan kedera, and occasionally some bawal hitam or ikan gelama. We enjoyed eating ikan terubok during its season then when they were very cheap due to over supply.

Meat(beef) was not much available at the market as it was expensive. Most families only buy meat for special occasion like Hari Raya. Otherwise, only fish (sea and freshwater fishes) were on the dining floor(sic) in addition to ikan bilis and ikan kering. I do not remember seeing slaughtered chicken sold at the market then. Many families including ours reared chicken around the house. They provided us with eggs and occasionally we would have them for meal. Of course, to have a chicken meal you would first have to catch it from the ‘reban ayam’ or the place where they were kept at night. Then you have to slaughter it according to Islamic rites. If you do not know how to do this, then you had to take the chicken to someone who could do this. You see, it was not that easy to have a ‘gulai ayam’ or chicken curry then!

The Batu Giling (Grinding Stone)

At a corner of the wet market there used to be some enterprising Indian ladies selling curry paste. They would bring their ‘ batu giling’ there and rolled curry seeds into a paste. In those days there was no manufactured curry powder in packets as we know today. Most houses would have their own ‘batu giling’ to roll curry seeds into a paste. The batu giling was a piece of solid granite slab measuring about one by one and a half foot and about four inches thick. Then there was a roller made of solid granite which was used to roll over the curry seeds until it produced a curry paste. After some use the batu giling would become smooth and less effective. Then you have to get the services of the ‘tajam batu’, the person who would chisel on the surfaces of the granite slab and the roller to make them more coarse and effective. Today the batu giling is a thing of the past and most probably has become a collectors item. Anyway, on some occasion during my marketing trips I would visit the Indian lady selling the curry paste at the market when there was no one at home to do the job. The gulai rempah was after all a regular item in the household menu! You cannot imagine the appetising taste of gulai rempah in those days, made from fresh curry paste!!

How Bagan Serai got its name

The jetty at Bagan Serai had a historical significance. When I was a child my elders told me that the word ‘jetty’ was an English word which in Malay was ‘Bagan”. At the jetty there were lots of ‘lalang’ or the long sharp grasses which created an unpleasant sight. The lalang growth implied lack of maintenance by the local authorities. As the jetty was an important centre for economic activity the town came to be called after it. Ideally the town would have been called Bagan Lalang, but the residents at that time preferred to call the town Bagan Serai, as the lalang looked just like the ‘serai’ or lemon grass which was a welcome plant around many houses. The name ‘ Bagan Serai’ was obviously more appealing.

The Todi Shop

At the far end of Jetty Road there was the famous ‘Todi Shop’. The todi was a fermented drink made from the syrup of the coconut. During the British rule days i.e. before 1957, the todi was a popular stimulating drink among the manual working group, especially estate workers. Some said that the todi gave energy to the workers to work harder the next day. The local authorities regulated the sale of the todi. Within stipulated hours, normally in the afternoon, the todi shop, which was heavily fenced would open its gates to consumers. By then there was usually a large crowd of people at the gates. They would drink their hearts out until they were drunk. The todi shop normally closed its gates in the late afternoon. I was lucky that my marketing errands were in the morning and thus avoided meeting those people coming home from the todi shop. Today, the todi shop is a thing of the past.

Kedai Pisang (Banana Shop)

From the junction going to Jetty Road there was a row of shops along the main road going south to Taiping. On the right were those shops which in those days we called ‘Kedai Arab’ because they were occupied by some Arab traders selling textiles. On this trip, I saw the shop signs but I did not stop to see what businesses were conducted. I was more attracted to the row of shops across the road on the left side of the main road. There used to be, amidst the block of double storey shophouses, a short row of single storey shophouses which in those days my family referred to as ‘kedai pisang’, because they sold a variety of ‘pisang’ (bananas) among other things. In those days the kedai pisang was a row of single storey shops with zinc roofs. At one end was a small attap-roofed food stall, the ‘kedai mee’ ( mee stall) operated by a Malay man. That mee stall was an important congregation point for some local Malay elders. It was also located almost in front of the ‘panggung wayang’ or cinema hall and the town mosque across the main road.

During my trips to town I used to stop at the kedai pisang for some errands. Beside bananas they sold a variety of sweets and biscuits which attracted children. From time to time they would also display the ‘Tikam’ boards, which were some sort of lottery very popular among some children.

The Tikam

In the local slang then the word ‘tikam’ meant to bet as in ‘tikam ekor’ ( to bet on the three digit lottery based on horse race results). The tikam was basically a kind of lottery on a cardboard. On the top half of the board were stuck prizes of various kinds, like toys and even cigarettes. They were all numbered. On the bottom half of the board were hundreds of folded pieces of paper glued in columns. For 5 sen you get to pull out one piece of paper and if the number revealed matched a prize at the top half of the board then you would get it. Five sen was a lot of money for schoolchildren then, and most parents would give their primary school children a maximum of about 10 to 15 sen to spend during school recess time, to cover for the missing breakfast at home. These tikam were very popular among small children because of the attraction of the toys. For many children this was the only chance to have such toys. Some people told me then that the attractive prizes displayed could not be won simply because their winning numbers did not exist among the folded pieces of paper. But, like the adults of those times many children lived on expectation of a lottery win to get their dreams fulfilled. Today I do not see the tikam anymore.

2. Parit Buntar, my birthplace

Parit Buntar, my birthplace

By: Syed Jaafar Aznan

(First published in Wordpress on 20/1/2010 ).

As we entered Parit Buntar town I noticed the extent of development that has taken place since the 1950s. Many new buildings were noticeable, some replacing the old ones. But my mind was focused in identifying one particular building, at number 22, Low Road, Parit Buntar. It was once a large double storey brick and wooden mansion at the edge of the town padang. But, It was not there anymore. It had been demolished and rebuilt. Even the name of the road as ‘Low Road’ had been changed after independence in 1957. But the memory lives on!

The building which I was looking for was where I was born in 1947. It was then the official residence of my grandfather, Syed Abdul Hamid bin Syed Safi Jamalullail who was then the Orang Besar Jajahan Krian or the Territorial Chief of the Krian district. In those days before Malaya achieved independence in 1957 the Orang Besar Jajahan had a major role in the management of the district and thus he had an office and an official residence. I was only just over 2 years old when he died, and thus I have little personal recollection of him. But from accounts by my elders I concluded that he was aristocratic in outlook and generous to all. He grouped in his large house many members of his large family comprising his children and grandchildren. It was one very large family!

My grandfather had three sons and many daughters. I was born in my grandfather’s house and he gave me the name of Syed Jaafar, after his grandfather Syed Jaafar bin Syed Yunus Jamalullail of Teja, Perak. In those days it was not uncommon for people to name children and grandchildren after their ancestors. In fact my two brothers were named after our ancestors. Today this practice is less popular and modern families prefer new and modern names.

I am a member of the Jamalullail clan of Perak. To be more specific I am a fourteenth direct descendant (fithteenth generation) on the male line of Syed Husain al-Faradz Jamalullail who came to Perak in the early 1500s. Historical records including palace records in Perak showed that he served as a Menteri in the court of Sultan Muzaffar Shah, the first Sultan of Perak who reigned during 1528 – 1549.

It did not take long to drive around Parit Buntar, and soon we found ourselves on the old road to Bagan Serai. In the 1950s this stretch of road was a padi growing area. Today, while some buildings have come up along the roadside I still see ‘bendang‘ or padifields in the distant background. I wonder whether they are still operating today? I wonder where some of the people who went to school with me in Bagan Serai are today?

We reached Bagan Serai quickly. This was the town where I spent my early childhood.

1. I Remember…..

I Remember…..

by: Syed Jaafar Aznan

( First published in WordPress on 20/1/2010 ).

The year is 2010. I am now 63 years old. I have retired from active employment. The time to seek personal glory is past. Now is the time to reminisce and reflect. These stories are my memoirs.

The Journey …

Now that I have some extra time to spare I am less in a hurry than before to get to where I am going. Thus when my family and I drove south from Penang recently we decided to exit the highway and took the old road. I have lived in many towns and villages in Perak along the old road. This was therefore a journey down memory lane! We exited the highway to pass through Bandar Baru to visit Parit Buntar and then Bagan Serai.

As we drove on the bridge from Bandar Baru to Parit Buntar my mind traveled over half a century back. Parit Buntar was my birthplace.

The Bridge

I remember in the 1950s there was no bridge linking Bandar Baru to Parit Buntar. Children who lived across the river had to take a ferry to go to school in Parit Buntar. In a padi growing area it took some determination among parents and the schoolchildren to take this challenge. After all, schooling was often optional at those times, particularly during padi planting and harvesting seasons.

I remember many years later hearing the news of a ferry tragedy in the river. A ferry with adults and schooldren was swept by the river tide. It was only in the 1970s that a bridge was finally built across the river. Today the bridge across the river stands solid in concrete.