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.
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 touched 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!
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 British 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 1949 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 wander 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.
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.