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.