Shortly after the so called ‘Malay rights provisions’ were entrenched into the Constitution, two teachers, one ethnic Malay, and the other an ethnic Indian took a pupil – like so many others – and set him on his way. This is their story. What would these men have done had they been confronted with the kind of racist hate speeches we’ve encountered all last week? GK Ganesan writes.
Who are these people, and what do they have to do with Malay rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), a matter of current concern?
I see and hear all these hate speeches. And I think of two men whose work I must record for posterity.
Make no mistake: there are thousands of such men and women.
Most of them are still alive. They are all but forgotten.
In my own life I encountered only two: Cikgu Khairuddin Yusof and Mr Navaratnam Masilamani.
Both were my secondary school teachers at my hometown, Seremban.
A stark memory stands out from my childhood. Daily living was a struggle.
When I turned seven, I was sent to Vivekananda Tamil School, Jalan Labu.
After Primary Six, I was sent off to Sekolah Dato Sheikh Ahmad. There, like all pupils from vernacular schools, I was set apart from my colleagues from English-medium schools. They were promoted straight into Form One. We were ‘removed’ from them. They called it ‘the Remove Class’. After a year, I was finally allowed into Form One.
Cikgu Khairuddin was our Class Teacher. Mr Nava was the Discipline Master and therefore much feared. He taught Commerce.
Nava and Khairuddin were bosom pals.
Nava soon got wind of my family’s straitened circumstances. This is how it happened.
When the school bell rang to announce Recess, I’d drink water and sit under the hollow of the main stairwell, so I wouldn’t have to observe the sight of other children with food.
After school, I reported to a local club’s tennis courts. I was to stand behind the court. Whenever a player missed a shot, I was to pick up the tennis balls.
This circumstance was a contrast to my ‘standing’ in school, where I was the top student. In the evenings, as a member of the soccer team, I enjoyed the esteem of teammates.
However, in the afternoons, I was the unwitting victim of the meanest child. Seremban was a small town. Some players in the court were my school colleagues.
I was not given the dignity of a name: I was just “the Boy”. It was with considerable glee that these boys would yell:
“Boy, run after that ball.”
“Boy! Pick that up!”
I did their bidding. It was fifty cents a day.
Back home I’d often remonstrate with Mum.
Her eyes would well up. She’d say, “Just for a few more months. Help Dad. Think of the family. Be patient. Remember who you are.”
She’d hug me, and I would feel her warm tears on my back.
So I kept at it until one evening Mr Nava sauntered into court. When his eyes fell upon me he regarded me in cold contemplation. He played for an hour and left without a word.
The next day I was summoned and asked to explain myself.
I said, “I need to pay for my school books.” When pressed further, I had to divulge the family situation. He heard me in stony silence.
Finally he said, “You are not to go anywhere near the tennis courts.”
Tapping the Stock Book, he simply said, “The school will give you free books. You are to take what you need and record them here.”
Then he asked, “Have you had breakfast?”
‘Yes Sir,” I lied. [Mum’s instructions – “Don’t take anything from anyone. And don’t mess with the family name.”]
He offered to buy me breakfast. Though ravenous, I refused. I thought of my parents. I could hear them rebuking me:
“Where is your family honour?”
So Nava got to me another way.
He was in charge of the School Book Shop. I was ordered to report to him during Recess. He gave me some chores.
“Move these here.”
“Move that there.”
“Send this to the Headmaster’s room.”
That lasted all of 10 minutes.
Then he sent me to the Canteen. It had all been pre-arranged. The Canteen Operator handed me a tray on which sat two steaming cups of tea and curry puffs. When I returned to the shop, Mr Nava helped himself to one cup.
He motioned to the other. I shook my head.
“Who’s going to drink it, you think?
“Don’t waste it! And finish those curry puffs.”
I fell upon the food.
When he discovered that I was wearing a torn shirt to school, Nava gave me a few of his own.
This would go on for three years. And in all that time, he’d give me the Silent Glare.
One day he caught me reading a story book in class.
“Do you like reading?” he demanded. When I nodded, he gave me RM5, then a princely sum.
“Go to the Gurney Boys’ Library, and become a Life Member. Borrow a book a week. Then come here and summarise the story to me.”
And so I did. A book a week became five. And afterwards, more.
Cikgu Khairuddin was something else altogether. He was a taciturn, precise man – and a naturally gifted teacher. He taught Mathematics and English.
Crucially, he was also the school football coach.
And every boy desired to get into the school team.
In those days we didn’t study all that hard. We’d have monthly exams. If you passed those, you were left alone.
At the end of the term, a Report Card was sent home. It was a two columned affair, set upon hard paper. The left column stated the subject, and the right, the marks.
I once brought home my Card showing 98% against Ilmu Alam (Geography).
Dad peered at it and asked a single question:
“So what happened to the other two marks?”
I would always obtain full marks for almost all subjects.
Yet Cikgu uttered not a single word of praise.
Like Mr Nava, he also gave me the Glare. It was always there.
Sometimes I’d go home thinking,
“Both these guys don’t like me. They are in a conspiracy to frighten the heck out of me.”
In the afternoon, there was nothing else to look forward to except football. We had no radio and no television. l couldn’t wait to get home to change, to ‘go for training’, as I used to announce to Mum.
At three every afternoon, the School Team met at the Rahang Square padang.
One was invited. One could not volunteer.
I went anyway.
When everyone jogged, I’d join in.
When the trainees were separated into two groups, I was asked to sit behind the goal post whence I watched the others in awed silence.
Football training felt like commando work. If you were slight of build and lived on a mediocre diet, your opponents floored you with a shove. Because I played barefoot, I got trod upon by boys with boots. When I got injured Cikgu would assist with liniment.
And so I hung around for weeks on end.
One day he decided to test his Best Eleven against another team. So a team of stragglers was formed.
I was thrown into it.
Huffing and puffing, I ran all over the field, and played my heart out.
It didn’t work.
Once again, I was consigned to a seat behind the goalpost.
Sometimes I’d be asked to collect wayward balls.
At other times, I fetched drinking water for the players.
One day he motioned me over.
“Turn up at the KGV field. We have a match.”
I thought I was to be – as usual – the Water Boy.
When I got to the field, he gave me a jersey; and pointed to the centre half position.
KGV thrashed us Five Nil.
I can’t remember a happier day.
I never left the team for ages after that — until one fateful afternoon.
In a monthly mathematics examination I had scored 90%.
The heavens fell down.
That afternoon I was summoned to the Staff Room.
When I reported in, Mr Nava and Cikgu Khairuddin regarded me in sepulchral silence.
Finally Cikgu Khairuddin spoke:
“Mr Nava here tells me you have been slipping in Maths because of football.
You will no longer play for the school.
When you reach 100 marks in Maths, you can resume your position as Centre Half.”
The whole world opened up, and I fell into a dark crevasse. My one joy was wrenched from me.
Mum was delighted.
“You can cut more wood,” she said.
In time, I kept both mathematics and soccer on an even keel; and with a curt wave of En Khairuddin’s hand, I returned to the school team.
Afterwards I discovered that Cikgu and Nava often spent their own money buying sports equipment for the boys. Nava was known to buy ‘spikes’ (running shoes) for the athletes.
The beneficiaries of this munificence were of all races.
The Articles as to the Special Position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak were entrenched by the Government under the Constitutional Amendments Act 1971. I fell under the charge of Cikgu Khairuddin and Nava between 1972 and 1975. Yet that legislation did not move either of them one bit.
Cikgu Khairuddin and Mr Nava continued to watch over my progress.
It is this English language that they taught me that, to this day, earns me a living.
Nava taught me a fierce attitude about life: “Work Hard. As hard as you can. Until you fall down, if necessary. And be the best.”
Cikgu Khairuddin and Mr Nava are ensconced in my heart.
To use a Tamil expression, they are “even as my own two eyes”.
So, all this hate speech troubles me. When I hear these venomous words, I am moved to think of these two men.
I have continued to worship them. But they are ‘old school.’ They will not accept gifts or words of praise. You’d get the short shrift if you tried.
It did not matter to them what my race was. What mattered to them was what I could become. They saw to that.
But for their sacrificial efforts, I would not have made it this far.
I am sure Cikgu Khairuddin and Mr Nava are still out there, helping hapless kids.
I pray that the Lord Almighty looks over all their affairs; that they and their loved ones enjoy divine protection and munificence – long may their offspring guide this nation into greatness.
Our teachers are mostly forgotten.
So this essay is my way – our way – of saying, “Thank you sir, for being colour blind. For being a true patriot. For building the nation.”
Yesterday, during lunch, Mr Nava called me. He must be what, at least 80 now?
“What’s all this?” he asked. Steely voice.
I was eating a banana-leaf lunch. Otherwise I would have risen and stood at attention! “Just a small thank you, Sir,” said I.
“Don’t waste your time la,” he said. “I have forgotten it all.”
“How are you? You okay?” he asked. The same questions he would have asked me 40 years ago. Same order of questions.
“Yes, Sir,” I said.
“Okay, come over when free. And so sorry I have disturbed you during work.”
That was it. Phone down.
[The author expresses his gratitude to Mr Sinnathamby Muthu and Mr Isaac De Cruz of Seremban].
GK is an advocate and solicitor and an international commercial arbitrator. He is a constitutionalist, author and littérateur. He lives in KL. Reproduced from www.gkg.legal with his kind permission.