COMMENT | In writing my last column for 2018, having focused mainly on the subject of my 30-year passion as an educator, I still believe that there once was a moment, a historical block, in which our country had something going – a political-cultural-educational will – to get this issue of race relations and interfaith understanding not just under control, but flourishing and set on the path of prosperity.
That was the 1970s, when I was in the middle of finishing up my primary education and moving into secondary. That was the time when kids were taught the song "Muhibbah" and schools had an ethnically diverse composition of teachers and students. No Islamisation. No Arabisation. Not yet.
That was when we had English-medium schools. Children instructed in liberal education. A beautiful experience I share below.
I went to an English medium school, Sekolah Temenggong Abdul Rahman (Star 1) in Johor Bahru and went on to a specialised boarding school after being selected through a nationwide filtration process – based on how poor my family was, how eager I was to learn, and how well I did in the Standard 5 assessment exam.
I had a voracious reading appetite, my diet ranging from Greek and Norse mythologies and other fun stuff in the Sultanah Aminah Library to Reader’s Digest magazines my mother bought me (she finished only Standard Three of her schooling) and the World Book Encyclopedia grandpa and mother bought on a many-years-long instalment payment plan from Grolier.
Also, anything I could read in English namely, to keep myself occupied if I were not playing soccer barefoot trying to do bicycle kicks like my idol Pele and other great moves from people such as Eusebio, Johan Cruyff and Mokhtar Dahari, of course.
At 13, I was already taken away from my mother and placed in this Mara ashram-kibbutz-concentration-camp type of experimental educational facility in Kuantan Darul Bauxite (which I heard is now as red as Mars). So, I was there continuing my classes in English.
I had hippie Malaysian and five American Peace Corps teachers who chose not to go to Vietnam to fight the war and instead be with these natives – kampung boys – they could experiment their teaching on. We were proudly called “guinea pigs.” And we gladly told our kampung folks that.
It was a world of strangers I was in and I cried almost every night thinking of my mother. I wrote to her a lot on a fortnightly basis. In Jawi.
The immense feeling of sadness lasted for a few weeks. But soon I made friends from all over the country – kids of my temperament, some with bizarre character and bloated little egos, from Johor to Perlis to Sabah and Sarawak. There were Chinese, Indians, Ibans and Kadazan and hybrids of these. Many talked strange.
Most of us spoke English, Malay, and our own strange village dialect. I spoke Johor-Riau Malay, the standard language I mastered through my mother and my kampung folks. I was with kids whose parents were fishermen, rubber tappers, padi farmers, contract labourers and those you would consider today as the B40 group in a country ran by the few wealthy Malaysians...