Smitten by a unconquerable fear of science and maths

29 November 1998

I had a very happy childhood. There were good times, many of them partly because I was never too sensitive to the occasional slight or rebuke that I got at family gatherings or in school.

At the Malay College Kuala - Kangsar (MCKK), I was very much happier exploring a new town, mixing, learning and playing with students of diverse social backgrounds and competing with them. We were obviously at different stages of intellectual development, ability and sophistication. I managed to cope.

The exposure, training and experience I went through at the college prepared me for bigger and better things in journalism, politics and diplomacy.

Though the college was set up originally to cater almost exclusively for the children of the traditional Malay elites -the Raja,Tunku, Nik, Wan, Syed, Megat, Pengiran and Abang - by the time I arrived there in January 1948 the presence of scholastically good boys was considerable.

Today, it is no longer the preserve of royalty and aristocracy, however, it continues to have the classy or aristocratic power of attraction. It still sustains its excellent reputation and Malay parents, even if they did not have pedigree or wealth, compete to send their children there.

The Hargreaves library, the dinner rituals especially when one was dining at High Table, the strong camaraderie and solidarity, games, debates, lessons and varied extra-mural activities appealed to me and when I had to finally leave Kuala Kangsar in December, 1954, it was heart wrenching; it was anguishing.

The strict school regulations and the authoritarian headmaster, Jimmy Howell, a feisty Welshman (we did not get on too well in school, but became good friends in later life; he has since died) did not complicate my life too much. Neither he nor his 11 "eyes" and "ears" intimidated me.

I had formed a strong friendship with a group of friends, the elite circles at the school in the 1952-4 period. However, what horrified me most were science -lessons and mathematics classes.

Biology was taught by Dr Ahmed, chemistry by Peter Norton, physics by Nathan and maths by Miss Holroyd who was also mistress-in charge of Form Five. All these teachers were good and very kind to me, but the subjects always terrified me because they were beyond me somehow.

The fear became an obsession and as a result I closed up. The only thing I can recall about those classes, which still- strike fear in heart, was me starring blok at the blackboard!

I never passed a science or mathematics test throughout my school career. I was so hopeless I did not even manage to copy answers provided by sympathetic classmates without being caught.

Bad memories of mathematics and science lessons were rekindled when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal, several months ago, which said a new international commission shows that American schools teach algebra badly.

Responded the agonized columnist of the New Mork Post, David Gelernter "So what else is new?" adding "if some study revealed that American schools were doing well, the whole country should have a heart attack and drop dead.

Certain school districts have resolved, the Journal reports to do better. "But the real story has to do with attitudes and how we can constantly strive for new levels of self destructiveness."

The Journal asks: "Does any word strike greater fear in the hearts of American ninth graders - and their parents - than algebra?"

Gelernter said such a question in the late 60's (when he was in school) would have been regarded as an embarrassment by nearly everybody. No one, he claimed, "thought basic algebra was hard because it isn't. Trigonometry was supposed to be hard."

Thank God, I never had to learn trigonometry! Geometry was difficult enough.

Gelernter stated: And if for some perverse reason you were scared of algebra, you damned well kept it to yourself. It's true that some students skipped algebra altogether, but many did not. Doing well in algebra has no big deal and did not mark you as a junior Einstein. If the schools have deteriorated so bad that algebra really is frightening, that is big and sad news.

"More likely, this claim is another manifestation of our strange modern propensity to boast about our fears which naturally brings out the worst in us. Embarrassment has its uses. We are a radically under embarrassed society"