Ruffled feathers at MCKK
by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad
The colonials were disappointed with the new arrival who turned
up in crumpled clothes to teach at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar. Abdullah Ahmad
remembers the author of the Malayan Trilogy.
He arrived at the college, I think, during the second or last term of the 1954 academic
year in a crumpled shirt and trousers and without a tie. We knew right away that
he was not a typical colonial.
The tell-tale incidents that showed the non-conformist streak in John Burgess Wilson
occurred inside as well as outside the classroom.
They were exciting and scandalous by both local and British moral standards.
The circumstances in which Wilson found himself at the college, in addition to his
own experiences and talks with his pupils, inspired him to write the Malayan Trilogy.
And when it was published in 1965, his expatriate colleagues who did not like him
I have not reread the Trilogy, but what I can recall is that he did capture pretty
well the spirit and life at the MCKK and the society in the Kuala Kangsar colonial
enclave. Perhaps, with a bit of exaggeration.
The truth, I suppose, is somewhere between what really happened and what he imagined
as having happened.
Wilson, until he reinvented himself as Anthony Burggess, the novelist and critic,
taught English to the 1954 Cambridge Class for an eventful one term.
The senior students were stirred by the Umno-led merdeka movement but were generally
unsupportive of the vanguard militant rebellion spearheaded by the Malayan Communist
Several politically conscious students were quite unhappy with the unenlightened
I recall the first morning Wilson came into class, red faced, (must have been the
result of too much beer and gin the previous night), perspiring and smoking.
He was in many ways a throwback to a social class the British colonials had scrupulously
tried to shield us from.
We were being trained to join and enlarge the small Malay administrative-cum aristocratic
Apparently with some reluctance, he scrawled several essay subjects on the blackboard
for us to choose from, one of which was "communism".
A day later when he returned our work, it turned out I was the only one who wrote
I got seven marks out of a possible ten for my effort. Only years later did I discover
that he was once a communist.
He complimented my knowledge of the subject and advised me to pay more attention
to my English and spelling, and said that I appeared to have a gift for left-wing
He made it all look very easy and I thought he was rather generous to praise me based
on an essay. He did not know how I had struggled during that 45-minute period to
I was elated by his remarks about my knowledge of comparative politics and grateful
for his advice.
Wilson did not teach the fifth form long.
He moved on to teach English to the fourth formers which included my former classmates
in form one, Abdul Rahim Ismail, the current vice president of the Lake Club and
a great Rotarian, Ahmad Rassidi Abdullah, a retired banker whose hobby is travelling
around the world with his wife of 36 years, Zainal Abidin Nordin, a retired senior
civil servant, Tunku Zuhri Zakaria (a lawyer, deceased), Ariff Shafie, an lpoh sportsman
and a sometime emcee.
By all accounts Wilson was a good and simultaneously, an unconventional teacher.
Rahim knew him rather well. I was told they corresponded with each other long after
Wilson left Malaysia, and when both had become rich.
I read in an English tabloid - The Mail On Sunday (Sept 21) - that a Roger Lewis
has spent 16 years working on the biography of the novelist, and had recently spent
the summer visiting Wilson's old haunts in the Far East, including the "whole
length and breadth of Borneo", and presumably also Kuala Kangsar and Kota Baru.
I look forward to reading the biography of my sometime English teacher who said,
"Brunei was a kind of prison, walled in by sea and jungle". If I may add,
also by great wealth.
Lewis has this to say about the Brunei Sultanate: I have been to Brunei. No wonder
the Sultan and his family spend as much time as possible at the Dorchester Hotel
(The Sultan owns the hotel in Park Lane, London). It is an Islamic state (you can't
do this, you can't do that) and though it is wealthy from its oil revenues, the population
live in hovels and stilts above mud flats and raw pollution."
The headmaster of the MCKK during our time was J.R. Howell or "Jimmy" or
"Jim" to his close friends; a feisty Welshman, a disciplinarian who clashed
with the intellectual Wilson soon after they met.
It did not surprise the students that Wilson's stint at MCKK was relatively brief.
He mocked Howell and other fellow expatriates as philistines, obsessed with sports
and the latest American movies and in the case of Howell, with rugby in particular
Howell and the others were disappointed with him for lowering their "society
and mores" in the estimation of the locals.
They had carefully turfed that as if it was a neat British golf course.
Before I left college in December 1954 1 asked for his autograph, and he obliged
by writing it in Jawi.
He loved, as Roger Lewis says, "word-play and linguistic showing off "
but then he had much to boast about, like passing the government's compulsory Malay
examination in record time, unlike his nemesis Howell who took much longer.
My contemporaries knew that Howell and I were not the best of friends but we made
up in old age.
Adhha and I visited him and we stayed in his house in Newport, Wales. His charming
wife Mona and Howell were gracious hosts.
Howell, who by then insisted that I called him Jim, said to me: "Wilson lets
the side down badly Amoral and a liar"
"Why don't you write about him?" I asked. "Maybe", was what Jim
But what Lewis said of Wilson appears fairer. Lewis said: "After labouring at
his biography off and on for 16 years, the conclusion I have reached is that, though
he wasn't exactly a pathological liar, what went on in Wilson's life did tend to
get glamourised, exaggerated, reinvented and generally improved in Burgess' books".
I agree with my old headmaster that Wilson was unconventional, controversial, infamous
and occasionally a liar, especially when he needed to extricate himself from troubles
he could no longer hide.
Howell should know. After all he was Wilson's boss, and wrote the latter's confidential
I think Wilson, like many writers, great and minor, was an ambiguous figure, and
as Lewis found out, he easily contradicted himself.
"Is there any likelihood of a vacancy in the English Department at Banbury (Grammar)
School?" Wilson, who was a teacher there before coming to Malaya, pleaded in
a letter to a former colleague.
"I'm serious about this,"' he added in his letter prior to his first home
leave in 1957.
Lewis continues: "Burgess later seemed to forget this - his dissatisfaction,
his restlessness, his desire to be done with the East and come home. Burgess, in
his memoirs, Little Wilson And Big God, says that when he revisited Britain he hated
the place and felt a stranger".
"The mess of post-war England", Wilson moaned in 1987, "all television,
fornication and a rising generation given to rock music-and violence".
Lewis continues: "Thirty years ago, he'd wanted to be part of the excitement.
Espresso and cappuccino, Teddy boys and layabouts. He'd spent a week in Banbury trying
to get his old job back. Fat chance."
Lynne, his Welsh wife, who had accompanied him to MCKK, was always a handful,
The expatriates in Kuala Kangsar were well aware of her and all about the happenings
that occurred in the lives of the Wilsons. She died in 1968, according to Lewis,
because her liver exploded.
Wilson returned to Malaysia twice and revisited MCKK. He married an Italian woman
later and died in Monaco, I think, in 1993, aged 73.