In search of Malaysian scholarship

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The others in my generation were the late professor Ungku Omar, a brilliant scholar and a King's Scout, Justice Tan Sri Azmi Kamaruddin (president of MCOBA for more than two decades), Dato Malek All Merican, scholar-sportsman, who, accompanied by longtime wife, Gaik, visited me in New York in September. He was the "strongman" at the Arab-Malaysia Bank until he retired a couple of years ago. Then there was Raja Azlan bin Raja Ngah All, a good athlete and the first Malay collegian to participate in the Olympics. He represented Malaya in the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956.

Apart from these men there are many more, older as well as younger than me, such as Dato' Manan Osman (former minister of agriculture), Tan Sri Zainol Mahmood, executive chairman of Pos Malaysia, Tan Sri Khalil Ya'acub, Mentri Besar of Pahang, Tan Sri Khatib, ambassador to Japan, and Dato' Abdullah Zawawi, Malaysian High Commissioner to Canada.

I was lucky where my contemporaries were concerned; I was even luckier with the teachers who taught me: the late Chegu Abas (Malay), Chegu Lazim (Geography), Chegu Arfffin Mohd. Nam (Geography and Art) and now a Dato in his eighties, living in Kampong Pandan, Chegu Salleh Hussein (History), also a Dato' and in his eighties and living in Butterworth, Drennen (History), the late James Reid Davidson (English and English Literature), Wilson (otherwise known as Anthony Burgess, English), Chegu Vivekananda (English and English Literature), Haji Ghazali (Agama Islam), Jimmy Howell (Mathematics, and I never passed this subject all my life), Nelson Morley, Ahmad and Peter Northon, the chemistry, biology and physics teachers - I could never recall anything I learnt in these subjects except H20!; Joseph Partridge (English), Yogam (Maths) and Miss Holroyd. None of these subjects are relevant to me in my career except English, Malay, history, geography and English Literature. I owe much to an these teachers and to several others who taught me intermittently.

I shall only mention figures who are recognizable nationally. One is Professor Dato' Mokhzani Abdul Rahim, the Powertek boss. This is not to say that those I have omitted are not successful. They are very successful if less well-known.

Along the way to Form Five I was joined by Tun Haniff Omar and two others. Haniff was headboy, a good training for a policeman. He was an acceptable scholar. His English was and is better than his Malay and yet he got distinction in Malay and only a credit for his English. He played no games for school or Ahmad House of which I was the House Captain. I know Haniff was destined for either the police or the military.

Behind his back, his detractors in school - and there were many - all called him "Mate gelap" (detective). He lives to be what they had conjured him to be even then. Despite my detention, we remain friends which infuriates as well as amazes a senior politician. This senior politician would have fallen off his chair had he seen me and my wife laughing and being particularly nice to my "Chief goaler" or "Ghulam" at a wedding reception at Hilton Hotel Petaling Jaya two years ago. Another friend at a neighbouring table could just sigh: "Oh dear, oh dear!"

What would the senior politician have wanted me to do? Slap "Ghulam?"

Mokhzani and I made a point to see each other at least once a year, sometimes more and at times none. Mokhzani was never perceived as a scholar at MCKK so his classmates and contemporaries were surprised when he opted to teach instead of rushing like others to join the then presigious and well-regarded Malayan Civil Service (MCS) whose members then were luminaries such as Tun Razak, Tun Mohamed Suffian, Tun Ismail All, Tun Raja Mohar, Tun Abdul Aziz Majid (the first Chief Secretary and Cabinet Secretary to the Government), and Tan Sri Kadir Shamsuddin (died in office as Chief Secretary) among others.

Over the years Mokhzani and I have had many substantial conversations. We also reminisced and had good laughs. What I did not recognise in Mokhzani until many years after leaving school was his liberal and pluralist ideas which I believe he acquired at the London School of Economics or somewhere like that. We shared and agreed on many of these and, in part, disagreed.

As a professor he was, however, surprisingly cautious, perhaps, even wise especially in the heady heydays of the sixties. As a result of the likes of my good friend, scholarship suffered and has never really recovered from their self-imposed self-censorship. Jomo Sundram perseveres but then he is an economist, not a historian!

It is never easy to look back on one's youth or past (ever read Tengku's book On Looking Back?) and reflect on the decline of Malaysian scholarship. Is or was there ever a Malaysian scholarship in the Oxbridge traditions in the first place?

I suffer to watch the decline of old institutions. As far as I can judge many institutions seem to have got worse, while others are unquestionably much better than they were 50 years ago. Unfortunately, and I agonize a lot about this, my alma mater is not one of the latter.

For whatever reasons, the decline must be corrected and speedily, whether at MCKK, Sultan Abdul Hamid College, Victoria Institution, St. John's Institution or the Penang Free School. We must reclaim these institutions and the likes and nurse them back to their golden days when they produced first rate and gifted students.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )