Saturday, December 10, 2011

An Evening with Dr Cheah Boon Kheng at the Ipoh Swimming Club

 Mrs Lai invited me to attend the dinner talk at the Ipoh Swimming Club today (Saturday, 10 December 2011), the speaker: Dr Cheah Boon Kheng.

I was introduced to History as a subject when I was in Standard 4 and my teacher Mrs Nancy Teoh described it as His Story. I love stories and therefore history has been one of my favourite subjects. Our history books in primary school were collections of short stories. My history book in Std 6 was Malayan Junior Histories Standard 6 by P. B. Hilton. Hilton was a Senior Lecturer in History, Malayan Teachers' College, Penang and the book was published by University of London Press Ltd, Warwick Square, London EC4.

The Preface for the book, written by Hilton:
This book is designed to meet the needs of the pupils in the last year of the Primary Schools of the Federation of Malaya. it follows the Syllabus for History as laid down in 1958, covering Topics 8,9 and 10 of the Sixth Year.

Considerations of space and of expense to the pupil using this book have made it necessary to treat the subjects of these stories much more briefly than one would have wished. Teachers may be glad of the notes on the background to these stories, in the Teacher's Book to this volume.

I should like to express my gratitude to Che Ismail bin Ibrahim, Lecturer in Art at the Malayan Teachers' College Penang, for the maps for this book.

It is hoped that the language used will be found simple and straightforward enough for pupils' understanding, though it is not 'childish'. Some new words will inevitably be encountered, but for pupils who hope to go on to Secondary School, this should be useful.

Carlyle said that great people are always great company. It is hoped that Malayan children will find these men and women, some of the heroes and heroines of World History, to be 'great company'.

The contents of this book, will explain why we found history to be so interesting. It will also explain why I was upset that the contents page of the school magazine was left out.

CONTENTS

PART ONE: Stories from the West

  1. Wise men of Greece: Pericles and Socrates
  2. To Conquer the World: Alexander the Great
  3. The Greatest Roman of all: Gaius Julius Caesar
  4. The Holy Roman Empire: Charlemagne
  5. The Caliph of Baghdad: Harun Al Raschid
  6. Men of the North: The Vikings
  7. William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy
  8. The Cross and the Crescent: Richard the Lion Heart and Saladin the Great
  9. The Maid of Orleans: Joan of Arc
  10. The Capture of Quebec: General James Wolfe
  11. To be the Master of Europe: Napoleon Bonaparte
  12. "England Expects...": Admiral Nelson
  13. Great Americans: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln
  14. To Rule Africa: Cecil Rhodes
  15. Father of the Turks: Mustapha Kemal
Part Two: Great Travellers and Explorers
  1. Chinese Pilgrims: Fa Hsien, Yang Chuang and I Tsing
  2. From the West to the East: Marco Polo
  3. The Traveller of Islam: Ibn Battuta
  4. Ambassador of "The son of Heaven": Admiral Cheng Ho
  5. The Sea-way to India: Prince Henry the Navigator, Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama
  6. To the New World: Christopher Columbus
  7. First Round the World: Ferdinand Magellan
  8. The Elizabethan Seamen: Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins and Sir Walter Raleigh
  9. For Freedom: The Pilgrim Fathers
  10. To the Southern Seas: Captain James Cook
  11. In Darkest Africa: David Livingstone
  12. To the South Pole: Captain Scott
  13. On "The Roof of the World": Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing
Part 3: Modern Inventions and Discoveries
  1. Better Roads: John Metcalf, Thomas Telford and James Macadam
  2. From "Hobby-horse" to Motor Car: Carl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler and Henry Ford
  3. Riding on Air: Charles Goodyear and John Dunlop
  4. Ships: From Sail to Steam and from Wood to Steel
  5. From Glider to Jet Aircraft: Wilbur and Orville Wright and Sir Frank Whittle
  6. The Wonders of Electricity: Michael Faraday, Alexander Bell, Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi
  7. An English Country Doctor: Edward Jenner
  8. "From a grateful humanity": Louis Pasteur
  9. For Safer Surgery: Lord Lister
  10. Painless Surgery: William Morton and Sir James Simpson
  11. "The Lady with the Lamp": Florence Nightingale
  12. Prevention Better than Cure: Sir Ronald Ross and Sir Malcolm Watson
  13. The Courage Never to Give Up: Marie Curie
  14. New Ways of Healing: Sir Alexander Fleming
In JB Convent, we were promoted to the next class in November after the final exam, every year. We bought our books in November, and our teachers introduced us to the topics we would be studying the following year. During our long holiday in December, we would read our textbooks and enjoy the information to be found in them. Very often on the first day of school in January, the teacher would give us a short test and there would be homework as well! Our SR Tenby students got a taste of that system, when I introduced it two years ago. Students were okay, but some parents were confused.

My dear mother kept all our textbooks and a few years ago I found this book in the cupboard in my mum's house in JB. I brought it back to read and to use in Tenby Schools as reading passages for the students.

Today, I came back from the talk and took out this book. I have also taken out the book my Dad bought for me when I was in Upper Six:

History of Europe, 1450-1660 by PJ Helm, MA, Senior Master, Queen's College, Taunton

Dr Cheah's talk was on whether history was fact or fiction. He likened it to literature because of the use of language by historians.

PJ Helm said, "Because the historian, unlike the scientist, uses terms the meaning of which cannot be exactly defined, he must always be sure of two things: first, that he is quite clear in his own mind as to the meaning he is giving to the abstract words he uses; and second, that he makes this meaning clear to others...terms that are the shorthand of history are imprecise and useless until you, and those to whom you are talking, are clear as to just what you mean when you use them. Then you may still disagree, but at least you will both understand why you are disagreeing."

My History teacher in Form 6, Mr Mahan Singh made history come alive because he spoke about the people in the book as though he knew them personally and he was a part of whatever they had done to earn a place in that book! So it was a little like listening to my mother telling me the local history of Jalan Abdul Samad. How Amalu Amma had come and spent an hour in the house telling her about her trip to the hospital. When my mother asked her who had told her that so and so had been hospitalized, she replied, "Nobody told me. About three times a week, I go to the hospital and visit all the wards. I am sure to meet someone I know. And if he does not have any visitors, I spend some time talking to him. Then I will let others know that he is in hospital so that they may visit him!"

A smile comes to my heart as I remember Ammalu Amma, Sulo's father's aunty. She was a widow when we knew her and in the sixties she must have been in her sixties. She was quite bent, always in a white cotton sari and walked very fast. She visited most of the houses along our Lorong. She was most friendly and did not have a shy bone in her body. We could not hide from her for she would find us. Her straight hair was drawn into a knot at the back of her head. She was not grey. And she had a loud voice. We saw her at least twice a week. I am not sure where she lived but she came visiting every week carrying her black signature umbrella. When she passed away, my mother said, "This world will not see another Ammalu Amma," and she was right. For who today, will visit all the wards of the hospital and look for friends who might have been admitted and not have visitors?

Dr Cheah said that different people have different views. Who is correct?

Helm had a very interesting way of describing views. He used the Renaissance as an example.

"Are we to regard the Renaissance period as one of rebirth, or as a grand finale - a hopeful sunrise or a glorious sunset? The answer is that it contains something of both. In the spectrum the colour orange, for instance, lies between red and yellow; it is a colour with its own characteristics, but sharing the qualities of the colours on either side of it. Viewed in one way orange represents the 'decline and fall of red', viewed in another way it shows 'the rise and triumph of yellow' - and both views are correct. It is all a matter of selection. Much the same sort of thing applies to periods of history. By isolating different sets of facts it is possible to create a picture of a brilliant sunset or a promising dawn, for both aspects are present." 

Dr Cheah is right, about literature and the use of words. I have always found the above explanation by Helm to be very poetic and stimulating, a colourful freeing of my mind to see the world without having to accept the blindness of other people!

Now my table had very interesting people. There was the silver-haired Mr Loh Ghee Juan who was very happy about the government pay rise. Then there was Commander (Rtd) Ian Anderson who was not happy that his book had not been promoted there. Mrs Lai our Director who was quite quiet today. Nithiya the person who persuaded me to accept the invitation, was worried about coping since her Indonesian maid was going on leave the following day. A lady from Kinta, an accountant by training, who had worked in Singapore for many years and whose name eludes me now, sat next to me. Jack Wong Kin Tung our History teacher who is a quiet person until you speak to him was next to the accountant. Avinesh the new PA to Mrs Lai, and who has a very interested look in the happenings around him rounded up our group.

I met people I had not seen in a long while and it was an interesting social evening. Then something Mr Loh said, caught my attention. He told me that the gentleman sitting at the last table was a former Deputy Director of Education for Perak and the last non-Malay to hold that post. He went on to say that he was a very strict man. For no reason, other than that of habit, I asked what his name was. He told me his name was Mr Malayapillai. That was history. My history.

I stood up and announced that he was my ex-principal in Johore English College and that I had to go and talk to him. Mrs Lai smiled. I left the table and found him deep in conversation with Mr Maniam, the retired principal of ACS Ipoh. I introduced myself and asked him if he was the same person who was the principal of English College in 1969. EC was the top school in Johore and was on par with Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur, Penang Free School and Raffles Institution in Singapore. Mr Henry was the Deputy Principal.

I cannot describe the joy I saw in his face when I told him that I was his ex- student from JB. As he shook my hand, what registered was that his palm was soft. He is Indian so he probably has not done any housework! Like mopping and scrubbing. Just touch my palms now to know what I mean.

He asked me what I was doing and my dear Mr Maniam spoke up for me. He said, "In the tradition of English College, she is very fair but strict and was the Principal of MGS". I am in reality four feet ten inches shorter than the ten feet tall that he made me feel. Again Mr Malayapillai's eyes lit up. Mr Subramaniam then told me that his late wife was the sister of Mr Henry!

When I came back to my place and recounted what had taken place, (I ommitted what Mr Subramaniam said), the lady whose name eludes me asked if he recognized me. I said nought. Mr Loh said that he was strict. I remembered how a boy in Upper Six had used a four letter word in school which a teacher had overheard. The boy was sent to the Head Master's Room and he came out with two of the best. No one expected a Form Six boy to get a feel of tickler. Today when some students use expletives so freely, there are teachers who accept that behaviour as nothing seriously unacceptable. What kind of character are we building for our students?

When I entered Form Six in 1968, my Head Master was Mr Bion Dury. Years later when Anderson School came up with their Centenary Book, I bought a copy after I found Mr Dury's name in the book. He was an old boy of Anderson. When I was in Upper Six, Mr Dury was transferred to Perak and Mr Malayapillai took over. He was a very strict Head Master and like Head Masters and Mistresses of those days, he filled us with a sense of awe. I left at the end of 1969 and never saw him again until this evening, some 42 years later. I shall contact him and have tea with him and his wife. As I shook hands with him and addressed him 'Sir' I found that salutation to be most natural and apt.

Thank you Dr Cheah for making this evening an evening of historical relevance for me, by bringing my ex-Head Master and me together.





WRITING INDIGENOUS HISTORY IN MALAYSIA: A Survey on Approaches and Problems

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