In this article, I want to share about my days at Hua Lian secondary school in Taiping, particularly the first of my five years there. It was a matter of fate that I ended up in a Chinese public school. But my time in that school helped make me what I am today: a Malay Muslim who has lived among Chinese Malaysians and who has come to know and love many of his friends there.
This article serves as a reminder to my many Malay friends and relatives that what they think they know about the Chinese is simply false – images and constructs created by unscrupulous politicians, questionable religious leaders and their own arrogance and ignorance.
I lived among the Chinese and I never felt any anger towards me, nor did they cause me to fear them. This article is also a tribute to my old school, SMJK Hua Lian, and all my teachers from 1976 to 1980 before I left to further my studies in the US under a government scholarship.
In June 1976, I found myself at SMJK Hua Lian. I was an Industrial Arts English medium student at St Marks, Seberang Prai, Penang, on transfer and it was the only school that would take me. There were 2,000 Chinese pupils in the morning and afternoon sessions and only three Malay students.
As I had come from a Form 2A class, I was offered a place in the Form 2A1 class. The school had a system where all those in Form 2A1 were boys, Form 2A2 were girls, Form 2B1 were boys, Form 2B2 were girls, and so forth. When I asked the headmaster, Mr Chong, which class had the most Malays, he said there were only two other boys and that they were in the last class – Form 2D1. So just imagine a small, scrawny Malay boy of 14 in a class of big, burly 15-year-old Chinese boys. Thus, my adventures began.
Once, a Malay teacher was so angry with the boys over what he thought was rudeness, though I did not see it, that he punished the whole class by making us stand under the sun in the school courtyard where all the Form 2 students could see us for a full class period. It was the first time I had been punished like this, but I found out from the other boys that this was normal for them.
Then I found out that the Chinese loved gambling on almost everything. They would bet on national football matches and a boy once held a thousand ringgit in RM10 and RM50 notes while calmly writing in his exercise book. I had never even seen two RM50 notes in my entire life till then, so it was an experience for me. The boys would invite me to bet on games and football matches but my father taught me never to bet and I did not have much money to bet with anyway.
Every day, I got 50 sen from my mother. I would spend RM2 buying my favourite Battle and Action comics from the Taiping book store every week. Whatever savings I had would be spent on second-hand comics and Enid Blyton storybooks from “kaki-lima” book stalls. But my friends were generous and would always “belanja” me ais kacang at Taiping’s casual market stalls.
When monthly exams came, the boys would crowd at my table for answers whenever the teachers went to the toilet. I just let them copy my answers. I was good at English, to the point that I could spot the teacher’s grammatical mistakes. I could do that after having read hundreds of Enid Blyton books and comics.
I also played football with the boys in my class. Betting with money was still on, but I played in my fullback position without putting up any cash. The boys would show their kicking and karate prowess by destroying school furniture but they would always look out for me and would warn off other students if they suspected anyone of trying to bully me. Although all the boys were backward in lessons and rough in their boisterous ways, they never said a racist or bad word against me. I learned to sing Chinese songs from my friends and picked up a few Mandarin and Hokkien words. I noticed that the Chinese loved to eat and that my friends would spend many ringgit at the canteen.
One of the most memorable occasions for me occurred during school assembly one day, when the results of the final exam, including for each subject, were announced. When the marks for the whole of Form 2 were read out, the highest scores went to either Form 2A1 or Form 2A2. When the headmaster announced the highest marks for English, shouts rang out, and there was almost pandemonium that morning from the whole of Form 2D1 because I had beaten the nerds in Form 2A1 and 2A2! I stole a glance at my form teacher who was beaming with happiness at being congratulated left and right by the other teachers. It was a sweet retirement present for him.
Later, I moved to Form 3B1 and after the Lower Certificate of Examination (LCE), I made it to Form 4 Science 1. After that, I was placed with all the nerds in Form 5 Science 1. I was the only Malay boy in the science stream until my Malaysian Certificate of Examination in 1979. My nerdy Chinese friends helped me with my Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry for which I was scoring average marks. I finally learned how to study like them and finished off with distinction A1 and A2 for all three subjects.
I finished the MCE with 6As and made it to the top 10 among the 160 candidates from the school that year. I was the only student to get a distinction in English 122 for overseas qualifications. I had beaten the head prefect who usually scored almost perfect marks in all subjects.
I left for the US with a JPA scholarship in the middle of my Lower Sixth Form in 1980. Most of my 2D1 classmates never made it beyond the LCE and I never met them again after Form 2.
This article is meant to put some questions and thoughts to Malay society in this country. What does it mean when a small Malay boy in a sea of Chinese students goes through five years of schooling without once being bullied or having a racist word uttered against him?
When my Malay friends who have been educated overseas and in local universities and have become high ranking officers in the government and GLCs as well as professors in the academia look at the Chinese with disdain, suspicion and hatred, I wonder why they think like that.
Where is this hatred coming from? Is it from politicians in Umno, PAS, their ustazs or perhaps from their own stupidity, arrogance and malice about a society they think they know a lot about but truly have not the faintest idea at all? If only they had lived a few years among the Chinese like I did.
While digesting that thought, think again about how a slightly above-average Malay student made it to the top 10 with his teachers being mostly Chinese. Think also about the Chinese friends who helped him in Science and Mathematics until he became a top scorer. What does it mean when a boy is taught as a boy of one nation and not of one race?
In closing, I wish to thank all my Chinese teachers and friends who made my life at SMJK Hua Lian a most enjoyable, productive and formative one.
I stand today accused by my Malay friends of being a Chinese sympathiser and a disloyal Malay for defending a race considered by some as the enemy of Malays and Muslims. I stand apart from some of my friends in their mistrust and hatred of the Chinese because I lived, played and studied among this race for five long years. Most Malays can’t say the same.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.