We remember our teachers, especially those who had an impact on our school life or who left a deep impression on us but not everyone remembers the school head. One reason is that school heads do not teach classes or interact with students as teachers do.
But, sometimes, there are headmasters or principals who are so outstanding, so dedicated, so impactful that you can never forget them.
Mr Long Heng Hua of King Edward VII Secondary School (KEVII) is one such person.
Mr Long, who served as principal from 1963 to 1985, remains a legend. He was the only principal I knew because I entered Form One in 1966 and finished Form Six in 1972.
He declined promotions, including that of chief state education officer (today they are known as directors) so that he could steer KEVII to greater heights. He had earlier taught English to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (who later became prime minister and spoke excellent English) at the Bukit Mertajam High School, and was an author of several books.
He was the main reason King Edward VII Secondary School shone in the sixties, seventies and even the early eighties. He believed that discipline, broad-mindedness, critical thinking, sports activities, neatness, courteousness, punctuality and a yearning for learning were important characteristics for success in life.
The disciplinarian was feared yet respected and liked by all who passed through the classrooms of KEVII. Almost every student has a tale to tell about Mr Long, and most of them will include in this tale his famous words: “See me in the office”.
That, of course, meant his cane had a date with your buttocks. And students whose buttocks had tasted his cane will recall how democratic he was, for he would ask you to choose the cane. He had a few canes of varying thickness in his office.
Quite a number of students who went on to make a name for themselves have tasted his cane. He was also not averse to giving a public caning to a recalcitrant student.
He was quite innovative. I remember him getting students to write something – a quotation or some inspiring words – on a manila card and coming up onto the stage at the school assembly to show and talk about it. It made students search for appropriate material, which meant they had to read a lot, and it helped rid them of shyness. It helped many overcome or at least lower the fear of speaking before an assembly or crowd.
He pushed us to read and ensured that we had a well-stocked library. He also ensured we had decent laboratories for our science classes, and sports equipment too.
He would encourage us to take up challenges. For instance, in 1971, the New Straits Times organised a Rukun Negara essay writing competition and he urged students to participate. My essay won an honourable mention and he proudly announced this at the school assembly. The organisers presented me with a huge dictionary and a certificate and Mr Long topped this up with another two books bought with school funds.
I later joined the New Straits Times as a journalist, serving for 33 years.
While he was firm and drove the students to excel in both academic studies and sports, Pak Long, as he was known by everyone, was understanding and compassionate too.
For instance, he would talk to students individually and impress upon them the importance of education. I believe these were students who did not realise their own potentiality or who needed motivation or were unaware of the many challenges in the adult world. He would also advise students on the choice of university majors and career prospects.
For instance, he encouraged and helped a poor Malay office boy to continue his studies while remaining employed in the school. The youth eventually went to university and retired as a bank manager.
For instance, he allowed an Indian student from a very poor family living in a remote area to stay in the school hostel which was reserved for Malay students. This student later became a top official at a government teaching hospital in Kuala Lumpur.
Mr Long would roam the corridors of the school and the moment someone spotted him, the message would be passed from class to class – often by someone who would ask the teacher to be allowed to go to the washroom – and everyone would be at his best behaviour, including, I must add, teachers. I suspect the teachers knew what these boys were doing as it helped them too.
He would also frequently stand at the gate to tell late comers to “see me in my office”, usually adding “during recess”.
If the office boy came to the class with a note, you knew that someone was in for it. Those who did badly in term exams would have to see Mr Long and have a chat with his cane.
But if you found the courage to talk to him, Pak Long would listen to you. Once, the Sixth Form Society committee decided that a name change to Sixth Form Union was in order. As society president I was tasked with convincing Mr Long to allow the change.
He listened to my arguments impassively but without interruption, and then posed a few questions. To cut to the chase, he disagreed with the proposal. The important fact is that he gave me his time and considered the suggestion, rather than dismissing it outright.
I did something naughty in school which I can never forget: I splashed water on Mr Long.
The school’s current parent-teacher association chairman Lim Ka Huat never fails to mention this whenever he introduces me to anyone.
This is what happened. One Teachers Day, some of us in Form Six began throwing water on each other using plastic packets and pails as part of the fun.
One of my classmates challenged me to pour water on Mr Long and I took it up without thinking it through. I waited with a pail of water and as Mr Long was walking by, I said “Happy Teachers Day, Sir” – or something to that effect for I can’t recall the exact words – and emptied half the pail on him.
He tried to ward it off but his shirt and part of his pants were drenched.
Only after I had poured the cold water on him did I realise that I was in hot water.
However, he did not say “see me in my office”. Neither did he show anger or irritation. He laughed and walked back into his office; and he did not bring up the incident at all at any time. Later, I realised that he could have taken disciplinary action against me but did not do so.
I learned important lessons in leadership that day: You should not be firm or serious always; when appropriate, you have to go with the flow. I also learned that you must know when to use your power, and that laughter is better than anger.
I met Mr Long a few times after I started working as a journalist, even visiting him at his house once, and he was always pleasant although his words were measured. Once, in the early nineties, he sent me a postcard from Laos where he was then teaching.
He helped shape me and countless other students not just by his words (and cane) but also by his example, and we will be eternally grateful to him for it. He has since passed on but students still remember him and talk about him whenever they meet.
I’m sure he will be among the topics of conversation again when old boys meet for the annual reunion dinner on June 17 at the SSL Traders Hotel in Taiping organised by the Old Edwardians Association of Malaysia.
Do we still have school heads like him who went beyond the call of duty to educate their students, and who knew how to balance firmness and discipline with understanding and care? Do we still have educators like Mr Long heading schools?
See also: To teachers with love
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.