Extraordinary Experiences and Treasured Memories : Life has a way of bestowing blessings and rewarding kindness and sincerity

In looking back on the road I have travelled thus far, I give thanks for a full, meaningful and oftentimes rewarding life.

Decisions made early on in your career and even later on in life can have important and sometimes dire consequences. But what exactly is life if you do not have the courage, determination and willpower to make difficult decisions? Many prefer to play it safe but end up complaining and blaming others i.e. family, employers and friends for their current predicament.

In my case, I have quite a number of extraordinary experiences and treasured memories.

  1. Witness to the birth of a Nation: Malaya

This experience ranks as one of the most treasured memories in my life. When the Federation of Malaya was granted independence on 31 August 1957, there was an impressive and moving ceremony at the Merdeka ( Independence ) Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. The stadium was built in time for the ceremony to handle a capacity crowd of 25,000 people.

I was privileged at age twelve to witness first hand the proclamation of independence for Malaya. My father who was then the president of the Selangor Indian Association had obtained some passes for the formal proclamation of independence ceremony. He passed these on to my uncle, Campbell Lopez and requested him to take my elder brother, Herbert and me for the ceremony.

I can still remember the arrival of their Royal Highnesses, the sultans of the various states as well as the governors of Malacca and Penang and finally the arrival of the last British High Commissioner for Malaya. The sultans all arrived in shiny Rolls Royce super sedans while the foreign dignitaries arrived in a variety of huge and impressive American cars such as Chevrolet, Pontiac, Ford and Chrysler. A number of these cars were later assigned to Malayan cabinet minsters as their official cars!

Ceremonial Uniforms and Plumed Hats!

YTM Tengku Abdul Rahman, the prime minister and his cabinet ministers arrived in their very smart British style ceremonial uniforms complete with plumed hats! All the dignitaries took their place on an elevated platform in the centre of the stadium. There was canopy to provide some shade for the VIPs.

All around us the stadium was packed to the brim with excited Malayans. The ceremony had all the pomp, pageantry and grandeur befitting such a historic moment. For me personally, the defining and electrifying moment was when the prime minister, who is now better known as the Father of Independence, raised his right arm and proclaimed in a loud and clear voice Merdeka about seven times to resounding cheers from the people.

Range of Hotels in Kuala Lumpur in 1957

Where did all these foreign dignitaries stay while in Kuala Lumpur? There were a small range of hotels in Kuala Lumpur at that time. These were The Majestic Hotel and the Station Hotel built right next to the beautiful Moorish style Railway Station. These were tier 1 hotels. Next were some hotels along Batu Road popular with British planters, tin miners, military officers and senior civil servants. These were the Tivoli Hotel, the Rex Hotel and the Coliseum Hotel……all tier 2 hotels. None of these two classes of hotels could be considered international standard hotels by today’s standard.

The prime minister had, therefore, very wisely persuaded a successful and prominent Malaysian Chinese businessman to build an international class hotel right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The businessman duly obliged the prime minister and the Federal Hotel was built and completed in time for the important event. All the foreign dignitaries stayed at the Federal Hotel. It is still in operation as an international class hotel, having undergone refurbishments on a number of occasions since then.

I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to witness the birth of a nation. It is a singular honour especially when you take into consideration that at that time, Malaya had a population of only seven million.

  1. Teacher for Fifteen Years at La Salle Brickfields Secondary School

This was a truly wonderful period early in my teaching career. I did not quite realise it at that time but in looking back at those memorable years and especially at that small school… it had not qualified for ‘ school ‘ status at that time and was thus designated La Salle Brickfields Secondary Classes!

By a strange twist of fate, I was actually asked to report to St John’s Institution, my alma mater in Kuala Lumpur. However, on meeting the principal, I was informed that there were no vacancies at that time. I was advised to go to La Salle Petaling Jaya Secondary School. Here too, I was informed that there were no available positions! I was, however, directed to report to La Salle Brickfields Secondary School. It was a case of being lucky third time around!

La Salle Secondary School had only twelve classes – four Form 1 classes, four Form 2 classes and four Form 3 classes. I was appointed the Form Master for Form Three Green ( there were only two form three classes that year ) in my first year and for the remaining fourteen years, I was the Form Master for Form Three Yellow!

Directed to Teach Agricultural Science

In La Salle Brickfields, I did not have a chance to teach the subject options I had focused on in St Joseph’s Training College, Penang. I was directed to teach a newly introduced subject, Agricultural Science. There was not even a textbook for the subject at that time. I was expected to simply improvise! What a rude and unexpected awakening into the teaching position.

This was a subject more suited for schools in rural areas where many of the students were the children of farmers and fishermen. I had to carry on with a ‘ stiff upper lip ‘ so to speak and do my best with limited resources.

I did some basic research and found out that at a premier school in Kuala Lumpur, Victoria Institution, there was an experienced teacher there. I went to see him and informed him of my predicament. He listened to me with sympathy and offered to lend me his teaching notes. I accepted them with much thanks and gratitude.

Over the next fifteen years, I made the best effort possible under the circumstances and taught the subject. In this respect, I also owe a debt of gratitude to a fellow colleague who agreed to assist me in certain topics. Over the fifteen years, La Salle Brickfields students in Agricultural Science came out third in the state of Selangor on three occasions. The school was commended by the director of the state education department for this effort.

Teaching Approach and Class Management Style

Right from the start, I decided to approach the teaching task with a variety of approaches. I used the usual teaching approach for some topics in the syllabus, occasionally I took the students for field trips to rubber estates and farms and from time to time, used newspaper cuttings to inform them of the importance of agricultural science.

At that time the Malayan economy was still heavily dependent on rubber and tin. Moreover, at that time too, our second prime minister had introduced a Green Book Plan to encourage Malaysians to grow vegetables and fruits at home and in the surrounding areas to deal with rising costs! During later years, I also supervised my students when they started growing vegetables in a small plot of land within the school compound.

My class was organised in a different way too. Instead of just appointing a class monitor in the usual manner, I chose to appoint also appoint a class chairman. I also informed my students that in my class the class chairman was the most important position and that the monitor was like the chief of police. It was a shock for even the monitor who did not like to play second fiddle.

Unforgettable Trips to Malacca

The idea here was to gain the support of the students to behave and cooperate with me as the form master. In return, our class would be the model for others to marvel at! Most importantly, I promised them an unforgettable trip to Malacca before the year end but only if I deemed that they had given me full support.

My strategy worked and for thirteen years I undertook to organise an expedition to the historical city of Malacca. Very few teachers dared risk organising such trips because of the responsibility involved. One had to get the green light from the State Education Department; signed letters from the parents agreeing to let the children go on the trip; signed agreement from the students that they will extend full cooperation to me throughout the day long trip by bus; other teachers to accompany me… if there were more than twenty students then there was a need for a second teacher to be present on the bus.

For many students, especially from the lower socio economic sector, this was a trip of a lifetime! The journey started in the early morning at say 7.00 am and took them through two states………Negri Sembilan and then Malacca. In Malacca, I became the tour guide and relished the opportunity to show off Malacca’s many interesting historical sights.

Students Who Take the Trouble to Stay in Touch

One of the many blessings of having been a teacher is that many years later you get to meet and interact with some of these former students in most unexpected ways. I had never for a moment expected anything further from my former students. I believed that as a teacher it was my duty and responsibility to teach my students. But in a wider sense, I also served as a coach ( in badminton ), counsellor ( in career guidance ) and as a good listening ear for some of my students who came from troubled family backgrounds.

Transition from Former Student to Friend

What has struck me was the desire by some of these former students to try and stay in touch with you over the years. I still keep in touch socially and by email with two former students from the class of 1966! I was surprised when a former student saw my email address somewhere and then contacted me to find out if this was his former teacher in Brickfields. This individual is a well known surgeon and he has been conferred a high state honour. He subsequently requested to meet with me at my home and we had a good chat. He has since dropped by on another occasion for another chat.

Unexpected Commendation

On another occasion, when I had just joined ACCA as its special adviser for Malaysia, I was going from table to table at an ACCA dinner event. As I reached the second last table, a gentleman stood up and said a warm ‘ hello ‘ to me. He seemed familiar and then quite unexpectedly informed all present at his table that I was his favourite teacher in school. I was momentarily speechless!

When I informed a former student to just call me Ben, he protested and said: As far as I am concerned, you will always be Master to me! He then went on to relate that he had followed by career with great interest and was grateful that he had a teacher like me!

I Know Who You Are

When I was co-opted into the Management Committee of the Malaysian Mental Health Association some two years ago, I went around introducing myself when I attended the first council meeting. When I approached the last person, a psychiatrist by profession, he said that he knew who I was. He then identified himself as a former student of La Salle Brickfields. Once when we had a rather heated discussion about a particular course of action to be taken, I shared my views about what needed to be done without mincing my words. This gentleman then remarked that we needed such a jolt!

I have had many more such examples of former students who came up to me and introduced themselves and then regaled me with some episode which I had long forgotten. I have met these students up in the air…a.leading steward in MAS, another was flying business class and noticed me but was too shy to approach me. It was a stewardess who approached me to find out my name and when I asked her the reason for that she remarked that one of the passengers thought he had recognised me. I then went up to the shy gentleman and had a chat with him. He was a former student and a senior captain with a Malaysian shipping company.

I consider these meetings and chance encounters with former students a great blessing and I am truly humbled by the warmth, respect and friendship that they extend to me after so many years. I guess only some teachers are fortunate to have such former students.

What is very clear though is the deep love and unabashed pride that these former students have in their school. In addition, they hold their former teachers in high esteem… even though in many cases they are now very successful professionals, businessmen and community leaders. No other profession can have this kind of effect on former students.

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