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A Singular Privilege to Have Been a Teacher!

at La Salle Secondary School, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur

On 14th January 2017, I attended an enjoyable La Salle Secondary School Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Class of 1969 reunion dinner and fellowship event. Prior to that, a few former teachers and I had received many invitations over the years from various groups to attend their reunion gatherings.

Wherever and whenever possible, I try to attend these wonderful reunion gatherings for a couple of reasons.  If former students still remember me and make it a point to invite me to attend their reunions, then the least that I can do is to return the kind courtesy and join them at the event. The other reason is that we (  former teachers ) must have had a positive, lasting impact and influence on these former students.

Successful but still Down to Earth

Many of these former students, I am pleased to report, are now leading academics, successful entrepreneurs, busy professionals, senior government officers and seasoned corporate leaders. A number of them, at least ten by the last count, have been bestowed high state honours and in one case, federal honours.

If these old boys really wanted to have had a closed door event, then they would not have invited the former teachers. Some of these groups even go so far as to provide transport for these teachers to attend the events.

Who are these Amazing Teachers? 

Having served as a teacher at this school for fifteen years ( 1966 to 1980 ), these are the few teachers that I vividly remember. I will name them in no fixed order.

Diana’s commitment to the students was so deep that she even held special tuition classes after normal school hours for those who were weak in the subject. This was her idea and these students did not have to pay any fee for this extra service.

Mrs Diana Yeoh was the teacher who taught mathematics with an uncommon passion. She is married to Mr. Yeoh Jin Leng, a former art lecturer at the Specialist Teachers Training Institute in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur and a well known Malaysian sculptor. She was a teacher, who dressed very simply, tied her hair up in a ponytail and got down to teaching with great skill and determination.

Extra Classes for Weak Students

Diana’s commitment to the students was so deep that she even held special tuition classes after normal school hours for those who were weak in the subject. This was her idea and these students did not have to pay any fee for this extra service. This was truly service above and beyond the call of duty and thus was hugely appreciated.

Influence for Good

A former student, years later, even wrote to the editor of a mainstream newspaper to remark that he decided to specialise in mathematics while at the university because of Mrs Diana Yeoh.

Mr Denis Armstrong is best remembered as a teacher, a feared disciplinarian and a formidable athletics coach. When I first arrived at La Salle Brickfields, Denis was already the supervisor of the Secondary School. Technically speaking, we were not recognised as a school but as a number of secondary classes attached to La Salle Brickfields Primary School 1. The headmaster of the primary school, the late Mr Albert Rozario also doubled up as headmaster of the secondary school.

Why was Denis a feared but respected disciplinarian?

Brickfields at that time had a poor reputation. Our students came mostly from socio-economically disadvantaged communities in Brickfields, Old Klang Road and Bangsar. Petty crime was rife and small time thugs made life miserable for many residents. Denis did not want this situation to be the norm at the school. Denis, I must add, is a black belt Tae Kwan Do exponent.

Over the years many former students have commented that this strict discipline in school was truly appreciated.

Tough Love at La Salle Brickfields

He imposed his brand of discipline with an iron resolve. But he also knew when to relent and look the other way on occasions. Many old boys recall that when they entered Denis’s office, he would allow them to choose from among his range of canes. He had thin ones, slightly thicker ones and a thick one. The whole episode consisted of three parts: having to wait agonisingly for him to arrive; having to choose the right sort of cane; and having to endure the number of strokes.

Over the years many former students have commented that this strict discipline in school was truly appreciated. None surprisingly expressed any resentment whatsoever! In fact, I remember a former student, Jeffery Felix, now an accomplished musician and a well-known glass artist residing in Alabama, USA saying something to the effect that they certainly needed such tough love!

A Passion for Athletics

Denis was also a highly competent athletics coach as attested to by many old boys who excelled in athletics. During his tenure as a coach, La Salle Brickfields became a powerhouse in the district and in the state much to the chagrin of bigger and better-equipped schools.

Such was Denis’s fame and stature that I once heard an old boy remark that had Denis coached the US 4 X 100 metres track team in the 1968 Mexico Olympics they would not have fumbled with the baton change! It is high praise indeed. It is worth mentioning that in all these athletics-related activities, Denis had one faithful and reliable colleague to assist him, Mr. K. Raja from LSB Primary School 1.

Mr Yong Hin Hong was a Brinsford Lodge, United Kingdom-trained teacher with an uncanny ability to teach effectively especially the subject of general science. When it was time for his lesson, the whole class had to move over to the well equipped and spacious science laboratory.

For many keen students, this trip to the science lab generated their interest in the subject. You will recall that it was an era when the first man, astronaut Neil Armstrong, landed on the moon! Science was and still is an intriguing subject and greater emphasis was being given to that subject.

A Rough Diamond

I remain grateful to Hin Hong because he was a truly supportive colleague and we got along well. At my request, he willingly assisted me by covering a part of the agricultural science syllabus. He was small in size, had a short fuse but a truly big heart. It was something in his DNA because both he and his father suffered from heart problems.

Success on the Soccer Field

Hin Hong was also the able coach for the soccer team. He and many of our students then followed the English Premier League ( EPL ) with a passion that I could not understand. He cultivated this love for soccer, coached his players with skill and competence and this usually translated into success in the field. The La Salle Brickfields soccer team did very well in district and state level championship competitions. Hin Hong sadly passed away a few years ago.

Some Other Teachers

There were, of course, many other teachers like Mrs Suan Fredericks, the talented teacher who taught art and who was responsible for the lovely, striking mural on the outside wall of the new building block at La Salle Brickfields.  The others including Mrs Theresa Oh who taught history, Mr Eric Koh who taught physical education and Mr Low Kim Seng who taught agricultural science have all migrated to Australia.

Mr Lucas Wong who taught general science, Mr V Sequerah who was the class teacher of Form Three Blue and Mrs Amarjeet Mahendran who taught English Language still live in the Klang Valley. Mrs Thana Ponnudurai, a state level hockey player and who was the class teacher of Form Three Blue now lives in Switzerland.

Some Quotes on Teachers

An arrogant individual in the past is reported to have famously made the following mean statement: ‘ Those who can, do; those who can’t teach.’ Be that as it may, there is always another side to that argument.

There is the celebrated case of how a primary school teacher in the US once put a high-flying chief executive officer in his place when he talked down to her at a social event.  He had cheekily asked her what she makes i.e. her salary.

She coolly, calmly and in a measured manner said: I teach children how to read, I teach them mathematics, I also teach them about the importance of good manners and civility. In addition, I teach them about respect….for their parents, for elders etc. I make a difference in their lives. What do you make sir? There was a stunned silence from the duly embarrassed individual.

I would, however, take some measure of comfort in the thoughtful statement attributed to Lee Iacocca, former celebrated chairman and chief executive officer of Chrysler Corporation. He said: ‘ In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less.’

And as you and I know, in these days, we do not live in a completely rational society.

No Text Book for Agricultural Science

On my part, I was tasked with the teaching of agricultural science in my very first year at La Salle Brickfields. It was a newly introduced subject in some Malaysian schools and none of the teacher training colleges had prepared budding teachers for this task.

There was not even a text book out at that time but I was nevertheless required to teach the subject to the best of my ability! It was a tall order indeed.

With the kind assistance from a senior agricultural science teacher at Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur who willingly lent me his notes, I was able to carry out the task with some success.

Promoted Debating Activities

In addition, for many years, I was also the class master for Form Three Yellow.

I also taught English Language to my class. I enjoyed teaching that subject and perhaps did it with some degree of success. This assessment is based on the feedback I received many years later from some of my former students. I also actively promoted debating activities. Many students were reluctant and shy to engage in debate but over time, they somehow got the hang of it.

These were not just reunions of old boys but also occasions to sincerely acknowledge the contributions of their teachers in no uncertain terms.

It is good to keep in mind that many students spoke dialect at home i.e. either Malay, Cantonese or Tamil. Thus, debating in the English Language was seen as a task too far! But I persisted, coached and cajoled them and over time they came to appreciate the merits and joy of that activity.

Acclaimed Actress’s Words

At a recent academy awards ceremony in the US, one of the greatest actresses of our time, Meryl Streep, said something to the effect that being an actor was a special privilege. She added that this remark originally came from another well-known actor, Tommy Lee Jones.

Taking that as my cue, I now feel somewhat along the same lines. The few teachers and I from this school have been on the receiving end of a seemingly endless series of reunions / dinners.

These were not just reunions of old boys but also occasions to sincerely acknowledge the contributions of their teachers in no uncertain terms. These former students, to their great everlasting credit, have been unfailingly courteous, kind and grateful for all that we did.

It was for them, I believe, the sum total of the whole edifying La Salle educational experience where due emphasis was given not just to academic activities. The unique mix of ethos, culture, traditions and extra mural activities played a huge part in the whole educational process. In addition, by being in a small school with a small enrolment and a small group of teachers, everyone got to know each other pretty well.

In that La Sallian spirit and on looking back with a degree of nostalgia, I cannot help but feel that teaching and teaching at La Salle Brickfields, in particular, was a singular privilege that I shall treasure for the rest of my life.

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Year of Blessings and Many Reunions : La Salle Brickfields Secondary School Alumni Lead the Way

As 2014 gradually drew to a close, I was struck by the thought that many of us have had blessings a plenty during the year. Sometimes we take these blessings for granted. Oftentimes, we seem unaware that these are truly blessings of a higher order.

This is because in the rush and hurry of modern day, stressed filled living we seem to be constantly on the move attending to one thing or another. Our jobs, our families and our share of challenges in life can sometimes be quite overpowering.

Appreciate Blessings of a Higher Order

How often, for instance, have you or I stopped for a while to enjoy a glorious sunset or even to smell the roses? How often have we paused for a while to go for a long walk along the beach or to go hiking along a jungle trail?

When was the last time we could enjoy and breathe in good, clean air in our cities without having to put up with the dastardly, unhealthy perennial haze that seems to blanket our skies? This is a real tragedy of modern living.

Choice of Focus

Some may choose to focus on the series of major tragedies that have befallen our country during the year, starting first with the incredible disappearance of MH 370 with the loss of almost three hundred lives. Months later came the unexpected shooting down of MH 17 over Ukraine with the loss of hundreds of lives. Most recently, we lost yet another aircraft, this time an Air Asia plane over the Java Sea with the loss of nearly one hundred and sixty lives. To make matters worse, we are currently experiencing one of the worst floods to hit the country in decades.

As a nation, we have to remain strong and believe that these too will pass! We have to learn to take the good with the bad because no one can promise us great times all the time. With life, such as we know it, we have to accept a mixed bag of happenings and events. As they say things happen for a reason and the challenge is to find that reason and to learn and grow from that experience.

Immense Value of True Friendship

On a different level, the alumni of La Salle Brickfields (LSB) Secondary School in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia have demonstrated in a clear and convincing manner the immense value of true friendship and enjoyable, memorable reunions. Over the last twenty years or so, I have been invited to and have attended about five La Salle Brickfields reunion gatherings, usually over dinner.

Well Organised and Enjoyable Event

Last year ( 2014 ) was the exception… no doubts about that matter. I had been invited to four reunion dinner gatherings in 2014. It started off spectacularly in April or May this year by the LSB Class of 1976. The reunion was held in a spacious hall in a country club in KL. More than 100 former students, including a few who brought their wives and children along as well as about eighteen former teachers attended this classy and well organised event.

Year Long Breakfast Programme

A month later, the LSB Class of 1975 organised a reunion meeting followed by dinner and they also invited two teachers to the event. This group of about twelve are successful professionals and business people and they felt the need to do something for their old school. The meeting was a productive one and within two months of that fateful reunion cum meeting, this small but determined LSB group had launched a year long breakfast programme for seventy two underprivileged schoolchildren who used to come to school daily without breakfast! This is a truly noble way of carrying out meaningful community service where it is most needed. It also shows the depth of commitment and loyalty by these individuals to their alma mater.

Good Fellowship and Laughter

Two months later, a group of about twenty former students, from the LSB Class of 1968 met for drinks and bites in the evening at a club in Kuala Lumpur. Once again, these individuals were all so glad to meet each other, some for the first time in forty plus years.

B C Forbes once remarked :-

The best way to make a true friend is to be one. Friendship implies loyalty, esteem, cordiality, sympathy, affection, readiness to aid, to help, to stick, to fight for, if need be……………. Radiate friendship and it will return sevenfold!

These groups of LSB alumni from the different years continue to radiate friendship, camaraderie and fellowship that one rarely sees these days. There must have been something unique and special about the ethos, traditions and practices of LSB that has made such an impact possible years later!

This group has since met on two further occasions. The seed that was planted has certainly grown and bloomed! Alumni from Singapore and Dubai have seen fit to attend these reunions in Kuala Lumpur.

Promises to Meet More Often

All these qualities of friendship that B C Forbes talked about were plainly evident when the reunions took place. The alumni seemed incredibly happy to re-connect with old classmates and even former teachers. Some offered profound thanks to the organisers of the meet for the effort they had invested to get the former classmates together. Others exchanged business cards and made solemn promises to meet more often. A few even followed this up by inviting teachers for lunches and dinners. Such was the reaction and joy that these alumni exhibited. It was true, unabashed human emotion at its best. It certainly helped that a wave of forgotten memories were being brought back to life, even though some of the alumni are now grandfathers in their own right!

A Canadian Alumni Re-Connects

On 28 December, yet another successful reunion took place, this time with LSB Class of 1969 alumni. The excuse and motivation was the return home to Malaysia for a brief holiday by a classmate who now resides in Toronto, Canada. He had contacted one of his classmates and requested to meet with his classmates and teachers. This friend went out of his way to contact as many classmates and teachers as was possible. In the end, it was a successful reunion with over twenty five classmates turning up as well as three teachers.

Among those who turned up was a doctor who now practises in Johor and a classmate from Singapore. Another who turned up is a chartered secretary who has since reinvented himself professionally and is now a ‘ head hunter ‘. This person also brought along his only son to meet his fellow classmates and teachers. This guy as well as many of the others who turned up expressed great joy at meeting so many classmates, some for the first time after forty five years!

The noise and occasional laughter that emanated from the lively and animated conversations was a clear indication that the event was a great success. There was also a spontaneous singing of the old school song with much gusto and enthusiasm. The members of the private club where the event was held could only look on with amazement and a touch of envy I guess, to see a bunch of sixty year old gentlemen relive their youth!

Delivering Holistic Education to the LAST, the LOST and the LEAST – the Essence of the La Sallian Contribution

On Saturday, 7 December 2013, I attended the National La Sallian Conference held in Kuala Lumpur, together with about ninety five other individuals from all over Malaysia. There were representatives from Sabah, Penang, Seremban and Malacca to name a few. Many of them were from the Board of Managers, the Board of Governors, Parent Teacher Associations, Alumni, Administrators, Teachers and the Infant Jesus Convents. There were also a few representatives from St Joseph’s Training College Alumni. They were all there to lend support for the conference on the theme: The La Sallian Response to the Malaysian Education Blueprint.

Four Distinguished Speakers

The event was promoted, marketed and organised by the Malaysian Federation of La Sallian Associations in collaboration with De La Salle Brothers Malaysia. The conference featured four distinguished speakers: Mr. Megat Mizan Nicholas Denny, Chairman of Board of Governors, St John’s Institution and St John’s International, Kuala Lumpur; Rev Bro Anthony Rogers FSC, Director – La Salle Brothers Malaysia; Dr. Francis Loh Kok Wah, Chairman of Board of Governors, St Xavier’s Institution, Penang; and Ms. Julia Willie Jock, Super Principal – La Salle Kota Kinabalu.

La Sallian Efforts at Adopting and Enhancing Initiatives

Mr Megat Mizan, who is Head of Group Business Development and concurrently Executive Director at K & N Kenanga Holdings Berhad, gave an insightful presentation on the National Educational Blueprint: A Focus on La Salle Schools in Malaysia. He outlined some of the 25 Key Initiatives under the 1st Wave ( 2013 – 2015 ) of the National Blueprint. His focus was on areas where the La Sallian Educational structure can adopt and enhance these initiatives to provide a higher standard of education in all the La Salle schools in the country.

Reviving the La Sallian Ethos towards Integrity, Unity and Spirituality

Rev Bro Anthony Rogers, who is Director of De Salle Brothers Malaysia and Chairman of Malaysian La Sallian Educationa Council (MLEC), highlighted the fundamental premise that the La Sallian Family in Malaysia has the urgent task to re-discover a new sense of hope. Rev Bro Rogers stressed that the world today is fragmented within and divided outside. The La Sallian Education has the task of restoring integrity, promoting unity and fostering spirituality.

Rev Bro Rogers believes this is possible because La Sallian Education is synonymous with a responsible education, contrary to an education model that creates one dimensional individuals, entrenched comfortably in their tiny world and pursuing their own interests, and incapable of connecting themselves with the larger picture. He made the case persuasively for our return to the Last, the Lost and the Least in our collective quest to build a new world order founded in Faith, cherished with Hope and expressed in Service.

Case for Decentralisation to Restore Excellence

The third speaker, Dr Francis Loh was Professor of Politics in Universiti Sains Malaysia until he retired in 2012. He is president of Aliran and a regular contributor to its Aliran Monthly. Dr Loh mentioned that there is much criticism of the state of education in our schools and universities. They range from: declining standards, especially in science and mathematics; biasedness in the history and civics curriculum; poor grasp of the English language; lack of awareness of the globalised world beyond Malaysia; worsening discipline among students; poorly trained teachers; inadequate attention given to weaker students especially in rural schools; and marginalisation of national type and mission schools in terms of financial support.

Dr Francis Loh made a strong case for decentralisation. In fact, he said, many of these problems stem from over centralisation of the education system. He called for decentralisation of this machine to allow parents, old boys and girls, and the community writ large to complement the roles of teachers, administrators and the MOE. Drawing from the experiences of several mission schools in Penang, he proposed some areas for effective community engagement with this massive machine, in order to restore a sense of mission in our schools. He challenged those present to consider deeply in the light of the sad reality that there are very few La Salle Brothers left, how we as caretakers of their admirable tradition should proceed.

Touching Hearts, Teaching Minds and Transforming Lives

The fourth and last speaker was Ms. Julia Willie Jock, Super Principal of La Salle Kota Kinabalu ( LSKK). She has held this post since 2006 and was incidentally a student of La Salle Secondary School, Kota Kinabalu from 1974 to 1976. She is also a Master Trainer with Institute Aminuddin Baki at the MOE as well as a Principal Coach for the MOE and mentors novice principals and aspiring principals.

Ms Julia shared with passion the journey of Touching Hearts, Teaching Minds and Transforming Lives undertaken by La Salle Kota Kinabalu in their quest to reenergise their La Sallian heritage and traditions. This task, she acknowledged, was made that much easier with enormous help and support from the La Salle Board of Management, the PTA, the Alumni and the school population and partners in education. It was collectively decided that their focus should be on La Sallian values of faith, service and community. They also agreed to share a common dream and a common mission and to especially focus on the Last, The Lost and the Least. In that process, it was their intention to ensure that every La Sallian matters!

I must confess that I had not realised we had such a gem of a true La Sallian school in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and a jewel of a principal to steer it to greater heights of endeavour. What also struck me were the effectiveness, fellowship and cohesiveness of the tripartite partnership in LSKK. We have much to learn from them. We were also informed that the Minister of Education in Singapore made a special visit to the school to learn first hand how they managed to achieve so much. That is real recognition.

“ The mediocre teacher tells,

The good teacher explains

The superior teacher demonstrates.

The great teacher inspires.”

Ideas Labs

The purpose of the ideas labs, thereafter, was to allow the participants to examine some of the pressing issues that need to be addressed collectively by all. The participants were divided into four working groups: Group A – Issues related to the Board of Governors and Managers; Group B – The Reality of Students in and outside Schools; Group C – The Situation of Administrators and Teachers; and Group D – Parents and Home Environment, the Community and Alumni. Each group was expertly steered by a moderator and it also had a recording secretary. The ideas and recommendations that were agreed are currently being compiled and will be published in due course and thereafter a copy of the publication will be sent to all registered participants.

Our Priority and Challenge as La Sallians

The conference managed to highlight with renewed zeal our identity as La Sallians in Malaysia. We are a community of diverse races and ethnic groups, religious and faith traditions aspiring for unity as Malaysians. As La Sallians, we see the holistic and integral, human and spiritual formation of the young with preference for those who are weak and poor. The dynamism of the La Sallian community in Malaysia is linked to a new partnership with the La Salle Brothers, Parents, Board of Governors / Managers, PTA and Alumni.

There is no doubt that the challenge before us, in this country, is an enormous one. It is up to each and every La Sallian to rise to the challenge and demonstrate that the Last, the Lost and the Least really do matter.