When do we mature from boys and girls to men and women? What are the defining moments and pivotal experiences? This is a recurrent theme in my blog postings as I reflect on my VI days. But, the roots of the fight that broke out at the 1972 Arts Union Ball went back earlier to about October 1971.
Then School Captain Yap Kian Fui and VI Prefects' Board (VIPB) Secretary A.Balachandren hastily summoned five relatively newly appointed Lower Form 6 prefects, viz., N.Indran, myself, K.Balraj, Yap Chee Keong and (GI) Joe Hiew Heng Foo to a closed door meeting at the Junior Library.
This was the time of the year when many were locked mentally in "revision" mode preparing for the all-important MCE (Form 5) and HSC (Upper 6) examinations. By tradition, Mrs. Chong Hong Chong, teacher and Junior Library Supervisor had once again graciously consented to the JL being made available for the exclusive (exam preparation/revision) use of the Prefects, to many of whom the JL became home day and night for a month as they slept over in the premises. (I understand the VI Library does not exist anymore and that function has now been outsourced! What a shame! What a stupid decision! Wonder which short-sighted HM was responsible for that?)
Absent from that meeting was School Vice- captain Lee Kok Pheng who was missing (together with Lim Shook Kong) from school for most of that year due to duties with State Badminton and a World Badminton Tour.
Someone (we never found out who) had reported to Kian Fui that two prefects, Balraj and Chee Keong, had been involved in meetings and discussions with other Lower 6 students mooting for a Students' Union (SU) to replace the VIPB. It came as a shock to the rest of us, more so since my friendship with Balraj went back to Standard 1 in Pasar Road English School 1 where Indran joined us in Standard 5. We were (and still are) great friends and moved about as thick as thieves. We got to know the quiet and unassuming Yap Chee Keong only after his appointment to the VIPB in June 1971, together with Fong Meng Wai (younger brother of Fong Meng Soon, a classmate from Std 1 in PRES1 who was once a singles badminton star and piano/organ palyer) who was another rare example of one appointed to the VIPB while still in Form 5. I will write more about Chee Keong's "quite and unassuming" character in detail in another blog posting; but suffice to say for the moment, cream will rise to the top.
At that meeting, Kian Fui laid the law down and in no uncertain terms warned us that prefects would get involved in any 'Students' Union' proposal at the risk of forcible premature retirement from the VIPB without any 'golden handshake'! Such was the strength of the bonds of our friendship that Indran and I never asked Balraj "WTF!" nor did Joe Hiew, Indran or I question Chee Keong about his involvement with the 'dark side' forces. It sounds incredible, but we really were not bothered and I dare say that if a SU had been set up and the VIPB abolished, many of us (prefects) would have been elected to the top posts! Our trust in each other's judgement and actions was implicit. Nevertheless, all gave their word to Kian Fui to 'cease and desist'!
Kian Fui of course knew the importance of nipping things in the bud. The following year in 1972, Indran was appointed School Captain, Chee Keong Vice-Captain, myself Secretary, Balraj Assistant Secretary and Joe Hiew Treasurer i.e. the 5 senior most positions in the VIPB.
But matters had by then gone too far. Student supporters for the SU had petitioned and received the consent of the HM Mr. V.Somasundram to convene a meeting of all Lower 6 students to debate the matter at the Lecture Theatre in the Form 6 Block. I have written earlier about my unfortunate run-in with Soma and how he wanted to sack me from the VIPB for a silly misunderstanding over his parked car, all of his own making. He was NOT my favourite VI HM, for sure!
So, on one side were seated the proposers for the SU who were mainly from the Arts stream i.e. Mac Yin Tee (classmate/ Form mate from PRES 1), Zul Rafique, Yap Teong Choon, Yip Kok Keong (Pro SU group) and their supporters. On the other side, well there really wasn't any 'other side.' Mostly, there were the Lower 6 prefects and a mix of Arts and Science Class students most of whom were not well versed with the proposal and issues and had come along to hear things out. In all perhaps about 150 students (boys and girls) had turned up for the meeting, chaired by the HM. There were no written proposals circulated prior to the meeting for reference, so we had to pretty much rely on the verbal submissions of the pro-SU group.
I recall Mac, Zul and Kok Keong all spoke up and in particular Teong Choon had quoted Lord Acton that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely". This sounded a wee bit OTT (over the top) to me. Good Lord, we were not exactly running a government or the KGB, were we? We were all appointed prefects; no one had lobbied for it, but of course none refused when offered either. In my time I can only recollect only two instances when candidates turned down prefectship - Ting Chooi Whar (Assts. Scout Master/Swimmer) in 1972 and S.Jayendran (Drum Major) in 1973.
I decided to speak up for the VIPB. It wasn't that I was a School Debater and was therefore more logical in my thinking or more eloquent in speech than my peers. It was just that I was more adept than most in concealing well my shivering and shrivelled up cojones when indulging in public speaking!.
I talked about the "noble" VIPB institution, spirit and about the many unglamorous aspects of prefects' duties and the sacrifices we had to make when it came to studies and personal free time. I asked what assurances anyone had that the SU too would not become "absolutely corrupt". Till today, I have no idea what they made of my 'Marc Antony' speech, but no one clapped when I finished to a deathly silent room. In all probability they were splitting their sides in silent laughter at my pompous waffling. Later, others like Joe Hiew, R.Pathmanathan, Indran, Jaccob Thomas (I have reliably been told by Jaccob himself that due to a clerical error at the IC Office, his name is spelt with 2 c's!) and perhaps Kwan Poh Woh (prefect) and Yap Chin Seong (School Libraran) all spoke up as well.
And strangely enough, that's how it ended. Soma adjourned the meeting after two hours and we never heard about the SU or abolishing the VIPB ever again. Why the pro-SU group backed off is still a mystery to me. I am certain it was not due to my 'we come to bury Caesar, not to praise him' elocution. But thereafter, several prefects had run-ins with Zul, Kok Keong and Teong Choon. To put it in perspective, this would have been for armaggedon-like incursions of rules - like being late for school, not painting bata shoes or not wearing socks, walking on the lawn, long-hair and the like; end of the world matters and such! Looking back after nearly 40 years, it all looks so ridiculous and full of bubbling testosterone, adolescenct angst, posturing and preening.
But little did we know the directions all this would take until the day of the 1972 Arts Union Ball (which was traditionally held at the School Hall) at 8 p.m., i.e. after school hours, in late April or early May. The 1972 Arts Union Committee comprised inter-alia:
Chairman: Mac Yin Tee (School Footballer, Loke Yew House Vice-Captain)
Vice-Chairman: Jaccob Thomas (Hepponstall House Vice-Captain)
Secretary: Sadasiban (nickname 'Red Indian' for his orange hair and who joined us
at Waikiki Bar at PJ for Rama's birthday drink-up on
Friday 28th Feb, 2011).
Treasurer: Yap Teong Choon (School Swimmer, Water Polo, Treacher House
All the non-Arts prefects were invited for the grand dance and dinner affair, but I was on prefect duty for the night which needed some seniors around as the Arts Union bash was known to invoke boisterous behaviour from Upper 6 'boys'. Besides, I was shy and could not dance to save my life and so chose to stay on duty and out of sight in the Prefects' Room on the 1st floor with Indran, Balraj and Chee Keong .
All hell broke loose at about 9.30 p.m. Mgf Ms.Wong Kim Lin and a couple of guys dashed into our room screaming "Fight! Fight!" I was the first to rush out and arrived in double time at the School Hall where there was more screaming and shouting going on. It wasn't that I was a master of 92 schools of Kung Fu, Shaolin Martial Arts or anything like that. I was shorter and slim to the point of thin as compared to most other 6th-Formers. Neither was I a particularly brave person. In all my school-years, I never engaged anyone in a fistfight and avoided altercations altogether wherever possible. I just responded because mgf Kim Lin (same Hepponstall House and School Debater) was in distress.
Perhaps some 50 students were gathered in small groups in the hall, along its corridors and the adjacent quadrangle nearest to the swimming pool. Sally Chong, then another good friend and school debater was in tears and screaming, "Oh my God! Oh my God!"
To my astonishment I could see mgf and blue-shirt prefect Joe Hiew slamming Yip Kok Keong and Zul Rafique (School Footballer/Rodger House Captain) and landing a couple of solid blows on them. I'm sure he next punched Mac Yin Tee at which point I wrapped my arms around Joe Hiew's shoulders and dragged him out of the hall towards the staircase heading up to the Prefects' Room. Matters were threatening to get out of hand as Zul had gotten hold of a Coke bottle and was trying to smash it to get a dangerous shard for a weapon.
Even though I had Joe in a half-Nelson, he still managed to land a flying kick or two on Teh Chong Chan; why Chong Chan (1971 School 1st Eleven Football Goalkeeper) was there at all was not clear to me as he was either a 5th Former or had left school, ready to go overseas. He was probably a gate crasher. It appeared to me that he was "collateral damage" for attempting to broker peace.
All this time, I was urging Joe Hiew to calm down and eventually dragged him off upstairs from where Indran and the rest bundled him off down the HM's staircase towards the main porch where his Honda motorbike was parked. Indran warned Joe Hiew in no uncertain terms to "disappear quick!" which he did as he roared out the school gates.
I next rushed over to the school hostel and urged an understandably red-eyed and irritated Cikgu Othman to come resolve the dangerous situation. I then headed back to the school hall where the party was over and many had vanished, not wanting to be caught in any of the fighting or possible retaliation and repercussions. Indran, Balraj and Chee Keong were busy calming everyone down and assessing if anyone needed to be sent to the GH. Fortunately, it was more a case of bruised egos and bruises than any serious damage to flesh, limbs and bones.
The main victims - Mac, Kok Keong, Zul, and Chong Chan - were still there. All appeared a bit shell-shocked and angry they had been ambushed singlehandedly by Joe Hiew. Everyone in VI knew about Joe Hiew, his hot headedness and quick temper. What possessed him that night, we came to know of only a week later. Four letter words and curses were liberally flung at the prefects all of whom, with the exception of Joe Hiew, were innocent to the proceedings that night. In particular, I felt aggrieved at some of the things Yip Kok Keong (ex-PRES 2), who bore the brunt of Joe Hiew's attack, uttered. We were not close friends although for several years we travelled the same School Bus. But we were by no means enemies either as he lived near near Balraj's house in Lorong Cheong Yoke Choy close to Cochrane Road Secondary School and occasionally played hockey or soccer with us in Sri Ram's house compound.
With the arrival of Cikgu Othman, things calmed down and after about half an hour everyone headed home, exhausted and worn out by the shocking turn of events. The prefects were as shell-shocked as their classmates.
The next morning, a Saturday as I recall, the four of us - Indran, Balraj, Chee Keong and myself - met at the VIPB room as pre-planned to discuss the events of the preceding night. We still had no idea why Joe Hiew had behaved as un-prefectly as he had done. These were the days where there were no handphones and Joe Hiew did not have a telephone at home either. As we were discussing the issues, Mac, Zul, Kok Keong and Teong Choon crashed through the swing-doors demanding we produce Joe Hiew to "settle it". It dawned on us that as close as we were to Joe Hiew, none of us had ever visited him at his home and had no idea where he really lived - somewhere in Kepong or Jinjang. He had attended Batu Road School in primary and so the bonds were not that close.
We left it to Indran to calm down and sort out the interlopers who were all his classmates in Upper Six Arts1. By Monday morning the HM had been reprised of the fracas, and at the school assembly, Joe Hiew Heng Foo sank into VI history books as the first prefect to be sacked from the VIPB and School! Technically, it was Joe Hiew who sacked VI as he never returned to collect his leaving certificate; he could not be bothered as he burnt his bridges for good.
A week later, we met Joe Hiew at his home where he spilled his guts out. He had planned it meticulously all by himself. Firstly, he was quitting school and running away from home because of a deep rift with his wayward father with whom he had come to blows. None of us remotely suspected the kind of domestic strife that was tearing his life apart. He planned to make it to Singapore, join a merchant ship and thereafter leave it to the fates. His assault on his schoolmates was in retaliation for what he perceived as their 'disrespect' for VI traditions and hallowed institutions and unnecessary slights and insults to prefects who could not and would not respond in kind.
My heart bleeds even now when I think about Joe Hiews' enforced departure from the school he loved so much. Haven't we all been there sometime in our lives? Cornered, trapped by circumstances that no one should have to face, especially a 19-year old from a not so wealthy background? Joe let on that he and his brothers had to work the pasar malam routine to make ends meet and protect their mother! You hope and pray that someone, a guardian angel, a good samaritan, anyone will offer a solution or helping hand. And nothing arrives. So, you strike out on your own and put it down to the school of life. Oh, and it was cruel. Why did he not talk to one of the more approachable and sympathetic teachers who knew him, like Cikgu Othman or Mrs. Teoh, or even HM Soma? Perhaps he did and nothing came of it, I don't know. But then again Joe Hiew was a 19-year old with a great deal of pride, an iron man who would not unload his personal problems on others.
And that was that and Joe Hiew disappeared from our radar screens until a class of 70/72 reunion in 2000.
And what was that fight all about in the end? Looking at Mac, Teong Choon, Zul and others who had paid their dues as well to VI, they could just as well all have been prefects, had the teachers and HM cast their nets a bit wider. And they were not lacking in the academic sense in any way either!
But there are some lovely postscript to the sad events of 1972 that makes this account of history worth the telling.
Firstly, I believe Yip Kok Keong felt the most aggrieved of all the victims and as a group, rightly or wrongly, they must have given HM Soma hell, perhaps even demanded the revival of the SU idea and abolishing the VIPB!! For once Soma responded as a mature father and HM should. He appointed Kok Keong Organizing Committee Chairman for the inaugural Teachers' Day which was held on 16th May 1972. Kok Keong, having responsibility thrust upon his shoulders, responded and performed with rare first-class distinction.
On the last day of the HSC exams, as the prefects sat in their room chatting about, glad the ordeal was finally over, in trudged Mac Yin Tee and Yap Teong Choon who proceeded to apologise and asked to 'let bygones be bygones'. We all shook hands and departed never to see each other again for a good 28 years. Mac and Teong Cheong were soon to head for NZ to further their studies. But I was glad Mac (and TC) had that kind of maturity. After all, we had known each other since 1960 and it was telling that in the end it was he who initiated a reconciliation and showed better sense than I who was not particularly conscious of the art of forgiving. It was an eye opener for me for sure, and sure as hell a humbling experience!
Sometime in 1997, I had missed lunch and starving, pulled my car over after spotting a mobile chee chong fan seller operating outside a coffee shop in Taman Maluri, KL where I lived. And lo and behold, who should I spot in the coffee shop but none other than Yip Kok Keong! We exchanged pleasantries and business cards as we both ate a belated lunch at 3.30 p.m. Before I could finish my snack, he excused himself off for an urgent appointment and paid my bill as well on the way out! I found out he was MD of Shellcard (then, now retired) and we kept in touch and met up at a couple of VI class of 70/72 gatherings as we did with Teong Choon. The unpleasant memories of 1972 had faded away.
Zul Rafique finally made it to one of our gatherings last year when Michael Nettleton graced KL again. So did (Dato) YapTeong Choon, now a well known corporate figure in KL, who has attended several of our reunions without much persuasion and joined wholeheartedly in the revelry. Zul was genuinely appreciative of our efforts to bring together the old boys and we met Zul again in honour of Balwant Singh from UK, Zaleha and 'Bo' Fatimah for high tea in KL Sentral, organized by Abdul Jalil last year, attended too by Jaccob, Abdul Hamid and Raja Nong Chik and a few other like Teoh Siang Chin, Foo Chi Chean and 'Elvis' Foo Kok Fee!
Again sometime last year, I called up Mac in Perth to get hold of the telephone number of his first cousin Mac Kean Boon who had also been my classmate way back in 1961 through to F5 in VI. Glad to say Kean Boon is a consultant anaesthesiologist in Melbourne. Last I spoke to him, he was heading to Turkey for a holiday. Then Mac Yin Tee called me up one fine morning for Indran's phone number and also mentioned he needed to mend more bridges with Viji Nadarajah.
And what of Joe Hiew who nailed his colours to the mast with his 'never say die' attitude in Rugby and once commanded awe-inspiring respect from his peers as well as those in the lower Forms? We ran into him in 2000 at the VI Class of 70/72 reunion at the RSC. He had married and put on some kilos in the appropriate areas. In the intervening years, he had sailed the seven seas before forming his own apparently quite successful marine rescue and salvaging company. His re-face off with Teong Choon did not go off too well, though. Recently, I read a post from Tan Chai on Face Book about Joe having a grandchild.
And that's it for now. Our lives and paths have crossed and re-crossed, whether by design or pure random chance, and whether there is any esoteric meaning to it all, I don't know. But as a group with some common history, we have all emerged successful, some more than others. We have forgiven and moved on. We have shown that we care, and that my friends is the mark of the true Victorian! It is my good fortune to have known you all.