The nation-makers without a peer
By Yunus Raiss

SOME people said it was a waste of money to send Malaysians to train in England as teachers. In the early 50s such a reaction would have been exceptional, but by the 60s there were clear demands to close the two training colleges for economic reasons.

The first group of 148 students were sent in the winter of 1951 to train at an emergency teacher-training college in a tiny hamlet about six miles from the city of Liverpool, called Kirkby Fields. The place was literally farm followed by farm. It had been a munitions factory in the Second World War. They sailed on S.S. Chusan on a 21-day journey.

The selection for the two-year training course at Kirkby looked for able candidates, with the potential for a degree course, who would on their return serve as teachers in the Education Department for at least five years.

Among those chosen were young men and women from rural areas and poor families, who could not have gone on to Higher Education unassisted. The good mix of candidates from well-off and educated families and the children of labourers and farmers produced a magical quality that benefited Malaysia in no small way.

Kirkbians can be expected to say that even God smiled on this pioneering educational programme that had a Malayan curriculum taught in England by well-qualified staff, most of whom were graduates from such universities as London, Oxford, Cambridge and Aberdeen.

The place was redolent with friendliness and open-minded discussions, high thinking and good manners. The content of the courses and the pedagogy were eye-openers for most of the trainees, who took home innovative approaches and a liberal attitude to learning. Education as a whole was elevated to a higher plane.

On Sept 15, a group of over 500 Kirkby teachers had a social get- together in Kuala Lumpur, with Tuanku Bainum, a former Kirkby teacher, as the guest of honour. It was a very happy occasion celebrating the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Kirkby.

Yet this momentous occasion seems to have passed by without some form of recognition of the invaluable service given by Kirkby (and later Brinsford Lodge) teachers towards building the nation.

The Ministry of Education seems to have regarded these teachers as sheep in sheep's-clothing with insufficient clout to be rewarded with official recognition for their service to the country.

They were not sheep. They were enthusiastic intellectual stalwarts who played a vital part in training the young to build the nation.

Until Kirkby-Brinsford Lodge started training teachers, the best schools had one or two Raffles graduates alongside the normal trained teachers. No Kampong school had a teacher who was a graduate or of near-graduate quality. Malay schools, of course, had SITC trained teachers.

Arriving at Kirkby or Brinsford Lodge was a unique experience at a time when very few people had the opportunity to fly to England. Going to either college was an exciting experience. Some students had the opportunity to go to the University of Malaya in Singapore or Queensland but chose England because it was England.

Besides improving their knowledge and honing their pedagogical skills, they learnt to view the world in a wider perspective. They came as raw young men and women gawky in gait, and returned home polished ladies and gentlemen with savoir faire.

They left a lasting legacy of good manners and friendship with the tutors, the people around the two colleges and, of course, the schools where they taught. They were excellent diplomats for Malaya and returned to Malaya as high commissioners for the good of the land.

Any sense of inferiority they might have had wore off soon after the first year. They could see their pivotal role in a global view of Malaya as a developing nation.

Those who had never been to a museum or an art gallery, heard an opera, seen a ballet, or even heard good English, took home a wealth of knowledge and culture that made them feel competent to inspire their pupils to aim for excellence in all things and to look forward to studying and working with confidence.

They gave their pupils the opportunity to develop their minds by encouraging them to inquire and seek, as opposed to merely regurgitating facts pumped into them by their teachers. They became models for the students in dress, manners and cultivation of the mind, and they fired their imaginations to do better and better for the greater good of the nation.

Of course, there were a few who failed to make the grade. And there were those who had become Mat Sallehs who would want only fish and chips with knives and forks. But such orang puteh were a rare breed.

It is a pity that the Ministry of Education regarded them as only slightly better than the ordinary teacher, both in terms of pay and other employment conditions. I hazard the guess that about a third of them left the profession to become lawyers, doctors, accountants, businessmen, diplomats and so on.

What a pity they were not given a better status to encourage them to stay on! If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys, as they say.

I could write a book about the educational contributions made to the nation by Kirkby-Brinsford Lodge teachers, but I must conclude my piece by one last observation that I consider has played a vital role in welding a Malaysian nation.

Raffles College and later the University of Malaya in Singapore were the only two institutions which made the students regard themselves as Malayans. Kirkby-Brinsford made every student feel, think and act as a Malayan. They were no longer Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Sikh or Eurasian. They were Malayans from a country called Malaya who presented a united front despite differences in appearance and speech.

Without the Malayan badge, there was no place for them in these institutes. They learnt one another's customs and traditions, forming an amalgam called Malaysian culture.

Creme de la Creme, they did their country proud while they were in the UK and contributed handsomely to educating the young for nation-building on their return. They were the harbingers of goodwill to all that still prevails.

Malaysian nationalism might have been at the back of their minds when the British decided to set up Malaysia Hall in London, and Kirkby College and Brinsford Lodge later. All three institutes were a counter-weight to the onslaught of the CTs.

Kirkby College and Brinsford Lodge were closed down more that three decades ago. Malaysia Hall is now sentenced to extinction in the name of economy.

Great teachers and nation makers, I salute thee on behalf of your country. You were truly the catalyst that produced Malaysia and Malaysians. You helped the country become rich and famous. Magnanimity from the Ministry of Education would have been a bright jewel in your crown.
Che sera sera!


The author is the Principal of Sels College, London.

New Straits Times 2* Sep 22, 2001 Opinion

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