When we were in Standard Three, our class teacher was Mr. Yap (can’t remember his full name) and he was our English teacher. He must be in his mid twenties, kind person and never scolded any one of us. We had one year learning the English language in Standard One but somehow we still could not speak in proper English (I was promoted from Std One to Std Three). When we were in Standard Three, Mr. Yap wanted to make sure that we should be able to converse in the English language and he was adamant. He told all of us that during every English lesson, we were to speak only the English language even among ourselves. The Malay students must converse in English to each other and not in our mother tongue and so were the Chinese and the Indian students. If any of us was found speaking in the language of our mother tongue, the punishment was to stand up on the chair till the end of the lesson. Standing on a chair could be the most embarrassing moment while the class was in session. Those passing by noticing you standing on a chair would surely laugh at you and so none of us wanted to be in this embarrassing situation.
Each of the classes of Standard One chose ten students to be promoted to Standard Three and in this class all of us were in our second year of schooling. Many of us could not catch up with standard of learning including me.
In Standard Three means we were only eight years old and now were going to be like the Englishmen, talking to each other in English whenever the English lesson was conducted. It was in the year 1958.
Mr. Yap arrived and as he stepped into the class, all of us stood up and said:
“Good afternoon teacher”. Mr. Yap nodded and sat at his table facing all of us.
(I don’t remember many of the names of my classmates, the names I will be mentioning therefore are fictitious but the narration of this story are true).
“Boys, today I am going to call your name one by one and when your name is called, please stand up. Then I am going to ask you some questions about yourself and you will try to answer all my questions”, Mr. Yap began his English lesson as he slowly stood up and started walking besides the blackboard. Then he approached his table and opened the registration book where all our names were written on it. He could not possibly remember all our names as he was still new as our class teacher.
“Yaacob bin Abdul Kadir”, began Mr. Yap.
Yaacob then stood up standing very straight and smiling wide showing off his two front teeth missing. Both his hands were straight by the side with the fingers pointing downwards. He was like a new police recruit. His hair was center parting, in fact most of us had our hair parted at the center.
“What is your name?” Yaacob knew the answer and immediately answered his teacher with such great confidence. “Yaacob”, shouted the boy still standing straight looking at Mr. Yap.
“No, no, you must not answer that way”, Mr. Yap said in a soft tone. “This is how you should answer…My name is Yaacob bin Abdul Kadir”, explained Mr. Yap. The boy understood and nodded still smiling showing off his missing front teeth.
Mr. Yap then repeated his question and Yaacob answered it very well. “Very good, and now what is your father’s name?” continued Mr. Yap.
“My father (he pronounced it ‘Farder’) name Kadir”, answered the boy. Again Mr. Yap corrected Yaacob the way to answer the second question. This time he went to the blackboard and wrote the apostrophe s after the word ‘father’. Some of us understood the need to pronounce the apostrophe but it took quite sometime for some others to mention the correct way. This were the first two questions Mr. Yap asked some of the students. Then he began with his new question and called Lee Kok Chai.
Kok Chai stood up and was seemed ready to answer.
“Where do you live?” asked Mr. Yap.
“In a shop, downstairs got coffee shop”, answered Kok Chai candidly.
Mr. Yap smiled and walked slowly looking at the floor. “When someone asked you this question, you must answer first with the proper address of the place you are staying. You can describe about the place after that.” explained Mr. Yap to Lee Kok Chai.
In the beginning we were quite nervous and as the lesson began to take its momentum, we began to like the lesson. Mr. Yap was a fine teacher and he conducted his English lesson in the proper way suitable for students our age. Later we learned many things from him like the present tense and the past tense; noun, verb and adjective and few others. He gave us few home works writing very short articles about ourselves, what we liked and even what we normally ate for lunch and dinner at home. Those students who wrote them well would be commended and their articles read by him to us students.
Mr. Yap kept on reminding us the need to be able to converse in the English language and suggested that we kept on speaking the language even during our interval, while playing on the field and if possible even at home.
At home I tried to converse with my three ‘sisters’ in English. Both Kak Arah and Kak Fuzi were schooling at the Sekolah Abu Bakar Girls’ School (SABGS) while Kak Shidah at the Convent.
“Come and go to the shop”, I asked Kak Fuzi who always accompanied me going to the mamak sundry shop. “Okay”, replied Kak Fuzi. She always answered me by just saying “okay” and everything seemed okay until one day when I asked her whether we could play the congkak together? This time she answered me more precisely, “No, I want to go to berak”. As she ran to the toilet behind our house, she shouted at me, “Din, orang putih kata berak apa?”. I could not answer her as I’ve not learned this word yet.
Our English improved quite good when we reached Standard Four. We read our History lesson in English, our Geography lesson and our Arithmetic. Somehow we did not heed the message of our Mr. Yap and we still converse in our mother tongue among ourselves. I noticed the Chinese students were quite obedient to Mr. Yap’s suggestion and some of them spoke the language among themselves even during the interval at the tuck shop. But the Indian students were more proficient in the English language because some of them spoke the language with their parents at home.
We had one Chinese teacher by the name of Mister John Tan and he taught us General Knowledge. Mister Tan liked to tell us lots of stories and most of the stories were about his hunting trips in the jungle. He would tell us about the tigers, the snakes and even about some monkeys. I liked to listen to all his stories and maybe from him that I learned how to tell stories. Obviously he spoke in the English language when telling these stories and because we all liked the way he relate the stories, we understood every word spoken by him and eventually understood the stories.
At home I never spoke the language but read quite a lot of English books and most of them were in simple English. The comics too were all in English because during my time there were not many comics written in the Malay language. The only Malay comics available in Muar town were those drawn by Raja Hamzah.
When I began my secondary school at the Muar High School, my English began to improve more and we had a very good English teacher by the name of Mister Subramaniam. My classmates were one hundred percent Malays when I was in Form One and almost half of them came from the remote areas like Panchor, Pagoh, Tanjung Agas and some from the parits. Some of them could speak good English better than the town boys like me. There were however few who could hardly converse in the language but somehow they learned very fast. These kampong boys were better students than most of the town boys. One boy from Pagoh named Ramlee Yassir (his real name) made it and became successful in his later years.
In spite of having some improvement in my English, there were some words I still could not understand and that was the reason I wrote ‘You’re the devil in the sky’ instead of disguise when I copied the song over the radio. Whenever we organized house parties, we termed the one we organized in April as our First Anniversary and the one in August as our Second Anniversary and in December it was our Third Anniversary. We didn’t know what anniversary was in the first place.
One day Mister Subramaniam had to go to the toilet while teaching us the English lesson and told us to read our books while he was away. One boy by the name of Othman Sinapon (real name) took his dictionary and read the book. When Mister Subramaniam returned he noticed Othman reading a dictionary. He smiled at Othman and said to us all, ‘Boys, this boy is reading a dictionary’. Othman was so embarrassed and covered his face with the dictionary.
The only time I spoke the English language was when I conversed with my non-Malay friends and classmates and we only had them when I was in Form Four. I had few Chinese and Indian classmates and one Portuguese by the name of Walter Alfred Lopez who hailed from Malacca. He was perhaps the only one who could speak the language well and that’s probably the only language he spoke among his family members.
One day I asked Lopez the meaning of the word psycho ( I pronounced it pis cho ) and so I called him, Hey kueh lopes, what is the meaning of psycho? He would be very annoyed whenever I called him kueh lopes. He answered by telling me, very simple, it means gila people like you lah.
In spite of not being able to converse in English well, I never failed in my English papers. Perhaps my frequent reading helped me a lot. I would surely fail in my Mathematics and my Physics and that’s because I was always dumb in numbers and solving whatever formulas mathematics could offer. I always failed in my Physics and I blamed the American Peace Corp who taught us the subject because he talked exactly like John Wayne.
We Malaysian speak the English language the way we like it for as long as the one we spoke to understand it. Once my office mate told me to return a call to Mr. Wong and this is how he said it, Encik Kamaruddin, Mister Wong call me to call you to call him. A businessman once told me ‘nowadays aah, all banks are very susah to give you loan unless you have cholesterol’ (what he meant was ‘collaterals’). What is important to us Malaysians is we understand each other when we speak the English language.
Language too sometime evolve according to time. Some Malays used the peculiar words of unsangkarable and mengencouragekan literally it means ‘unexpected’ and ‘to encourage’ respectively. We all learn the language our way and I will always remember my English teachers especially Mister Yap from the Sekolah Ismail School Two and Mister Subramaniam from the Muar High School.
Thank you to you both my dear English teachers.