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Kampung Kirkby first to hear of Merdeka date

ON a chilly winter’s day on Feb 7 1956, about 300 students of the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, Liverpool, were told to assemble in the hall to receive a Malayan delegation from London. 

The students, aged between 17 and 21, had no inkling they were about to become a part of history. 

PRECIOUS MEMORIES: The significance of the Kirkby announcement in February 1956 only struck Chiam much later at a rally on Aug 31, 1957 in Kuala Lumpur.
“Every time a dignitary came, it was customary for us to dress up in our traditional finest,” recalls Chiam Tah Wen, a Kirkby student then.  

“That day the ladies were in their sarong kebaya, cheongsam, saree and Punjabi costumes and we were smartly dressed in our college blazers or baju melayu and songkok. The hall was decorated with various state and Federation of Malaya flags.” 

According to The Panduan, the college magazine at the time, the students and staff had “taken great pains” to decorate the compound. “Palm trees and potted flower plants lined the entrance. Flags and buntings adorned the hall. And all the students had put on their best multi-coloured national dresses ?” 

Moments later, black Humber Super Snipe limousines decorated with flags drew up at the hall. The then Chief Minister of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman and the then Education Minister Datuk (later Tun) Abdul Razak alighted from them. 

Tunku had taken the 340km journey up from London, fresh from meetings with the British government. 

Ajmer: 'The friendship that we had there was something unique'
“On stage, Tunku said the talks had gone well,” says Chiam. “He then made the announcement that we would be getting our independence and the date would be Aug 31, 1957. 

“There was a roar in the hall and we all clapped and cheered. Tunku then cried ‘Merdeka!’ and we all stood up and shouted ‘Merdeka!’ at least three times. Even the ‘orang puteh’ lecturers stood up and cheered along. It was a very exciting moment.”  

It was perhaps the first time the cries of “Merdeka!” had ever been heard on British soil. 

Hew: 'We were a very genuinely happy, multi-racial family'
“I think we were too young to know the implications of that day,” said Zainal Arshad, 70, who was in Kirkby from 1954-56 and remembers the hall erupting and the euphoria of the moment when the announcement was made.  

“We didn’t understand what independence meant. I was only 20 years old back then. We only knew it was a happy occasion and we had reason to be proud,” said Zainal. 

Chiam says it was only after he graduated, returned to Malaya, and later took part in the rally on Aug 31, 1957, in Kuala Lumpur that the significance of the event dawned on him.  

“When I heard Tunku repeat the Merdeka cry in front of thousands in Kuala Lumpur, it struck me emotionally. Especially when I recalled the incident in Kirkby, over a year and a half earlier. Then I knew what independence meant,” he says. 

Ajmer Singh, 70, who was on the Kirkby Students’ Council at the time, says Tunku’s announcement came as a complete surprise to everyone in the hall. 

Zainal: 'I think we were too young to know the implications of that day'
“When we left Malaya we had no idea we would get independence that fast,” he says. 

He recalls that in his speech, Tunku had specifically said that special effort had been made to send the students to the United Kingdom because the government wanted teachers “to have more knowledge of the world and be broad-minded”. 

“Tun Razak also gave an interesting speech about education. He told us that if we worked hard there would be a lot of opportunities in the future,” says Ajmer, a former headmaster of Cochrane Road School in Kuala Lumpur. 

Chiam, Zainal and Ajmer were among over 1,500 selected students trained at Kirkby between 1951-1962. Over 300 teachers, some of them returning graduates, were also trained to be teacher-trainers there before it was shut down. 

Kirkby was a pioneering effort on the part of the Malayan government and the British Colonial Office to Malaya to meet the urgent need for trained teachers in the country after World War 2, particularly in rural areas.  

It was the first time a foreign country had set up a college for teachers in Britain. The students were sent in batches of 150 every year for two-year courses.  

The returning graduates, along with those from Brinsford Lodge, in Wolverhampton, played a major role in developing Malaysia’s early education system and, as dedicated teachers, touched many lives. 

Kirkby alumni Moira Hew Lee Siew San, 68, recalls her time there as “the happiest two years of her life”. 

“Kirkby means a lot to me. We were a very genuinely happy, multi-racial family,” she says. 

Another Kirkbyite, former corporate figure and anti-corruption advocate Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim, says his best memory of “Kampung Kirkby”, as it was known, was “that there was a complete lack of consciousness of race”. 

“No one was Indian, Malay, Chinese, Sikh or Eurasian. We were all Malayans. That is etched in our collective memories,” he says. 

Ajmer echoes that sentiment: “The friendship that we had there was something unique. I do not remember any institution where you had this kind of feeling among students. Having come from different communities, we became such good friends and we were brothers and sisters there.” 

Ajmer says that on his return, he remembers going to a local college for a specialist course and expecting the same warmth. 

“It just wasn’t there. If the kind of spirit we kindled in Kirkby could prevail on a larger scale, unity and interaction among the communities would be much easier today.”  

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