This article (author: Ridzwan A Rahim) is taken from the New Straits Times 16 September.


RIDZWAN A. RAHIM meets the Kirkby-trained teachers who appeared on the Malaysia Airlines Merdeka TV commercial and listens as they reminisce about the heady days at the college shortly before Merdeka.

Front Page of Life & Times

THE group of smartly-dressed men and women meeting up at Starbucks Bangsar Village that Wednesday afternoon were not your usual yuppie type. For a start, they are in their 70s and may not necessarily like RM10 Frappuchinos! But with their cheerful and boisterous behaviour, they certainly didn’t look their age. One of them happens to be the mother of a top film director and another is a former MIC secretary-general.

If you had spent the recent National Day lazing at home watching TV — and which Malaysian didn’t? — you just might recognise their faces. A few of the Starbucks patrons that day certainly did. For these old-timers are the former Kirkby College teachers who appeared on the recent Malaysia Airlines Merdeka TV commercial.

It’s one of those ads that leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Using jittery 1950s video footages and faded black-and-white photographs, it portrays trainees at the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby (pronounced “Kirby”), Liverpool. Most appear happy while one apparently was overcome by homesickness.

Perhaps it’s the sepia tone that evoked that nice feeling. Maybe it’s the authentic-looking clip, complete with a short, 1950s-style Mat Salleh voiceover, that did the trick.

Whatever it may be, the ad managed to capture the adventurous spirit of the then young and good looking Malayans, who travelled to what must’ve been a strange land to do something very important for our young country.

Out of the 11 former teachers who appeared in the ad, I managed to get seven for this interview.

(L to R) Ramlah Ahmad, Chiam Tah Wen, (1954) G. Vadiveloo (1952), Inom Yon, Zainal Arshad (1954) Ooi Pi Tek (1953) & Ajmer Singh (1954).

Getting them together was fairly easy as they’re all retired; all I had to do was call them at their home. “Would you be able to attend an interview session tomorrow?” I asked. “Yes, tomorrow’s fine.”

Sigh, if only all reunions were that simple.

The seven were Ajmer Singh, 70, a former Federal Territory Tokoh Guru whose last position was principal of Sekolah Menengah Jalan Cochrane; Zainal Arshad Zainal Abidin, 69, who once served as Tourism Malaysia’s director of its London office; lawyer and politician Tan Sri Dato’ G. Vadiveloo, 73, who retired as President of the Malaysian Senate in 1995; Chiam Tah Wen, 69, a former Education Ministry principal assistant director who now consults for private higher education; Inom Yon, 71, who is the mother of Sepet director Yasmin Ahmad; Datin Ramlah Ahmad, a Mandarin-speaking Malay teacher who spent a good portion of her career at SRJK Perempuan Kuen Cheng; and Oi Pi Tek, 72, who retired as supervisor of special education of the State Education Department.

The old friends took the opportunity to catch up with each other. Ramlah demonstrated her still good grasp of Mandarin, throwing around a few phrases which only Chiam, Oi and my photographer May could understand and laugh about.

Apart from our parents, our teachers are probably the people closest to our hearts. Like the story of Apple Computer and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, who once revealed that, had it not been for a few teachers who were willing to spend some time with him, he would’ve ended up in jail.

When you’re growing up, Jobs said, a little course correction goes a long way.

The Kirkby teachers’ story though is about guiding the path of not just one man, but a whole nation that, at the time, was poised for independence.

How big a deal was it going to Kirkby at the time? Very. To begin with, not many people in this country got to go abroad. Only affluent people did. And every year, only the finest 150 from thousands of applicants were selected for the two-year course at Kirkby.

“A few months into teaching at Saint Michael’s government aided school, the headmaster asked me whether I would like to apply for a place in Kirkby,” said Ajmer. “I got a good recommendation from him and the next thing was to pass the interview by the orang putih.”

Once selected, these students would have to come face-to-face with a brave new world, some 13,000 kilometres away from their loved ones, at the tender age of 18 or 19.

And to further put things in perspective, this batch grew up during World War II when going to school was a privilege and life was generally tough.

“I grew up in Kedah and had to attend a private school because of the limited places in the government schools,” Ajmer told me. “The problem was, private schools only taught until Form 3, or they called it Standard 7 at the time, so I had to go to Penang to further my studies in Form 4 and Form 5.”

Between 1951 and 1962 when the college was operational, 1,500 teachers had been trained, including such luminaries as Vadiveloo, the Raja Permaisuri Perak Tuanku Bainun, Justice R.K. Nathan and Justice Datuk Hamid Said.

There’s also the story of DatoYunus Raiss, who left Malaysia in 1962 to pursue degree courses in London and subsequently set up his own English language school there.

Kirkby marked the first time any government of a country had established a teachers’ college for its own students in a far-off land. The question is why? Vadiveloo reckoned it was a stop-gap measure.

“Building a training college in this country would have taken a long time. And to recruit teachers and lecturers to train other teachers would require other personnel to man the college. Whereas there, you had a ready-made training college,” he explained.

That is, if it could be called a college in the first place. The site was a former WWII munitions factory. It was really a barracks with huge, black heating pipes running all over the place.

“It was a disappointment initially. But later on when we moved in to stay, we realised that although the building was dilapidated, the warmth and friendship of the students and the British people living around the area was first class,” said Chiam.

Inom chipped in, saying the students had many fond memories of that place, calling her time at the college the best two years of her life. “Every Saturday, there would be some informal dance!” she said, to the laughter of everyone at the table.

Kirkby was also just 11km from Anfield, home of the Liverpool football club. Most of the students were Liverpool supporters. Only Vadiveloo professed to supporting some other team (he’s with Everton, Liverpool’s next door neighbour).

They even got to appear on a film. Twelve of the Kirkbyites were selected to appear in A Town Like Alice starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch, and there was more to it than just getting starstruck.

“When we went to London, the producer told us that he would like to take us back home. We asked him what he meant by that? So he took us to Pinewood Studios and there was a replica of a Malay kampung, complete with ducks and chickens and old people sitting on the steps of the kampung house smoking rokok daun!” exclaimed Zainal.

“We later learnt that they were Malay sailors who had landed in Liverpool, married locals and settled there. Until today, that Malay community is still in Liverpool.”

But the highlight of their two-year stay there was the visit by the then chief minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, on Feb 7, 1956 for the announcement of the date of our country’s independence.

The Tunku told the group he decided to make the announcement there because they would soon become teachers and he thought they should be the first to know about it.

The students knew there was a reason to celebrate but were too young to fully understand the implication. “Later when we came back and saw the Union Jack coming down and Malaysian flag going up, then only we realised that, my God, we were spearheading education in the country,” said Zainal.

Back in KL, Vadiveloo remembered being one of those selected to be protocol officer for the event at Stadium Merdeka.

“About 40 or 50 of us were selected and trained over a period of two weeks to accompany all the foreign dignitaries,” he said, adding that he felt good escorting the VIPs to various functions in shiny new cars.

Few people can claim they were there when news about our nation’s independence first broke out. These former Kirkbyites can. Yet if you had met them in the street, they would look like any uncle and auntie you wouldn’t know had these wonderful stories to tell unless you happened to talk to them. And what a story they’d tell you then!

The making of ‘A Malaysian Story’

THE 2005 Malaysia Airlines Merdeka commercial titled A Malaysian Story, was the brainchild of advertising agency Leo Burnett.

“We sat down with the director, Al Isaac of Planet Film, to discuss how to best portray MAS’ role in the country’s independence,” said Alex Lim, Leo Burnett’s creative director.

Lim said they then hit upon the idea of Kirkby teachers, seeing how his own mother, Wong Poi Heng and Leo Burnett executive creative director and filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad’s mother are both Kirkbyites.

They then set about looking for contacts and old photographs. It helped that, in 2001, Kirkbyites had their biggest reunion ever, resulting in a database of names and contact details that Lim said they were able to access through the Internet.

Some of the scenes in the commercial were actually re-enacted using actors and props. Shooting was done over two days at various locations in KL, namely the old Subang Airport, outside DBKL and the Chinese Assembly Hall.

“The one with the girl looking out the plane window was recreated. There was no plane, we just built a sidewall for the shoot. The one with the homesick girl was also recreated,” Lim revealed.

But the rest of the footage, including the English voiceover from the 1950s, are real. The company obtained them from the National Archives.

Leo Burnett has built a reputation for making feel-good ads. Its previous ones, many of which were directed by Yasmin and have won the prestigious Kancil Award. These include the Petronas Hari Raya, Deepavali and Merdeka ads, and Tenaga Nasional ads.