Yes, sir, I’m from Kirkby

Posted on August 28, 2005 
Filed Under Features, Julian, The Star

Published in Star Education, The Star, August 28, 2005

The Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, Liverpool, existed for a short 11 years, between 1951-62, but changed the lives of its trainees and the nation forever, reports JULIAN MATTHEWS.

RETIRED headmaster Zainal Abidin Abdul Manaf, 72, leafs through a photograph album. In it are faded black and white photographs, some over 50 years old and no bigger than a matchbook, but neatly captioned by the fastidious Zainal. “That’s my mother and I on the train to KL before I boarded the plane,” said Zainal who, in his neat white shirt, had the brash look of a college freshman.

Andersonians At Kirkby
Kirkbyites from Anderson School, Ipoh at Kirkby. Note the huge, black heating pipes snaking their way through college. –-Photos courtesy of Zainal Abidin Manaf

Zainal was only 20 years old in 1953 when he was selected with five others from Anderson School in Ipoh, to attend a two-year course at the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, Liverpool.Between 1951 and 1962, 150 trainees from thousands of applicants were selected annually to attend Kirkby, a college set up specifically to meet the demand for trained teachers in Malaya back then (see sidebar Close to their hearts).

“At the time, going to Britain was something great,” said Zainal. “My parents were very proud and excited. We were given a RM500 allowance for clothing and we went to Whiteways (the only ready-made winter clothes store in Ipoh back then) and bought enough thick clothes for the two-year stay there,” he said.

Another Kirkbyite Tan Sri G. Vadiveloo said being selected was like “a dream come true.”

“I was elated. It was something special. My thinking then was that only the affluent went to London. How could an ordinary person like me go?”

The former president of the Malaysian Senate and one-time MIC secretary-general is the son of a Malayan Railways chargeman in Sentul.

”My brother and I were breadwinners for the family when the call to Kirkby came. Despite this, they gave me all the encouragement. The prestige of being ‘London-trained’ was there,” he said.

Plane jitters
The teacher trainees came from diverse backgrounds, from across Malaya. For the majority, it was their first time on a plane. “I was only 17 years old,” said Moira Hew, 68, who remembered they took off on a four-propeller British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) plane from Sungei Besi airport.

“It was the first time I’d seen an aeroplane, let alone been in one!” Hew confessed she fainted when she got on board and had to be revived.

“All of us were excited and laughing but on take-off everyone was quiet; some were even praying,” recalled Zainal. The plane to London stopped at “exotic” cities for the occupants like Rangoon, Calcutta, Karachi, Nicosia (Cyprus) and Rome.

“I remember seeing grapes for the first time at a restaurant during a stopover in Rome,” said Datin Ramlah Ahmad. “I also insisted on having Turkish coffee there; I remember how bitter it was,” she laughed. After the four- or five-day journey, the trainees made their way to Kirkby, 340km from London.

Zainal at Kirkby
Everyone celebrated each other’s festivals and there was no racial divide.

Early letdown
Liverpool in the 50s was austere and bleak. Kirkby was even more of a let down.

“We expected Kirkby to be a grand building. But when we reached there, we were disappointed. It consisted of barracks with huge, black heating pipes running all over the place,” said Zainal.

But they quickly cheered up when they found out it had central heating. “Everything was supplied. The heater was first class. We had British maids to clean the room, sweep the floor and clean the toilets,” said Zainal.

He said initially they felt slightly fearful of their hosts given their colonial history. “But they were friendly and hospitable, and we got to know them all – even the gardener,” he said.

The Kirkby freshies quickly adapted to their new surroundings, which became affectionately known as Kampung Kirkby. Hew recalled: “We learnt a lot under the guidance of our seniors and lecturers, and have great affection for them till today. We were one happy family.”

“There was no racial divide back then,” recalled Lim Hock Nee. “We were all Malayans, and we all spoke the Queen’s English.”

Educationist Tan Sri Yahaya Ibrahim said there was a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood in Kirkby because they ate, lived, played and attended classes together. “We were put in a country with a different climate and different people. But we were Malayans and we felt like we belonged.”

In an article about the pioneering teachers of Kirkby, Yunus Raiss, a Kirkbyite who is now the principal of Sels College, London, wrote: “The place was redolent with friendliness, open-minded discussions, and good manners. The courses were eye-openers for the trainees, who took home innovative approaches and a liberal attitude to learning. Education as a whole was elevated to a higher plane.”

Fun times
A requirement of the course was to teach for two or three weeks in schools in the Liverpool area. Othman Dahlan recalled that their appearance and fluency in English were a novelty to the children. “This was just after the war and poverty was still apparent,” he said.

“The schools lacked facilities, and the children came from families struggling to get by. We were told that if we could teach these poor children from the docks of Liverpool, we could teach anywhere.”

Kirkby students were encouraged to take up a variety of games, sports and extra-curricular activities including music and folk dancing.

Performing at the National Union of Students Festival in London.

Retired teacher Jamil Halim remembered performing at the Royal Albert Hall. “We were the first – even before Siti Nurhaliza,” said Jamil, a drummer who took part in a cultural presentation for the National Union of Students Festival at the famous hall in 1954.

Vadiveloo, who was active in football and hockey, remembered playing against local teams and watching games along with the local working class at Goodison Park. He is still an Everton fan, as opposed to many Kirkbyites who became Liverpool fans.

Every year, the Kirkby students organised plays and cultural shows which were well-received by the townsfolk. Missing home, they made a special effort to celebrate festivals like Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Christmas together.

“There was mutual respect for each other’s religions. We also tried to learn each other’s songs in Malay, Chinese or Tamil,” said Vadiveloo. “We were close-knit and there were no racial remarks, cliques, or the polarisation we see today.”

During term breaks, they went on tours either independently or organised by the British Council around Europe. “I went hitch-hiking around Scotland and Ireland with two girlfriends,” said Moira Hew. “It was great fun and very safe back then.”

Return to Malaysia
After the “highs” of England, many of the Kirkby graduates returned to Malaya only to be posted to rural schools. “It was a cultural shock for us when we were posted to rural schools,” said lecturer and author Dr Shaari Isa, who was first posted to Tanjung Malim. “But we were prepared for the challenges.”

Zainal was posted to Bota Kanan in Perak. “I felt very down when I first went there. There was no electricity and we had to get water from a 21-foot well,” he said.

“You can imagine how I felt, after being in England and visiting France, Germany and Switzerland. My eyes were opened, only to be shut again.” Zainal said the school was a wooden structure with zinc roofs, and had only four classes with 150 students. Despite initial misgivings, he stuck it out for three years and eight months and was appointed headmaster.

Wordly-wise and confident
Hew did not mind being posted to a rural school outside Ipoh. “I enjoyed teaching the pupils,” she said. It was in one of these schools that Hew was immortalised by a student, Mohammad Nor Khalid, better known as Lat, as a returning character in his cartoon strips.

“I am proud to say that I’m the fierce, horn-rimmed bespectacled teacher Lat often draws,” she said.

Over 1,500 teachers and 300 teacher-trainers were trained at Kirkby. The returning teachers were mature for their age and this showed in their teaching. They were major contributors to the education system when “Malaysianisation” took place and the British withdrew. They touched many lives.

“Our Kirkby experience gave us confidence. We took up the challenges presented to us,” said Othman. Vadiveloo said Kirkby broadened his outlook on life. “When we went there, we became aware of the opportunities and we shared this experience with every student we taught. If you work hard, there is nothing you cannot achieve. That is the Kirkby experience.”

Side bar: Close to their hearts


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