Kampung Kirkby First To Hear Of Merdeka Date

Posted on August 31, 2005 
Filed Under Features, Julian, The Star

By Julian Matthews
Published in The Star Merdeka Supplement, August 31, 2005

On a chilly winter’s day on February 7, 1956, about 300 students of 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 at that time they were about to become a part of history.

“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 kebayas, cheongsams, sarees 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,” said Chiam.

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.

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, beflagged black Humber Super Snipe limousines drew up at the hall. Alighting from them were the then Chief Minister of Malaya Tunku Abdul Rahman and the then Education Minister Dato’ Abdul Razak.

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

“When Tunku’s turn came on stage, he said the talks had went well,” said Chiam. “He then made the announcement that we would be getting our independence and the date was August 31st, 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 very loudly in return ‘Merdeka!’ at least three times. Even the ‘orang puteh‘ lecturers stood up and cheered along. It was a very exciting moment,” he said.

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

Zainal: ‘I think we were too young to know the implications of that day’

“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 said it was only after he graduated, returned to Malaya, and later took part in the rally on Aug 31st, 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, then it struck me emotionally. Especially recalling the incident in Kirkby, over a year and a half earlier. Then I knew what independence meant,” he said.

Ajmer Singh, 70, who was on the Kirkby Students’ Council at the time, said Tunku’s announcement came as a complete surprise to everyone in the hall. “When we left Malaya we had no idea we would get independence that fast,” he said.

Ajmer: ‘The friendship that we had there was something unique’

He recalls 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 if we worked hard there would be a lot of opportunities in the future,” said Ajmer, a former headmaster of Cochrane Road School in Kuala Lumpur.

Chiam, Zainal and Ajmer were among about 1,500 selected students trained at Kirkby between 1951-1962. Over 300 teachers, some of then 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.

Hew: ‘We were a very genuinely happy, multi-racial family’

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 said.

Another Kirkbyite, former corporate figure and anti-corruption advocate Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim said 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 said.

Ajmer echoed 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 said 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.”

Newspaper And Souvenir Booklets Report The ‘Scoop’
IT may well have remained a footnote in the history books, if not for the memories of 70-year-old Kirkbyites who remember that day well. The story is oft-repeated whenever a reunion of Kirkby alumni is held for the 1954-56 and 1955-57 batches.

Souvenir booklets for these reunions often reprint documents that verify the event.

An article in the Liverpool Daily Post, dated Feb 8, 1956, shows two photographs. One is of the late Tunku Abdul Rahman surrounded by Kirkby students, with some wearing songkok and the others in greased hairstyles and spectacles that can pass off as fashionable today.

The other shows then Malayan Minister of Education, the late Tun Abdul Razak, with his receding hairline and distinctive jowls signing autographs for smiling students.

An excerpt states: “It was appropriate that the announcement should have been made first to Malayan students, for an independent Malaya belongs to the young…and much will depend …on how the young generation of the country use the new…opportunities.”

The Golden Panduan, a 50th anniversary commemorative album, has an uncredited story entitled Merdeka! Kirkbyites Get the Scoop quoting Tunku thus:

“I can now make the disclosure that I have just returned from the Constitutional talks with the Government of Her Majesty.

“The talks went off very well indeed – so well, in fact, what we had set our minds to get, we got. Other matters which we discussed have been settled amicably. The talks began in an atmosphere of friendliness and cordiality and ended on that very happy note yesterday afternoon.”

A beaming Tunku then announced, for the first time to the world, that Merdeka would be on August 31st 1957. The jubilant students, standing up immediately, began clapping and enthusiastically shouting, “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” amidst a battery of flashing cameras and whirring cine film gadgets of all sizes.

When the clapping and shouts of joy had somewhat subsided, the Tunku, smiling broadly, told the students, “I knew you would be happy to hear it.”

Speaking without notes, the charismatic Prince told the audience that when he and his team had first set out from Malaya there had been two parties – those representing the Alliance, and those representing the Rulers. But, by the time they had arrived in England, there were not two parties but one.

“We had reached London determined to obtain self-government and independence, and had been prepared to quarrel about it.

“But, after the talks had gone on for no more than a day, we found that we had won over Her Majesty’s Government to our side,” added the Tunku.

When the intermittent clapping and cries of jubilance had stopped, the Tunku continued, “Important tasks still lie ahead. Our independence is won. We must retain it at all costs.”

“We had worked hard to get it. We must work very much harder to retain it. We have enemies all around us. There are also enemies within.”

The article continues that although the students and staff had been told in advance of the impending visit of the Tunku and his party, no one had the slightest inclination that the Tunku would make such a historic announcement there.

The next day, the Independence of Malaya Agreement was inked in London coinciding with Tunku’s 53rd birthday.

On Feb 20, 1956, on his return to Malaya, Tunku announced the date in front of a mammoth rally in Bandar Hilir, Malacca, on Malaysian shores for the first time.

Autograph Book Holds Rare Signature And Fond Memories
RETIRED teacher Madam Lim Hock Nee, 68, holds an autograph book she has had for over five decades.

In it is a rare signature – “Rahman” – which can be clearly made out in faded blue fountain pen ink, and dated Feb 7, 1956. “When I heard Tunku Abdul Rahman was visiting Kirkby, I made sure I had my autograph book with me,” she recalls.

“I made my way through a roomful of people and asked for his autograph. I don’t know how I had the courage to do that, but I did!” Mdm Lim was only 18 back then and attending the two-year teacher’s training course at the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, near Liverpool.

She adds that she collected autographs from as many people as she could from Tunku’s entourage. “It was a large entourage and I did my best to note the names and dates of each autograph.”

Lim started up the autograph book as a Sixth Form student at St Michael’s Institution (SMI) in Ipoh and collected autographs from her peers, teachers and La Salle brothers back then.

It was a natural thing for her to pack the autograph book along with her to Kirkby as the little green book held fond memories of her student days.

Other autographs Lim has in the book are of her former mentors including the late Brother Ultan Paul (SMI), the late G. J. Gurney (Kirkby principal) and Professor Khoo Kay Kim.

Lim returned to Kirkby for a oneyear teacher-trainer course in 1962. On Dec 7 that year, as a member of the students’ council, she gave a farewell speech marking the closure of the college.

“I remember breaking down during the speech. It was a very emotional moment. The college was closing down after 11 years,” she says.

An excerpt of her speech, which she still has, reads: “After 11 years, this bold experiment, unprecedented in the annals of education, is coming to an end. We are sorry to leave this institution, which … has produced many good sons and daughters who are now spread all over Malaya.

“Yet, I am sure in the heart of every teacher trained in Kirkby are memories of a very pleasant stay of the warmth and hospitality of the English homes, and a sense of dedication which Kirkby, under the guidance of … the Principal and the staff, has instilled in (us).”

Lim says that as teachers, they were driven by a passion and a responsibility towards students back then.

“The closing of the college was not an end but a beginning for us to come back to teach and to live up to the trust that the Malayan public and the people of Merseyside had in us.”

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