Friday, 14 December 2018

Four Secretaries of State??

I was watching the first episode of Madam Secretary's fifth season when this scene jumped out from my television set: a meeting between a fictitious Secretary of State of the United States and three of her real-life predecessors, if I can describe it as such. Colin Luther Powell (2001-2005), Hillary Rodham Clinton (2009-2013) and Madeleine Korbel Albright (1997-2001).

Which begats the question: in the history of the United States, how many former Secretaries of State were eventually elected to the White House as President? Answer: only six out of a long line of 69. It is a rarified membership comprising Thomas Jefferson (SS: 1790-1793) (P: 1801-1809), James Madison (SS: 1801-1809) (P: 1809-1817), James Monroe (SS: 1811-1817) (P: 1817-1825), John Quincy Adams (SS: 1817-1825) (P: 1825-1829), Martin Van Buren (SS: 1829-1831) (P: 1837-1841) and James Buchanan Jr (SS: 1845-1849) (P: 1857-1861). None of the modern-day Secretaries of State made it to the White House. Only Hillary Clinton came close.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Three-fold repetition of position

It's hard work being an arbiter. You never know when the players - or worse still, someone from the organising committee - will throw you a curve ball. Take for example, the dispute over the three-fold repetition of position in the seventh round of the recent Penang heritage city international open chess championship.

In this crucial game, after about three hours of play, Emmanuel Senador, the international master from the Philippines called for an arbiter and informed him of his intended move which would repeat the position on the chess board for the third time, thus allowing him to claim for a draw through repetition of position.

Photo by Andrew Ooi
Two arbiters went on stage, Michael Yeap and Jonathan Chuah. After playing through the game, Jonathan said no, there had not been any three-fold repetition of position by the same player. The game continued but Senador was upset and he soon lost the game to his opponent.

The argument continued after the game was over. According to Jonathan, Senador said he was embarrassed by the decision not to give him the draw. He was an international master, he said, and he knew all the chess rules. And he was very certain that the position had been repeated three times.

Anyhow, he complained to the secretary of the Penang Chess Association who decided to side with the Filipino player. She insisted that there was a three-fold repetition of position and she even sent Jonathan a highlighted excerpt of the Fide rules of chess (Article 9.2.1) which read:
9.2.1 The game is drawn, upon a correct claim by a player having the move, when the same position for at least the third time (not necessarily by a repetition of moves): is about to appear, if he first writes his move, which cannot be changed, on his scoresheet and declares to the arbiter his intention to make this move, or has just appeared, and the player claiming the draw has the move.
But what exactly was meant by "same position"? She took it to mean the same position appearing on the chess board three times. Jonathan said that was not sufficient. That Article 9.2.1 must be read together with the next Article 9.2.2 which defined the term "same position". Let me repeat that: Article 9.2.1 must be read together with Article 9.2.2:
9.2.2 Positions are considered the same if and only if the same player has the move, pieces of the same kind and colour occupy the same squares and the possible moves of all the pieces of both players are the same. Thus positions are not the same if: at the start of the sequence a pawn could have been captured en passant a king had castling rights with a rook that has not been moved, but forfeited these after moving. The castling rights are lost only after the king or rook is moved.
Jonathan asked for my opinion and I told him that he was correct. "Same position" would mean the same player having the move each time the position was repeated, and all the other conditions having been met. If Senador's opponent had the move when the position came up the first time, he must also have the move when the position appeared the second time and the third time. But it was not. When the score sheet was checked, it was Senador who had the move when the position appeared the second time, not his opponent. And it was Senador who was going to have the move again going into the third time.

Refer this to your Chief Arbiter, I suggested to Jonathan. And he did. And Hamid Majid went through the game, very meticulously, and arrived at the same conclusion as us. No three-fold repetition of the position. Period. Here is the game in question:

[Event "10th Penang Heritage City International "]
[Site "Red Rock Hotel, Penang, Malays"]
[Date "2018.12.07"]
[Round "7.2"]
[White "Senador, Emmanuel"]
[Black "Kurniawan, Muhamad Agus"]
[Result "0-1"]
[ECO "A00"]
[WhiteElo "2322"]
[BlackElo "2258"]
[PlyCount "146"]
[EventDate "2018.12.03"]
[EventRounds "9"]
[EventCountry "MAS"]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. Qe2 Qe7 6. d3 Nf6 7. Bg5 Qxe2+ 8. Bxe2 Be7 9. Nc3 c6 10. O-O-O h6 11. Bf4 d5 12. Rhe1 O-O 13. h3 Bc5 14. d4 Bb4 15. Bd3 Be6 16. Re3 Bxc3 17. bxc3 Nbd7 18. Be5 Ne4 19. Bxe4 dxe4 20. Rxe4 Bxa2 21. Bd6 Rfe8 22. Rde1 Rxe4 23. Rxe4 Be6 24. Nd2 b5 25. g4 a5 26. f4 a4 27. f5 Bd5 28. Re7 Nf6 29. Ba3 Re8 30. Rxe8+ Nxe8 31. h4 Nf6 32. g5 hxg5 33. hxg5 Nh7 34. Be7 g6 35. Nf1 gxf5 36. Ng3 Kg7 37. Nh5+ Kg8 38. Kd2 Bf3 39. Nf4 Nf8 40. c4 bxc4 41. Ke3 Be4 42. c3 Nd7 43. Kd2 Kh7 44. Ke3 Kh8 45. Kd2 Kg8 46. Ke3 Kh7 47. Kd2 Nb8 48. Bd6 Nd7 49. Be7 Bh1 50. Ke3 Nb6 51. Kd2 Be4 52. Bc5 Na8 53. Bd6 Bh1 54. Kc1 Bd5 55. Kd2 Be4 56. Kc1 Kg8 57. Kd2 f6 58. g6 Kg7 59. Kc1 Nb6 60. Kd2 Nd5 61. Nxd5 cxd5 62. Ke3 Kxg6 63. Kf4 Kh6 64. Kg3 Kh5 65. Ba3 f4+ 66. Kxf4 Kh4 67. Bd6 Kh3 68. Ke3 Kg2 69. Ba3 Kf1 70. Kd2 f5 71. Bd6 Kf2 72. Ba3 f4 73. Bd6 f3 0-1

This was the position after Black had moved 43...Kh7. The first time that the position had turned up on the chess board. White to move next.
This was the position after White had played 47. Kd2. The second time that the position occurred on the chess board. But now, it was Black to move next.
And this was the position after 49. Be7. (White was obliged to make this move after he had announced to the arbiter his intention to do so.) This was the third time we saw the same position on the chess board. Like the second time, White had made a move to reach this position and it was Black to move next.
So if in the first case it was White's turn to move and in the second and third cases it would be Black's time to move, clearly there had not been any three-fold repetition of position. Senador was given a set of the Chief Arbiter's final decision. He could have lodged an appeal against this decision but I was told that none was forthcoming.

As a postscript, I was told that the dissatisfaction festered on. The next morning, the association's secretary made more representations to other chess players in the tournament hall, including a lawyer friend who was also playing in the event and himself a highly regarded player. And yet, despite his experience, he took the secretary's side and claimed that the arbiter was wrong. How absurd could that be. And I'm sure this will still not be the end of the matter; I'm sure that it will be raised again in the next committee meeting of the Penang Chess Association.

Finally as an end note, in case there are people questioning whether I have the locus standi to comment on this incident, I can give the assurance that yes, I do have the right. I may not be a high-flying or prominent International Arbiter but the last time I checked, I am still one. One with my ears to the ground, if I may add. 😜

Monday, 3 December 2018

Strategic re-positioning

There I was, standing some distance away, trying to take a picture of Jagdeep Singh Deo making the ceremonial first move for this year's Penang heritage city international chess tournament at the Red Rock Hotel in MacAlister Road when suddenly, Hamid's voice floated from the stage asking me to assist the Penang State Executive Councillor.

So I went to stand behind Jagdeep. He was at a loss. Then I prompted him, "Pick up that pawn," pointing to the king pawn, "and move it two squares forward." And that was what he did. Coolly and smiling into the cameras, he picked up the pawn and placed it on the e4 square, a move captured by the press photographers. Ah well, I thought to myself, I would be in any picture anyway....

Sunday, 2 December 2018

The Malay Mail

The news that The Malay Mail has closed its print edition effectively from today brings to mind the many hours I enjoyed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to complete its word puzzle competition.

My father would diligently buy the newspaper every evening - because the newspaper was printed in Kuala Lumpur and brought up to Penang by lorry - so that we could cut out the contest forms from the back page. The clues gave rise to many possible answers which even the dictionaries couldn't resolve. Needless to say, we didn't win anything, not even the consolation prizes.

In those days, their news reports covered mainly about Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. There was hardly any news about the other parts of the country, unless the news was significant enough. My most enjoyable daily column was the one written by their editor, SH Tan. Light-hearted and frivolous, his stories were later compiled into a book, Saya Yang Tahu (SYT). SYT actually stood for Sweet Young Thing. Later, SH Tan tried to bring his brand of humour to The National Echo but he couldn't replicate his earlier success.

For a long while, The Malay Mail also ran a weekly chess column in response to my column in The Star newspaper. Until the late Lim Chong took over their column, it was edited by my cousin, Phuah Eng Chye. We always had a friendly competition over what to include in our stories. My cousin had the upper hand as he had the resources of the newspaper behind him. The teleprinter stories about chess from around the world, for example. As for me, I prided myself for my own personal sources of stories, even from overseas. One day as a joke, I even contributed a story to The Malay Mail's chess column, writing under the pseudonym, Ke Chengshan, which was how my name would have been written in pinyin.

Reading about The Malay Mail brings to mind too that the first English language newspaper in Malaysia was the Prince of Wales' Island Government Gazette that saw light in the first decade of the 19th Century. There was an article about this newspaper in the Penang Monthly of May 2010. I don't remember the story mentioning it but by 1816, ownership of the Gazette had passed to William Cox, whom some may recognise as the first Master of Penang Free School. However, his name was erroneously engraved as "J. Cox" on the School plaque in the hall.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Singapore's kampong revisited

After waxing exuberance over my visit to Pulau Ubin last March, I promised my wife that I'd bring her to the island when we next visit Singapore. On the 10th of this month, that was where we went as we wound up our short trip there.

With the help of my old friends of course! Jeff Yeo and his lovely Evelyn. According to Jeff, each of us must've taken about 22,000 steps during the four hours on the island. That was about 15 kilometres. Nevertheless, that wasn't even covering the whole place.

Despite it being a Saturday, we felt that the crowds were just not there. There were more people on the island last March. Our first destination would be the Puaka Hill in the middle of the island.

Along the way to Puaka Hill, we came across this sign at the side of a path leading to a small temple called the Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple. However, there is a bigger temple with the same name just a short distance away from the Pulau Ubin ferry terminal. I am told that the locals distinguish the two as the country temple and the town temple. Below is the altar of the Tua Pek Kong deity at the country temple.

 And so, finally, we reached the junction to Puaka Hill. We turned off the main road and for the next five to 10 minutes, walked along a gradual track to the top. 

Breath-taking view from Puaka Hill

Gorgeous  blue sky at the Chek Jawa Wetlands' boardwalk 

 The visitor centre at the Chek Jawa Wetlands

Picturesque scene while walking back to the jetty

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

I was bemoaning to my daughter that there was some eight to nine hours for my wife and I to kill inbetween arriving at KLIA2 and departing from KL Sentral on the 11th of this month. Why not watch a movie, my daughter suggested. Which movie would you recommend, I asked back. Bohemian Rhapsody, she said. And so, Bohemian Rhapsody it was. She purchased the tickets for a cinema located at a sub-urban shopping mall and so off we trooped to the cinema.

Now who hasn't heard of this bio-pic movie? I learnt of it about a month back when a friend posted its trailer on social media. I was impressed because the actors who were selected to play Freddie Mercury, Brian May and Roger Taylor were almost splitting images of the real Mercury, May and Taylor. I had thought that the song itself, Bohemian Rhapsody would be played at the end of the film, as its highlight, but of course I was wrong. The highlight of the film was the re-enactment of Queen's seminal 20-minute performance at the Live Aid concert of 1985. It was done very well and breath-taking watching the segment up close. An in-your-face experience. Completely immersive.

Despite the musical inputs from the real Brian May and Roger Taylor, the film producers took creative licence and littered it with some historical inaccuracies. For instance in the film, Mercury had contracted Aids before the Live Aid concert happened. In reality, Mercury was diagnosed with this disease at least a year after the concert was well over. I am sure there were other instances as well.

Finally, I want to say that I did watch Bohemian Rhapsody a second time, in Penang. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to re-watch the biggest bio-pic movie in decades. I only hope that the next bio-pic, Rocketman, about Elton John, will be equally good.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Ticket misadventures

I started writing the draft to this story whilst at Changi Airport's Terminal Four on 11 Nov 2018. We had already spent two full days - and one evening - in Singapore, and my wife and I had now arrived at the airport at the almost unearthly hour of 6.15am on the 11th morning, waiting to catch our 10 o'clock flight. The frustration was that instead of taking a flight directly to Penang, we were flying to Kuala Lumpur and from there, we would change to the ETS train service to take us back to Bukit Mertajam.

So why weren't we flying straight from Singapore to Penang? We could even have flown at a later time and enjoyed more of Singapore. It was all my fault, really. Our original plan was to fly down to Johor Bahru on the 11th to visit some friends and relatives there before hopping over to Singapore on the 13th and then onward to Kuala Lumpur for a few days there.

That was the intention. It would entail flying from Singapore on the 15th morning so that we would arrive at the hotel  in Kuala Lumpur right smack after lunch time. Well, that was the plan. But no matter how well plans are, there is usually something that screws everything up. Mine was no different. When I was buying the flight tickets from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, somehow the date of travel was keyed in as 11 Nov 2018 instead of 15 Nov 2018. I didn't notice it until the transaction was well and completed, meaning paid up as well.

Then it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. A Big mistake. A mistake so big that it left me, for several minutes, wondering what to do. Could I amend the tickets? Can the date of travel? Certainly, the airline's website allowed that. For the customer to change the date of travel. So I tried to change the date of travel. Meticulously went through all the steps. Clicked all the changes required. Then it came to the payment page. I was prepared to pay a small fee for the change of travel date. But what was this I see? A penalty fee that was more than the cost of the tickets themselves. If I had agreed to paying, the tickets would have cost me more than twice what I paid for. What shit was that?? Effectively, the airline was telling you to burn the original tickets and buy new ones. No way could I agree to it.

No choice. We had to change our travel itinerary instead. Let's forego the Johor Bahru sector and go only to Singapore. This suggestion came from my wife. I was relieved. Going to Johor Bahru was her original proposal. So if she said to forget about Johor Bahru, I was more than agreeable to it. We'll just fly down to Changi on the eighth and then travel to Kuala Lumpur on the 11th.

There was one final piece of the jigsaw puzzle remaining. The return to Bukit Mertajam. I knew that there was an ETS train leaving Kuala Lumpur at 2.40pm. Unfortunately, all seats were sold out for the 11th. The only seats left were on the 8.40pm train. Thus, no choice but to buy the tickets for this train. The only snag was that the train would arrive at Bukit Mertajam at 12.45am. But after a whole day of misadventure booking flight tickets, all I wanted was to be able to come back to Bukit Mertajam on 11 Nov 2018, no matter how late it was going to be.


Monday, 5 November 2018

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Tie in a bottle

In case anyone is wondering what is this, let me just say that it is one of my ties in the cut-off bottom of a plastic water bottle. What happened was this: when I learnt that there was a possibility that everyone would have to wear batik or a tie with his normal office attire to the Old Frees Association annual dinner in Kuala Lumpur last month, I decided to go prepared.

But the problem was that I would be travelling from Penang and if I were to just throw my tie into the luggage, the chances are great that it would end up creased and crumpled. And it wouldn't be the first one. Even if I were to fold it up carefully and place it in the luggage, the tie might suffer the same fate.

So there I was, pondering how to solve the problem when I happened to glance at a few bottles of mineral water on my kitchen table. The idea struck me. Why not just cut the bottom off one of them and stuff the tie in it? I was sure that the plastic would be sturdy enough to resist normal crumbling attempts. I wasn't wrong. My tie went to KL and back in tip-top condition. Everyone should try this!

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Realising objectives (part two)

On the 22nd afternoon, I accompanied my wife and sister-in-law to the Dewan Tunku Chanellor at the University of Malaya for the convocation ceremony of my nephew. Leaving them there, my next destination was the unlikely Xiao En Centre in Cheras.

Why the Xiao En Centre? Well, this was the unscheduled stop in my short visit to Kuala Lumpur. The previous evening, I received some text messages to inform me that Dato' Tan Chin Nam had passed away at the age of 92.

People who know me well would realise that Dato Tan was the main man behind the growth of chess in Malaysia. He was the first president of the Malaysian Chess Federation and for the past 15 years or so, had his company sponsor the Malaysia Chess Festival, possibly the largest chess and most popular event that the country had ever seen.

Some people would also know that I've known Dato Tan since 1974. With such a long history between the two of us, it became imperative that I should pay my last respects to him, especially since I was already in Kuala Lumpur.

So that was why I had to go to the Xiao En Centre with some urgency. I shall be writing a separate story on remembering Dato Tan later, a sort of tribute to him.

From the Xiao En Centre, I dropped off at the Pasar Seni MRT station and took a short walk to the Junk Book Store in Jalan Tun HS Lee. I had heard about this second-hand bookshop from Facebook and was curious to see for myself the range of old, second-hand books there. True enough, when I entered the building, there were rows upon rows of second-hand books, all wrapped up carefully in plastic sheets.

I went through the ground floor and then the proprietor told me that there were more books on the first floor. So up I went there. Took a slow perambulating walk round the passageway and then my attention was diverted to three boxes on the floor that held some 300 pieces of vinyl records. Immediately I sat down to go through the dusty pile of records and I pulled out several titles that interested me.

Then I asked whether they had any books that dealt with the history of old Penang. Maybe, he said, and then he asked his assistant (could be his wife) to open up the second floor for me to check on some titles there.

So up I went too to the second floor. Took a quick look around because the lady said they would be closing at five o'clock. then went downstairs again with the records to haggle with the prices. Felt spending RM150 on seven records was a fair price to pay!

On the way back to the MRT station, I came across the Soong Kee coffee shop. I had been here with a cousin some two or three years back, but it was at night, to eat the beef koay teow there. I was alone this time but it was as good a time as anytime to order a new bowl of the said beef koay teow to try again. Superb stuff. Very happy with THIS decision.

The next day on the 23rd, my daughter brought my wife and I to the Batu Malai Śrī Subramaniar Swamy Devasthanam (more popularly known as the Batu Caves Temple) in Batu Caves. Although we had visited the temple some three to four years back, I had felt that it was time to revisit it as so much had been written lately following a decision by the Temple Committee to give the whole place a new coat of paint. Yes, Batu Caves is now a riot of rich, bright colours. The main temple at the foothill has been gaily painted in multi-coloured hues, as also the 272 steps that led to the biggest of the limestone caves at Batu Caves.

Whether or not the Batu Caves temple will lose its national heritage status remains to be seen although I hope not! The colours themselves do not mean that the value of the temple has been devalued. It is the very nature of the Indians to celebrate colour in their everyday lives as well as in worship. For the Batu Caves Temple, much value and heritage are still attached to it as could be seen in the numbers of devotees present despite the day not being any religious occasion. The cave walls still have a history to tell. So I would suggest to the National Archives to leave the Batu Caves Temple well alone and let the Temple Committee do their job.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Remembering Tan Chin Nam

This story appeared in the Star2 section of The Star newspaper on 30 Oct 2018 (but not online). Below is the original unedited version with additional pictures taken of Dato Tan through the years. [UPDATE: The online version of this story has now appeared in The Star here.]
The text message came in at 6.14pm. Sent by See Swee Sie, President of the Penang Chess Association (PCA), it read: "It is with great sadness that I inform you, though you most probably already know.  Dato Tan has passed away." Barely five minutes later, my good friend in Kuala Lumpur, Hamid Majid, texted me: "It is with sadness, that I announce the passing away of Honorary Life President Dato Tan Chin Nam at 4:30 today, Sunday, 21 Oct 2018."

Photo credit: Khong Wai Cheong
I felt devastated. I had dreaded the day when he would pass away and with each passing year of the Malaysia Chess Festival, I became more certain that the moment would happen soon, if not later. After all, he was already 92 years old this year. Yet, when it happened on 21 Oct 2018 at 4.30pm, the news floored me.

I made a few telephone calls to Hamid and Swee Sie but there was not much of additional information from them. Hamid said the family was making final arrangements soon. Nothing more I could do but wait. That night even as I went for the Old Frees Association annual dinner in Kuala Lumpur, my thoughts were far away.

Caught smiling after winning the Melbourne Cup in 2008
I first met him in 1974. At that time, he was just plain Tan Chin Nam but already a well-respected property developer. Of course, being a mere 20-year-old at that time, I didn't know much of this man. Who was he, I had asked silently at that time, that wanted to start the new Malaysian Chess Federation to take over from the defunct Chess Association of Malaysia? Anyway, I was down in Kuala Lumpur with the then first PCA president, Fang Ewe Churh, to attend that inaugural meeting of the Federation, and got to know him.

It has been 44 years. That's a very long time. If ever I was in Kuala Lumpur for a stretch of several days, I would try to fit in a visit to him at his office or his former home at Desa Kudalari. Initially built to look over the Selangor Turf Club – horse racing was one of his other great passions in life – his condominium unit later commanded a grand view of the KLCC Twin Towers.

Once, he invited me to his home for "some games of chess" but before we even played a single game he excused himself first because he needed his afternoon nap. So there I was, enjoying the grand view from his balcony while he slept in his reclining chair in the living room.

While he was still able to travel around for corporate meetings in Penang in the 1990s and 2000s, I would meet him with my chess board. In between chess games, he would ask me about the progress of chess in Penang. He really took a very keen interest in the affairs of the association. If we needed any money for chess activities in Penang, we looked no further than his company on the island. He would ask me to go see his niece and present my proposal to her. And occasionally, I'd buy some local street food to share with him. Once I brought some Penang chee cheong fun which he attacked with gusto.

Photo credit: Khong Wai Cheong
Tan celebrated his 80th birthday in March 2006. It was a grand affair at the Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Each of his guests was presented with a copy of his memoirs, Never Say I Assume! They were all pre-signed copies as it would have been impossible for him to sign them all on the spot. He called me over. "Seng Sun, give me your book," he told me and I duly handed it over. Then in his shaky handwriting – he was already suffering from Parkinson's – he added the words, "Dear Seng Sun my good friend of 32 years."

In the last few years of his life, he had been sickly. About five years ago, he suffered a fall which restricted his movements. For several years, he gamely tried to continue walking but later gave it up and remained largely confined to a wheelchair. He had his good days and bad days, according to his personal secretary. When I visited him at his house last year, I was forewarned that he might not be awake. True enough, he never stirred from his bed the whole time I was there.

This year, I was lucky. Tan was lucid enough to turn up at the closing ceremony of the Malaysia Chess Festival. But I could see the fatigue in his eyes. Like always, everyone milled around him, everyone greeted him and he acknowledged them back with a stare, sometimes with a nod. But he never spoke. And that was the very last time I met him. Eight weeks later, Tan was gone from this earth.

On the morning of the 22nd of October, his obituary appeared in the newspapers. I told Swee Sie that I shall have to go to the funeral home to pay my last respects on Monday even though the obituary notice said that the wakes would be opened to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday.

So I turned up at the Xiao En Centre in Cheras on Monday afternoon. Of course, nobody was there yet. There were no guests, no family members, just two representatives from Xiao En. There were rows and rows of chairs and meanwhile, their staff was still preparing the ballroom. Tan's body was in the holding room, I was informed, while I talked to the Xiao En people. And then suddenly, one of them turned to me and made an incredible offer, "Come follow me. I can give you some private moments with Dato."

I duly followed her to the holding room and thus there I was, standing beside the Big House and looking down at the most serene Dato Tan Chin Nam, dressed in a light blue shirt with yellow tie and a dark jacket, and having his final rest. "Goodbye," I mouthed silently, "I'm going to miss you."

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Realising objectives (part one)

I must say with some satisfaction that my objectives in visiting Kuala Lumpur earlier this week were all achieved, even with a last-minute change of plans included.

The main reason for my trip to Kuala Lumpur was to give support to my nephew, Adrian Khaw, who would be at his convocation ceremony in the University of Malaya on Monday. He had graduated with a First Class degree in Accountancy and his mother, my wife's younger sister, had invited us to follow her down.

That was the reason why I had to give the annual dedication service to Robert Sparke Hutchings and the Penang Free School Speech Day a miss on the 21st of October, not to mention too The Old Frees' Association dinner in Penang in the evening. I would be driving down to Kuala Lumpur and I needed a clear head in order to do so. Especially after having attended a long wedding dinner, followed by a long drive home, the night before.

But there was a snag. My nephew informed us several weeks ago that he was unable to get me a ticket into the Dewan Tunku Chancellor. The University allowed only two guests per graduand into the hall and we were more than two. No problem, I told him. I can stay away and let his mum and aunt (my wife) attend. I can make some alternate plans to keep myself occupied.

So on the 21st morning, we set off from Bukit Mertajam. Did a detour into Ipoh for lunch at the popular Thean Chun coffee shop in the middle of town where we discovered a satay stall offering the meanest selection of skewered delectables.

Yummy! The skewered pieces of pork liver were truly out of this world. In fact, I haven't encountered any other satay stall that offered this. Even their skewered pieces of pig intestines were fantabulous. Truly memorable! We also ordered the coffee shop's special egg custard but despite all the raves which other people had given it, I would say that it was nothing rather special. Smooth though it was, it was also too sweet for my liking. Of course, this wasn't the first time that I had stopped at Thean Chun. In my previous visit, I had tried the curry mee there as well as the Ipoh koay teow soup. But like the egg custard, nothing really special. Only the satay was nice enough for me.

On the 21st night at 7.30pm, I turned up at the Pullman Bangsar where I had received an invitation to the Old Frees Association Kuala Lumpur & Selangor annual dinner. As this was the first time I was attending their dinner, I did not quite know what to expect except that it was going to start late. But never mind, I was prepared to be there at 7.30pm and see who I could recognise there. Surely, among the OFA KLS crowd, there would be someone that I knew.

And true enough, I bumped into Azril Aziz whom I've known since the Bicentenary two years ago (he came out with the postcards), Kok Ghee and Rohayah who were my former colleagues from JobStreet (Rohayah was the sister of the organising chairman for this dinner BUT was from St George's Girls' School) ... and surprise of surprise, Anuar (Mat Hitam) and Idris Mohd Kassim from my Ban Hin Lee Bank days.

I could remember Anuar instantly when we met but it took a while of talking and probing before Idris and I realised that we both had come from similar backgrounds! After that, we were new-found fast friends. It was in the late 70s that he worked in Ban Hin Lee Bank's Bayan Baru Branch.

But did I meet any of my schoolmates there? Yes, I did. There were only three of them while I had expected more to turn up. But very, very sad to say,0 these three might as well be strangers to me. We hardly clicked. Though I was a guest from Penang, they hardly talked to me. Real disappointment but not something for me to dwell on for long. Frankly, I wasn't bothered much by the aloofness. There were far more friendlier people in the hall than the three of them. People like Shun Ming who, though not an Old Free was an invited guest to the function. People like Ivan Ooi from the OFA KLS management committee who was surprised but glad to see me at their dinner in Kuala Lumpur. And people like Hafiz Hashim who had invited me to join him at his table. Thank you, Hafiz.

The dinner started way after nine o'clock, no thanks to the presence of royalty. The Raja of Perlis is, of course, a distinguished Old Free and as the Guest of Honour, his presence perked up the evening. But by and large, everybody were immersed in their own world and revelry, chattering with their own schoolmates, to care much anything else. The dinner also included a book launch of Hafiz's book by the Raja of Perlis, and the screening of a 10-minute documentary trailer about Penang Free School. 


Monday, 22 October 2018

NEVER a Missionary school

The above news story appeared in The Star newspaper on 22 Oct 2018.

I can't speak about the other legacy schools in the country but the one unique feature of Penang Free School is that the tomb of the school's founder can be located in the city of its establishment. In the case of the Free School, the heritage Protestant Cemetery in Northam Road (Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) is the resting place of Revd Robert Sparke Hutchings. He died of malaria in 1827. His whole family was then staying at his acquired home in Mt Elvira, Penang Hill, which he had named after his wife.

The present unbroken tradition of holding a memorial service at Hutchings' tomb began in 1948 after the Second World War. It was an initiative of the then Headmaster, Dennis Roper.

There is a bit more to add to the story this year. Yesterday afternoon, I was contacted by The Star to get background information on the visit to Hutchings' tomb. They wanted to know whether Penang Free School and by extension, Hutchings (Secondary) School, were missionary schools.

Of course, I told them an emphatic NO. Told them that just because Hutchings was a clergyman, it did not mean that he founded a missionary school in Penang Free School. The School Charter, also known as Hutchings' Original Plan, must be studied closely to ascertain the truth. And the truth is, the Free School has never been a missionary school right from Day One.

I take great pains to point out to people that the ninth point of the Original Plan had spelt out clearly "that great care be taken that the prejudices of Parents averse to the Christian Religion, be not by any means violated." That is to say, religion must not be rammed down the throats of the boys of the Free School.

Except for Hutchings, the Committee that was appointed by the Governor in Council to study the Original Plan consisted of Robert Ibbetson, Capt John Monckton Coombs, Capt John MacInnes, James Carnegy, David Brown and Richard Caunter, who were all prominent members of the European community in the Prince of Wales' Island at that time, and none among them holding ecclesiastical or theological office in any of the Catholic, Methodist or Anglican churches on the island. In fact, the first Anglican Church anywhere in the peninsula, the Church of St George the Martyr (or more popularly known as the St George's Church in Farquhar Street) was only established three years later in 1819. This church will be celebrating their own Bicentenary next year.

From Day One too when the Prince of Wales' Island Free School opened its doors to 25 boys on 21 Oct 1816, none of the school's succession of early Superintendents - William Cox, David Churcher, George Porter, William Anchant, John Colson Smith, Bruton and Fitzgerald - or later known as Headmasters, from John Clark and George Griffin onwards, were clergymen either.

So, NO, the Free School was never a missionary school and it will never be. It will remain a FREE of race and religious prejudices. As for Hutchings School, suffice for me to mention that NO, it is not a missionary school either. But the explanation will have to wait till another time.

Note: All these facts can be checked easily from the book, Let the Aisles Proclaim, which was published by the Yayasan Penang Free School in conjunction with the School's Bicentenary celebrations in 2016. The book costs RM100 and is available from the Penang House of Music on Level Four of the KOMTAR Podium in Penang, Areca Books in Acheen Street (Lebuh Aceh), Gerak Budaya in Pitt Street (Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling) or by mail order.