Sunday, January 24, 2010

Don’t come home, son – Ice-Cream Seller

Malaysian Insider  |  JAN 24 – To Second Finance Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah, this is what I have to say in response to your statement about emigration by ingrates.

Sometime in 1980, when I was a final-year student in London, I had a very short telephone conversation with my father. In those days, there were no call cards, skype or the like and international phone calls were expensive. He had a very simple message – “Don’t come home, son.”

Now, almost 30 years on, I see where he was coming from.

He advised me to stay on in the UK or, if I found the weather not to my liking, suggested I go to Australia, even if it meant that I might eventually “marry a white girl” as he put it.

I was 23 and marriage was certainly not on my mind.

He was a “pendatang”. This pendatang, however, secured a scholarship to study in Raffles College ( the precursor to the University of Malaya) and served some 30 years in various senior teaching positions, culminating with the last few years in the Malay College. Among his students were a veritable who’s who of past and present ministers and opposition figures.

I didn’t heed his advice then, and spent 28 years working in Malaysia. However, in recent years, it became increasingly untenable to work in my home country without compromising my values, integrity and conscience.

Why did he advise me such?

With hindsight, I saw his foresight. As an educationist, he saw we were becoming another Ceylon (from where he had been sent to then Malaya when he was orphaned), Burma, the Philippines and, in today’s scenario, Zimbabwe.

He saw what the outcome would be when we mess up education with politics.

He saw that religion would be a divisive factor in the years to come (he even encouraged me to learn Jawi as a nine-year-old).

He believed that in a country like this, mixed marriages would help cement society.

He saw in some of our leaders of yesterday that, even in their youth, they had unbridled cunning and only needed an opening to exploit that trait.

He saw in some of his students the potential to become PM but said that would never come to be because they were “too smart for Umno’s liking”.

He saw that, given our racial demographics, religion would be used as a means to ensure the survival of a particular group.

He believed that, eventually, the Malays would have a class war amongst themselves.

He said that even among the Malays, many of the English-educated would opt to live away from Malaysia.

He told me promotions wouldn’t necessarily be given for competence. These are usually won in the Clubs (read political party today) and over a few drinks.

Since I am a bit of an introvert, he encouraged me to join clubs, associations and play sports and travel.

He said honesty does not necessarily pay in this world but still, it is better to be honest and live with dignity.

Our home was (at different times) home to three delinquent Chinese boys, sent by the Juvenile court. He volunteered to take them in. Add to that a few other Indian boys.

Though not my mother tongue, I spoke to my parents in Malay till I was about 10.

We took in a Chinese woman injured during the war and she lived with us for about 40 years till she died. My father referred to her as his mother-in-law. I thought she was my grandmother even though my mother was not Chinese!

By the late 70s and early 80s, he saw that this scenario would not likely repeat in the years to come.

When he died in 1982, we were pleasantly surprised to see some of his students (by then in their 50s) come from different states for his funeral.

One told me that it was my father who made sure he spoke flawless English. Another told me how my father would bring the 6th Formers home from the hostel and used our home for dinner and to teach them social graces – including dancing (taught by my mother).

Partners were arranged from the convent school, with the blessings of the headmistress!

Twenty-nine years years on, I view his foresight through the same prism and now agonise over whether I should tell my children the same.

For now, I am allowing my eldest to pursue his tertiary education overseas. Maybe when he finishes, he may not be as shortsighted as I was. I pray to God to grant him wisdom and vision.

Last year, I resigned from my job, returned the company car and driver, said goodbye to my executive package and moved to Australia where I now live with no maid, no driver, no Audi 2.8, no golf, no teh tarik sessions, no bonus, etc.

But I am rediscovering humanity, running a humble ice cream shop.

Sometimes we learn very late.

* "Ice Cream Seller" is the pseudonym of a reader of Malaysian Insider.