Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Growing up in an age of innocence

Brave New World (The Star)
October 1, 2009
"Childhood is the time of great innocence. Friends will be friends because we get along, and there’s no ‘other’."


I WENT to Francis Light 1 primary school in Jalan Perak. This was in Penang, naturally, because which other state will have a school named after Francis Light?
The school was (is) in a poor part of town and most of the children were street smart and tough.
I, on the other hand, was a soft suburbanite who only went to this school, miles away from home, because of my father’s strange “sense of history”.
I suppose Sekolah Bukit Lancang does not have the same historical resonance as “Francis Light”.
Be that as it may, I had a wonderful time there, partly due to the fact that I was fat and too large to be picked on by my fellow undernourished pupils.
I am not one for sentimentality, but looking back, it was indeed a time of great innocence.
My “best friend” depended on who sat next to me.
So, in Standard One, it was a little chap with curly hair called Syed.
We used to play on the roots of the giant trees surrounding our school, pretending that if we fell off, the “buaya” would eat us; very exciting stuff, and not a Gameboy in sight.
In Standard Three, my best mate was Alan.
Strangely enough, we have both ended up on the same career path.
He, too, is a law lecturer, but he’s on the wrong side of the Cause­way.
Unfortunate for us, as he is a far better academic than me.
Standard Four saw me perpetually hanging around with Ganesan, a kid fatter than myself who had a wonderful brain rich with imagination.
Obsessed as he was by food, he was convinced that heaven was a place where everything was made of edible stuff.
Knowing my dietary restrictions and concerned about his pal after death, Ganesan once told me, “Azmi, in heaven, you don’t have to worry. You can eat pork because the pigs will be made of pink jelly.”
I think he has emigrated to Australia.
In my last year there, I was in a little gang of misfits consisting of Sultan, Zahir and Suresh — I think that was his name.
Oh, but I’m getting old; I can see his face so clearly and remember that he was petrified of cockroaches, but what is his name?
Friends were friends because we got along. That’s all.
And teachers were liked or disliked because of what they did.
Cikgu Syed was well respected because he was cool.
Mr Goh could play the guitar and sing; groovy.
Cikgu Zubaidah was loved because she was utterly dedicated to us.
And there was Mrs Gopal who was rather feared because she was such a disciplinarian.
So much so that when I bumped into her on the streets while I was in Form 3 and she looked at me and said “Ah, Azmi, why are you not in school”, I trembled and mumbled some excuse about it being break time between SRP papers.
The fact that by then I was a head and a half taller than her made no difference at all.
There are others, of course, friends and teachers. Some were enemies and some were seriously disliked, but the point is there was no sense of the “other”.
“Unity” depended purely on personality. That is the way with children.
But when you have a situation where the “real world” divides us and insists on our differences, whatever childhood innocence will dissipate and be replaced with something else. Something divisive and exclusionary.
In this light, will the idea of having a “multiracial hostel” be anything more than simply a PR exercise? I seriously doubt it.
As long as we go on the way we are, as long as our system of governance does not change, as long as there is no true sense of belonging for all people in this nation, then any superficial attempt at “national unity” will be as illusory as pink jelly pigs.

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