I consider myself a quiet and low profile person. Additionally, my former landlady in Nedlands, Perth, Western Australia once told me I was an “intense” person. Well, she might have been correct as well …
I was born in my mother’s village at the outskirts of Kuala Terengganu, a city on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. My paternal grandparents then raised me in their hometown of Jerteh, 110 km away. Jerteh is a town that sits near the Terengganu border with Kelantan. It is geographically and culturally very close to Kelantan. So much so that the dialect we speak in Jerteh is Kelantanese and not Terengganu’s.
In Jerteh I was sent to school at Sekolah Kebangsaan Pusat Jerteh, 1 kilometer from home. I suppose my childhood years in Jerteh were like any other kampung boys’. Most of us walked to school. Some had bicycles. One ot two well to do ones were sent by car by their parents. On my way back, walking home from school I’d stop by clumps of bushes by the roadside to collect the sweet-tasting kemunting (a local berry, now very rare, looks something like blueberries). More often than not my white school shirt would be stained purple with the ripe kemunting fruits, much to the displeasure of my grandmother. In the afternoons I would attend Qur’an reading class at home. My grandmother, known as Mak Pesah, was a village Qur’an teacher. As such my home would be abuzz with my village friends who came to learn Qur’an with Mak Pesah. Afterwards I would sneak out to a nearby river and had a great time with my friends wading, diving and swimming in the pristine clear waters, and lying on our backs on the river’s white silica sands. Sometimes when I returned home late from the river, Mak Pesah would be waiting for me with her rattan cane. Not every time, but just enough to show me who was the boss.
In spite of that, I was surprised that I did relatively well in the primary school’s year 5 national examinations. I was selected to go to a semi-boarding school in Kuala Terengganu, the Sultan Sulaiman Secondary School fondly known as SS, at Kuala Ibai. The whole village knew about it! SS was an English-medium secondary school and as was the norm then, I, coming from a Malay-medium primary school, had to transit for one whole year to intensively learn English, in what was known as Remove Class.
At the school’s boys hostel, the Asrama Putera, I made many friends, one of them was a Manan Ngah, who had this talent playing guitars. I asked him to teach me play the instrument, but I could not stand the pain on my fingers strumming the taut guitar strings. The only song I could play was Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. On lazy afternoons and weekends, my dorm friends and I would gather around someone’s lower-deck bed and savor Manan’s guitar rendition of various hits of those days. Manan, years later, shot into Malaysian limelight with scores of hit songs, and became one of Malaysia’s well known composers. I might not have been a nondescript person I now am, had I been able to withstand the finger pains. But I have no regrets. Fate took us on different paths, where we both have opportunities to contribute to the world in our own special ways.
I stayed at SS for 4 years. At the Form 3 national examinations of Lower Certificate of Education I achieved sufficiently good marks that I was selected together with scores of my class and form mates to go to Form 4 at full-boarding school Sekolah Menengah Sains Terengganu, also known as SMS Terengganu in Gong Badak near the Kuala Terengganu airport at Telaga Batin. Before we left SS, the headmaster (HM) called us to his office and in a sad tone quietly said something to the effect that “there goes our future First Graders”, referring to the grading system of then Form 5’s Malaysia Certificate of Education (MCE) public examinations. He was a good HM, willing to let go the whole bunch of more than 20 of us.
I must have done well at SMS Terengganu that based on my teachers’ forecast of my performance at MCE, and based on a glowing testimonial letter drafted by Ms Mary C Paul, my class teacher and signed by the school’s HM, and after a series of interviews and eliminations, I was selected to be in a group of 10 students from Malaysia’s premier boarding schools to go for pre-university matriculation studies in Perth, Australia.
I was still a teenager, and quite a backward kampung (village) boy at that. Perth was a quantum leap to me. At the time when my school friends were still enjoying their post-examinations holidays, I was sent off to Perth on one of Malaysia Airline System’s last Boeing 707-300, with a transit stop at Jakarta’s Halim Perdanakusuma International Airport.
I was a bewildered kampung boy abruptly transplanted into alien, western surroundings. I stayed there 6 years before returning to Malaysia in the mid 80’s. I vowed I had had enough of university, after a tough time navigating through University of Western Australia’s electrical engineering course. I failed year 2 and had to painfully repeat the whole second year, before making my way to the third and the fourth, final year. Nevertheless, in the mid 90’s, with a charming wife and two toddlers ‘Aqilah and Hanif in tow, I gained sufficient courage to uproot and leave my secure job in laidback Dungun, Terengganu and went to Colchester, England for an uncertain struggle at University of Essex in one of its post-graduate programs. During the interview to get company sponsorship for the endeavour, one of the panelists, a PhD, asked me – “I see in your transcript that you failed Year 2 at university, and you dare attempt for a higher degree ?”. My reply – “Yes Dr., exactly. I failed once. And I recovered. Now I want to show the world that the recovery was not a fluke. I can do it again”. I was trembling inside when I gave that answer. I suspected that the brave (?) response won me the sponsorship, alhamdulillah.
Thus I broke my Perth vow, just to prove to myself that I had inner strength and capability, to overcome any obstacle, in spite of prior setbacks. A full-time Master of Science degree program in the U.K. normally took 12 months. But I purposely sought a shorter, more hectic and more challenging 9-month program. Again, to prove to myself and to show to my children, that I could do it. And if I could do it, so could they. And with the facilities they have, they could do better than me.