Broken English

English language as she is broken

RECENTLY, I heard two radio deejays asking callers to vote for their all-time favourite television sitcoms from the 1960s and 1970s.  The names of the sitcoms jogged my memory of the early days of TV and how I enjoyed those happy half-hour comedy shows.

While we watched mostly American shows like Mr Ed the Talking Horse, the inimitable, coolest Fonzie in Happy Days and my favourites, Seinfeld and Frasier, it was interesting that ultimately the English comedies gained the highest votes.

Shows like Dad's Army, 'Allo 'Allo, Fawlty Towers, Mr Bean and Mind Your Language vied for top place but finally the latter was voted the all-time favourite.

I guess that's because we can relate to the comedy of errors among the motley group of foreign students and Mr Brown, the ever-patient teacher of that English language class.

There are plenty of pitfalls for second language learners because we tend to use a direct translation of our own language without applying the all-important rules of English grammar.

Last December when my nephew and his fiancee were preparing for their wedding, they sent their rings to the jeweller for engraving.  There was a great deal of excited anticipation when they went to collect the rings.

A lovely young lady who spoke English badly provided them with attentive service.  When she had to go upstairs to retrieve the rings, she told them: "You wait me here!"  The couple was appalled but they guessed she was probably saying a direct translation of the Mandarin phrase "Ni deng wo".

Look closer to see that this wrapping paper is
printed with the phrase: sweat dream...
I learnt from English language practitioners that people are often confused with the use of the verb "to be" and would avoid using them.  For instance, the verb "to be" (is) is often dropped in sentences that are directly translated from Bahasa Malaysia like "Kakak saya cantik." into "My sister pretty" when it should be "My sister is pretty".

They say that our habit of changing codes from our own language into English will almost always end up with grammatically wrong English.

Recently I was buying something at a stall and when I tried to pay with a RM50 note, the merchant hesitated to accept it.  He asked me: "Got small money?" It was my turn to hesitate because I needed a moment to process what he said. Small money is duit kecik so his query is if I have small change!

Another day, as I was walking pass a kiosk in a shopping mall, I noticed a queue of people waiting to place their orders.  Curious to see what was so good that it caused people to queue, I approached the kiosk for a closer look.  But I forgot what I was after when I spotted a sign that read, "Please row". I was amused that this instruction that told customers to form a row was apparently understood.

Now one of the things I do when I'm at a restaurant or cafe for a food review is to check out their restroom.  Everything was very pleasing in this cafe until I closed the toilet door and saw a sign that said: "Do not open water tap."  I thought it was a strange instruction because who would carry a spanner around to open the tap?

Some shops and offices put up a sign and shoe rack outside for visitors to store their shoes.  This made it clear that shoes have to come off before entering but when I arrived at an office that did not have any indication that shoes are not permitted, the lady who opened the door bluntly told me, "Open your shoes." I think she saw how my eyes widened as I paused before removing my footwear.

During the festive season, I was visiting a family when I saw their young son was feeling restless and probably bored with adult company.  His dad saw the signs too and gave his son permission to watch television by saying, "Open the TV."

It struck me once again, that the word "open" was used as a direct translation for "turn on" or "switch on" and previously for "take off" and "remove" in our local lingo.

Customer Service Representative in KL Department Store
who could speak good English!
While my own encounters with mangled English are truly a cause for concern, I was glad to meet a customer service representative in a Kuala Lumpur department store who could speak good English. 

As she helped me with my selections, I was reassured that Malaysians can be trained to acquire a good command of the English language.

So while Johor Baru is rapidly developing into a similar modern metropolis, I earnestly hope that service personnel are systematically being groomed to deal confidently with English-speaking foreigners moving into Iskandar Malaysia, and not make us the laughing stock in a comedy of errors.

Just as I was feeling more hopeful about the future of English in Johor Baru, the other day my niece who is in Form Five, was bursting to tell me her experience in school.

At break time, she and a few friends were hanging out in the corridor when a group of girls wanted to pass that way in great hurry.  To get their attention to give way quickly, one of the girls rushing pass shouted, "Let me pass away! Let me pass away!"

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 23 March 2011


Following the publication of the above article, I received some interesting feedback from friends:

Elilen said:  Very high people live in Bangsar ... Orang taraf tinggi duduk di Bangsar... How about that?

Noraini said:  My hubby came home from work today and told me he enjoyed reading your article, Broken English.  Then he told me last week, while waiting for a friend at Senai Airport, he came across a sign on a limo counter that read: "Help Table".  Go figure!


New era

A young Bernice and I
For years, my cousin Bernice used to ask me, when will she be able to read my memoirs? 

I thought it was such a romantic idea to record my reflections for others to read but I never got around to it.  I was instead, busy writing for the media.  

When my blog was ready for its soft-launch, Bernice, now based in Wimbeldon UK and a mother of two boys, was obviously among the first who were invited to view. 

Uncle Roland, 80, mum’s eldest brother, and his wife, Aunty Elizabeth, used to work with the Kota Tinggi Hospital and they chose to retire in Kota Tinggi.  

He’s an avid reader of my nostalgia stories in Johor Streets and has the habit to underline and highlight words or phrases with pen and colour highlighters.  

But that was not all.  These pages are then sent out to be laminated so that they will handle better when he shows them to others.

Uncle Roland resting in Sultan Ismail Hospital
with visitors, mum and dad

While I was developing my blog in August 2010, I received tragic news that Uncle Roland was involved in a motor accident.  

He was apparently riding his motorcycle when he lost control of the machine and crashed into a tree. It had recently rained so he fell into a muddy ditch.

As a result of his crash, he suffered a slipped disc and multiple lacerations on his left foot.  

He received emergency treatment in Kota Tinggi Hospital before being transferred for admission to the Sultan Ismail Hospital.

When I learnt about the errand he was out for when the accident occurred, it broke my heart. Unknown to his wife, he went out that afternoon on a mission to laminate a duplicate set of my stories!

Just imagine Aunty’s shock when she received a call, telling her that her husband was involved in an accident when she thought he was having his afternoon nap!  

I later learnt that one of Uncle’s cousins visiting from Singapore was so impressed with his laminated copies of my stories that he graciously agreed to make a duplicate set for her.  

While it was humbling to know that my stories were rather popular, I felt so sorry that Uncle Roland had to suffer pain and discomfort in a long recuperation after that unfortunate crash.

In February 2011, I was sitting in the lobby of a beach resort’s spa in Port Dickson when two European ladies came in to enquire about the spa services.  

As the receptionist was leading them on a tour of the facilities, one of the ladies turned to me with a gesture like a query if my spa experience was good.  After she saw my thumbs up response, she went on her tour.

Tea at lobby of Santai Spa, Thistle Port Dickson

When the ladies were about to leave with a brochure in hand, I asked if they had time for a chat because I just came out from a most agreeable treatment.  

Soon I learnt that they were Irish and sisters, and one was married to a Malaysian while the other was on holiday here. 

When I introduced myself, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the local lady reads NST Travel Times regularly.  

In fact, she collects them in a stack and will refer to them when she and her husband needed any holiday ideas.  

Suddenly she recalled my name and my piece on Saigon/Ho Chih Min City and told me that based on my recommendation, they went on a holiday there in January! 

After they left, I sat there quietly contemplating the various ways my stories are being stored and how they remained relevant to different people.  

I was both amused and amazed that I should meet this lady who decided to go to a holiday destination after reading about my experience. More importantly, she too had a good experience.

Bernice and her keen interest to read my memoirs was always an encouragement and now I’m offering my readers a dynamic blogsite where I can update and respond to their comments.  

The launch of my blog on 11 March 2011 significantly marks the start of a new era.  

Now everyone can read a collection of my stories at their convenience and if only Uncle Roland was not so old-school (because he must read from a hardcopy), he too can read my blog to his heart’s content. 

To Madam, with love

Chong Lian How with the bronze bust of
Sultan Ibrahim in front of the school hall

FROM young Chong Lian How wanted to be a teacher. 

She observed how teachers taught her to read, write and count, and trained her to be a leader by giving her responsibilities as a class monitor, prefect, librarian and various positions in clubs and societies.  Chong had such a high regard for her teachers that she aspired to be like them.

Chong not only achieved her ambition but in the last 30 years, she has had the satisfaction of being a teacher and principal as well as serving her last term of service in her alma mater, SMK Sultan Ibrahim (SMKSI), Kulai.

In September 2008, when Chong was appointed the principal of SMKSI, she regarded her job with both joy and trepidation because it was a big school with three streams (secondary, Form Six and Special Education), and at the time, the secondary stream's academic performance was deteriorating.  In addition, the school buildings were in need of repair and maintenance.

Chong [Centre] with colleagues at Ponggal celebration 2009
With the help of her senior assistants, teachers and other staff, Chong determined to change all that.  She carried out programmes that improved student discipline, academic achievement and co-curricular performance.  School facilities were also upgraded and the spirit of 1Malaysia inculcated.

Chong also encouraged cross-cultural activities by celebrating the different festivals throughout the year that promoted the spirit of 1Malaysia in the school.

On March 11, Chong and her husband, Tan Ah Aia, were feted as the Raja Sehari couple, as part of her retirement celebration.

Chong with members of the Unity Drum band
It was a fitting farewell to a much-loved teacher, principal and colleague who started her career in SMK Sultan Alauddin, Bukit Besar, Kulai, before going on to teach in schools in Beranang, Kajang and Semenyih.

Her first posting in Johor was with SMK Permas Jaya in 1995 and then to three other secondary schools before ending her career in SMKSI.

In his speech, Johor Education director Markom Giran commended Chong as a dedicated teacher and principal who had taken the school to new heights not only academically, but also in co-curriculum activities.

To foster closer ties among students, Chong initiated the formation of the school's Unity Drum team that consists of students playing 24 festive drums, kompang and Indian drums.

Every morning, Chong, administrative staff, teachers and prefects would receive students at the school gate between 7am and 7.20am.

Chong [Waving] and her family leaving the event
on a 4-WD vehicle
"I'm impressed to see the principal at the front gate, welcoming students to school," said Chen Yoon Meng, chairman of the Parent- Teacher Association.

Chong's "Zero-Late Programme" to encourage students to be punctual has reaped positive results and is still on-going.  At the same time, courtesy was encouraged with students trained to be good-mannered. They were also taught to be neat and tidy.

In 2009, Chong registered the school alumni with the support of some former students and former principal, Michael Parry

With their help and community support, projects were carried out to upgrade the school's hall, fence, canteen and carpark, replace roofs and curtains, rewire cables, renovate toilets, repaint the school, and put up a new signboard, giving an overall facelift to the schools.  The morale of the students soared when some Form Five and Form Six students achieved perfect scores in their exams.

Chong paying tribute to first Principal of SMKSI,
Michael Parry - the Father of SMKSI
Speaking on behalf of the students, Taranvir Singh, 18, the head boy, thanked Chong for her contributions to the school. 

Taranvir, who joined the Form Six class recently, said he was impressed how Chong solved problems with problematic students in a motherly way.   He also valued the tips he received from her on alternative but more effective ways to deal with recalcitrant students.

In a simple ceremony, Chong, the 10th principal of SMKSI, honoured Michael Parry, the first principal of SMKSI, by giving him the moniker, "Father of SMKSI."

She also recognised Tan Song Chua, former art teacher in SMKSI and sculptor of the bronze bust of Sultan Ibrahim for his contributions to the school. The sculpture was made in 1970, and now stands proudly as a monument in front of the school hall.

Accompanied by her husband and family members, Chong was given a grand send-off in an open-top four-wheel-drive that was driven along a path lined by students from uniformed groups giving her a smart salute.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 16 March 2011
After her retirement, Chong received two pleasant surprises when she was recognised for her service in the form of these prestigious awards:
The first being the Bintang KMN or Kesatria Mangku Negara at the King's 2011 birthday celebration and the other, an Excellence Service Award 2010 [Anugerah Perkhidmatan Cemerlang or APC] from the Ministry of Education.  Congratulations Madam!

Special Sage Tan

Sage Tan Song Yen, at age 4
Sage Tan Song Yen, a little bundle of joy who weighed 2.5kg when he was born on Dec 25 2005, seemed normal just like his older brother who was born 5 years before.  When he was brought home, his mother noticed that he was hardly awake and at night, he cried a lot and refused his feeds.

Throughout the next week, baby Sage slept all the time even during the din made by the family's barking dogs.  His mother, Cindy Tan, from Johor Baru, had moved to live and work in Singapore after marrying Singaporean, Thomas Tan.

Every child had different habits so Cindy and Thomas, both 38, thought Sage was just a sleepy baby who enjoyed sleeping more.  Since Sage was their second child, they were quite relaxed about his drowsiness and poor appetite.  Little did they know that his condition was very serious.

Poem written by Sage's mum in his 4th birthday invitation
When 13-day-old Sage's condition did not improve, they took him to Singapore's Thomson Medical Centre where his pediatrician warded him immediately because tests showed that he was almost in a coma.  At first, doctors suspected that it was a viral infection, but a battery of tests and scans drew a blank.

They realised that it could possibly be a genetic metabolic disease and decided to transfer Sage to the National University Hospital where Dr Denise Goh, head of the genetics division, carried out more tests.

The Tans still remember the exact words that Dr Goh said which changed their lives forever.

After telling them to sit down, she said: "I have good news and bad news. The good news is I think I know what it is. The bad news is it's not good."
Dr Goh held up a vial of yellow liquid and asked the parents to smell it.  It was a sample of their son's urine and it had a distinctive sweet smell like maple syrup because he has a rare genetic disorder called Maple Syrup Urine Disease (MSUD).

This rare disease causes difficulties in breaking down three types of amino acids -- leucine, isoleucine and valine -- which are essential for normal growth.

Sage celebrating 4th birthday with
his parents and brother, Basil
In MSUD patients who are untreated, these amino acids will build up to toxic levels that can result in brain damage, or even death.  With his leucine levels built up to 12 times its normal level, Sage needed to have his blood cleansed immediately, but he couldn't undergo dialysis because his tiny veins were too small even for the smallest catheter.

Instead, Sage went through a delicate procedure to have his blood drawn out manually, syringe by syringe, and received transfused blood from another syringe over a 4-hour period.

Sage is the first classic case of MSUD in Singapore and with such a rare and difficult-to-manage condition, Sage stayed in the hospital for long periods of time.  To stay alive, he had to be on a very strict low-protein diet with a milk formula specially brought in from the United Kingdom.

To complicate his condition, he had a hyperactive airway and bad gastric reflux and his protein and calories intake had to be constantly monitored and measured with regular blood tests. 

This special milk formula was not available in Singapore but could be obtained in Kuala Lumpur and only with a doctor's prescription.

When the shipment of their order from the manufacturer in the United Kingdom was delayed due to miscommunication, the family was frantic and they had to do all they could to get it from Kuala Lumpur. With the help of Cindy's family and the convenient North-South Highway, two family members synchronised their drive to meet at toll gates by night and delivered one can of this special formula to ensure that Sage could have his meals.

At that time, the nearest lab equipped to provide Sage's blood test results was in Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL) because the machine in Singapore had broken down and needed repairs.  If Sage was unwell, he was monitored closer and blood tests were necessary every 3 or 4 days until his amino acid levels were close to normal.

This was an extremely anxious time and they again used what they fondly call the "Tan Express Courier Service", because rushing his blood to HKL by road was a faster alternative than sending to other labs in the United States.  When Sage was 45 days' old, he had spent 34 days in the hospital.

On Feb 7, 2006, Sage was finally home again and it was a whole new experience for the Tans as they were on their own and had to accurately weigh and measure the 6 different components that go into making his milk and manage his daily milk and food intake.

Over time, they learnt how to watch him clinically to observe if there were any symptoms of imbalance in diet because even though blood tests were the best indicator, it couldn't be done everyday.

After Sage celebrated his second birthday in December 2007, he was again hospitalised with stomach flu and suffered frequent seizures with brain swelling that may result in mental disabilities and delayed development.

This started a serious discussion on the possibility of a liver transplant and it culminated with a decision during the Chinese New Year of 2008.  It was a tough decision to make as risks were high and very few such operations were done on MSUD patients in the last 10 years.

After a series of tests, a blood match was found in Sage's cousin, 25-year old Kelvin Tan, and on April 5, 2009, Sage underwent his first liver transplant operation in NUH Singapore.

Although there were some complications to the liver's hepatic artery during the operation, the transplanted liver functioned well and Sage no longer needed to go on a restricted diet.  However, due to clots in the hepatic artery, Sage's bile ducts were seriously blocked and this caused jaundice.

With the threat of liver failure, the Tans sought another liver transplant and Sage was on top priority to find a suitable match. With no match found after 4 months, Cindy's older sister, Ivy, a mother of 3 young children volunteered to donate.

Tests showed that she was a perfect match and with the Tans fully aware that the donor risked herself to give hope to Sage, the operation was completed successfully on Oct 12, 2009.

As a direct consequence of Sage's landmark case, a pilot programme to screen babies for rare genetic disorders was established in Singapore's private and public hospitals in 2007 and today, thousands of babies are being tested for early detection and treatment.

On Dec 25, 2009, the entire Tan family came together in Johor Baru to celebrate Sage's 4th birthday and they also enjoyed a memorable family reunion during the recent Chinese New Year celebration.

For the Tans, it has been a long and at times, tiring journey but they have grown and learnt so much from special Sage, their brave little fighter.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Buzz on 21 March 2010

Additional Info from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

What is Maple Syrup Urine Disease?

Maple Syrup Urine Disease (MSUD) also called branched-chain ketoaciduria is an autosomal recessive metabolic disorder affecting the branched-chain amino acids.  An autosome is a chromosome and in humans, there are 22 pairs of autosomes in addition to the X and Y sex chromosomes.  MSUD is caused by a deficiency of the branched-chain alpha-keto acid dehydrogenase complex, leading to a buildup of branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) and their toxic by-products in the blood and urine.

In an infant, this disease is characterized by the presence of sweet-smelling urine, an odour similar to that of maple syrup.  Infants with this disease at birth seem healthy but if left untreated, will suffer brain damage and eventually die.  The early infancy symptoms include poor feeding, vomiting, dehydration, lethargy and seizures before falling into a coma and going into neurological decline.

MSUD is the most common inborn error of metabolism which affects approximately 1 out of 180,000 infants and has also been reported among Malaysian children.  So newborn screening, early diagnosis and appropriate management would save the children and prevent mental retardation and physical handicaps.  The most common and severe form of MSUD is the classic type which appears soon after birth and requires careful blood chemistry monitoring, a special diet and frequent blood tests to keep the disorder under control.  

With proper diet management, people with this condition that cannot digest meat, eggs, milk, nuts and beans, are able to live healthy, normal lives and not suffer any severe neurological damage associated with this disease.  So a simple pin-prick on the heel of newborn babies for a blood test may change their lives if a genetic disorder was detected early because treatment will generally be futile when a child reached age 7.  The newborn screening technology provided by Kuala Lumpur General Hospital is reputed to be among the best in South East Asia. 

Sage Tan with his Aunty Irene a k a Aunty Bear-bear
Info Update:

Sage's Aunty Irene informed me that he was accepted into full-time kindergarten in February 2011. 

Sushi Chef remembers

David Tay, as a boy with his family's car
at Jalan Siu Nam

David Tay Siew Meng, 53, sushi chef extraordinaire and his wife, Alice, own and operate Sushi Monzta in Taman Pelangi.

I was just a boy when my father told me that he and grandfather came to Johor from Szechuan, China, and they used to own large tracts of properties here.  

Due to family disputes, we were left with nothing and for almost 25 years, our family lived in the rented upstairs unit of No. 12 Jalan Siu Nam.  

My father operated a sundry shop while my mother had her own business as a tailor and gave tailoring classes in Cheng Choo Ladies Tailor & Tuition Centre at No. 22-A Jalan Siu Nam.

I attended the Holy Light Church kindergarten and then Ngee Heng Primary School.  After completing secondary studies in English College, I went to the Sixth Form in a private institution and later graduated as an Architectural Technician from the Singapore Polytechnic.  

I remember receiving a letter from the Polytechnic informing me that the graduation ceremony would be held at the Singapore World Trade Centre. That same year my father passed away.

David and the Tay family lived upstairs
of Imperial Electric at
No. 12 Jalan Siu Nam for 25 years

My mother, a Malaysian, had a very successful business in tailoring baju kurung and cheong sam and some regular customers who had migrated to Los Angeles, would return to tailor clothes with her.  

When we had to move from our home in Jalan Siu Nam because it was to be demolished to make way for development, I remember seeing tears in my mother’s eyes. Mother is aged 80 now.

After graduation, I got a job with an architectural firm and with my savings I bought a second-hand car from a relative.  

One day as I was driving my Subaru 1.6 on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, the car broke down and as I tried in vain to fix the fan-belt, I got my hands all dirty.  

The car stalled in front of Johor Rubber Stamp, the company where Alice used to work with and when I went in to borrow the office telephone (there were no mobile phones in those days), she thought I was a mechanic.  

That was how I met Alice Low Yeng Hua, who is now my wife and we have two sons, Thomas, 15 and Shawn, 14.

David working in the kitchen, New York
In 1986 Alice’s brother who was studying and working part-time in New York City, asked us to join him and his wife there.  

After giving it serious thought, we started to process our travel documents and registered our marriage.  

In 1988, we left for a holiday in Disneyland before settling down in New York City. 

At that time, Chef Hirotakaida of Okura Japanese Restaurant on Third Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets was ready to train a sushi chef.  He observed that my stature suited the job and accepted me as an apprentice.  

In the next two to three months, I only mopped floors, washed dishes and chopped food. One day he asked me, “David-san, do you know why you were asked to do odd jobs?” 

I was quite clueless so he went on to explain that as a chef, I have to know every aspect of kitchen operations so that in the event, any one was absent or quit, I can just step in to do his job.  

He also taught me the discipline to make use of slow times to clean and maintain every area of the business so that everything always looked spotlessly clean.

David serving up fresh sushi at
Sushi Monzta, Johor Baru

I remember father usually did the cooking at home probably because mother had her own business.  

From young, I observed how he would gut and fillet fish and I also learnt from him, the art of skinning and cleaning a frog and tortoise. 

In the same way, I watched and learnt a great deal from Hiro-san who trained me in the fine art of sushi making, first in the role as cook, then as assistant chef and finally as sushi chef.

In Malaysia, fresh fish and poultry are often supplied to restaurants in parts but in New York City, fish and poultry were supplied whole.  

Everyone likes to eat fresh and quickly so I learnt to fillet different sizes of fish with great dexterity. 

I remember having to de-bone forty-eight birds at one time and after doing it countless times, I became rather skilled with the knife.

In Mishima Japanese Restaurant on Lexington Avenue 23rd Street, I learnt the art of preparing Kyodo style food from Chef Toshi. In addition to new skills, Toshi-san instilled in me the principles of using no garlic, no oil and no monosodium glutamate (MSG).

I remember it was Halloween of 1996 when my family and I left New York and returned to Johor Baru.  

Armed with skills and experience, I went to Tokugawa Japanese Restaurant, the second Japanese restaurant in Johor Baru and the late Soo Bee Soo offered me a job. I was assistant chef for one and a half years before being promoted to chef. 

After 13 years with Tokugawa, my wife and I decided that we should start our own venture and in July 2010 we opened Sushi Monzta at Jalan Perang, Taman Pelangi. 

[Important Update: This restaurant was renamed, New Tokugawa.]

It’s encouraging that former Tokugawa customers found their way to Sushi Monzta and it’s almost like old times when I serve these friends.  

My wife and I often reminisce with old friends about the Johor Baru of yester-years and we often miss those days when people were honest and friendlier.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in March 2011

Father Cool

Father Jojo [Right] dancing in Iban longhouse, Kuching
“Cool” is the adjective often used to describe him and he’s also known as “the guy with the cool hair.”  These are intriguing remarks that rarely apply to an ordained priest of the Society of Jesus (SJ), a religious order of men called Jesuits, who follow the teachings of the Catholic Church.  But it certainly applies to Rev Father Dr Joseph Fung, SJ. 

If priests are perceived as people you only see inside a church building, Fr Joseph, better known as Fr Jojo, 54, serves by immersing himself in the community to better understand the people he’s working with.  Ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1986, Fr Jojo is a familiar face among parishioners of the Malacca-Johor Diocese.  After serving four and a half years in the parish of St Francis Xavier, Petaling Jaya, Fr Jojo moved to Johor Baru to serve in the Malacca-Johor Diocese and he’s been here for the last 10 years. 

Father Jojo collecting mussels with Orang Seletar
Trained in anthropology and contextual theology, his interests are in ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, the pluralistic context of Asian religions and the poor.  He is currently involved in three main ministries– the Campus Ministry, the Orang Asli Ministry and the Ministry of Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue. 

Since 1999, he has been conducting research among the Orang Seletar, a coastal aboriginal people who live along the southern coast of Johor, and among the Murut hill people in Sabah. 

This Jesuit anthropologist is using his training to learn more about the indigenous culture and is actively involved in training and equipping the Orang Seletar with skills like deep-sea fishing, to improve their income and livelihood.  By making essential information available to them in livelihood projects, he is a vital link in the network between them and the State and Federal Government.  He knows that when these villagers acquire the skills to use computers and can access information on their own, they gain a sense of dignity and empowerment.  As he connects with these communities and feels their struggles, he is better disposed to respond and mobilize resources to help them develop a more sustainable livelihood.

Father Jojo singing with varsity students
in fund-raising event
As the National Coordinator of Malaysian Catholic Students, diocesan director of the Campus Ministry of Catholic Students and national director of the Malaysian Caltholic Students’ Movement for East and West Malaysia, Fr Jojo is introducing university students to the lifestyles of indigenous people. 

When he visits villages for his research, students are encouraged to join him for first-hand experiences and learn about the need to preserve the villagers’ livelihood and the protection of the delicate eco system. 

He hopes to show students the positive traits of indigenous people, especially their resourcefulness, and let them see the goodness inherent in the indigenous belief system. 

Book by Father Jojo in English and Chinese translation

Fr Jojo has published six books with several translated into Chinese and his fourth book, “Ripples on the Water” is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation written at the Association of Chicago Theological Schools in the United States.  His dissertation was re-written as a book after he spent a further two years with the indigenous people of Malaysia. 

His latest book, “Garing the Legend, A Decorated Hero, A Renowned Shaman,” is about the life of a renowned shaman named, Garing, a hero who was decorated by Queen Elizabeth II for bravery.  Other books titles by Fr Jojo are, “Inner Whisper”, “Shoes-off Barefoot We Walk” and “Rainbow of Life.” 

At the peak of the floods in December 2006, the Johor branch of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, worked in collaboration with Bahai, Sai Baba and Islamic religious groups to channel funds and aid to the victims.  Fr Jojo, who was council President (2004 – 2006), coordinated the distribution of kerosene stoves and basic necessities to affected families in Kg Laut, Skudai.  He believes that inter-religious dialogue is the bridge that will unite humanity with compassion, regardless of race, language and religion, especially during natural disasters and times of crisis.

Father Jojo singing solo in a children's concert

Fr Jojo recalls one of the best moments in his ministry on that day when he was driving on the
Pasir Gudang Highway
and spotted a car that was stalled by the roadside.  He had already driven pass about 200m but decided to stop and slowly reversed to see how he could help.  He saw a Malay family in the car and asked, “Boleh saya tolong?”

When the driver alighted and came around the car, he was dressed in a jubah with turban and looked like an Arab mullah.  Fr Jojo joined him to push-start the car and as they were pushing the car, he thought with amusement that it would look very interesting if he was dressed in his Jesuit priestly cassock!  At that moment, they were not a Catholic priest and a devout Muslim but just believers in God who teaches us to love and help one another in times of need.  Fr Jojo believes that when we can speak the language of the heart, we will be better of as religious people and have a right relationship with God and man.

Besides speaking Hakka, his own dialect, Fr Jojo is also fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, English, Malay and Tagalog.  His practical experience in the field of anthropology is keeping him busy with projects and speaking engagements with indigenous groups, students and parishioners, as well as lecturing in the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila, the Philippines.  Fr Jojo chooses to dress casually in jeans and T-shirt but even if he’s robed in his priestly garb, you will agree that he’s still easily distinguished by his “coolness.”

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in January 2011

Update Info:
Peggy with Fr Jojo and Vincent D'Silva having
coffee and cake at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee sidewalk cafe

Peggy with Fr Jojo, February 2011

Memories of Muar High School

Desmond Pereira [Left] escorting Malayan Scout
Commissioner on his visit to Muar High School

It was August 1957, just days before the birth of the Federation of Malaya when Desmond Paul Pereira became Headmaster of Muar High School, a role he held until his retirement in May 1973. 

Taking over the reins from E. A. Balshaw, the last expatriate head, Pereira was the first Malayan headmaster of Muar High School (MHS).  In a time of radical change in the country’s political structure and educational system, MHS was then by enrolment, the largest English secondary school in Johor.

Born in Malacca on 19 December 1922, Pereira was educated in the Malacca High School and went to Raffles College in Singapore at age 16. 

Pereira presenting his speech at Parents Day event
at Muar High School in 1960
Two fellow students who stayed in the same hostel block with him were Tun Hj Hamdan Sheikh Tahir, who became Director of Education in Malaysia and Penang State Governor and Ungku Abdul Aziz bin Ungku Abdul Hamid, who was Malaysia’s first Royal Professor and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya. 

While Raffles College was established to train teachers for secondary schools, it also produced a number of post-war Malaysian and Singaporean leaders, including Prime Ministers.  Although he was not personally acquainted with the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Pereira who was President of the Literary & Dramatic Society, worked with the society’s Honorary Secretary, Lee Kuan Yew, who’s now Singapore’s Minister Mentor.  Their time in college was however, cut short when the war broke out.

Pereira has no doubt that the Japanese invasion and Occupation was the most traumatic experience for people who survived.  During the Occupation, Pereira’s father was given back his headmaster job in a primary school which was under Japanese control and he persuaded Pereira to join his staff as a teacher.  Pereira had tried doing a business selling household goods but without success, so he agreed with great reluctance because the main function of the school was to teach the language of the conquerors and inculcate loyalty to Japan. 

Pereira [3rd from Left] and HM Garfield Woods [Centre]
with Mohamediah House in 1946
Between 1942 and 1945, MHS was turned into a Japanese school called Nippon Gakka and also used as a concentration camp.  When Japanese forces in South East Asia surrendered in Singapore on 12 September 1945, Pereira recalls how roads near the field behind the Malacca Club were jammed with people gathered to watch what remained of the Japanese garrison, surrender their arms to British and Indian troops.

When Pereira first joined MHS as a teacher, Garfield Woods replaced C. D. Westwood as headmaster. While MHS was an all-male establishment since it’s founding in 1902 and had Johor’s first hostel for boys, it became co-educational in 1947 when they accepted female students into Sixth Form. 

Pereira, aged 87
In 1951, Pereira was among 10 teachers from Malaya and Singapore who were offered Smith-Mundt Scholarships to study in Stanford University, California.  Returning with a Masters Degree in Education, he was disappointed that the British education system did not recognize his American degree.  So he went to University of Malaya then based in Singapore, to get his Honours Degree in English before being posted to Johor Bahru’s English College, now Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar, to teach English and English Literature until he was promoted to head MHS in 1957.

Pereira, who was Vice-President of the Muar Amateur Athletics Association for many years, said that MHS sports activities were organized in school “houses” that were named after roads around the school like Meriam, Mejidi, Petri, Omri and Mohamediah. 

From 1960 to 1973 he was a member of the Muar Rotary Club which started the Interact Club and encouraged the school to be involved in joint activities like debates, oratorical contests and musical performances.  Pereira remembers a Lucky Draw in a joint Rotary and Interact Club fund-raising project with the prestigious top prize of a brand new motorcycle which a policeman won. 

A selection of English textbooks and workbooks
written by Pereira
In the mid 60’s, MHS accepted a few blind boys, some on transfer from Johor Bahru’s Princess Elizabeth School for the Blind.  The school had a battalion of Cadets who did military training with old rifles that were kept in the Central Police Station located a short distance away.  It also had 4 Boy Scout troops and on special occasions like the Sultan’s Birthday, the Scouts and Cadets would participate in parades with uniformed units like the police and army.

“My policy and advice to my staff is to leave contented and be happy to serve the school,” said Pereira, who attributes the school’s success academically and in extra-curricular activities, to a team of dedicated staff. 

In addition to his role as headmaster, Pereira had a host of extra duties that was a follow-through of the system which involved the most senior British headmasters before Independence.  He was “Senior Normal Instructor” to administer Normal Teacher training class for North Johor, and Director of the Regional Training Centre (RTC) for teacher trainees of North Johor.  He also supervised the annual Oral English exam for the Federation of Malaya Certificate of Education and was Chief Examiner for the Sixth Form entrance exam English Paper.

His autobiography,
"The Sun Rises, The Sun Sets"
In his illustrious career with Muar’s premier school, Pereira is proud that it’s alumni includes prominent names like Dato Abdul Ghani Othman, Johor Menteri Besar, Tan Sri Othman Saat, former Johor Menteri Besar, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin, Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng, former Minister of Health and Tan Sri Jaafar Hussin, former governor of Bank Negara.

For 14 years, he was editor and writer contributing 2 articles per issue to “News & Views” the bi-monthly Malacca-Johor Diocese publication.  Pereira, a prolific writer who published a series of more than 30 English textbooks and workbooks, now lives in Johor Bahru.  His autobiography entitled, “The Sun Rises, The Sun Sets” is available in selected bookstores in Singapore. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in August 2009

Comments from Anonymous:

"I sought admission to the Muar High School in 1968, to the Lower Sixth class. I had 6 points for my relevant Arts subject, although I had 9 for my Science. I met the Headmaster, who rang the Ministry of Education Johor Bahru immeditately for me, right in frong of me. Until this day, I am still grateful to him. I wish I could have studied in Muar, where I studied at the CHIJ in 1965. Could the Head-master be Mr Pereira? He had a daughter who studied at the Muar Convent?"

My Reply to Anonymous:

It's likely that the HM was Mr Desmond Pereira because his daughter did study in the Muar Convent.  If you write to me under the Contacts page and give me your email, I can put you in touch with them.  Thanks for your interest in my blog and Happy Reading! 

July 2011