What goes around comes around
by William Hughes. Posted on July 30, 2012, Monday
I REMBER the phone call as if it only happened last year, but it was July of 1964. The Western Union operator said in her deep Augusta, Georgia drawl, “You have a telegram from the Peace Corps. Would you like me to read it?”
Having applied to be a volunteer several months before and having not heard a word until that moment, I told the operator to fire away.
“Congratulations. You have been invited to the…” Here she paused, started to read on, then said, “I think I’d better spell this: ‘the Sabah Sarawak Programme. Please indicate if you accept.’”
I told the operator to send me the telegram in order for me to see what she had spelled, but after I saw the words, they were no more recognisable than when I heard them spelled. I had never heard of Sabah or Sarawak.
Shortly afterwards, the Peace Corps sent me an information packet which said that Sabah and Sarawak were located on the island of Borneo and were two states in the new federation of Malaysia.
At the time, I, like some Americans, had heard of the island of Borneo and of Malaya. We were vaguely aware of somewhere called Malaysia, but if offered a thousand dollars, we could not have pointed out its location on a world map. Unlike most Americans, however, I would learn much about these faraway places in the months to come.
In those days, training for volunteers in the Malaysian programmes took place in Hawaii in an old converted hospital, located in the midst of palm trees, flower gardens and fruit-laden guava trees.
My group was called Sabah/Sarawak 8 because we were the eighth group of volunteers to come to East Malaysia, but not the eighth group to come to Malaysia. This was only about two years after the formation of the federation and the groups were still being named as they had been before the formation.
Originally there were about 40 people in the group. I was among the oldest, having graduated two years before and taught in high school for two years. Almost all of the rest had just received their college diplomas the previous May or June and had no professional experience at all.
The ones slated for Sabah were to teach English as a second language. There were some men in that group but most were women. Those slated for Sarawak (including myself) were all men and designated to teach secondary education in one of the government schools.
And so it begins…
Training was a mixture of a college campus and military basic training. There was much physical activity like hiking, running, swimming and team sports and many of the men lived in military-like barracks, at least for half of the training.
There were also many lectures on the history and character of Malaysia and specifically, Sarawak, although there were also lectures on American history and government.
To approve the concept of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy administration, Congress insisted that one of the objectives of the programme should be to spread the word about the US, its history and its character. Most of the trainees did not take this part of their mission very seriously, but they listened to the lectures and took notes, if for nothing else but for the fact that several tests were given on the subject matter and the grades of each trainee were posted on a public bulletin board.
As I had taught American history and government for two years to high school students, this part of the exercise was unnecessary for me. But the part of the training that was not the least waste of time was the language training in Malay. We had five hours of it: two hours first thing in the morning, one at noon and two hours at night Monday through Friday and two hours on Saturday.
What the Peace Corps did not explain was that an invitation to the programme did not guarantee that the invitee would actually become a volunteer.
By the end of the training programme, my group of over 40 had been whittled down to a mere 17. Some were deselected within the first several weeks. Others were allowed to go midway through the training before they were sent home and a few more were given their return tickets home on the last day of training.
For those of us fortunate enough to remain, there was an exhausting flight to KL, several days of presentations by second-tier government officials, receptions at the American Embassy and snapshots of the city which was, even then, more modern and developed than any of us had expected. Then it was on to Singapore, which was still a Malaysian state at the time, for more of the same before we reached our respective assigned schools.
The Three Rivers School
I had originally been assigned to Penrissen secondary school, but when I arrived in Kuching I was told that my assignment had been changed to a school in the third division because the headmaster, a Canadian, had demanded that the volunteer assigned to his school had teaching experience as he would be required to teach at the form four level.
The school was Three Rivers School, located in the town of Mukah, a change in my original schedule that would lead to many changes in my life.
The trip from Sibu to Mukah in those days involved both river travel and road travel. I was taken by speedboat, which was less than speedy because it was the rainy season and the river was cluttered with debris that frequently got caught in the blades of the motor, forcing the driver to stop and free the blades.
The road travel began when we reached a town called Dalat. As we neared Mukah, the road ended and we had to travel along the beach, which could only be done during low tide.
Mukah in those days was a small backwater town, the heart of which was about a mile from the ocean. The centre piece of the town, like an oasis in the midst of a small desert, was Three Rivers School with its unexpectedly large and impressive compound.
The school had facilities and grounds for practically every organised sport – a large basketball court, tennis and badminton courts and fields for football, rugby and softball.
It was soon apparent that the headmaster was very high on competitive sports. Another PC volunteer coached basketball, a local teacher coached football (or what we Americans call soccer) and a British woman coached, of all things, rugby, in a short, floppy skirt. Needless to say, she had little trouble inspiring the boys to faithfully show up for practice. I agreed to coach softball.
The secondary school curriculum in all government schools was the old Cambridge system in those days. All subjects were taught in English that was used in all communication in or out of the classroom by teachers and students. Since Malay and Chinese were special subjects, I never got a chance to use the Malay I had spent so many hours learning, except when I went to the bazaar.
It was the first year the school offered form four-level classes. I was assigned to teach form four English grammar and composition to a class that consisted of students, some of which would go on to universities overseas and even to medical school. One of the top students in that class was Dr Michael Toyad.
My main class at Three Rivers was Form Three, to which I taught English, history and Southeast Asian geography. I also spent considerable time drilling my class on test-taking techniques, as they would have to take the state examination at the end of the year.
This exam would determine if they would go on to Form Four or stop their schooling. Perhaps some small part of my efforts paid off because that year, for the first time, Three Rivers school Form Three students had 100 per cent pass results. It was the only school in the third division to accomplish that.
Towards the end of that year something happened at the school that would ultimately produce big and lasting changes in my life.
Before I had arrived at Three Rivers, the headmaster had long been indulging in a sort of feud with a Peace Corps volunteer who had come the year before me. Then, something he said or wrote, which was critical of the headmaster, led to the headmaster firing him and having him removed from the school immediately.
Since the volunteer was very popular with the students, the Form Four students organised student protests against the headmaster, including staging a student strike against attending classes.
It was the first and — as far as I know — only time that such actions were taken in a Sarawak school. The result of all of this was quite predictable: The education department sided with the headmaster and the students were punished by having the leaders of the protests transferred to other schools.
The headmaster wrongly suspected that I had played a part in inspiring the students’ action and our relationship became somewhat strained for the remainder of the year. When the final school term ended I was transferred to the government secondary school in Serian.
At the time I thought the transfer were grossly unfair. In time, I was to change my mind.
End of part one. Part two will be published next Monday.