Are old school networks and family clan associations still relevant?

FIRST let me declare my personal interest in the above named subject. I am a prime mover of my old school network as well as the honorary treasurer of my family clan association.

So obviously you would expect me to say yes indeed they are still as relevant and as useful as they used to be, and there are many advantages and benefits to be derived from being active in either or both.

But I would like you to suspend your assumption and allow me to expound on the pros and cons of both these types of organisations and societies, or indeed any loose configurations of either or both.

In the early years, during the first arrivals of the pioneering Chinese into Sarawak, we read from history books that the merchants founded the first grouping of mercantile societies to look after their own interests, as in ironmongers, carpenters, dockworkers, fishermen, etc. Then came the various Chinese clans, who formed their own dialect groupings (Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, etc) and later their own family groups (eg Lim/Chan, Ong, Lee, etc)

These organisations thrived in the early years; they all collected a small but significant amount of subscription from every member and a position on the exco committee was often a prestigious title. Such positions commanded a certain status in the community.

These organisations exerted a stronghold and held great influence, as both the colonial government then, as well as the community at large, referred to them for important matters such as filling vacancies in the public sector, as character and background references for credentials, and for taking out loans from financial institutions, as well as for any referral on one’s social and family standing.

Important matters like arranging and registering marriages too were once a part of their duties. They acted as cradle to grave intermediaries and registrars.

Newcomers, especially from mainland China, had to be inducted into their various dialect organisations and then became members of their trade societies.

Today, although these organisations, both trade and clans, still exist, they are pale shadows of what they used to be as they no longer wield much power over their members. Indeed, it is no longer a necessity to even become a member of such a society, trade grouping, or clan. It’s now all very voluntary and optional and, more often than not, a majority of the Chinese population does not belong to any.

However, they still hold sway over the community at large. Their office bearers can still be rather formidable personalities in society and are usually held in high regard by both the government of the day and the general public. They still perform an age-old duty of keeping together the grouping of tradesmen or of the clan – however it is correct to say that the bigger clans like the Foochow, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka/Taipoo, and Cantonese on their own right can still be rather influential even in this modern day.

Old school networks work differently.

Their influences are highly dependent on who’s the government of the day.

Even though the majority of senior civil servants, political appointees, and ministers were from St Thomas’ School during the 1980s to 2000s; it was the boys from the other school around the corner – St Joseph’s – who wielded more political power and clout during this period, simply because the top two positions – that of the Chief Minister and the State Secretary, were held by former Josephians.

Regardless to say that meant that most of the important positions and the lion share of the contracts and projects were mostly won by the old boys’ network of the powers that be.

It was interesting to read and have seen many past public events which unfolded – of how advertisers, sponsors and well-wishers had fallen in line and had gratefully adorned newspaper pages as well as attended events and functions organised by these ‘old boys’ networks’, as compared to the ones organised by the ‘lesser minions’ of the rival school(s), who had to beg and plead for donations.

As the French would say – C’est la vie.

The younger generation, those born after 1980, would have missed most of the era when the family and dialect clan organisations were at their apex of influence – members of bigger Chinese families would have had maybe a family member or two being involved in one, but would not have felt any need to join or even seen the influence the association might have had on their own lives. By the time they were born, society itself had modernised thus reducing the need and necessity for the urge to belong to a bigger clan grouping. It was now every man for himself, and the modern era had begun to make itself felt.

At most these younger men and women might be interested to attend a reunion gathering of their old classmates or college mates from their own school and of the same year if they so happened to be free that night. It would mean catching up and saying hi to those one hasn’t seen or met since leaving school – could be five, 10, or even 40 years ago.

In my opinion, it is rather sad to see the waning of the influence of old family clans and dialect organisations – I really can’t see them ever regaining the glory and might of old.

As for the old school network, it just takes a small effort. All that’s needed is someone to pick up a phone, or collect some names and contact numbers, and all the old mates are just a click away – nowadays with WhatsApp, Gmail, and LinkedIn – the next reunion is just that small click away.

Click now – it’s as good a time as any.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]

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