The Frangipani Tree
by V. Chakaravarthy
An Old Boy takes Dr G E D Lewis on a
car trip and makes a startling discovery
V. Chakaravarthy attended the V.I. from 1952 to 1959, the last four years of which the Headmaster was Dr G E D Lewis. He graduated from the University of Malaya with a B.Sc (Hons) in mathematics and a Diploma in Education. His first posting, in 1965, as a mathematics teacher was to Sekolah Alam Shah, the countryís first Malay medium secondary school. His first class of 17 sixth form students achieved a 95% pass rate in their HSC exam. He next taught at Aminuddin Baki School for about three months before he was assigned to the Royal Military College, Sungai Besi. Chakaravarthyís eight-year service at the RMC was so exemplary that he was directly promoted as Headmaster of Cochrane Road School without any intermediary assignment as Senior Assistant. After eight months there, he was made Head of Sekolah Menengah Jalan Temerloh in 1978. After one and a half years, Chakaravarthy became the Education Departmentís first choice to head High School Setapak which then had a severe disciplinary problem. He successfully rid the school of gangsters and gained a formidable reputation as a strict disciplinarian during his eight years at that school. Chakaravarthy served his next posting at Sekolah Menangah Dato Lokman, Kuala Lumpur where he remained until his retirement in 1995. Below, he recounts a four-day journey he made with Dr Lewis in August 1993. Relevant excerpts from Dr Lewisí own 1991 memoirs, Out East in the Malay Peninsula, are interspersed in Chakaravarthyís narrative, providing clarification, detail and counterpoint.
hen the VIOBA celebrated the centenary of the founding of the school in 1993, they invited Dr G E D Lewis from Britain to Kuala Lumpur for the celebrations. There was a grand banquet with five former headmasters present, along with the Prime Minister, the Sultan of Brunei and other dignitaries. I should have been at there, too, but some prior commitment on that historic evening of August 14th made me miss the event at the Shangrila Ballroom. So I thought it would be best to go personally after the dinner and pay my respects to my Old Headmaster at the Concord Hotel where he was staying. I had always been impressed by Dr Lewis as a firm disciplinarian. Now that he was in town the least I could do was to meet him again after 34 years and ask him what he wanted to do while in Malaysia and see if I could fulfill his wish.
"Sir," I asked when I finally met him, "How long are you going to be here and what is it that you would like to do?"
"Actually," he replied, "I would like, if possible, to visit some of the schools, other than the V.I., that I was Headmaster of. One of them is Tuanku Muhammad School, Kuala Pilah, and the other is Clifford School, Kuala Lipis."
Now, at that time I was Headmaster of Datuk Lokman School and it was still term time. So I immediately applied for leave telling the Education Department that my old Headmaster was in town and that I wanted to show him around. The Chief Education Officer, my former Director of Studies at the Royal Military College, was very sympathetic. "No problem, Chak," he said, "Just instruct your Senior Assistant to take care of the school in your absence." And that was it.
A few mornings later, I pulled up in my car at the Concord Hotel to pick up Dr Lewis who was already waiting for me in the lobby with his suitcase. We zoomed south along the North-South Highway to our first destination: Negri Sembilan. Arriving in Kuala Pilah at around three oíclock, we checked in at the Government Rest House. The premises were in bad shape but, as it happened, one of the employees was an old boy of High School Setapak when I was Headmaster there. That immediately ensured that rooms were available for us and that we were very well treated!
(1946) ...I travelled to Seremban by train,
where I was met by a Malay syce from the Education Department with
a car, for transporting me to Kuala Pilah ..... [It] turned out to
be what I had been led to expect, a mainly Chinese small town
set in a beautiful district of padi fields, coconut trees, Malay
kampongs and smiling Malays, crowned so to speak with a royal
istana at the secluded Sri Menanti and an equally charming
royal family. To me, it was a rural paradise and a welcome
change from the Burma-Thailand railway.
We dined that evening at an open air restaurant in the town; Dr Lewis had cha koay teow, a dish certainly not unfamiliar to him, after his two decades and more in Malaya. Back in the Rest House we chatted about all sorts of things, about education, about the V.I. and about Malaysia in general. In mood and temperament here was the Dr Lewis of the old days in V.I.
But he couldnít quite place me in the V.I. firmament; after all, he was there seven years and I was one of thousands of V.I. pupils who had passed through him. I was in the School Certificate batch of 1957, I reminded him. And in our Upper Sixth year our class had staged the prize-winning school concert item, Ticket to Hell. And I had a part as one of the devils from Hell, I told him. With that jog to his memory, Dr Lewis lighted up. Ah yes, the play was excellent, he now recalled, and the best he had seen for an amateur group of that age. He had got his fix on me now!
Although Dr Lewis never taught me, all V.I. boys knew of him even before he became our Headmaster. From Form One to Form Four, our geography text books were written by him! Our entire geographical knowledge of Malaya and of the world in our first four years of secondary school came from him!
(1946) ...During my leave in the United Kingdom I came
to an agreement with Longman Green the publishers to
produce a series of geography books for use in Malayan
secondary schools, in collaboration with my old Professor,
Dudley Stamp, a famous geographer. So I started on the
books while I was at Kuala Pilah. Fortunately the Department
of Education had just published the new geography syllabus,
so the kind of geography required had been agreed. For
Form 1 the syllabus called for the study of the chief
industries of Malaya such as tin mining, rubber planting,
padi planting, fishing and so on. I decided I would write
from personal experience, and started on a series of
lightning visits over the weekends to various plantations
(rubber, oil palm, coconut), tin mines and padi fields
where I studied the geography of these industries at
first hand. .. Book One, which I wrote at Kuala Pilah,
eventually sold over half a million copies.
Although Dr Lewis was retired in London, he had kept in close touch with developments in the country. He queried me, "What do you think about the implementation of Bahasa as the official language?" How were we managing with certain words and terminology, he wanted to know. He then uttered something in Welsh to me and asked, "Do you understand me?" I said I did not. "Thatís the problem," Dr Lewis said, "The world must have a language which we all can understand. I am Welsh but I can communicate with you because I speak to you in English, not in Welsh."
He continued, "I am a geographer. Are there suitable words in Bahasa for some of the terms that are used in geography?"
"I donít know," I said, "I am not in that field. But I taught mathematics and in mathematics we do have some Malay terminology but we are still struggling for words that can capture the precision of an idea."
Then we talked about discipline in schools and he asked for my opinion. I said it wasnít like that of yesteryear, during his time. Things certainly had changed, I said. I could remember how I smashed a group of gangsters at High School Setapak who had cowed the previous Headmaster and staff for many years. My methods - facing up to the culprits with firmness and liberal use of the cane - were inspired by the experience of how Dr Lewis himself had dealt with gangsterism at the V.I. in my schooldays.
(1957) I discovered that some of our boys were members of these gangs and extorting money from fellow schoolboys, that some teachers were aware of it but had not brought the matter to my attention because they were frightened of the consequences. I decided that strong measures were called for. The procedure I used was to isolate the culprits in a separate room, persuade them to confess, and to suggest that one of them was informing on the other. I made sure that they all confessed in writing and so could not retract at a later date. I soon found that members of Gang 21 were eager to tell me which of our schoolboys were members of the 08 Gang and of their evil deeds, and vice versa!
...I was loath to expel such boys, but endeavoured
to change their ways by the liberal administration of the old-fashioned
remedy always kept in a Headmaster's office. Fortunately, it had the
desired results, for although secret societies continued to flourish
in Kuala Lumpur, I had no more cases of our boys joining their gangs.
Other schools were not so fortunate.
The next day, Dr Lewis asked to go to Tuanku Muhammad School. I took him there without much difficulty. After all, Kuala Pilah was a small town and besides Dr Lewis, being a geographer, was quite good with his directions. In fact he was directing me where to turn whenever we reached a road junction. He obviously still remembered his way after all these years!
(1946) ...The Tuanku Muhammad School was named after the father of the Sultan, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, also known officially as the Yang di-Pertuan Besar or Yam Tuan in Negri Sembilan The medium of instruction was English and the pupils, Malays, Chinese and Indians of both sexes. Most of them came to school by bicycle, but some came to school in special school buses run by the local bus company, although the Sri Menanti children had their own bus.
...We learnt of the terrible
sufferings of the people of Kuala Pilah during the Japanese
occupation, how the Tuanku Muhammad School had been
used as the headquarters of the Japanese Kempetai (or
secret police), how hundreds of people had been tortured at
the school, and how over three hundred mainly Chinese
victims lay buried in the small rubber plantation at the back
of the school.
We met the Headmaster of Tuanku Muhammad School, a very cordial Malay gentleman who showed us around the school. Dr Lewis was pleased to see that there had been a lot of improvements to his old school.
(1946) ...When I arrived at the school I found it in a lovely location
overlooking a well kept padang and surrounded by shade
trees. One of its former teachers (Mr Francis) had successfully
re-opened it, but it was operating under many
difficulties, especially the lack of books. So my earliest
efforts were directed at acquiring textbooks and building up
a school library.
After that visit, Dr Lewis requested to go to the bungalow where he had stayed as Headmaster from 1946 to 1948. It was situated on a hill about a kilometre away and so off we went. At the gate we were stopped by some workmen who said we could not go in as there was some renovation going on at the old wooden building to convert it to a concrete edifice for a different use. After I had appealed to them in Bahasa saying that I was bringing with me a former British Headmaster who had once lived in that building, they relented and allowed us in.
(1946) ...I reported to the District Officer, who was a
British Military Administration appointee, and so he spoke
no Malay and knew very little about the job. He informed
me that as I was the first civilian to return to Kuala Pilah I could
take up residence in whichever house I liked, so I
picked the best, then found that it had been the Headmaster's house
before the war, and so took possession of it.
After we had walked around the premises, Dr Lewis turned to me and said, "Letís go that frangipani tree". About twenty to thirty metres away near the gate was an old gnarled tree with peeling bark. It stood alone, the other trees around it having been cut down by the workmen. It would seem its turn would soon come. About three metres tall, it still bore pinkish flowers despite its age.
(1946) ...[My Malay servant] Puteh was full of superstitious
beliefs and folklore. One moonlit night she came hurrying upstairs
where Lyn and I were having a drink with Stewart Angus, the District
Officer, and announced that she had just seen a tiger. So I rushed
to an upstairs window with a strong torch, and there below me
walking along the road leading away from the house I saw not
a tiger but a large dog. When I informed Puteh of this fact,
she became even more distressed, and said it confirmed her fear.
The tiger she informed me was Datuk Gaung; who when
necessary could change himself into a dog!
I watched in puzzlement as Dr Lewis stood in front of the tree, head bowed, for about five minutes. In the silence, I witnessed something quite unexpected. A tear drop was rolling down the cheek of that strict, disciplinarian former headmaster of the Victoria Institution! I thought to myself, this is not the Dr Lewis that I knew. I - no one - had ever seen him shed a tear.
When he had composed himself, Dr Lewis turned to me and said, "Many people donít know this. I donít only have two daughters but I once had a son. He was my first born but he was stillborn. We buried him under this frangipani tree."
(1947) ...During my stay at Kuala Pilah I travelled a lot in
the pursuit of geography, and Lyn usually came with me. On
one such trip to study the tin fields of the Kinta valley near
Ipoh, Perak, Lyn who was pregnant became unwell as a
result of the rough ride, for the roads were in an awful condition
with potholes every few metres because of their
neglect during the Japanese occupation. When we got back
to Kuala Pilah she had a miscarriage, and we lost what
should have been our first child. So what I believe was our
son is buried in an unmarked grave at the foot of a frangipani
tree, on the edge of the jungle on the hill at Kuala
Pilah and at a spot frequented by the ghost of Datuk Gaung;
which is a consolation.
We had lunch - chicken rice - in Kuala Pilah town. By now Dr Lewis was getting irritated that I had been paying for all the meals. "Mr Chakara, you must allow me to pay," he complained. I deflected him by saying, "You are my guest, so donít worry sir." Dr Lewis then asked to return to the Rest House for the rest of the afternoon. It must have been quite an emotional experience for him that morning and he was, after all, eighty years of age.
That evening we had roti canai for dinner, washed down with beer. I asked why his wife, Lyn, wasnít with him and he told me that she wasnít well. She was, he said, suffering from Alzheimerís. She had a full-time nurse looking after her and, in her state, she obviously was not able to travel with him. She was a good wife and to see her in that state was very sad, he confided. He himself was O.K. in London, living comfortably - very comfortably - on the royalties from his many geography books. He then talked about his daughters; the eldest, Megan, was very interested in horses, while Rhiannon was now a lawyer in London. And, like him, they loved durians, a taste acquired during their stay in Malaya.
"Oh," I said, "Then I must get you some to eat during our trip."
On the morning of our third day, Dr Lewis said that we would now head for Kuala Lipis in Pahang. We didnít have to go back to Seremban, he said. And he began giving me directions to get there via back roads that I had never heard of or even knew existed. Here was a true geographer in his element sitting in my car directing: "Turn left here, turn right there, go down that mud road!" Rubber estates, tin mines, the notorious "Black Areas" of the Emergency period, after forty years, Dr Lewis still knew the whole road system!
(1949) ...Upon reaching Kuala Lumpur, I stayed the night with my brother Tiny, who was at that time Deputy Director of Education, and then headed for Pahang in my small Ford Prefect car. The first part of the journey was mainly through rubber plantations, so although a bit apprehensive I did not feel frightened. However, when at last I turned eastwards for Pahang at Kuala Kubu Bahru, and saw the huge Main Range with its dense virgin forest which I knew provided cover for the Communist terrorists in front of me, I must admit I was scared, and for a fleeting moment thought of turning back. But as so often in my life before, I decided to face up to whatever unpleasantness lay ahead and accelerated towards the mountains and the jungle.
The road to Pahang winds its way over the Main Range
via innumerable hairpin bends, providing suitable ambush
points round almost every corner. However, after surviving
twenty or thirty such places, I soon settled down to my new
environment, and decided not to worry any more especially
as, like the other infrequent motorists on this road, we were
all in the same boat.
We emerged back in civilization near Karak and on the wayside we saw durian stalls. So, mindful of my promise to him, I parked my car near a stall, sat with Dr Lewis on a bench at the roadside and gorged ourselves on the pungent fruit. Finally arriving at Kuala Lipis in the evening, we checked in the Rest House.
(1949) ...Kuala Lipis is a small town, built on a number of hills, at the junction of the Sungai Lipis and the much larger Sungai Jelai, and in those days it was approached by one road only. Although it was then the capital of Pahang, it was a dead end in more ways than one. And so I was not surprised when I visited the Pahang Club one evening, and went to the bar for a drink to be met by the remark: 'So what did you do wrong?' So it was true what I had heard that Kuala Lipis was a place reserved for those out of favour.
On reflection, however, I was reassured
that the Communist insurrection had obviously changed all
that, for the place was full of police and army officers as
well as some excellent government officers. Rather I felt
here was the cream sent to confront the Communists and save
Malaya from Communist rule.
Before we set out from Kuala Lumpur I had contacted the Headmaster of Clifford School in Kuala Lipis, who happened to be a former student of mine at Sekolah Alam Shah. The following day I took Dr Lewis to visit Clifford School which was bordered on one side by the Sungai Lipis. We were shown around by my ex-student. The medium of instruction had changed since Dr Lewis' time here; it was, of course, now in Bahasa. He led me unerringly to a ground floor classroom on one wall of which were inscribed various marks showing the highest levels reached by flood waters in the past. 1926 was a particularly bad year when the school hostel was half-submerged while the school clerk's house was almost completely under water. Like the old V.I. in High Street in the old days, Clifford School was subject to the seasonal ravages of its watery neighbour!
(1949) ...Clifford School, to which I had been posted as Principal, was of course named after Sir Hugh Clifford, one of the earliest (1892) British administrators in Pahang, a fluent Malay speaker, and the author of many fascinating books on the early days in Pahang. I was slightly disappointed when I first saw it, for the buildings were hardly what I had expected as the premises for the premier school of Pahang. However, the site was excellent, for it was located on the Lipis river, with the river on one side and the padang on the other. The staff as in the case of most schools in Malaya were a dedicated lot, but with a small proportion of malcontents, which I presume was to be expected from a so-called penal station.
Although I was disappointed with the Clifford School buildings, I sought consolation from the thought that good academic achievements should be the result not of impressive buildings, but of good teaching and a good school library. Unfortunately Clifford School had no library, so I immediately took possession of one of the scarce classrooms and set it aside for a library, and devoted much energy into acquiring suitable books for it.
(1950) ...Life at Kuala Lipis during the next year or
so was never dull. On the one hand I was busy doing what I could
to improve a school that had obviously suffered from serious
neglect in the past, by building up a library and by introducing new
activities such as cross-country run and rugby football; and on
the other hand, by taking care not to get shot by the
One of those receiving the news of our presence in town was the former OCPD of Kuala Lipis who had been a former student of Dr Lewis during his days as Headmaster of Clifford School. That night there was a dinner in his honour at a restaurant to which forty to fifty citizens of Kuala Lipis were invited. The OCPD made a speech, as did the Headmaster of Clifford School and Dr Lewis spoke as well. In his speech, he again trotted out his query about the implementation of Bahasa, tossing out his famous Welsh sentence to baffle his listeners! Keep up your English, you need it to communicate with the rest of the world, was the gist of Dr Lewisí message. I had wanted to pay for the Rest House rooms but that evening, on our return from the dinner, Dr Lewis finally beat me to it. We both turned in for a peaceful night's rest.
(1950) ...And, of course, the Communist guerrillas made sure that
there was never a dull moment. Thus one day they set fire to
the penghulu's house just across the river from my office,
while I was at my desk; and on another occasion sent a hail
of bullets over my bungalow on the hill while I was having a
shower. They even opened fire from the other side of the Jelai River,
at the Chinese Club in Jelai Street, while I was being entertained
with some others to dinner.
On the morning of the fifth day, Dr Lewis told me to drive to Kuantan. We went first to Mentakab where we called on another old Victorian, a Miss Sellappah, who was now the Headmistress of a school there. She apparently had been one of his favourites during her time at the V.I. After leaving Mentakab, we took the old road - Dr Lewis seemed to prefer the byways to the highways - to Raub and Jerantut before heading for Kuantan. There I dropped him off at one of the hotels where he had already made arrangements to meet Datuk Idris bin Babjee, a former geography teacher under him at Clifford School and, later, CEO of Pahang. I understand that Dr Lewis eventually made his way up the East Coast, with many of his former pupils or teachers taking him in and showing him around.
As for myself, my duty was done. I had spent four memorable days on the road with my Old Headmaster. I had helped fulfill his wish for a nostalgic journey to his old haunts. I had given him something he must have wanted very badly over the years. Although he had been back to Malaysia a few times since his retirement in 1962, apart from the V.I. - which he visited each time - Dr Lewis probably never had a chance to visit the other schools that he had helmed. And that old frangipani treeÖ
I turned my car around and headed for Kuala Lumpur.
(1962) ...[My] departure from Kuala Lumpur was a traumatic experience, for I
was leaving behind not only hundreds, indeed, thousands of friends, and a
country which had become home to me for about a quarter of a century, but also
other things which had become part of my life such as "Bangun, Tuan"
from my Malay servant every morning, Sunday curries, cool misty mornings,
torrential thunderstorms, house lizards and so on. But what I think I missed
most of all were the ordinary unsophisticated people, especially, the polite
Malays in their colourful sarongs, the industrious Chinese and their so-called
'sundry goods' shops, the garrulous Indians in their dhotis and last but not
least the bee-like buzzing of a thousand schoolboys. And, of course, I had left
behind a part of myself, I mean of course, a probable son, on the slopes of
that small hill in Kuala Pilah, in the care of the legendary Datuk Gaung.
Dr Lewis never returned to the East again. He passed away in 1999.
Last update: November 18, 2006.
Compiled by: Chung Chee Min