The Reminiscences of
Dato' Kok Wee Kiat
If they ever held a contest for the Victorian who best embodied the attributes of a sportsman, a scholar and a gentleman, Dato' Kok Wee Kiat (V.I. 1953 - 1959) would surely be a strong contender. Athlete, debater, thespian, editor, school prefect, house captain, school vice-captain, he epitomized the idealized Victorian during his seven years in the school.
He began his work career as an advocate & solicitor specialising at first in litigation. His legal high point was to argue a case before the J.C. of the Privy Council, London. Wee Kiat later switched to corporate & banking, and was legal advisor to Citibank, Chase Manhattan Bank and Southern Bank. In 1968, under a U.S.-assisted programme, he worked for Pierson, Ball & Dowd, Attorneys at Law, in Washington, D.C.
Persuaded to enter politics during the turbulent MCA crisis of the 1980s, Wee Kiat stood for election in the Selandar constituency of Melaka and was elected as member of Parliament. He was made Deputy to Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the Minister of Trade and Industry. He was also elected as an MCA Vice-President.
In 1990 he decided to withdraw from politics and focus on his two main interests, business and the environment. He was President, at various periods, of the Rotary Club of Petaling Jaya, the Federation of ASEAN Shippers Council, The Raintree of Kuala Lumpur and the Business Council for Sustainable Development in Malaysia. He is the presently the Chairman of the Environment Quality Council, Malaysia.
Wee Kiat is director of several companies including Bata Malaysia Sdn Bhd, The Bank of Nova Scotia Berhad, Makro Cash & Carry Distribution Sdn Bhd, Alam Sekitar Malaysia Sdn Bhd, and Aluminium Company of Malaysia Bhd. He is also the director of the Malaysian Dutch Business Council. His awards and honours include the A.M.N., Dato' Seri Ketam from Selangor, the Commendatore Del Lavoro from Italy, and the Order Bernado O'Higgins (Gran Official) from Chile.
V.I. Hostel food notwithstanding, Wee Kiat has developed over the years a passion for good food and fine wines and roams the world to this end. In recognition of his deep knowledge of wines, the French have made him as a Chevalier du Tastevin of Burgundy, in the local chapter of La Châine des Rôtisseurs and The International Food and Wine Society.
Which is not to say Wee Kiat's gastronomic tastes are only up there with the rich and famous. He is equally at home in Malaysian coffee shops and back lanes. A few years ago I squatted by the roadside in Bangsar sharing a durian with our illustrious oenophile. The same nose that sifted through the bouquet of exquisite French wines was pressed into durian service to select the best D24 displayed along dusty Lorong Ara Kiri. But I digress. Here's Wee Kiat with his memories of his V.I. years.
joined the V.I. in Form 1A (then known as Standard 5A) in 1953 from the Pasar Road School where I did my primary education. I was put in 1A on account of having come within the first forty out of a total of 160 boys from the Pasar Road School and the Batu Road School who had sat for the V.I. Entrance examination. We had the stern Mr. T. Ramachandran as the teacher. I always remember him teaching us Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, about Pip, Miss Havisham and Estella. We had Mr. Michael Peter in Form 2A. In later years he was always telling his son that he had taught me in the V.I. What I remembered best about my Form 3A master, Mr. A. L. Foenander, was that his wife was the best cake maker in Kuala Lumpur. In fact she was the one who baked the Jubilee Cake for the school's 60th anniversary celebrations in 1954. After Mr. Foenander left in August 1955 to be headmaster of the Kuala Kubu English School, we had Mr. Gerald Fernandez, newly returned from Brinsford College. He taught us poetry but one time he tried to bullshit us while reading one poem. So I gave my version of it and then he suddenly changed his tack and said, "Yes, you are right!"
I remember my 3A history teacher, Miss Moira Knowles, as much for her name as for the fact that her nose was upturned like a tea spout. She was very good because what I learned from her was that history is not about remembering dates. She said, "Forget about dates. What you want to know is about is the sequence of events of how things happened." I thought that was great.
We had French classes in Form Three. It was a voluntary class taught twice a week in the afternoons by a couple, Mr and Mrs Griffiths. The latter, a blonde, was so pretty and petite, we wondered how we could concentrate. That's where I learned the expression la petite femme. Mrs Griffiths taught us to sing French songs and the classroom used to echo with the bars of Sur le pont d'Avignon and other French songs.
At the end of Form 3 we had to choose between Arts and Science when we entered Form Four. There were two lists of results prepared, the overall results and the maths and science results. My name was the first name in the overall list but I was not top in the maths and science list. When I found that I was slotted for the 4B (the pure science) class, I went to the teacher in charge and told him that I wanted to do arts in Form 4A as I was more interested in the arts. The teacher was outraged and said, "In the history of the V.I. no top boy goes to 4A!" Well, I was quite stubborn and had a chit chat with my father. He had always wanted me to be a doctor because, back in China, he said, the lawyers were all corrupt! In any case, if one had to, he said, it was easier for one to convert from science to arts than the other way round. So I followed his advice and joined the science stream from Form 4 all the way to Upper Six. How prophetic my father's words would prove one day!
In Form Four we had the inimitable Mr Ganga Singh in English and English Literature. I can still hear him now, in his deep lilting voice, reciting:
We daren't go a-hunting for fear of little men,
Wee folk, good folk trooping all together,
Green jacket, red cap and white owl's feather.
And, of course, if you were naughty, he would summon you up to the front of the class, bellow, "Bend down!" and deliver a heavy thump on your buttocks.
Then there was this literature teacher, Mr A. Milne, whom we had in Form 5B. He was bald and wore shorts all the time. I was sitting in front of the class and every time he opened his mouth to talk about drama, all his spittle would come flying out onto me.
I was the first in my batch to be appointed a prefect when I was in Form 5. Mr Ganga Singh was the teacher in charge of the Prefects Board at the time. One day we prefects were all lined up at the School porch for a photograph and we were waiting for Mr Ganga Singh to join us. When he arrived, we saw he was not wearing a tie while every one of us was decked out smartly in coat and tie. So I volunteered to get him a neck tie. "Oh there's no need," he said, "I am wearing a bow tie." Only Mr Ganga Singh with his long flowing white beard which covered his neck and reached to his chest could claim he was wearing a bow tie when he actually wasn't!
In those days, the V.I. prefects wielded power - literally, great power. We prided ourselves in thinking that if all the V.I. teachers were absent for a week, we could singlehandedly keep the school going for that duration - discipline-wise, that is. We were that arrogant! Back in those days, power really went into one's head. I remember, one day, Mustafa bin Mohd Ali, the School Captain, was briefing the pupils on discipline in the Sixth Form Block Lecture Theatre. Suddenly Dr. G. E. D. Lewis appeared and came towards us. However, I - a mere prefect - was bold enough to step up and stop him - the V.I. Headmaster - from entering, saying, "Look, the School Captain is talking to the Sixth Form students." He was shocked and looked at me incredulously.
Another time, Dr. Lewis was disciplining some boy that I had sent to him. When I went into his room, he asked me, "What actually did this boy do wrong?" Searching for a polite way of describing the miscreant's crime of using obscene words, I said, "Sir, he has been using a lot of invective around the school." Dr. Lewis, who was a geographer and not an English teacher, looked puzzled and asked me, "What is invective?"
To me, that experience - the vast power that I wielded as a prefect - affected a great deal of my life. It made me shun power for a long time after I left school. I always felt it was terrible to order people around which actually did not work if you were to practice it in real life. These authoritarian attitudes would have been disastrous in what I did later, in politics, in the context of one man, one vote. Later, when I was a Deputy Minister, I was very sensitive to other people's view points. From the time that I left the V.I. it has always been the persuasive method that I used.
I had always been interested in drama from Form Two onwards. At that time the V.I. drama enthusiasts were also much involved with the Malayan Arts and Theatre Group which was composed mainly of expatriates. The patron of that group, however, was ex-Victorian Yong Pung How, son of Yong Shook Lin - the first Chinese lawyer in Malaya - and who was himself a lawyer. The few of us Victorians got to take part in the MATG plays as well. There's where I learned my make-up skills too. I was involved in every V.I. dramatic production during my time. I was in Henry IV Part One when I was in Form Two, and also in Tobias and the Angel in 1957. The following year I was the narrator in Lady Precious Stream. I was either on-stage or off-stage. On-stage I acted, off-stage, I was doing make-up.
I was short-sighted so I wasn't much into swimming, for without my glasses I couldn't see clearly. Yet I was the 1957 Loke Yew House Swimming Captain! But I did well in athletics, especially in the high jump. I was jumping above my own height. My record was 5 feet 6 1/4 inches and I was 5 feet 4 inches at that time. I always thought at that time that one should measure one's ability to jump by the amount over and above one's own height. I was a horizontal jumper, too, as I won in the triple jump (called the hop, step and jump in those days) and also in the long jump.
As for clubs and societies, I was in the Science and Maths Society and the Literary and Debating Society. I remember fighting off the V.I. Christian Union people who were trying to convert me, debating them over evolution versus creation. I represented the school in two inter-School debates, including the prestigious Thuraisingham Shield against our rivals, the M.B.S. Unfortunately, we lost.
I was also the secretary to the Seladang Editorial Board. I did administrative work at that time for the co-editors, Tan Jin Chor and M. S. Lingam, liaising with the printers, bringing in the articles, proof reading, doing the dummies and so on. In fact, as a result of my experience in this, I was appointed Editor of the 1958 Scientific Victorian. I thought the issue I produced, with many line drawings by artist Lee Wee Kee, was very much better than those of previous years.
I was the Hostel Captain in 1959. Because I was the only guy with K.L. contacts, I was recruited to contact my cousin sister who was in the Pudu English School to recruit all her classmates to come over to the V.I. Hostel for their socials. And whenever Abu Mansur, one of the VI hostelites under me at that time, meets me he will remind me that, every morning in those days, I would burst forth in the Hostel bathroom with Oh, What a beautiful morning! Lim Meng Seng, from Klang High School, was a hostelite, too, and he played the violin. At that time the Hotel rooms were not completely partitioned from wall to ceiling but had a gap at the top, allowing sound to be carried from one end of the dormitory to the other. So, on some evenings, the whole captive Hostel had to listen to the Hostel Captain singing away while Meng Seng accompanied me on his violin!
The previous year I had shared a hostel room with Mustafa Ali, then the School Captain. There was always a corner in the room where I was not supposed to go because Mustafa always prayed in there. One day, one of the teachers came to the hostel to inspect our room. He looked at our two sections. He said, "Is that Mustafa's section?" I said, "Yes." Then he said to me, "I always got the impression that you are very tidy." As Mustafa's area was utterly spick and span, I obviously was the untidy one.
During one of the Cross Country Runs, as the Loke Yew House Captain, I naturally wanted as many of my House boys to qualify, as each boy helped gain a point for our House. So during the run itself, I lingered behind and wasted a lot of time urging my slower House chaps on. At first I was watching my time but got carried away and forgot the time! Then I started rushing as time ran out and as I struggled towards the finish line the handkerchief signalling the expiry of the time limit was dropped by the time keepers just five metres in front of me! I, the Loke Yew House Captain, had failed to qualify!
In Form Six, we had lots of fun with Miss Joan Floyd, the biology teacher. We used to do dissection in the labs in the afternoon preparing for the annual Science Exhibition. My classmates, Wong Ket Keong and Molly Ray, liked to sing and so did I. So as we dissected, we sang together. Then surprise of all surprises, Miss Floyd, sitting in her room, would sing along with us. She said to us, "I didn't know you all could sing. You should come and join the school choir."
There was another person I knew very well in Form Six, and that was Marina Yusof. She was one year my junior and had joined us from the Malay Girls College. At the V.I. she was on the Seladang Editorial Board with me and took part in drama and was a very good dancer. She taught us to dance the Tarian Lilin.
Of all the Headmasters I was under, Dr. Lewis was the only H.M. who was close to us. He went out of the way to get to know us all. He was very conscientious and dedicated. As his house was near the V.I. Hostel, he would, every now and again, walk to the hostel and look around. Years later I was very surprised when, on a visit here after retirement, he told me he was still writing his geography books and that he had just come back from the East Coast. I asked him what he was doing there. "Oh," he said, "I went to see how they were planting the padi up on the slopes of the hills. I have never seen that before." "But sir," I said, "you wrote all about that in your geography books." He said, "Yes, I did, but I have never seen it before."
I recall the origins of Club 21. At the time I was at the Hostel. Our boys were getting mugged especially at the side gate which they had to pass by to get to the hostel. At first we thought that the thugs must have come from somewhere, probably Petaling Street. So, with the permission of Dr. Lewis, the V.I. Hostel boys actually roamed the streets of Chinatown in the evenings with the police (in mufti) looking for these people. Then we realized that these crimes were happening within our own grounds and perpetrated by our own VI boys! These were some very stubborn and naughty people who used to wear very tight pants and had long hair and shoes with studs.
Those gangsters who were caught were exhibited in the parade ground in full view of the whole school. Each had to hold a filled cup in each outstretched hand, and heaven helped him if he dropped those cups. Dr. Lewis came up with the idea that since we had bad hats in the school we needed to create something counteractive. And as there was Gang 21 for evil, he created a Club 21 for good. Pupils who had meritorious achievements in various activities in the school but did not qualify to be prefects were recruited for Club 21. In addition, certain pupils who had leanings towards gangsterism were neutralized with Club 21 membership instead!
At the end of 1959 after I had finished my HSC exams, I was offered to do a Science degree in Australia under the Colombo Plan. Then when I went for an X-ray as part of my medical check-up they spotted a shadow in my lungs. It turned out that I had contracted TB from the V.I. Hostel cook! I went for an operation at Lady Templer's Hospital and after the operation, my mother said, "You can forget about Australia. You are not going!"
Forfeiting my Australian scholarship, I joined the University of Malaya in 1960. This was the same time Poh Thiam, my future wife, a Singaporean, had thought she wanted to go up to the KL campus to get some experience. Funny, during the first week I was in U.M., she was there, too, except I never got to meet her. After one week she decided that K.L. wasn't for her. Simultaneously, as she returned to Singapore, I decided to join the Law Faculty in Singapore. I thought this was fate!
What did the V.I. teach me? The most important of all is the character building because to be a prefect in the V.I. was something. You needed to be superb in your character and you needed to pay attention to your work. Very often when you come out to working life, society is such that you are often placed in a situation where attempts are made to bribe you, or to get you to do things which something inside you tells you is not right. I have never had problems with sleep in this respect. I've always attributed this to the fact that I play it straight.
The second thing is this - a lesson which is applicable especially in politics - don't worry if you are not at the top. A lot of people lose a lot of sleep if they are not at the top. No matter which position you are in, it is the amount of influence you have that is important.
Back at the Old School (2000)
Last update: November 30, 2005.
Interviewed by: Chung Chee Min