Monday, 30 January 2012


"DO YOU KNOW of any robust high-spirited girl of eleven who has never been tempted to run down a flight of steps, at least once?" I asked a friend one day, out of the blue.

She looked at me with surprise before replying: "Certainly not!"

More than six decades have passed since I left St. Mary's Boarding School for Girls, but I still feel a twinge of indignation at the injustice of the punishment meted out to me by the Superintendent of the boarding school (i.e., the hostel) whom we nicknamed Birdy.

Her surname was Bird, and she had a sharp beak of a nose, set off by green, piercing eyes. She firmly believed that adults could do no wrong, and fervently enforced the dictum, "Spare the rod and spoil the child."

My father was stationed in Temerloh, in the backwoods of Pahang, and there were scarcely any schools around, not to mention good ones. My mother had envisaged my sister and I growing up well-educated and refined. If she put us in a high-class boarding school run along the same lines as those in England, we had a better chance of turning into respectable young ladies. And so she scrimped and saved to achieve her ambition for us.

St. Mary's was indeed "high-class" in terms of fees. Each month, it took more than a Chinese school headmaster's salary to keep us both there. And the rules, to say the least, were unbelievably strict.

Boarders were only allowed three changes of every thing in their wardrobe, e.g., three cotton dresses for school, three silk ones for church, three pairs of underclothes, three pairs of socks, and so on. The idea was to have one set in the wash, one set in the wardrobe, and one on the body.

Senior girls were addressed as Miss, and they had no problems, but we Juniors had to be on our toes the whole time. To add to our discomfort, we had to run errands for the dignified seniors and end up dishevelled and sweaty. Between the Seniors and the Juniors there was no love lost. How does it feel to be constantly discriminated against? Especially at bath time, when an impatient knock on the door meant we had to come out at once and let them use the bathroom first.

This unwholesome rank-pulling seems prevalent everywhere - not only in the army, but also in schools and offices. No doubt a similar sort of pecking order occurs in the animal kingdom, but surely we can  invent a better way of achieving social harmony?

I recall flashing my eyes in defiance when Birdy punished me for using the rickety sewing machine on a Sabbath. No one had informed me that on the Sabbath only hand-sewing was permitted. Furthermore, Juniors were forbidden to operate a sewing machine. The penalty was six strokes on the cushy part of one's anatomy with a hairbrush, or Birdy's slippers.

As an "Asiatic" child in a white expatriate environment, I was subjected to treatment which aroused in me a sense of inequality and injustice. It was easy to suspect that the white race was prejudiced against everybody else, even if they didn't actually despise us. At any rate, this early exposure to the insidious humiliation of racial discrimination made me shun anything Anglican - schools, churches, clubs. When it was time for me to find employment, I chose to teach in a Chinese school. This loathing lasted many decades.

On weekdays, we played croquet and tennis, and on Saturdays we went on long walks in the evening. Here again, if I lagged behind the group, the penalty would be to do forty sums. Ironically, I fared very badly in my math exams. And I barely passed my Religious Knowledge, on account of the numerous penalties I had to endure for failing to memorize the scriptures correctly. I suppose in those days no one had heard of "positive feedback"!

There was no way of describing the oppression my sister and I felt at St. Mary's, and no way of even informing our parents that we were miserable, for all letters home were censored by Birdy. And we couldn't go home till the end of the term.

My mother probably suspected that all wasn't well with her daughters, but she was a great believer in perseverance. One day, Birdy carried her disciplinary notions a little too far. My sister Loy, who was only nine, arrived late for dinner and was sent to bed without it. Later, a jug of milk was delivered to her. No questions were asked as to why she was late (she had to let all the almighty Seniors use the bathroom ahead of her). The next morning, Loy was too sick to have breakfast or attend school. She was a frail child and, like most "Asiatic" children, she disliked milk. The Asian way would have been punishment after dinner - at least the child would be well fortified!

This incident led to our being released from St. Mary's. Our stay there had caused my mother more hardship than her daughters. She had had to commute between Temerloh and Kuala Lumpur (on one of the most hazardous roads in the country), and she had had to rent a house in Kuala Lumpur because of us. This had put a terrible strain on her physically, emotionally, mentally and financially; with her having to budget for two separate households, including maids, while constantly worrying about our well-being.

If Birdy had possessed the most rudimental insight into child psychology, or if only she had been inspired by the feeblest promptings of the heart, my memories of St. Mary's boarding school would have been as happy as those of the mornings I spent in the classroom with the day students. I greatly enjoyed learning literature and history. I also loved the chances I had to perform on stage. The role of a buccaneer inspired strength and courage. I was also a terrible prankster. In class, the standard mischief among us junior girls was to hide the senior girls' high-heeled shoes when they changed into rubber ones for games.

On reflection, then, I should allow my happy school hours to offset the unhappy times in the school hostel. To quote Jean Juares: "We should take from the past its fire, and not its ashes."