Sunday, September 21, 2014

Getting to Know the Soul of the Nation

The language is the soul of the nation

Sekolah Menengah Aminuddin Baki
was named after the champion of Malay education 

I felt like a poseur
When we had to use Jenny’s rich relatives’ address
A posh, two-storey residence
With a well-tended lawn
And wrought iron fence
On a street which sounded clever
Up on the rolling hill with the clean, fresh air
On the other side of the thoroughfare

Jenny was a distant neighbour from Singapore
Who moved to KL at the end of ‘64
Indeed, her relatives were kind
To allow us to use their home address
To keep in touch with the Singaporeans
And correspond with the Department of Education 

In mid February ‘66
Ma waved three brown window envelopes in our faces
Which Mal opened gently
While Yat and I waited breathlessly
Finally, news about our school placements
From the Selangor Education Department

Mal was to enrol at once
For his secondary two class
At Sekolah Menengah Aminuddin Baki in Kampung Pandan
A distinguished Malay school, we were told
While Yat was to commence
Her secondary education
At the Ampang Road Secondary Girls School
Notorious for its wayward students, it was soon revealed   
And I was accepted into Primary Four F
At Gurney Road Primary School (1)
That seemed like a promotion from 3H
At my previous school

Mal had to leave early before seven
To take two buses to Kampong Pandan
And since my school session was also in the morning
I had to be up before sun rise and start walking
Lucky Yat had the afternoon session
So a little after noon
Ma would walk her to the narrow, wooden bridge
To see her cross the shallow river with strong currents
That carried the assorted rubbish discarded
Behind the maladorous Keramat market

Making new friends in school
And the neighbourhood
Was awkward when you’re the new student
With the strange accent
From an island that had just been ejected
Out of the Federation 

We were swamped by new words
That flew above our heads
We had to train our ears to spot the differences
In the choices of words, meanings and pronunciations
So we learned to hold our tongues
To avoid embarrassing moments
But never tired of privately making fun
Of the words used for different body parts
Countless hours were spent
Imitating the way “they” –
The landlord, neighbours, teachers and schoolmates -
Spoke with such finesse
Which made "us" feel like savages
Such great pains to properly phrase their sentences
Or even questions -
“Dah berkelamin?” (Are you married?)
Asked with a shy smile
Unlike the straightforward Singapore style –
“Dah kahwin ke belum?” (Married or not?)
Gradually we learned to substitute cultured words
Such as the refined “suami” (husband) for the crude “laki”
The polite “orang rumah” (lady of the house) for the coarse “bini” (wife)
And the proper “lelaki” (male) for the vulgar “jantan”
And that was how we learned to dive into the soul of the nation             

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