A word of praise from athletics legend Jesse Owens changed this Malaysian's life

  • Living
  • Saturday, 21 Jul 2018

A young Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he captured 4 gold medals: the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump. Grandson of a slave and legendary athlete, Owens established six world records in 1935. He retained his 100m world record for 20 years and his long jump world record for 25 years (until 1960).

Part I: The Fijians

Recent events on people who fought for the country’s independence, parents’ sensitivities over their children’s punishments in school – some of real concern where pupils are badly hurt – coupled with the long twilight each spring, brought to mind my school days in the 1950s, in particular.

Much had been written about the contributions of the various races towards the successful fights against the communist terrorists in then Malaya during the emergency years, resulting in bringing independence to the country. I don’t recall any mention of foreign forces that had helped to end the emergency before Malaya’s independence was declared in 1957.

I would like to recall the time when the Fijians, whose presence in my hometown, Batu Pahat, Johor, made an impact in my life and the lives of a number of students at the major school in the town. They were the catalyst to my interest in sports which helped to keep me away from wayward activities.

In 1952, a regiment of Fijians was stationed at the 2nd Mile, Jalan Kluang, in Batu Pahat. They were there to fight the communists in the jungles of central Johor, particularly in Yong Peng and Parit Sulong, hotbeds of terrorist activities. Their renowned success in eliminating the terrorists in the areas is not the intent of this article. Rather, it was their presence in the social fabric of the community that had been omitted mention, especially their prowess in sports and games that prompted me to write this article.

As a young boy of 16 in the Government English School then, I was often taken up by the presence of the Fijians training in athletics on the school field in preparation for the Malayan Amateur Athletic Association (MAAA) annual championship. The thought of them also brought to mind the impact they had on the young impressive minds of the school boys. Their training, a sight to behold though, was always after the school had finished their own house activities each evening. I would linger well into the fading twilight just to watch them train.

The speed of Joe Levula in the sprints, the gracefulness of Pete Naidole in clearing the hurdles would mesmerise at least one boy – I, who often remained on the field to watch them train. Suffice it to say, I became an active participant rather than a passive on-looker.

By a strange twist of fate, Jesse Owens, who was sponsored by the United States Information Service (USIS) to help develop and improve sports in developing countries, as they often did with their well-known coaches in various games, made a scheduled stop in Batu Pahat in 1954. I believe it was the presence of the Fijians there that brought Jesse Owens to that small town – in all likelihood, to gauge their performances.

A young Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he captured four gold medals: the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump. Grandson of a slave, the legendary athlete established six world records in 1935. He retained his 100m world record for 20 years and his long jump world record for 25 years (until 1960).

Permit me to digress. Owens’ visit was a defining moment in my life. Making use of his talent, he was invited to observe the school boys in their PE lessons. Naturally, being an Olympic champion in the Sprints and Long Jump, he was to spot any talented boys in those events. To my good fortune, he found my jump, jumping barefooted, of some 16 feet plus worth praising.

“Good jump,” he exclaimed. What was it he saw in that jump was beyond my understanding. But it certainly encouraged me to take up Long Jump, besides the related Triple Jump. However, it was Naidole who took me under his wings to coach me in the finer points of the Triple Jump at which he excelled equally well as the high hurdles.

Within a couple of years, I represented Johore AAA at the national championships and the Johor Chinese at the Malayan Chinese Athletic Championship competition held in Singapore in 1957, under flood-lights, to win the Long Jump – my first major success.

My selection as a teacher trainee to the Malayan Teachers’ Training College, in Kirkby, England, in 1958-59, kept me away from local competitive athletics, though not in college where my training schedule was enhanced through better understanding in the training regime of sprinters and in the jumps. Accounting myself well in these events, I was awarded college “Colours” in athletics.

On my return from college, I was posted to the Mersing Primary School, which put a damper on my training. Shrugging off the initial disappointment at being posted to a small town with hardly any training facilities, but believing in myself and not wanting to give up in testing my ability against the best in the country, I put my heart and soul into my training, though not without the help of a couple of pupils. But it was not until 1961 that I won the Malayan AAA Triple Jump event.

Back to the Fijians. They were a fun and sports-loving people, often displaying their cheerful and boisterous character, especially on the sports field: rugger and cricket being their favoured games with the former their forte.

It was rugger that had the most impact on the school. After their forays in the jungle, fighting the terrorists, they would exhibit their toughness in barging and tackling each other on the rugger field – I guess it was one way of letting off steam. Their tough physique, contributing to their robust ways of playing rugger, deprived the locals of the opportunity to represent Johor in any of the rugger competitions.

Needless to say, the game popularised by the Fijians turned the school into a premier rugger-playing school in Johor for many years, producing at least three national players in Col Wong Hin Jin, Lt Col Ho Chee Pong and Koh Yeow Tong in the mid-60s, with the first aforesaid captaining the national side for a number of years.

Since the prowess of the Fijians at rugger had deprived the locals of participation at the national level, the State “All Blues” side was formed and confined to local players, for which I am grateful for the chance to participate before leaving for college where I gained “Colours” too, while representing the college.

Part II: The cadets

It would be an injustice not to mention another important event in which they had helped to shape the careers of many of the boys in the school.

Circumstances and opportunities certainly dictate the course of events, for better or worse, in a person’s life or in any other situation. The school Cadet Corps was born out of the love of the then headmaster, D. Bennett, who envisaged the need for young men to join the army for a nation that was soon to gain independence.

He was a Lt Col in the army before joining the education service after the war.

To his credit, he must have visualised a perfect scenario of the presence of the Fijians in the town to help train the school cadet corps. Thus was formed the first batch of the school cadet corps in 1954, with a platoon of 27 boys under the command of a teacher with the rank of lieutenant.

Training was carried out mostly on weekends on the school field with some Fijian officers detailed to conduct drills and other light warfare-like exercises. During school holidays, these cadets were given the opportunity to stay in the Regiment’s vast campsite.

They were given exposure to the use of an array of weapons, with live ammunition, at the shooting range behind the foothills of Gunong Soga. In that respect, they were lucky to have simulated warfare experience.

Other than taking part in ceremonial parades in the town, they were regularly invited by other schools to provide crowd control as well as traffic warden duties at mass functions, like school sports day or speech day, much like the Civil Defence Corps personnel today, but all voluntary work.

Perhaps it is not out of place to note here, of historical value, the main office bearers of that 1st Cadet Corp of High School, Batu Pahat – Teachers in Charge: Lt J. Woodhull and Lt D.P. Pereira; assisted by: Sgt Gan Chin Seng, Cpl Ali Hashim, Cpl Madhavan Seth Nair, L/Cpl M. Govindan, L/Cpl Ong Teow Leng and L/Cpl Lee Wee Lam.

Part II is written in collaboration with L/Cpl Mike Govindan and L/Cpl Ong.

Article type: metered
User Type: anonymous web
User Status:
Campaign ID: 18
Cxense type: free
User access status: 3

Across the site