A former teacher gives his take on a recent trip with his mostly octogenarian peers to their alma mater in an English town, to commemorate the Tunku’s momentous visit to the college over 60 years ago, where the soon-to-become premier made the Merdeka announcement that surprised everyone.
THERE they were in the last few days of August 2017 gathered in Liverpool from Malaysia (then Malaya), Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Mostly in their eighties and some in their late seventies, they were the men and women who had been specially picked in groups of 150 each year from 1952 through 1962, to be trained for two years as English school teachers at the newly established Federation of Malaya Teachers Training College in the small village of Kirkby just outside the city of Liverpool, in the United Kingdom.
The setting up of a training facility for teacher training by a foreign government 8,000 miles away from home was a world first. It was a unique and bold educational experiment, never before attempted in the annals of teacher training history.
It was Malaya’s response to a pressing need to meet the acute shortage of qualified teachers for a rapidly expanding English school system. In 1952 Merdeka was still only a gleam in the collective eye of our leaders, but their foresight had saved the day for Malayan education.
Kirkby College alone had over 10 years, produced 1,900 trained teachers for service in Malaya. It is worth mentioning that another training college, Brinsford Lodge was set up at Wolverhampton, soon after Kirkby, for the same purpose.
To the young Malayans of all races from different backgrounds, living and working together in perfect harmony, Kirkby was more than a teachers’ training college; it was a social experiment in racial unity, there had never been a reported case of a misunderstanding that could be traced to racial or religious differences.
It was our proud boast that we were never conscious of our racial, cultural or religious differences. We, from the word go, took them in our stride and by all accounts we showed ourselves and our country that with respect and goodwill all round, Malayans could live and work together in peace and harmony to the eternal benefit of our country. That, to all of us, was really the magic that was Kampung Kirkby.
So it is hardly surprising that 63 years after leaving college, many still attend the Kirkby reunion organised in different parts of Malaysia every two years. As the college is no more, numbers attending each year decline, age having done its worst. It is much like a club that admits no new members.
Of all the significant events celebrated and remembered by former Kirkbyites down the years, the most sacred and momentous was undoubtedly the surprise visit to the college on a cold and blustery winter’s day of Feb 7, 1956 by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, the Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. The Tunku was accompanied by members of the Merdeka Mission. They had had a successful series of constitutional meetings at Lancaster House, and had come directly by train from London.
There was the usual air of expectancy and excitement befitting a VVIP visit to the college. Kirkby had received Sultans and other top people from Malaya before, but this was somehow different. Quickly getting down to business, with few preliminaries and words of gratitude for the warm hospitality extended to his mission, the Tunku said that the difficult negotiations with the British government had been successfully concluded.
Then, a great bombshell was dropped that took us in the college hall completely by surprise. He announced to us and the world at large, that on August 31, 1957, if possible, the Federation of Malaya would join the family of nations as a free and independent nation.
There was dead, bewildered silence for a moment until someone started to clap and there followed the most sustained thunderous clapping I had heard.
A call for silence and the Tunku shouted Merdeka that was taken up by some 300 unrestrained voices. So ended a world-shattering event, enacted in a faraway English village, for young Malaysian “exiles”.
Kirkby College, the temporary home spanning a period of 10 years for 1,900 young Malayans is physically gone, but the memory of this brave and farsighted Malayan experiment that succeeded in turning out young Malayans into not just highly competent teachers, but more important perhaps was the unconscious and almost natural process of turning them into people to whom race was nothing more than an accident of birth, and that cultural and religious differences must be accepted as a fact of Malayan/Malaysian life.
Kirkby is a Merdeka shrine for all of us privileged to have been part of the college and for the 300 of us who were there to receive the best news of our young impressionable lives, it meant a great deal.
So when Datuk V.L. Kandan, the president of the Malayan Teachers’ Training College Kirkby alumni suggested returning to celebrate the 60th Anniversary at Kirkby where the world first heard the happy news of the impending birth of a new independent nation within the Commonwealth, it was taken up enthusiastically by those who were physically able to undertake a long journey on our own national flag carrier, Malaysia Airlines.
With the ready support of the Mayor of Knowsley, Frank Walsh and the staff of Knowsley Council, a permanent plaque was placed on the exact spot, then the Kirkby College Hall, where the Tunku made that momentous announcement.
The unveiling ceremony was performed jointly by Walsh and Kandan at Granborne Chase. It was a simple and dignified ceremony that started with the singing of our national anthem Negara-ku and followed by the college song The Golden Chersonese (the ancient name for the Malay Peninsula that was given by the Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy) that brought tears to even those of us not normally given to a public display of emotion. The local residents joined us in a display of friendship on this happy and historic occasion.
What has this long journey of rediscovery of what was a life once lived among ourselves in a foreign land taught us? If nothing else, the Kirkby spirit and all that it implies has remained wholesome and vibrant.
The passage of time has only strengthened our conviction that we are beneath the skin, one people who love and are loyal to the ideals of 1Malaysia. This for many of us is the last of the summer wine, but it has been a life well spent.
The writer was editor of the college magazine Panduan. He was also present in the hall to hear the Tunku’s glad tidings.