The end of an era: MBSKL’s “Yong-Sook”

 * Told by Barani Krishnan, Founder and Americas Editor @ neverforget.cloud

It’s been more than 30 years since I left school. Yet, sometimes it feels like I just walked out of its gates yesterday. An active text group – probably a little too active at times – keeps about a hundred of us, the 1985 Class of Methodist Boys School Kuala Lumpur, connected across different time zones (in my case, from New York). Anything’s fair game on this chat — whether it’s social or political rants, business or empty talk, clever or crass jokes, debates on fancy food or cheap noodles or bets on soccer at the field or soccer at the “mamak” (those Malaysian 24/7 eateries where English Premier League football plays on gigantic screens all night). And that “fair game” includes knowing which of your so-called brothers in the group were having a great day and which will be spending the night in the doghouse. 

THERE WERE THE TEACHERS; THEN, THERE WAS HIM

Amid all the mindless chatter, the one thing that gets us all excited and punching rabidly into our phones — in the Twitter equivalent of a “trend” — is when a discussion begins on any of the teachers from our years. From the beautiful to the plain, the kind to the wicked, each had a place in our hearts. Of them, none possibly commanded our attention – and love – more than Yong Chee Seng, MBSKL’s principal from 1979-85.  

Formally Mr. Yong, and otherwise Yong-sook (“sook” being the Cantonese endearment for uncle), he was a man with the rare privilege of serving as headmaster at the same school where he began as a student and went on to become teacher. 

GANDHI VS SEAN PENN

Ask anyone from MBSKL what’s his/her memory of Yong-sook and you’ll start a conservation you can’t stop soon enough. Dedicated, determined, disciplined, committed, caring, compassionate are almost certain attributes you will hear, and more. Not surprising for someone whose notion of an ideal human was Mohandas K. Gandhi (he was a huge fan of  the 1982 film on the Indian freedom fighter by Richard Attenborough and often urged us to watch it — when we guys were more keen then in seeing Madonna’s ex-husband, Sean Penn, beat the bejesus out his cellmates in Bad Boys, another movie released around the same time). So captivated Yong-sook was with Gandhi that he tried in his own, small, ways to emulate the best practices of the Mahatma. Malaysia’s own founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman was another whom he cherished, reminding us constantly to read the Tunku’s newspaper column which, interestingly, was a biting commentary on the government of the day when Yong-sook himself was a government school principal!

Away from school, he kept his family and personal life as inconsequential as possible to the students and teachers he worked with. Not that he was a notoriously private person, or had anything to hide, but because of a long-standing principle that the school should never be affected or influenced by what went on in his home. 

KEEP DISTINCT WALLS BETWEEN HOME AND SCHOOL

The only occasion I remember when he shared with us an event in his life was the birth of his youngest child, and that too because the prefects in school (the resented elite among us) had surprised him with a congratulatory card. 

While he kept distinct walls between his family and school, he was all for finding solutions for teachers and students with problems on the outside that may be hurting their work or grades. His oft-quoted wisdom: “School should be as nurturing as the home. We are your family here, away from home.”

But cross the line intentionally with him on discipline, and you can be sure he’ll come down hard on your ass, literally. 

“JUST DESSERTS”

In a 2010 alumni speech dedicated to Takemizu Mori, a Japanese-born who was MBSKL principal in the mid 50s to late 60s, Yong-sook amusingly spoke of T. Mori’s fondness of the bamboo cane as an instrument of justice – without citing his preference for the same.

“Recalcitrant students had felt the sting of his canes, which he used with fairness and justice,” Yong-sook said, speaking of Mori. “Frequently when I meet up with students who had a taste of his cane, they recollect with humor and even gratitude that they got their just desserts.”

“I have not encountered anyone who went under his cane, recount their punishment with grudge or resentment. On the contrary, the recollection inevitably is with a sense of happy recollection. Not long ago I met a former student who is a grandfather now, (who) lamented; “Mr. Yong, why schools do not appoint headmasters like Mr. Mori now, eh? When we played truant he caned the daylights out of us and before caning, ask us which cane to choose also!”  

Yes, Mr. Yong, we, the recalcitrant in your years, also bear no grudge for the “just desserts” we got from you (though unlike Mori, you never allowed us a choice in the cane). Our recollections of you are also the happiest. So fond we were of those memories that we wanted you with us on all occasions that we stood as the proud former boys of MBSKL. The ‘85 alumni had even slated you as guest-of-honor at its commemorative soccer match at Stadium Merdeka, the national stadium, this year. But that will never happen now, because all we have left of you are just memories.

“YOU ARE OUR MORI”

Till the day you departed, you amazed many with your endurance, sir. At just under 86, you were sharp as a tack and did everything on your own. You even drove yourself. How many Malaysians did so at that age? Me and the boys in the chat group were stunned when we saw images of the car crash you initially survived, as you hung by your fingers, literally, till help arrived. But I guess whatever spirit you had for life was second only in your love for the Lord, for when He called, you went … without much ado.  In a sense, we’re heartened that you’ll finally be one with your wife, who departed years earlier.

Goodbye, Yong-sook. We shall forever be in debt of your service to  MBSKL. Since we, the boys of ’85, had not experienced the great Mori himself, and since our final year in school was also your last in service, you will remain the greatest headmaster we ever knew.

Before concluding, let me quote again from your 2010 speech, where you shared your thoughts on what made MBSKL stand out.
“In my perception, what makes our school great is not only the brick and mortar. The real substance is the human element – the people, students, teachers, staff, alumni, parents, supporting friends and the public. MBSKL has become what it is today because over the years principals, students, teachers, parents, the church and the alumni association have toiled and endeavored to create, with their contributions, a culture and tradition of loyal support, giving us our physical structure and more importantly a spirit of oneness among us.”
Your legacy is a testimony of that oneness, sir.
Rest now, my beloved HM.

 

 

Yong Chee Seng

1930 – 2016

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4 Responses

  1. Dear Barani,
    Thank you for this beautiful tribute written about Mr Yong Chee Seng, my father. My brothers and I are deeply touched at your remembering him, as well as all those of his students who loved him and whom he loved dearly and remembered fondly.

    With warm regards,
    Wai Yin

    • Hello Wai Yin, apologies for the belated reply. Mr Yong lives on in the hearts of every MBS old boy privileged to have experienced him as principal. It’s hard to find many examples in life like your Dad, and it was my pleasure to have written this tribute for him. Originally, this appeared on my Facebook page after his demise in 2016, and has now moved here, a start-up I recently launched to celebrate ordinary people with extraordinarily lives like his. There are many changes coming to neverforget.cloud. Do stay with us in the days, weeks and months ahead. Bests to you and Mr. Yong’s other loved ones.

  2. Thank you for such a wonderful tribute to Yong Chee Seng, my late father. I’m not sure if this is a recent post or otherwise but this is the first I’m seeing of it as kindly shared by my neighbours here in Malaysia today. My family and I are truly touched by the reflection and remembrance of my late father. Truth be told, brought a tear to our eyes when reading this 4 years on after he left us. Thank you.

    • Hello Hon Cheong, hope all’s well with you. As I told Wai Yin, this post originally appeared on my Facebook page after his demise in 2016. It has since moved here, a start-up I launched to celebrate ordinary people with extraordinarily lives, like your father’s. Believe me, to almost everyone in MBSKL’s Class of 85, he was like a Dad (and I believe it’s the same for those in the preceding years, going back as far as 79, when he first became principal). As I said in the story, your father was a true admirer of Gandhi, and tried to emulate the Mahatma in his own little ways. Yong-sook, as we knew him, will live on forever in our hearts. If you could, do keep up with the upcoming developments at neverforget.cloud. There are many in the pipe and I’m counting on the support of those like you. Bests to you and Mr. Yong’s other loved ones.

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