RUNNING a big secondary school at the age of 28? It is not really a young age but in Sarawak or even in the entire Malaysian education fraternity it is rarely heard that a 28-year-old being posted as school principal. To make it worse is the fact that you may have never taught in school before. That was really the scenario surrounding me in May 1983, just four years after unversity.
It was almost a state of quandry but certainly not my doing. SMK Datuk Abdul Rahman Yaakub (Sedaya) in Kanowit then without a principal was facing a big problem with its more than sixty teachers and about 1,400 students seriously and racially divided – the Dayak and the Chinese.
This was thanks no thanks to a small incident involving the torching of sports houses’ camps during the school landsports in April of the same year.
By the time I came – albeit reluctantly from my comfortable Head of Social and Humanities Depar tment s eat at Rajang Teacher s’ Col lege (RTC) i n Bintangor about 50 kilometres away – on May 3rd, the degree of segregratation among staff, especially teachers, was almost beyond repair. I found out later that my SMK Sedaya posting was highly recommended to the Education HQ by RTC boss Encharang Agas and his deputy Michael Manyin (now Dato Sri MM).
But lady luck was smiling on my side, thanks to SMK Sedaya food supplier/contractor Senator Joseph Unting anak Umang who offered to hold a welcoming dinner for me on May 5 at a posh restaurant across river, namely at Kanowit town – for readers’ information, SMK Sedaya is situated at the other side of the mighty Rajang opposite Kanowit town (its new site is just about a kilometre from the old site). I had known Unting through his son Doubeline who was my brother Edward’s colleague in Sesco, Sibu. After lots of Martel, Henessy, Beer, Guiness Stout, good food and high fives, the segregation seemed to be history, the way I saw it.
This was judging by the fact that Miss Jenny Pearson, an AVO (Australian Volunteer Overseas), a former girl school headmistress Down Under, kept on whispering to me that I didn’t have to do anything (to solve the racial division and tension) in between toasts – later a few Chinese teachers and their Iban colleagues joined hands in helping the highly intoxicated Ms Jenny to get home, I was told the day after.
Truly enough Unting’s effort put me in the right footing though it still needed reinforcement. After getting a bit of information here and there in the next one or two days, I called four male teachers – two each from the Iban and Chinese factions – identified to be their leaders to my office.
I made sure our clerk typist, a pretty young girl to prepare coffee and biscuits. To start the ball rolling I introduced myself and since I got their names and files, I addressed them by not-so-formal ‘cikgu so and so, explaining briefly why they were required in the principal’s office. I started by recalling a hilarious observation of the night at the restaurant when Jenny Pearson almost fell to Rajang River while negotiating a floating log. This brought laughter to us all and the four of them started shaking hands with one another.
Dur ing a staf f meet ing on Monday the week after there seemed to be no tension in the air and I didn’t even say a word about segregation and thereafter just let it die a natural death which it did. Our meeting – the first SMK Sedaya staff meeting that I chaired – lasted about one and a half hour. It was just used to state my intention and plan for the school that was without any head for a few months.
I gave some time for questions and suggestions but most teachers seemed to be contented with a few questions and answers or was it because they might have heard in the college departmental meeting that I chaired, lecturers were reluctant to speak or suggest for fear that one who spoke and suggested the most would be assigned more tasks.
Two weeks after landing in SMK Sedaya, I made a report, a positive report one, about the Dayak- Chinese situation in the school, for the attention of the Schools Section of the State Education Department in Kuching, then headed by Leonard Martin Uning, who later paid an unannounced visit to the school. I took it that the surprise visit was meant to check on how his 28-year-old poker buddy was coping up with his new job.
Apart from managing the staff situation, there were the students to focus on, now that part of the problem was solved amicably, thanks to Unting, whom I suspected had some hidden agenda. Problems involving the Iban and Chinese students and alumni of this formerly sole Kanowit secondary school dated back a long way before1983. The torching of the sports houses’ camps incident of that year was a culmination of that phenomenon.
“We have been trying to contain this situation (enmity) for some time, even trying to meet Chinese parents and Kapitan Lim but apparently the hostility remains. During sports outing to Sibu in the past two years, there were attempts by ex-students to provoke our athletes,” said a sports teacher, an Iban.
Luckily the school was wise enough to appoint at least three Chinese teachers (one female and two males) to help in guiding and looking after the school’s athletes as this helped to diffuse the situation.
In 1984 I pulled string by calling my police connection in Sibu who was the OCPD himself, asking him to get a few of his men to muscle around showing their presence close to our athletes. Though the situation with the teachers was fully contained and that there was no more reported hostile incident among the two racial groups of students, there was no way of finding out whether such hostility had ended. We just assumed it had ended as there was no reported incident in and outside the school.
My next focus was on the kitchen, especially after a random checking our team found out that ‘ikan baung’ (at RM8.90 per kg) came in headless (all literally without heads, all 100 kg of them and were worth RM860).
After a thorough checking, my team and I concluded with solid evidence that the ‘ikan baung’ received was actually ‘ikan belukang’ that was also in the tender list at RM3.60 per kg. So an order of 100kg, the supplier – Unting was just a proxy – stood to earn RM530 hands down on top of the profit from the supplied so-called ‘ikan baung’ which was actually the muchcheaper ‘ikan belukang’.
True to the saying that new broom sweeps well, I wrote a letter of complaint to the supplier in Sibu copied to the State Education Department Headquarters in Kuching and the Sibu Divisional Education Office.
There were pleading ‘mahu runding’ calls from the supplier which were ignored. Our school also stopped ordering ‘ikan baung’ but ordered the cheaper ‘ ikan belukang’ instead – and the ones we received were the former ‘ikan baung’ but coming with heads.
Being 28 and eligible, a school head could face other distractions apart from matters pertaining to management of school, students and parents. Out of the 66 teachers, nearly forty were females, half of them being single ladies – and many were good looking and available too. One or two were quite distracting but nothing happened by the time I left at the end of 1984 on a transfer to head my alma mater in Saratok, 13 years after leaving it.
After one year and a half in SMK Sedaya, I bonded well with the school and the people there, especially a temporary teacher who was recruited by me to fill a vacancy for graduate.
He also stayed with me at the principal’s bungalow on the hill top but later took a post as Leo Moggie’s Political Secretary. This is individual is none other than the present Kanowit MP Datuk Aaron Ago Dagang who is also first cousin to my present mother-in-law, a sister of former Ngemah assemblyman Gabriel Adit Demong.
It’s a small world – in 1984 my wife was only in Form II but left the school to continue studying in Kuching, courtesy of her pilot uncle, Adit’s younger brother. I do hope my effort in straightening things in the Kanowit school was not in vain. I might truly say that I came, I acted and at the end it was a matter of scoring the ABCDE grade. Success or failure, let others be my judge.