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    Updated on Sunday, April 21, 2002 10:34 PM

Chinese helping hand gave Malay boy a chance

Chinese scholar and Muis official Jaffar Kassim is now returning the favour by bridging the gap between the two races

By Leong Weng Kam

FORTY-TWO years ago, a Malay student in a Chinese-language primary school on Pulau Tekong wrote to a Chinese-language newspaper here for help.
The teenager wanted desperately to go to the mainland for his secondary school education, but his family was too poor to let him go.
So he appealed to the Chinese community through the now-defunct Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper for help. His letter was published and a journalist was later despatched to the island to interview the teenager and his family. His article was published on Aug 7, 1960.
It produced an overwhelming response from the Chinese community, who wanted to give the Malay boy a shot at higher education.
The teenager enrolled in Whampoa Government Secondary School and went on to Nanyang University, graduating in Chinese language and literature in 1971.
That teenager was Mr Jaffar Kassim, now 57, head of the public education and public affairs division at the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.
And the journalist was Mr Yang Kui Yee, now 71, a well-known Malay scholar with several compilations of Malay-Chinese dictionaries to his name.
Yesterday, they shared the same stage at a seminar on Malay and Chinese languages and cultures, held at the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations.
'I wouldn't be here and speaking in Mandarin if not for Mr Yang's newspaper report more than 40 years ago,' said Mr Jaffar.
Mr Yang, who later became a Nantah Malay-language lecturer, said that he never expected that the teenager he helped would one day become the bridge between the Malay and Chinese communities.
Mr Jaffar stole the show at the seminar yesterday when he spoke about the similarities between Malay and Chinese cultures and beliefs - in fluent Mandarin.
The Chinese clansmen in the audience were all impressed by his command of the language and knowledge of Chinese culture.
He is well-known to Chinese-language newspaper journalists, who turn to him to translate Islamic terms when reporting on the Muslim faith, especially after the Sept 11 attacks in the United States and arrests of Singapore Muslims for terrorism-related activities.
Recalling the story he wrote more than 40 years ago, Mr Yang told The Sunday Times that it was the late philanthropist Lee Kong Chian who suggested that the newspaper publish a story about Mr Jaffar's plight, after reading his letter of appeal in the newspaper.
'I remember Mr Lee telling my editors that if the Chinese community did not respond to him, he would,' he added.
The Chinese community did not disappoint.
They gave Mr Jaffar $303, a big enough sum in those days to support his first year in secondary school.
He moved to the mainland and rented a room in Kampung Marican for $5 a month. Tuition on the side, earning him $75 a month, and Government bursaries based on his school results saw him through the later years.
Said Mr Jaffar: 'My father was a fisherman and his income was small and uncertain. We were a family of 13 children, and I was the eldest.
'But though we were poor and my father was illiterate, he was the one who encouraged me to go to a Chinese-language school instead of a Malay one on Pulau Tekong.
'My father said we should learn the Chinese language because there were many Chinese living on the island, and many rich and successful businessmen were Chinese.'
It was difficult studying Chinese as a Malay, but he found his classmates, teachers and principals both in primary and secondary school encouraging and helpful.
He said: 'They always wanted to help, maybe because I was Malay and wanted to study the Chinese language. The secondary school I went to even paid for my books and stationery.'
After the newspaper story in 1960, Mr Yang and Mr Jaffar met each other again in 1968, when Mr Jaffar was already a first-year student at Nantah and Mr Yang was a lecturer at the university.
'We were very happy to meet again and, since then, we have been very close friends,' said Mr Yang.
Both were surprised to find out that they were learning about each other's language and culture seriously, and the Chinese and Malay languages became their pet conversation topics.
'These days, when Chinese community groups want a speaker on Malay language or Muslim matters, I always recommend Mr Jaffar who speaks Mandarin,' said Mr Yang.
Similarly, Mr Jaffar said he would always have Mr Yang in mind when the Malay community wanted someone to talk about things Chinese, because of his command of the Malay language.
When told of Mr Jaffar's long relationship with the Chinese community, the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations' honorary secretary-general Chua Gim Siong said: 'That shows the importance of mutual help between the two communities. You can't tell when the results can be seen.
'In Mr Jaffar's case, it is more than 40 years. But I think it is worth it.'

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