helping hand gave Malay boy a chance
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
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.'