Cover story: Academician Puan Sri Prof Dr Jamilah Ariffin

Growing up in close-knit Tapah and a solid English school education shaped Jamilah's broad outlook. She and her schoolmates talk about friendship, community and harmony in their book of schoolday stories.

(Photography by SooPhye/Options)

In 1955, a seven-year-old girl, the favoured youngest of ­seven siblings, entered Government English School Tapah (GEST). The town was small and pretty, surrounded by seven hills and several pristine waterfalls. A river flowed through the sleepy hollow and it was at the 90-degree curve of the river that the girl, her friends and teachers would frequently gather for picnics and group activities, enjoying each ­other’s company with no thought of race, culture or religion.

If Puan Sri Prof Dr Jamilah Ariffin had set out to pen a purely autobiographical account of the 11 years she spent at GEST, it could have started like this. But after 17 publications on studies on the impact of development policies over three decades, she decided to write a “popular” book following the strategy of an orchestral maestro inducing different sounds from his musicians.

She is the protagonist in Legends, Lessons and Love: A Small Town and an English School, supported by a cast of four former teachers and 22 schoolmates. Together, they tell about harmony and friendship in a coed school, nurtured by a close-knit community where the spirit of multiculturalism, imbibed from childhood, was generous and widespread. An interesting refrain is the sociological history of Malaysia from the 1950s to the 1960s narrated by the author, who is passionate about social welfare work.

There are chapters on events and ­issues pertinent to the country, such as the importation of foreign labour by the British; the Japanese occupation followed by the communist insurgency; indigenes in English schools; how students were drilled and grilled in the language; discipline and delinquency; and tales of ghosts, ghouls and hauntings that helped keep children in check. Old class photographs, movie posters and book covers add to the story of a time past.

“When I wrote this book, I ­intended it to be a musical ... that’s why I have the four themes,” says Kuala Kangsar-­born ­Jamilah, who enjoys orchestral ­performances and hopes to see ­Legends staged one day. She starts with the ­legends and true stories of Tapah and moves on to lessons learnt in school and the benefits of extra-curricular activities, before ending with love, particularly the affection and gratitude people feel when they remember their happy schooldays.

Jamilah Ariffin is the protagonist in Legends, Lessons and Love: A Small Town
and an English School

“The songs are all in the book,” she adds, referring to the movies and songs popular with teenagers then. “Who knows, some of the Gestians might be rich and be able to ­sponsor the production.”

That would make the tome, printed on glossy paper with large print and double-line spacing, even more meaningful for its intended audience — former Gestians now in their sixties to nineties, 86 of whom turned up for the book launch in Kuala Lumpur on Feb 24 by Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah of Perak. Some were meeting for the first time after five decades and they were transported back to their childhood as they spent hours catching up. The day ended with a birthday party for the gals and guys born in the first three months of the year.

There were many who could not make it to the event but are now connected by the group chats spawned by the book project.

The names of all the contributing narrators are on the cover of ­Legends, which also has the GEST crest; pictures of the school field where ­Jamilah — a sprinter, long-jump champion and Perak state hockey player — spent afternoons practising; a group of students on an outing; and the gigantic Tapah fish the town is named after.

With so many elements, the cover looks like that of a school magazine. “It’s all right,” says Jamilah, who acts on the strength of her convictions. “You will never find a book with 26 [writers’] names. I promised them I would do it and I did. I owe it to them.”

Honour and reputation rank high for this former head prefect who was the best debater in school and a top student. She won a Colombo Plan scholarship to do her undergraduate studies in La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, where she met her husband, Tan Sri Abdul Ghani Othman, menteri besar of Johor from 1995 to 2013.

“It’s not just how people look at you but what you know about yourself,” says Jamilah, born to “egalitarian” parents. Her eldest brother, Kamarudin Ariffin, held up Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as her role model. Fifteen years older, he had confidence in her and was her strongest influence.

“He was always talking about Bennet’s good character and ­modelled me on her — to be brave and speak your mind, to go against class snobbery, stand up for the family honour and never to lead any man on.

“I guess my character is also like that. I stand up for what I believe in. I have a mind of my own because my brothers — I had four of them to protect me — taught me that. From small, they pampered me and I was socialised and brought up never to be subservient to any man.”

Jamilah, a university academician for 33 years, is very proud of her mother, who taught her kindness and used to tell her: “A woman who is not nice to other women is a bad woman.”

“What she meant was we should have a sisterhood among women and if you are educated, you should help others. My mother missed out on education but she was very much a feminist. I think she is a role model even for the modern generation.”

She considers herself a feminist too, but adds that the word, like chivalry, is misunderstood. “I believe in chivalry and I think men should treat women well. Why should you not allow people to be kind, considerate and respectful? It’s like showing respect for your parents or someone older than you.”

Her mother's words did not fall on deaf ears. Legends is ­published by I-Resolve Foundation, which Jamilah founded in 2013 to advance ­social welfare and economic development research on single mothers and their children, poor indigenous groups and the mentally handicapped. Among her first books was Women & Development in Malaysia (1992). Two years later,  she wrote a country report reviewing the status of Malaysian women, in preparation for the Fourth UN World Conference of Women in Beijing in 1995. And during her years in ­Johor, she organised projects to improve the well-being of women and children.


I guess my character is also like that. I stand up for what I believe in. I have a mind of my own because my brothers — I had four of them to protect me — taught me that. From small, they pampered me and I was socialised and brought up never to be subservient to any man.


Books are a constant companion of this avid reader, who has been president of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Families for the past 18 years. She likes novels by famous women writers because they incorporate the finer aspects of human emotions in their work.

“Lots of stories in the old days influenced our thinking because they had good values, such as discipline and compliance to the rule of the law,” Jamilah says. Lack of integrity and respect for the law is the basis of the many problems in Malaysia today, she adds. People break the rules because they think they can get away with it or are not disciplined enough to do the right thing.

“What we can do is start teaching integrity in school and invest more in it,” she suggests. “The most important thing is the inner-directedness: You won’t do something wrong because it’s about your conscience. There is also the law: You know if you do it, you’ll get caught.”

When Kamarudin died in 2015, he left behind more than 6,000 books, mostly on history, religion and astrology, and many English titles now out of print. “His whole life was his books. He had a whole roomful of them at Temoh Road [the family home in Tapah] which I was not allowed to touch as a child. His last wish was for the books to be read to generate knowledge.”

Jamilah will place the bulk of the books at Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris Tanjung Malim, known for its historical library. “I knew too well that as a strict former headmaster, he [would have] wanted these to be maintained well.” So she decided to set up an endowment fund for the upkeep of the books. “And as [he was] an honest man, I knew the money for this had to come from honest means.”

Publishing Legends, Lessons and Love is her way of earning income for the fund, says Jamilah, who perused many books on writing before starting out on what, for her, was a new genre. She writes in longhand. On days when her confidence flagged, Standard One friends ­Vanmala ­Arasanayagam and Lee Foong Mee, her former sports trainer Sidek Mandeh Shah, and senior student Khalil Mohamed  Nikah were there to give her “ego-boosting” encouragement.

Another inspiration for Legends is Joseph Thambiah, 90, who taught Science at GEST from 1959 to 1978. At a 2016 school reunion, he told Jamilah he had never attended any of her book launches. So she hurried to get this one done within a year, with the prayer that he, now a father figure to the ex-students, would make it for the launch.

Thambiah, together with ex-teachers C P Arumugam, Oi Pi Tek and P Sothillingam, share their school experiences in the book. Hockey master Arumugam recalls how the school — a veritable David compared to ­Goliaths such as St Anthony’s Teluk Intan, Anderson School Ipoh, Malay College Kuala Kangsar and Penang Free School — beat them all to represent the North Zone at the inaugural Merdeka National Inter-School Hockey Championship. GEST emerged champions after beating St Francis ­Institution Malacca and Sultan Ismail College Kota Baru. As the North Zone winner, the team was invited to witness Tunku Abdul Rahman’s declaration of independence at Merdeka Stadium in 1957.

Front row (from left): Dr Iskandar Mahmud, R Yogeswaran, Mohamed Hamzah, Almah Mustapha, Khairuddin Ariffin, Maimunah Mahadi, Punusamy Marappan, Zamzam Jalaluddin and Ramalingam Pillay
Second row (from left): Sarjit Singh, Dr Rajinder Singh, Datuk Sarjit Singh Sekhon and Jafri Merican
Seated are Jamilah with Joseph Thambiah (left) and C P Arumugam

GEST placed importance on sports and extra-curricu­lar activities, which encouraged interaction between students of varying academic ability, economic backgrounds, race and religion, Jamilah says. These activities helped build leadership skills and confidence among the students, many of whom became leading sportsmen and women. Five of them — Hamzah Shamsuddin, Aminullah Karim, Datuk R Yogeswaran, Datuk M Rajamani and ­Datuk Poon Fook Loke — are on the school’s roll of honour for representing the country at the Olympics.

That a minnow like GEST could achieve big things was because it had the full support of teachers, parents and community. Jamilah feels that instead of building bigger schools in large cities, schools and towns should be kept small so there is a sense of belonging and connection.

“I never appreciated Tapah until I went to a big town [after Form Five] and a big school where the environment was not like what I grew up with. When I wrote this book, I valued it even more. We should go back to those times. Everyone was poor then but we didn’t have a culture of poverty because we were hopeful. We were hungry to learn.”

A culture of poverty is when people have no more respect for the law, she explains, and choose a lifestyle at odds with what is accepted. They turn to crime and drugs, husbands leave their wives and there is no optimism for the future.

“This is what we have to watch out for when it comes to the urban poor in Malaysia. KL has lots of migration, in and out. Are people still hopeful for the future?”

Growing up in a town where everybody knew everybody gave the children a sense of being cared for, she says. “The teachers had time for us and were more like big brothers or sisters, and students knew that if there was a problem, they could have some sort of justice”, as happened when a student punched a teacher after being slapped, and her father stepped in and spoke up for him.

“It’s fair go and fair play — we should have that.” The incident was one of several concerning her parent that she had no inkling about until she talked to schoolmates while writing this book.

Mohd Ariffin Aroop, a hospital dresser, was tall, good-looking and dapper, and quite a spendthrift, compared with his petite wife Zabedah, the strict and puritanical daughter of a well-to-do businesswoman. What Jamilah found out was that he once saved a dog, often helped the poor and was a top-grade worker whose assistance was often sought by doctors.

“My father witnessed the incident [between the teacher and schoolboy] because our house was 200 yards from the school field. Everyone converged there for events and activities. It was like a big arena for me to watch things [going on]. In a way, I think I’m the right person to write about the school.”

There is probably no better person to spearhead the River Corner project too, so-named for the point where Tapah’s Sungai Batang Padang curves, making it the ideal spot for students to swim and gather. Water is sometimes released from a dam upriver, turning it into a big drain.

“The Tapah fish can no longer spawn there. So I said, why don’t we save the river? It has many memories for the people who live in the town. I hope the project will raise public awareness of [the need to] keep rivers in Malaysia clean so they can become a part of the community.”

Jamilah, who sometimes puts on an aloof persona “as a shield against emotional hurt and if I don’t want to be pestered by some persistent characters”, lets on that she is a romantic at heart who believes in true love. Her advice for her two children was: “Choose whoever you like as long as you think you have made the right choice.”

Any regrets now that she is in the autumn of her life?

“No, I think I am quite blessed. I used to ask why I wasn’t born in a rich family or why my mother wasn’t an educated person. When I was in Victoria Institution, my Form Six classmate Rajes said, ‘You’re lucky to have a mother. Mine died when I was two.’”

Dr Rajeswari Chelliah had suggested ‘Legends, Lessons and Love’ as the book title. “She was also the one who said, ‘Jam, put their names in. They will bless you all their lives.’ I’m glad I did. Now everybody is saying, ‘It’s our book.’”

The same narrators will have a hand in its Bahasa Malaysia translation, which Jamilah will edit and hopes to release in a year. Then there is the longer-term dream of the musical. Who knows? One day, five-going-on-six Kamila, the second of her four grandchildren, could step on stage as the little lass whose life was shaped by an English school in a small town.



Vanmala Arasanayagam, 70
Tapah in the 1950s and early 1960s, specifically in the government quarters on Baldwin Hill … had a mixed racial neighbourhood of various cultures and mutual tolerance, much like the branches of a tree that did not encroach on each other’s deep-rooted foundations. There was understanding, cooperation and solidarity.

Ngeow Hon Voon, 82
In our time, we never labelled friends as Malay or Chinese, Indian or Eurasian. They were just people. We did not have the racial and religious prejudices that are being used by politicians to divide us. I was the best man for my friend, Dollah, at his wedding. It was nothing strange. We were like brothers.

Poon Kah Heng, 73
There was no racial segregation whatsoever in Tapah during our schooldays. I had more non-Chinese friends than Chinese ones. I used to meet with Sita Ram, Lekh Raj and Hemat at Lekh’s father’s restaurant on Jalan Rajah. I always remember staying with Sarjit’s family in Kuala Lumpur and sleeping on a charpoy.

Datuk Mohamed Hamzah, 77
Most of my classmates from Tapah were not rich. All of us kids were just good friends and our aim was to obtain as much knowledge as possible, study hard, do well in the examinations to secure a good job and get out of our poverty rut. We did our revision in the classroom after school hours. Each of us would bring food from home to eat together while studying together.

Thien Nie Khian, 70
Tapah primary school was truly multiracial. That was what made it unique. When I think of my classmates I just recall events connected to them and not whether they are Chinese, Indians or Malays. We were more integrated compared to the younger generation and because of that, I think there was more understanding and tolerance.

Zainudin Ismail, 71
It was the first time in my young life that I had to sit in the same class with Chinese and Indian pupils. We never bothered to ask each other where [we] came from or what jobs our parents did. Try attending a party nowadays and you will be inundated with questions about your job, family, number of children, where you’ve gone for holidays...


This article first appeared on Mar 26, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.

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