IT was the roaring 20s of a different kind in
Kuala Lumpur, watching a Bangsawan show, getting a ride in a red sports
car, caddying for the Mat Salleh, fishing in the pristine Klang and Batu rivers,
climbing fruit trees and generally enjoying an idyllic life as a young lad.
Former director-general of Health Tan Sri Dr Abdul ĎCocoí Majid Ismail,
who turns 85 next month, regales P. SELVARANI with tales of growing up
in the Malaya of the 20s and 30s.
In wide-eyed wonder, the pint-sized six-year-old stood
transfixed as the "most handsome young gentleman I had ever seen" casually
lit a dollar bill and used the burning note to light his cigarette.
What happened next also left little Majid stunned.
The handsome man, who looked like "one of the film stars
on the handbills pasted outside the Coliseum cinema", took out a fistful of
dollars and threw them onto the stage, shouting "encore" as the curtains came
down on the chorus girls who performed between intervals of the Bangsawan
So this was the flamboyant "Doghalim", as Abdul Ghalim
bin Haji Taib, one of the sons of Kuala Lumpurís prominent Malay businessman,
It was the kind of life Majid Ismail, eldest of twelve
children of a railway machinist, had never even dreamt of.
Doghalim, who was the brother-in-law of Majidís aunt,
Maimunah, had earlier treated Majid to a grand meal at his hilltop
residence at Gunong (along the present Jalan Sultan Ismail) before taking
him for a spin in his flashy red open-top sports car.
Gunong later housed the St Maryís School.
"I have never seen anything like it before, or since,"
says the sprightly and unassuming octogenarian as he recalls his childhood
in Kuala Lumpur in the 1920s and 30s.
He may have come from a relatively poor background,
but growing up in Kuala Lumpur was an enriching and fun experience for
Majid who was born in his grandfatherís house on Nov 15, 1921 in Kampung
Ujong Pasir at Kampung Baru.
"Those were some of the most enjoyable days of my
life. There were lots of fruit trees to climb and games to play. We
played rounders, kaunda kaundi and gasing.
"There was even a swimming pool near the present
Jalan Travers police station where we schoolboys would go for a dip."
Climbing trees was Majidís "speciality" and climbing
fruit trees was a treat as there were plenty of mempelam (mango),
mangosteen and rambutan. But his favourite was climbing coconut trees.
"Why? I donít know. I just enjoyed climbing them,
especially when I was thirsty," he says.
Fishing was also a favourite with the young Majid
who caught udang galah (fresh water prawns), ikan keli
(catfish), ikan baung, ikan putih and ikan betuk
from the Klang and Batu rivers, and the many mining ponds in Kuala
Lumpur and around Selangor.
"The rivers then were almost crystal clear. It
was easy to catch fish and prawns. We would also pluck pucuk paku
(wild greens) and kangkong (water convulvus) which grew wild
on the river banks.
He especially treasures the memories of ikan
betuk fishing trips with Baba (his father), and his Malaccan
friends. Catching ikan betuk was an art. One had to use the eggs
of the fiery kerengga (red ants) as bait. How did they collect
"My father and his friends came up with an
ingenious contraption. They fashioned an upeh (a frond from
the betel nut tree) into a funnel and tied a piece of cloth at the
end of it. This was attached to a galah (pole) which was used to
jolt the kerengga nest."
When the ants and the eggs fell into the cloth,
the cloth would be tied and emptied into a kerosene tin. The tin would
be lit and the ants and eggs would be burnt.
"We would throw the dead ants into the pond to
attract the fish and use the eggs as bait. Sometimes, we caught up
to 100 ikan betuk a day.
"It was delicious, cooked masak lemak cili
padi style, which was one of my motherís specialities."
Majidís love for golf was nurtured when the
family moved into the Sentul Railway quarters. There, he spent many
an evening caddying for the British tuans and mems at the Sentul
Caddy duty involved not just lugging the golf bags
and clubs around the course. He also fashioned the tee from little
mounds of clay, and later polished the clubs with Brasso until "they
gleamed so bright I could see my teeth reflected on them".
Majid was paid 10 cents, a princely sum back
then, considering a packet of nasi lemak cost only one cent.
The golfing skills he picked up as a caddy stood
him in good stead as several decades later, in 1961, he became the
first Malayan champion of the Sentul Golf Club.
Being one of the brightest Malay students from
the Segambut Malay School, Majid was awarded a Selangor government
scholarship in 1932 to study at the Maxwell Boys English School. The
scholarship was worth 10 dollars a month, with seven dollars going
towards board and lodging at the Malay Boarding House in Kampung Baru.
A boisterous chap and one of the more mischievous
boys, Majid enjoyed hostel life, and his exploits extended to the night.
"When lights were out, I would slide down the water
pipe outside the bathroom window for a night out with some of the boys.
"My exasperated monitor (Tan Sri) Sheikh Hussein
would lament: "Budak Majid ni jahat, aku tak boleh jaga dia.
(This boy Majid is so naughty, I canít control him)."
It was during this time that Majid learnt the
ronggeng and ballroom dances from the "taxi dancers" at the
famous Eastern Cabaret and BB Park, something he still enjoys. Even
today, he never misses an opportunity to twirl on the dance floor with
Majidís excellent grades saw him entering the
prestigious Victoria Institution.
In VI, he joined the scouting movement and spent
many hours in "productive and enjoyable" pursuits like camping and
Majid came out tops among the Malay students in
his school for the Senior Cambridge examination.
Like the rest of the high achieving Malay boys,
Majid had no say in the choice of a career. It was decided by the
Secretary to the British Resident, Raja Uda Raja Mohamed.
"Awak Majid, awak pergi Singapura belajar jadi
doktor (You Majid, you go to Singapore and study to be a doctor),"
said Raja Uda.
"The question of whether we actually wanted to
be doctors or engineers never arose, because as government scholars,
we were obliged to accept whatever the government told us to do,
and be grateful for it."
Did he want to be a doctor?
"No, I wanted to be a district officer. Then
I could get close to the people. I was invited to join politics
by Datuk Onn Jaafar but I told him that I would be wasting my
talent as a doctor if I were to become a politician."
Not surprisingly, Majid was made social
secretary at medical college and his college days were filled
with games, social dances and picnics. But all that was temporarily
halted by the Second World War.
Majid returned to a hard life in Kuala Lumpur
where he and his cousins grew tapioca in the jungles of Jalan Duta
and around Kampung Pandan. The enterprising boys sold tapioca,
kerosene, dried fish and sparrows (as pets for rich children).
When the war was over, Majid returned to
Singapore to complete his medical studies. He met his wife,
Khairany Mahyuddin, in Singapore, and the couple has three children
and 10 grandchildren.
During his early years as a medical officer,
Majid took up hunting. The jungles of Pudu Ulu, which were outside
Kuala Lumpur, and Kajang were favourite hunting grounds where
Majid and his friends shot wild boar and deer.
Majid rose up the ladder to become the Director-General
of Health in 1971. During his tenure as director-general, he was largely
responsible for bringing healthcare to the rural areas and introducing
polio vaccination for children.
Does he have any regrets in life?
"The fact that I am not a greedy person," he
says with a twinkle in his eye. "If I had been, I could be owning
many prime properties in KL."
A Chinese businessman, whose daughter he had
treated for pneumonia, was so grateful that he offered to sell him
some parcels of land in the city for a song.
"I told him I had no money and I did not want to
take a loan because I did not want to be in debt. As civil servants,
we just did our job and did not expect any monetary rewards or gains."
But Majid has been amply rewarded, in career and
life. He also recently published his memoirs, An Old Man Remembers.
For someone his age, Majid still leads an active
life, heading several voluntary organisations such as the Malaysian
Heart Foundation. He is also the founder/chairman of the Selesa Health
Farm and Golf Resort in Bukit Tinggi. He attributes his good health
to his active youth and a healthy diet. "And I exercise three times
Of course, that exercise is golf.
On family, school, society and Coco the chimpanzee
Childhood illnesses that appear to be more and
more prevalent in this modern day and age seem to have escaped me.
Once, I had a severe puncture wound on my foot from a rusty nail
and I was bleeding quite profusely.
Cikgu Hamid Yassin calmly washed my cut, bandaged
it and sent me home on his bicycle. I wasnít given any injection or
medication but within a week the wound had healed. I can only attribute
my resistance against infection and illness to the hardy, active
lifestyle I led and the abundance of raw, green vegetables in my diet.
Our living conditions (when growing up at the
Sentul Railway quarters) were most challenging by any standards.
Despite that, there was no animosity in our little community. We
accepted our hardship as part of life and tried to be as neighbourly
to each other as possible.
There seems to have been a greater tolerance
in those adverse times than in the relatively affluent living
conditions our country is so fortunate to enjoy today.
The children in the Railway quarters mingled
with each other and that was how my Nya (mother), my siblings and
I learnt to speak some Tamil and Cantonese.
"Nya learnt to cook several Indian dishes like
putu mayam, putu bambu, vadai, murukku and
various curries from the mothers of Suppan and Maniam. From the
Chinese neighbours she learnt to make yong tau foo and, from the
Punjabi family, chapati and dhall.
There were certain principles of behaviour
that Nya did her best to instil in her children. For instance,
basic good manners such as giving and receiving things with oneís
right hand, having respect for the elders, being kind and helpful
to everyone, and, most importantly, a sense of responsibility and
affection towards oneís brothers and sisters.
When I started school, there were no exercise
books or pencils. We used slate boards and a stick of kalam
(made of slate material) to write. Sometimes there were not enough
desks and benches and we had to sit on the floor. We went to school
six days a week, except Friday.
The syllabus was elementary as it was
intended to (according to the Colonial Governmentís Annual
Report of the FMS for 1920): "...make the son of the fisherman or
peasant a more intelligent fisherman or peasant than his father
had been, and a man whose education will enable him to understand
how his own lot in life fits in with the scheme of life around him".
In addition to learning to read and write,
we were thought a bit of arithmetic, some gardening and even
basket weaving. Bersenam (physical excercise) was a must and
I enjoyed it.
(On his school days at the Victoria Institution)
Each year, during the school concert at the end of the first term,
the top boy from each form would be given the honour of reciting
a poem before the whole school.
Sadly, I find that many of the young people
today, including my own grandchildren, are not taught to appreciate
the beauty of poetry. This is, in part, because of the structure
of the current day school curriculum. But also, I find, because
television has successfully quelled any inclination among the
young to enjoy the written word.
The teaching profession:
The teachers those days were much more
dedicated. In fact, it was the same for every other profession.
Everyone was dedicated to their job and carried out their duties
I remember teachers like Cikgu Hashim,
and Mr Ganga Singh who was so strict that we students would
be shaking in our shoes when he started to speak.
There was Mr F. Daniel from the West
Indies who taught us Science, a strict man who demanded
nothing less than full attention.
Another Science teacher, Mr Lim Eng Thye,
always wanted to be sure everyone knew what he was teaching.
He would often turn and ask: "Do you understand, boy, what I
am talking about?"
I enjoyed geography, especially map
reading and map drawing. I really donít know how geography
is taught today as none of my children and grandchildren
seem to be able to draw a decent map of Malaysia. They
even have difficulty locating certain key towns.
Sports played an integral part in our
education at Victoria Institution. I was not particularly
agile in sports but I was good at cross-country as I had a
lot of stamina.
In those days, it meant running on
laterite ground in a cloud of red dust. It was next to no
effort for me to run five miles round the periphery of Kuala
Lumpur from the V.I., past Petaling Hill and the old Chinese
graveyard, along Lake Gardens and the picturesque white-domed
building of the Selangor Museum.
On how he got the nickname "Coco":
One of the seniors (at King Edward VII
Medical College in Singapore) decided that freshies should
re-enact scenes from the movie, Jungle Princess,
starring Dorothy Lamour. I got the role of "Coco"í, Dorothyís
pet chimpanzee. The name has stuck since.