Mr Ng Seo Buck – or N S Buck as he preferred
to be known as - will be remembered as one of the more cultured
Old Boys and Old Teachers of the V.I. – a man of learning and
letters, with a deep love for history and the literary arts.
He was a V.I. pupil in the early 1900s and on graduation taught
at his alma mater for many years.
He was born in 1893 and as a boy in his home
village in Swatow, China, collected sticks and dried leaves for fuel.
One day, after experiencing a vision, he became a medium - for a while
at least - dispensing talismans to the local folk, a rather strange
vocation for a future V.I. teacher! His father first arrived in Malaya
in the nineteenth century from China and worked as a labourer in a
godown hauling sacks of rice. After a few years he became a kepala
and sent for Seo Buck. On arrival in Malaya in 1902, Seo
Buck lived initially with his father in the godown, subsisting daily
on rice gruel. He was then sent to live with a Baba family and,
running errands like going to the market and pounding rempah,
quickly picked up Malay. At the V.I., Seo Buck was a bright student
and when he finished Standard 6 (Form 2 today), his father wanted
him to leave school and work as a clerk. However, Mr Shaw begged the
father to let him stay and it was he who saw to Seo Buck’s education
and eventual employment as a V.I. teacher.
As he could not afford to go overseas for a degree, Seo Buck
did an in-service course and acquired a degree equivalent ACP
(Associate of the College of Preceptors) qualification in English
and History. He spoke and debated well, performed in school plays
and took up the violin. He was a Cadet Corps master and every Saturday
morning he would be seen smartly togged up in his uniform with shiny
boots and brass buttons to review his cadets.
However, he did not get along with the Inspector
of Schools and was transferred from the V.I. after a few years
to Kajang High School which at that time had a rather bad reputation.
In a few months Seo Buck managed to turn the school around and it
began to produce a number of brilliant students. Grateful Kajang
residents called at his house with gifts of fruits, live chickens
and eggs, and, to his embarrassment, some Indian parents even went
to the extent of kissing his feet.
After a few years Seo Buck was transferred back
to the V.I. In the thirties, he was the Shaw House master and his son,
Ng Kok Teow, who later became a doctor, was Shaw House secretary under
his father! Seo Buck founded the History Society in the school as well
as the V.I. Literary Circle, which had a rather short life as war soon
engulfed the region.
Few are aware of Ng Seo Buck’s brief role as
temporary Headmaster – the second Asian head - of the V.I. as it
struggled to re-establish itself in the aftermath of war in 1946. His
pre-war colleague and fellow Old Boy, Mr M. Vallipuram, had acted as
V.I. Headmaster from October 1945 to August 1946. When the latter retired,
Seo Buck took over just as the V.I. was moving back to its own building
after using the borrowed premises of the Batu Road School and Maxwell
Road School. As Headmaster, he invested the first postwar prefects with
their badges on September 9, 1946. He stepped down when Mr F. Daniel
arrived a few weeks later to assume the V.I. Headmastership. Seo Buck
taught history at the VI until his transfer in 1948 to Radio Malaya
where he was liaison officer for schools until his retirement. He
passed away in 1975.
Following are two interviews with him published
in the 1954 Victorian and the 1963 Tenth Anniversary issue
(The Victorian, 1954)
arrived in Singapore for the first
time in April 1902 together with my father and an elder brother.
We made our way to Port Swettenham by one of the small coastal
steamers and from Port Swettenham we came to Kuala Lumpur by train.
Looking back into the blank of my boyhood, the first thing I can
remember as standing out by themselves from a confusion of things,
was the jungle on either side of the railway track from Port
Swettenham to Kuala Lumpur. It was jungle, jungle everywhere and
not a rubber tree to be seen.
What else do I remember? Let me see. Everything
was strange to me. The houses, all one-storeyed, appeared to me to
be very big compared with those of my own native village. The
streets were paved with brown laterite and were illuminated by
flickering kerosene lamps each about eight feet high. Towards the
evening Indian labourers placed ladders against them to light them
and every morning the same labourers climbed up to put them out.
During the day water-carts, drawn by bullocks, went round the
streets to lay the dust. Stand-pipes were seen here and there and
from these the inhabitants drew their supply of drinking water.
Every shop-house had its own well inside the shop and the water
from the wells was used for purposes of bathing and washing.
Along the streets there were rickshaws,
bullock-carts and hand-carts and here and there could be seen a
horse gharry - the last being the mode of travel for longer distances,
say, from Kuala Lumpur to Ampang, a distance of about six miles. For
short distances most people travelled on foot. Street accidents
were rare and there was no officer in charge of traffic. Everyone
went about his business in a leisurely way.
My first day at school - 7th May, 1902 -
very nearly proved to be my undoing. I was a singkeh, a
term applied to all new arrivals from China. I could not speak a
word of Malay nor could I understand any of the other Chinese
dialects but my own. The bully of the school knocked down my
brand new 25-cent straw hat and trampled on it. We had a fight
and like Tom Brown I got the worse of it. I returned home with a
black eye and swore to my father that I'd never go back to school.
Luckily my first teacher - the late Mr. Tan Lye Huat - knew my
father. He came and coaxed me and said he would take me under
his personal protection. So I went back to school, where I spent
the major portion of my life both as a pupil and subsequently as
In those days Chinese boys came to school
dressed in Chinese slack trousers and loose coats with their
towchangs (pigtails) tucked away in their pockets. Malay
boys came in their sarong and songkok and Indian boys
came in their verti but nearly all of them were barefoot,
Chinese, Malays and Tamils alike.
In the Victoria Institution the old coloured charts of the four
seasons were relics of our conversations, but I still feel that the
live pictures we ourselves made, using teachers and pupils as
subjects, were more appealing to the young minds. Truthfulness,
honesty, cleanliness and punctuality were our favourite abstract
subjects for talks. As a teacher I can now look back with
satisfaction upon a happy journey. Some of the boys I had
taught are now leading merchants, prosperous lawyers, busy
chemists and practitioners of note.
On one hot day in 1910 there was a very thick
hailstorm. Each hailstone was about the size of a naphthalene
ball. Halley's comet was seen in the same year. Astrologers and
soothsayers regarded these two phenomena as messengers of evil.
They were very nearly right. The Chinese Revolution broke out at
Wuchang on October 10th, 1910, and the First World War broke out
During all these years I have seen phenomenal
changes not only in the appearance of the town, but also in the
manners, customs and habits of the various peoples who make up
the inhabitants of this country.
In those delightful days when Government
servants began with a salary of $15 a month, men went to work
clad in tutups but everyone wore a hat. In fact, hats of all
kinds could be seen bobbing up and down the streets of the town.
There were straw hats, felt hats, double-terai hats, Panama hats,
Ellwood corked helmets, bonnets, turbans, songkoks and fezzes.
Today very few people use hats, and if they do, they carry
them in their hands.
There were very few places of amusement.
In the gambling dens one could watch either a Punch and Judy
show or a marionette show. In the theatre-halls in Petaling
Street and Sultan Street, Cantonese wayang played year in, year
out. The plays they staged were episodes taken from either The
Romance of Three Kingdoms, Si Yu Chi, Wan Nien
Ching or Chin Ku Chi Kwang.
To me the one most important day of the year
was Chinese New Year. I am ultra-modern. No one can accuse me
of being conservative. But although the Chinese Republic had declared
first January as the official New Year, I always preferred the
Old New Year. The shops were all closed and every Chinese walked
out in his finery. Men were dressed in silk, either blue or
black, and women all wore samfu made of either black,
blue or pale green silk. The cheongsam was yet unknown.
Most of them went to the High Street Temple
to pray for good luck and when they met in the streets the
customary greeting Kung Hei Futt Choy could be heard a quarter
of a mile away. Children carried rotating lanterns and rabbit
lanterns, and gambling stalls were set up at every street corner.
Towards the evening red candles burned brightly on the mantelpiece
of every Chinese home and at night there was the bomb bah or
fire-crackers. The firecrackers have a way of shaking the Chinese
heart that no European knows.
I am afraid my time is up and so I'd like to
conclude with Thomas Moore's:
The Light of Other Days
Oft, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Fond memory brings the light
Of other days around me!
The smiles, the tears
Of boyhood's years,
The words of love then spoken;
The eyes that shone,
Now dimm'd and gone,
The cheerful hearts now broken!
Thus in the stilly night,
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.
When I remember all
The friends, so link'd together,
I've seen around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather,
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall, deserted;
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus in the stilly night
Ere slumber's chain has bound me,
Sad memory brings the light
Of other days around me.
An Interview with Mr Ng Seo Buck
(The Seladang, 1963)
r. Ng Seo Buck astounded us when he revealed
that he was seventy-two. He still looks so young and energetic
that at first sight anybody would believe him to be in his late
fifties. However, at the end of our interview with him we had to
admit that having led such an interesting and active life age would
affect him but little.
Mr. Buck is one of the four oldest surviving V.I.
Old Boys. "Unfortunately, I cannot claim to be one of the first
generation as I only joined the V. I. in 1902," he told us. In 1902
Mr. Bennett Shaw had already been Headmaster for eight years, having
joined the school at its very inception.
Mr.Shaw, Mr. Buck informed us, was "a very strict
but kindly man" who was very much loved by his pupils. His views on
education were much respected and he was often consulted by the
Government on this matter. However, he was very angry when his advice
was not followed and as such Mr. Shaw was not much liked by the
Government. In fact, Mr. Buck revealed, it was only with great
difficulty that the Government could be persuaded to name the present
Shaw Road (now Jalan Huang Tuah) after Mr. Shaw.
The first Headmaster was very particular about
the recruitment of teachers. He tried to maintain the school spirit
by employing Old Boys as far as possible. Mr. Shaw succeeded in his
objective as these teachers, being his former pupils, respected him
and also had a sincere interest in the school. The form teachers in
Mr. Buck's days had to teach every subject studied in their classes.
Pupils studied the usual subjects, except Science. However, Physiology
and Hygiene were taught in the Senior Classes. Mr. Buck recalled that,
as early as his school days, Malay was taught. However, this was
stopped after some years.
Mr. Buck next went on to tell us about the
examinations of his days. The first government examination was taken
in Standard 4 (present Standard 6), its purpose being to assess the
grants-in-aid which were based on the number of passes in this
examination. The Cambridge Examinations were taken in 3 stages -
Preliminary, Junior Local and the Senior Local. After completion of
the Preliminary Cambridge Examination (Standard 7) a boy could get a
job as a government clerk quite easily. Mr. Buck told us that the
number of boys in the Senior Cambridge class was very small; the
class of 1909 from which he graduated had only six boys.
The boys in Mr. Buck's days enjoyed playing
tops and marbles as much as boys do today. "The smaller boys,"
he informed us used to play "Round the Maypole." Two very
popular games were "Basketball" and "Badminton". In "Basketball"
the players had to throw the ball into a wastepaper basket, while
in "Badminton" a small wooden ball was used. Mr. Buck recalled
that one of the highlights of his school days was the annual football
match between the staff and the boys. The boys invariably won but
one memorable year (1920) the staff forced a draw. Mr. Shaw was the
goalkeeper in that match. Mr. Buck suggested that perhaps the legs
of the boys became "soft" when they were confronted by the "Bulldog"
(Mr Shaw's nickname) in the goal.
After completion of his education, Mr.
Buck was requested by Mr. Shaw to join the V.I. Staff. Mr.
Buck had been offered an opportunity to study at the Medical
College but had to decline the offer because of financial
considerations. After two years as a teacher he resigned to join
the China Civil Service. But the First World War interfered with
his plans. As there was a shortage of European teachers, Mr. Shaw
persuaded him to return to the V. I. So in 1914 Mr. Buck was back
home teaching the Senior Cambridge Class.
In 1923 he was appointed the Headmaster
of Kajang High School. Although he was unhappy in his new appointment,
he was not able to return to the V.I. until 5 years later. And here
he remained until his retirement in 1947. During his years in the
V.I. Mr. Buck founded two societies, the Literary and Debating and
the Historical Societies. At society meetings, Heads of Government
Departments were invited to address the members. After the V.I.
moved to its present site on Petaling Hill in 1929, Mr. Buck was
the first person to introduce mixed debates, which were held weekly
with the Pudu English School. He also introduced mixed debates to
the Schools Broadcasting Section of Radio Malaya where he worked for
seven years after his retirement as a teacher. Mr. Buck recalled
that there was no School Captain and no Prefects in "those good
old days." The prefect system was only introduced in 1923 by
Mr. Richard Sidney. It was also Mr. Sidney who changed the
name of the first school magazine (its only issues being in
1923) from VIE (for Victoria Institution Echo) to The
Towards the end of our interview Mr. Buck quoted Mr. Shaw's
last words of advice to the school: "Carry on," he said "the
great tradition of the V.I." Mr. Buck also advised present boys
to emphasise the training of character. He said, "I would like
every present V.I. boy to develop a character worth speaking
of, for without good character no one can go far. Polished
brass is just as brilliant as rough gold..... Cultivate your
loyalty to yourself, your family, your community and your
Just before we bade goodbye to him, Mr Buck handed us a piece
of paper on which was written these words:
Whosoever will be great among you,
Let him be your minister,
And whosoever will be chief among you,
Let him be your servant.