Lessons from gangsters

Lessons from gangsters
By Wong Kim Hoh
Tue, Dec 22, 2009
The Straits Times

A few weeks ago, a friend told me that he shelled out $1.5 million for an apartment in the Thomson area.

He did so not because the development is a hop, skip and jump from the greenery of MacRitchie Reservoir. Or because the apartment is airy and spacious, with a view to die for.

The main reason, he sheepishly told me, is its proximity – less than 1km – to a popular boys’ school. It means his three-year-old tyke will get priority admission when it’s time for him to register for Primary One.

‘Wah piang eh,’ I exclaimed in Hokkien. I had to rib yet tell him I was suitably impressed at the same time.

Many Singaporeans take their schools very seriously because they believe these institutions say a lot about who and what they are.

It goes without saying that which one their progeny will attend is a matter not to be taken lightly, even if it means moving house and taking on a formidable mortgage.

A colleague told me that one of her former classmates at Victoria Junior College got herself transferred to Anglo Chinese Junior College because she wanted to marry an ACJC boy.

‘She felt that ACJC boys were so ‘it’. We used to laugh about it but she actually ended up marrying one,’ she said.

If you want the chatter to get especially animated at dinner parties, get your guests to start playing ‘Guess My/His/Her/Their Alma Mater’.

You will soon get gems like: ‘He must be from ACS because he speaks with marbles in his mouth’ or ‘She must be from Raffles Girls School because she is super-competitive and combative’.

One friend confidently wagered that I must have been from Dunman High because she thinks I’m ‘savvy but not snooty, understand Chinese culture without being chinky and can speak Malay probably because the school is next to Tanjong Katong where all the babas live’.

Another reckoned I must have been a St Joseph’s Institution boy because ‘you have a good command of English, are quite hip and trendy, quite gregarious and seem to know a lot of people’.

Alas, while I would not mind claiming such a pedigree, the truth is a lot less impressive.

I’m an alumnus of Sam Seng High.

I jest although all my (now defunct) alma maters Shaw Road Primary School, San Peng Road Lower Secondary School and Cheras Road Secondary School were located in gangster-infested pockets of Kuala Lumpur.

My one abiding memory of the last school was that of a fight between two boys in my class, the teeth of one firmly clamped on a bloody nipple, I can’t remember right or left, of the other.

Back then, my friends and I used to envy boys from the better schools in KL.

Victoria’s Institution, for instance, was just a 10-minute walk from San Peng but boy, did their students live in an entirely different world.

Not only was it the only school in town to have a swimming pool, but its field was also three times the size of ours.

They had a sizeable number of brainiacs, not to mention scions of rich towkays and even royalty.

I can’t lay claim to having gone to school with anyone remotely blue-blooded but I can definitely boast that some of my old schoolmates were card-carrying members of triad gangs in the city.

When my Singaporean friends reminisce about new terms in new schools, they inevitably remember dread and anxiety over books, notes and, of course, new teachers and classmates.

While we had those too, some of my friends and I had one far more nasty worry: How to handle the bad hats in school who would inevitably accost ‘fresh meat’ along corridors, in toilets or the bus-stops outside.

Some demanded protection money, some were out to recruit and yet some others just wanted to rough you up or give you a good old-fashioned fright.

I wouldn’t recommend the experience but, in retrospect, I probably imbibed some invaluable life lessons then: teamwork (moving around in groups, looking out for one another), negotiation skills (bargaining down a one-time protection fee from RM1 (S$0.40) to 50 sen (S$0.78)) and people management (getting gangsters you know to talk terms with gangsters you don’t know).

I also picked up some street smarts but, more importantly, I learnt not to be too judgmental about people.

For I’ve learnt that beneath their tough-talking exteriors, some of these ‘ruffians’ were also teenagers with dreams and insecurities.

Sometimes a simple offer of a piece of chewing gum was all that was needed to turn a hostile terroriser into a ‘manageable’ pal.

For instance, after I helped LWK with his English homework, the burly boy made sure no one gave me any grief during my three years in San Peng.

I bumped into him several years ago in a Chinese restaurant in KL. He is now a portly father of three grown-up daughters and runs a thriving contracting business.

‘This man used to help your father with his English compositions,’ he introduced me to one of his daughters. When I called for my bill later, the waitress told me LWK had already settled it.

Would my life have turned out very differently if I had not gone to these schools? Who knows?

I only know that I am thankful I completed my education when life was a lot simpler.

Just the other day, a colleague was telling me that during examination time, her friend – a teacher in a top junior college – has to close all the windows in the classrooms. She does this as a precaution, lest any of the students – high strung from performance anxiety – jumps.

Now, give me gangsters any day.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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