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School CP - January 2004
Sunday Times, Singapore, 11 January 2004
Wee: How the rotan changed my life
For the first time, the man Singaporeans called the People's President, has written about the milestones in his life in a 171-page book that will inspire and touch readers. Mr Wee Kim Wee, 88, who was the head of state from 1985 to 1993, pens his thoughts on such diverse subjects as rising divorce rates, retirement and politics. In an exclusive, two-part series, The Sunday Times presents excerpts from Glimpses And Reflections, which is available in bookshops for $25.
The magic wand
EVERYONE who has seen a magic show knows what a magic wand is, but how many know the whys and hows behind the one common equipment magicians around the world, save a very few, use for their performances?
My opinion is that magicians use it (a) to draw and at times deflect attention for their purpose; (b) as a symbol of their aura and status.
Having said that, I learnt fairly early in life that a wand wielded by the right person possesses considerable power.
For this story, I need to take you back to the year 1927 and a classroom in Outram School where I was a student.
It was soon after the results of the class test for the first term had been compiled and recorded in our report books.
I did badly in the test, not unexpectedly. My mother had moved the family from Holland Road to Kampong Bahru after my father's demise. For my education, the move was somewhat of a disaster. There was too much fun for boys of my age there, from rounders, basketball, fighting fish and mischievous exploits of one sort or another.
I did well in the early primary classes, but at the Standard III level I began to slide and slide very fast. I managed to get through to Standard IV. My teacher, if I remember correctly, was one Mr Doraisamy. He was a genial person, not very keen to use the rod.
But Mr Doraisamy also was one who stinted on words in writing. He wrote just four words in my report book and they told it all: 'Can work, but lazy.'
It was the system then that principals would go round to each class and take a look at every report book to assess how good or bad the class had been progressing or regressing.
The principal, Captain Goodman Ambler, was a retired army officer who was posted here from Britain.
It was about 11am, an hour after tiffin. Captain Ambler sat in our teacher's chair and went through the pile of report books.
He called my name. I stood at my desk at attention. He said in his loud military voice: 'So, you can work, but you are lazy, eh?' That question did not call for a reply.
'My boy,' the principal bawled, 'go to my office. Next to my desk is a wooden cabinet. Open it. In it find the magic wand you like best and bring it back to me.'
I did not need any prodding. I stepped quickly out of my class and headed to his office with my heart in my mouth.
In the office, I found the mahogany wooden cabinet just as the principal had directed. I opened it. In it were six canes of various thickness, from the girth of one's smallest finger to one's fat thumb.
What a decision to make! I turned to the principal's clerk, a Chinese gentleman called Mr Lim, and asked: 'Mr Lim, which of these canes will give me the least pain?' The clerk smiled and said, 'Shut your eyes and pick any one. It won't make any difference.' I protested mildly, mumbling that I had heard from other mischievous boys that the thicker the cane, the less the pain.
So I took a risk. I chose the thickest one. I walked back to class, stroking the cane which I knew would soon whip my buttocks. But, what I could not guess was: How many strokes would I be given?
By the time I returned with the cane, there were about seven others who had been asked to come up and form a line.
I was asked to join the line at the front. I was asked to take the spot, bend down and touch my toes. I was not much of an athlete and could not touch my toes easily. The principal was not going to be sidetracked. Like a first-rate magician, he pressed the back of my neck with his magic wand to make me bend down more and more, until my buttocks stuck out like the peaks of the Himalayas. Then, without even so much as an 'Alakazam', he brought the cane down.
I almost fainted. But, that very instant Captain Ambler called, 'Next'. It was the most happy word I had heard till that moment, for it meant that I had qualified for only one stroke.
I walked back to my desk. When I sat on the hard wooden chair I shot back up into the air. The pain was an excruciating, burning sensation. Instinctively, I pressed my hands on the seat and pretended to sit, remaining in that position till the pain subsided.
I will never forget all that happened in class that day. That one stroke of the magic wand helped me turn 180 degrees. All my extra-curricular activities in the kampung were put on hold. It was study, study and study almost round the clock. When the results of the third term came in, there was nothing in it to make me qualify for another stroke. I did well enough to push myself to Standard V C, a notch better than the D class I was in in Standard IV.
A few things bring back memories of Ambler's magic. One, whenever I read news reports of convicted criminals being given strokes of the cane by the law courts.
Two, psychologists arguing about the effects of the rod and, finally, three, when parents march into principals' offices to protest loudly that their offspring had been caned by their teachers.
For me, I accept unequivocally that if Captain Goodman Ambler had not used the wand on me, I could have ended as a dropout and ruined my life. Deep in my heart I am fully grateful to him for performing his magic.
Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.
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