Saturday, 31 January 2015

Candle 40: Loke Ying Lee

The following letter is from one of my juniors, Loke Ying Lee (Michelle) who wrote in response to my last blog post.  I am honoured that she has chosen to share her story on this blog, warts and all.  Our lives are enriched by the different paths we take, and there is no one "perfect" template in our quest to become all that God has created us to be.

Michelle Loke Ying Lee with her beautiful daughter, Chloe.

Dear Joanna

This is Loke Ying Lee, ex BBGS, 1979 - 1989 and perhaps I should have stayed to do sixth form at BBGS just like you.

I just read the story about your 1989.  I was touched by your courage to finally tell your story.  I felt that your year seems to have been a particularly fine vintage.  Perhaps it is the effect of juniors looking up to seniors.  You might have bemoaned your physical appearance.  I always thought you and Tomasina were equals as shining lights for the rest of us.

For a very long time, I kept my silence about my story.  It hasn't been anything nearly as glorious or glamorous.  Far from it.  I made mistakes, some of which led me to end up as a single mum.  But I am learning to forgive myself.  And I understand now, why you have been collecting BBGS stories.  Here is mine:

I wasn't supposed to go to BBGS.  In the dying days of 1978, my Singaporean aunt dragged my mother to see a school government official and somehow persuaded him to re-assign me to BBGS.  Asian tiger aunt at work, even then!

Being a born blur sotong, I got lost on my first day of school, Standard 1.  I couldn't find my way back to class after recess.  I'm pleased to say that my geography classes (thank you Mrs Abraham) helped me somewhat.  I can now read a map and have successfully navigated (more of less) my way around three continents.

By the time I got to Form 1, I still had a lisp, and couldn't pronounce 's' at the end, as in 'ass'.  That year, we had Mrs Aziz for English.  I was sufficiently terrified and respectful of her that I instinctively rewired my brain to address her correctly as 'Mrs Aziz', rather than 'Mirthirth Athith', which would have drawn such a petrifying glare from her that I would not have progressed to Form 2 to receive my much needed geography lessons.  So thank you, Mrs Aziz for the instant elocution lessons.

Choral speaking was, of course the main activity which we BBGSians learned to present, and speak well.  I don't remember being any good personally, but I do remember having superb tutors (haha - you!) and we sailed through those friendly competitions.  Thinking about it, this was probably what taught me to appear confident at presentations in later life.  

Perhaps the most painful part was growing up, and finally understanding the disparity in wealth levels among the little girls who had grown up together.  I estimate probably 80% of my graduating class of '89 (Form 5) went abroad to study.

I wasn't, am not, all that smart.  I didn't have a scholarship to fall back on.  Being poor and stupid is an unfortunate combination.  However, I had learned two more skills from BBGS:  sheer tenacity and the most useful - how to cook (thank you Miss Yeap for convincing me that cooking is better than learning to balance the books).  With that, I eventually graduated with a degree in Law and a Financial Analyst charter, survived in the world of asset management and raised a reasonably healthy daughter on home-cooked meals.

Looking back, I am grateful my aunt engineered my move to BBGS.  My regret is that I have been away for more than 20 years during which time the school has been demolished and most of my classmates have dispersed to the four corners of the earth.  I haven't given back at all.

This has been my story.  And now with my daughter at Uni, I begin my 'second life'.  If anyone wants to contact me, they can look me up at  I might be a bit different (older, for a start) from what they remember but there is still a bit of the dorky, blur sotong Ying Lee in me.

Nisi Dominus Frustra

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Year I Was School Captain

Three days ago, I uploaded this photo of my BBGS prefect badges on Facebook and watched in amazement as it triggered almost 300 "Likes" and many comments expressing sentiments of fear, terror and even hate! Some kinder souls used the word "legend".  This was all in response to the year 1989, when I served as School Captain, otherwise known as Head Prefect in other schools.

I am well aware that my reputation as a garang (fierce), no-nonsense School Captain became my identity in BBGS and lasted for decades beyond that.

But not many people know that I did not want to be School Captain.  In fact, I didn't even want to return to BBGS for Form Six.  I had no other choice.

This is the first time I'm sharing the story of what really happened in 1989 - The Year I Was School Captain.

Family Finances

My dad lost his job in 1986, when I was in Form Four.  That spelt the end of my dreams of attending private college after SPM.  I watched in envy as my friends registered for Year 12 at Taylor's and A Levels at Prime College, with plans for further education abroad.  That was no longer an option for me.  If I wanted a degree, it would have to be from a local university in Malaysia.  That meant facing the dreaded STPM exams and competing for entry on the race-based quota system.

In order to make ends meet, my dad started a business supplying barbecued seafood to supermarkets and every family member chipped in to help.  It was very hard work.  My dad drove to Selayang wholesale market at 3am every morning to buy seafood supplies, with only a few hours' sleep after closing our outlets at midnight.  There was always the fear of near-miss accidents on the road if he was too tired and fell asleep at the wheel.  

My mother was a super-hero who held down three jobs.  She taught in school during the day, came home to help my dad prepare supplies for the next day, and continued giving private tuition at night to supplement our family income. 

My sister Julie and I also did our share of physical labour.  At the end of the school day, we would drop our bags, change out of our uniforms, eat lunch quickly before starting to clean and prepare hundreds of kilograms of seafood for the business.  Once all the supplies were packed in the late evening, we would start our homework and get ready for school the next day.

That was our routine day in, day out.  Seven days a week.  Even on public holidays.

Some of my classmates knew about our changed circumstances and reacted in different ways.  One kind friend lent me her SPM revision notes and books so I didn't have to buy any. Another less-sensitive soul asked me if I bothered showering after cleaning all that sotong (squid)!

Academic Excellence

I had always been a good student up till that point.  However with the family pressures and making the unfortunate choice of entering the Science Stream, which was not my forte, my grades suffered. I failed miserably at Add Maths and Physics, which dealt a huge blow to my self-confidence.  My SPM results did not live up to many people's expectations.  I remember sitting dejectedly in Miss Yeap's office the day the results were released.  She shut her office door, pulled out a box of tissues and gave me a big hug.  That simple gesture opened a floodgate of tears.  I have never wept so hard in my life.  Miss Yeap cried too.

After the tears subsided, she advised me to switch to the Arts Stream for STPM, and offered to petition the Ministry of Education for my transfer to BBGS.  This meant I had a lot of catching up to do especially in subjects like History, English Literature and Accounting, which I had not covered in the Science Stream.  I was determined to focus on my studies, without the distraction of extra-curriulur activities.  

Upon my return to BBGS in Form Six, I did not even want to be a prefect, let alone School Captain.  When I was elected for the leadership role at the end of 1988, it was Miss Yeap who persuaded me to take it up.  But, I had to get my father's permission first.  

After a long discussion, he agreed to put me on a 3-month probation as School Captain on two conditions:
1) That I top the class in Upper Six for term exams.  Second place was not an option.
2) That I continue to help him with the family business operations, as well as taking on the added responsibility of book-keeping.

My father made me draw up and sign a contract, which was pinned up on the wall in front of my study desk throughout 1989.

Personal Insecurities

I was an overweight, pimple-faced teenage girl surrounded by pretty girls half my size.  That did nothing for my self-image and added tremendously to the insecurities of adolescence.

The only thing that made me feel good about myself during those years was the power and authority that came from being a school prefect.  And so when the opportunity to become School Captain came along, I responded the only way I knew how.  With an iron fist.  I got the job done by putting on a stern demeanour and ensuring that everyone followed the rules strictly.  That did not make me the most popular girl in school.  

While I was protected from negative sentiments by my position, my poor sister Julie was not so fortunate.  She often became the target of insults and brickbats from resentful girls who could not "touch" me.  Fortunately, she formed a close bond with a handful of friends who shielded her from much unkindness.

The year 1989 went by very quickly.  I studied hard while serving my term as School Captain, and continued to help my father run the family business.  I emerged top STPM student in BBGS that year, went on to study Economics at University of Malaya and graduated with first class honours.  That led to a British Council scholarship for an MBA in England, and an international career in HR strategy and consulting.

I am forever grateful to my parents for working so hard to ensure that I received a good education, and for loving and supporting me in difficult times.  To my sister Julie for the courage to live as "Joanna Yeoh's sister" and going on to become a success in her own right.  To my teachers, especially Miss Yeap, for her compassion, encouragement and love.

And so dear friends, 1989 was indeed a watershed year in my life.  

It was not only the year I was School Captain.  

It was the year I grew up and became an adult.