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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two dollars and fifty cents

The Star


Monday 11 February 2008

Two dollars and fifty cents

Reminiscing about the strength of the human spirit.

TI-N-N-NG! TO-N-N-NG! The strident chimes of the gate bell break the silence of the still, somnolent afternoon air. Stirred from my siesta, I peer warily through the half-opened window.
I catch sight of a teenage boy standing outside the gate in the scorching heat. When I am within earshot he says, “Uncle, please help buy a packet of ballpoint pens. I’m trying to raise money for my college fees.”
“How much?” I inquire.
“Only two ringgit and fifty sen.”
Perhaps, I am gullible but the imploring look in his eyes is more eloquent than his words. I dig into my pocket and draw out a RM5 bill which I hand to him. He thanks me profusely as I wave and wish him the very best of luck in his study.
“Only two ringgit and fifty sen.” Those softly-spoken words and the doleful look in his eyes somehow stir the memory of long forgotten incidents that had lain dormant all these years.
My thoughts flash back to my school days in the 1950s. Back then we used the Straits dollars and two dollars and fifty cents was big money then. Two dollars and fifty cents could mean the difference between acquiring an education and being a permanent school dropout. You see, two dollars and fifty cents was the amount of school fees that we had to pay promptly at the beginning of each month. Failure to do so would result in three reminders and then our names could be struck off the class register.
There was of course the limited “free places” reserved for the underprivileged pupils who performed well in school. These pupils were exempt from paying school fees but they had to be consistent in their studies or they would have to forfeit their places.
One afternoon I came back from school, full of excitement, and informed Father that I had been offered a free place. He congratulated me. Then he said, “I think you shouldn’t accept it. You know, you may deprive another less fortunate kid of an education.”
At first, I could not understand his decision. We were not rich. Mother was a homemaker and Father was a clerk with five school-going children. However, knowing his caring and compassionate nature, I declined the offer.
One morning, when I was in Form Three, Father suffered a stroke and passed away suddenly. Mother was left to raise eight children. Not entitled to any pension benefits and having to rely solely on Father’s gratuity, she had to eke out a living. Now, Mother allowed us to apply for a free place. My sister and I managed to get places which helped to ease our financial burden and see all of us through school. Soon, I went off to college and became a teacher.
If Mother and other less fortunate parents had to grapple with the problem of paying school fees before, now as a teacher I was faced with a different kind of problem.
Teachers in charge of the various Forms were assigned the task of collecting school fees, which we recorded diligently in the class register. We had to ensure that fees were paid promptly at the beginning of each month. Parents who defaulted on their payment could see their child’s name struck off the register.
Ah Meng, a student in my class, was a victim of such a system. I remember him well because he was an exceptionally bright student who would always come out top in class. One day, after term break, Ah Meng failed to attend class. His rubber tapper parents could not afford the fees and other school expenses. I felt sad and helpless.
Poverty had deprived a bright boy of an education.
I also vividly remember a Malay warden whose son was in my Remove Class. The boy was a pleasant and particularly bright pupil. At the beginning of each month, his father would never fail to come to my class. Long before his arrival, I could hear the squeak of his old bicycle, the crunching of wheels on pebbles and the screeching of brakes as he parked beside the classroom. With a broad grin on his face and bowing his head in his familiar humble and respectful way, he would extend his arms in greeting even before he reached the teacher’s table.
“Cikgu, I can’t pay now. I’ll pay later,” he would whisper apologetically.
It had become a monthly ritual, and I would smile and nod knowingly. I knew he would somehow find a way to pay the school fees.
He just required a little extra time. I would concoct excuses to allow him the necessary extension or come out with the needed advances. After Remove Class, I only met the warden on a few occasions and then I heard his son had got through his Form Five with flying colours. He left the school and I too left the school to further my studies.
One morning, I saw splashed across the front page of a local daily, “Trainee pilot killed in crash”.There was a familiar ring to the name of the victim. The pilot hailed from Malacca and his father was a warden.
My suspicions were confirmed. He was my ex-student. I felt a lump in my throat. I felt sad at the thought of a boy who had such a bright future before him. I felt sadder at the memory of a father who had to struggle to pay for his son’s education. I knew this man had pinned his hopes on his son to see him through his old age. Fate, however, had dealt him a cruel blow.
The sun has long gone down behind the line of trees; the evening shadows have lengthened.A young boy is still lugging a bag filled with ballpoint pens in the gathering darkness. I wonder if he has collected enough money for his fees. I think about my mother, about Ah Meng’s parents, the warden and others like them who, even though saddled with poverty, had done their best to ensure that their children received a good education. They were all self-reliant, had a sense of responsibility and fortitude of spirit.
Then I think about the thousands of study loan defaulters and I shake my head in disbelief.


  1. good job kong kong! post many more articles please... i'd be glad to help in whatever way i can! haha...

  2. Very interesting articles, sad , haunting and sometimes wish that time stood still, remembering my childhoood also.

  3. HiAnon.,
    Thanks for the positive comments. Glad to know the stories have helped to rekindle fond memories of your own childhood days.