It was sometime in December 1979 that I first met this friend of mine. I had arrived at MRSM Seremban to attend an orientation program being held by Mara for students selected to study in England. I arrived alone and didn't know anybody at Seremban. I wasn't sure who else from my school were selected. It was quite a hectic period because we had only just sat for our MCE exams the previous month and hardly had time to enjoy the break. Mara contacted the selected students by way of telegram. Back then, only the rich had telephones at home. Internet or emails were non-existent yet.
I was trudging up the slope to the entrance gate of MRSM Seremban when a guy in front of me looked back and asked where I come from.
`Dari Johor Bahru,' I replied. I was actually staying in Singapore at the time but I wanted to avoid explaining things too much.
`Sekolah mana dulu?' he continued to ask.
MRSM Kuantan, was my reply.
`Aku sekolah kat sini dulu,' he gestured to the place we were heading to. `Meh kita daftar sama... kalau nasib baik mungkin boleh dapat bilik lama aku.'
And thus was the beginning of my friendship with Badique, an ex-MRSM Seremban student. I can't remember how many students attended the orientation but it was quite a sizeable number. We were to be sent to a number of colleges in the UK in early January to do A-levels. It so happened that Badique and I were to be sent to the same college in London.
After the orientation, all of us had to make haste and carry out errands. We had to apply for our international passports, convert money to traveler's cheques and pound sterling, buy thick sweaters and jackets to face the cold English winter etc, etc, etc. In the midst of doing all these, we need to find the time to say good-bye to family and relatives.
The process of applying for an international passport those days is a bit more complicated than today. Among the requirements is for your application to be endorsed by someone of standing in your community, namely your penghulu kampung (village headman), your wakil rakyat (Member of Parliament), or a high-ranking officer in the civil service. Being a resident of Singapore, I did not know any penghulu or MP or civil service officer. I could ask for the help of relatives in JB but I was already in Kuala Lumpur at the time... no time to go back. Luckily, I had a cousin in KL who knew certain top people. He took me to meet the then Parliamentary Secretary of the Federal Territories Ministry, a certain Haji Abdullah Bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, whose office was located within PKNS Building at Jalan Raja Laut. Abang Man, my cousin, simply addressed the officer as Che Lah, and politely asked for his help to endorse my passport application. Che Lah looked at me and asked where I was going. I told him, to the UK for further studies. He reminded me to study hard and make sure I come back and help serve the nation.
Our group of London-bound students left Malaysia to arrive smack in the freezing UK winter on 11 January 1980. I believe there were around 30 of us in the flight, consisting of students who intend to study Accountancy, Pharmacy and Engineering. Upon touching down at Heathrow, we were first taken to the Mara Hostel at Leinster Square in the Bayswater area of London. After a briefing and a short rest, we were divided into groups based on the college where Mara had enrolled us.
Thirteen of us, including Badique and myself, were sent to a college in Greenwich called the Centre for Business Studies or CBS for short. It was the first time Mara is sending students there, hence we were sort of guinea pigs to find out if the college is good enough. CBS is a private college that takes mainly overseas students who want to pursue diplomas in business studies, banking and stuff like that. GCE A-level classes form a small part of their curriculum.
The overseas students were overwhelmingly Africans... prompting us to remark that the place is `penuh dengan gagak'. It was not a good place to study, at least not for A-levels. I didn't learn very much while I was there. I was practically enjoying myself most of the time. We would spend most weekends exploring London. The West End, Oxford Street, Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park are among our favourite haunts. Not that the allowance Mara gave us was lavish but we had to teach ourselves how to spend wisely. To save money, cooking at home is a must. I can still remember buying cow's liver (the cheapest meat available) with such regularity that the halal-butcher would instantly know what I want the moment I step into his shop. London is an expensive city... then and now.
With college-mate Adzim, feeding pigeons at Trafalgar Square. Still to rediscover this friend since separating after A-levels.
We reported to Mara of the poor quality of teaching staff at the college and requested that we be transferred elsewhere. At the end of six months, Mara took us out of the place and registered us at Aston College in Wrexham, North Wales for our second year of A-levels. Aston College had been a favourite institution for placement of Malaysian students for many years.
The autumn of 1980 saw the group of 13 young men being sent to a place where the people speak an entirely different language. We joined our fellow Malaysian friends who had been there much earlier and add to an already sizeable Malay student population in Wrexham.
After a game of football in Wrexham. Can't remember most of the guys now. Yours truly is at the back row in the blue and black striped shirt. Badique is to my left.
Life in the small town of Wrexham is certainly very much different from the city of London but interesting in its own kind of way. But I'll leave these stories to tell for another day.