When my school principal, the late Cikgu Haniff Idris, reached the part where he had to describe my discipline in school as he typed my school-leaving certificate, he paused.
“What shall I put here?” he asked as he gave me the menacing look of a lion ready to deliver the final blow to the neck of its already hapless prey.
We never really saw eye-to-eye, Cikgu Haniff and I. Besides being our school principal, he was also our discipline master, while I was at the extreme opposite end of the desired discipline itself. Almost all of our contact, other than during the geography lessons which he also taught, were during instances where I was reprimanded for running against the school rules.
I never gave much thought about the geography lessons he taught either, often telling myself that there will never be an occasion in my life after school where I would be required to know the geographical differences between the Karakoram and Himalaya mountain ranges in Asia, or at which months the Westerly winds blow across the African continent.
Especially not when the furthest I had ventured from home then was to Kuala Lumpur, to visit my sister during the school holidays and marvel at the dark blue Sri Jaya buses. Otherwise, my world then was confined to that small one-street and bone-dry dusty hometown, the school compound, my kampung and wherever it was that I took the cattle to graze.
But whatever he taught proved useful much later, and one instance worth remembering, in an occurrence very far away from home.
On a working assignment as a reporter one morning in Accra, the capital city of the west African state of Ghana, I received an invitation to have tea that afternoon with the then Ghanaian president, Jerry John Rawlings, at his palatial presidential palace downtown.
A former flight lieutenant in the Ghanaian air force, Rawlings, like many leaders in Africa, ascended the leadership throne through a military coup. He eventually became president just after reaching the age of 45.
When he welcomed a group of us that very hot afternoon at his palace, Rawlings was in a somewhat tense mood. As we sipped tea, he spoke in a rather formal manner about what he had planned for Ghana, and how impressed he was with the rapid development Malaysia had achieved.
Both Ghana and Malaysia were once British colonies and gained independence from the Westminster government in the same year, 1957.
As he was showing us around the palace grounds, Rawlings apologised to me, first for the short notice given to us about the tea event and, secondly, because he wasn’t able to give us advanced information about Ghana itself, which he said would have made our meeting that afternoon more meaningful. Rawlings was sure that I knew nothing about his country. He was wrong.
I told the president I knew that Ghana was once the world’s largest exporter of cocoa and that it has a port called Takoradi. Looking pleasantly surprised that I did know some things about his country, Rawlings became more relaxed as he spoke about the cocoa industry and how the state was planning to move away from relying solely on the commodity towards becoming more industrialised.
Without a doubt, whatever knowledge of Ghana I related to Rawlings that afternoon came from what was taught by Cikgu Haniff during our geography lessons years earlier. Somehow, bits and pieces of what he taught did get stuck in my mind.
From then on, and as I progressed in the profession and got sent on assignments all over the globe, Cikgu Haniff has always accompanied me in spirit, and every time the plane made its final approach in some strange land, I would always try to recall whether or not we did learn about the place anytime in our geography lessons before.
On many instances, I have used whatever knowledge I could recall of the foreign nations I was in from his geography lessons as ice-breakers in my conversations with the locals.
Teaching is a noble profession. As we begin the new school calendar, and as thousands of new students enter the school system, I hope our teachers will continue to diligently discharge their duties in shaping the destiny of our future generations.
Let me assure our teachers that everything they teach in class will be useful, sooner or later, and that I, for one, now know there is nothing more a teacher wants other than to see a student succeed in life.
While as a restless teenager I thought of nothing about creating mischief in those five years I was under his tutelage, as a dedicated and experienced teacher, the late Cikgu Haniff understood, probably saw the bigger picture, and typed ”Baik” or “Good” in that section on my discipline.
The writer is the newspaper‘s group editor. The profession has taken him to all corners of the globe