IN the bustle of lunchtime London a high-pitched sound seared across the din.
It wasn’t the workers from a nearby building site; it came from a dapper, trilby hatted gentleman, handkerchief sticking out in a bloom of colour from the top pocket of his grey coat.
A cab driver on the other side of the road slammed on the brakes. He had caught his attention.
This is the Yunus Raiss that I shall always remember. Gravitas mixed with a great capacity for pulling tricks.
Beneath that cloak of learning, fine apparelled — sometimes Saville Row — man about town, behind the clipped, precise sound of received pronunciation acquired over many, many years of sojourn in the England that he loved, was still the Batu Gajah lad of mischief.
In the taxi now slowly pulling out we both laughed. He, well pleased with himself whilst I, in amazement that another trick had been pulled from the hat.
Yunus, in life, had pulled a variety of things from the hat. The first was perhaps the most remarkable. This unlettered tailor’s assistant in Batu Gajah, in his native Perak, enrolled for evening classes at the age of 15, passed the Senior Cambridge school examination in 1953 and applied for selection for teacher training at Kirkby, in England.
Selection for Kirkby or the other college at Brinsford Lodge then was, barring a university place, the pinnacle of elite education. Many aspirants were first or second graders, but Yunus had got through the exams with a third.
He knew that he was the surprise candidate, not for his academic attainments but for the sheer gall of even thinking the thought.
According to him, a woman selection panellist — whose name I have forgotten — went against the prevailing opinion to argue his case. If Yunus could, against all odds, pull through with a third, then what other things could he be capable of?
And she was right.
In 1957 Kirkby-trained Yunus was back in his native land as a teacher at the Sultan Idris Training College in Tanjong Malim. In the same year he moved on to become one of the founder teachers at the Sekolah Dato’ Abdul Razak where he taught English and history. He stayed there until 1963.
There was much still to be done; he moved back to England to add more feathers to his hat. Degrees followed from Leicester, London, Surrey and the Open University, then in its infancy. He was, in fact, among the OU’s first 17 honours graduates. Then in 1970, as a diversion, he was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn. Teacher Yunus Raiss was now also a barrister-at-law.
In 1992 he was awarded the title Dato by his friend Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak.
When I met him, in 1979, he was already of many parts: learned in history, criminology, English Lit, international affairs, economics.
He had taught at schools and universities, trained teachers, enrolled for courses at various learning institutions, and was also a West London magistrate. His knowledge stretched to most things, he was careful with definitions, and mindful of verbs (his specialism). “Discourse?” he would say.
“This is what discourse means in linguistics…” I just gave up and told him jokes instead.
He was impatient with fools but loyal to friends. Being fiercely Malaysian, he stood up against the pugnacious interviewer Andrew Neill on British television during the Pergau Dam affair in 1993. It was one of his proudest moments.
His crowning glory was the school of English that he started in London’s Covent Garden in 1975, which he named SELS College. SELS, Syed’s English Language School (for some reason, he adopted the surname Syed at this stage of his life) became a model institution that came on the British Council’s accreditation list.
Here the English language was taught in earnest, most new-fangled teaching methods were viewed with suspicion, and students felt at home in the environment. Yunus Raiss, the principal, drank tea with them during lesson breaks.
He picked his students carefully, gave free tuition to some who couldn’t afford his fees, and stuck to his values even when the British government became more stringent in issuing student visas for English language schools, on the excuse that many had become visa factories.
Rents were rising in Covent Garden while further restrictions prevented further intakes. The school finally closed down in 2008.
The loss of his school broke Yunus’s heart but not his spirit. Now in reduced circumstances, he became a peripatetic teacher whilst also fighting battles on many fronts. He continued going to Malaysia Hall where he gave free lessons to students on doctorate programmes. He taught others, from many nationalities, over cups of coffee, in cafes.
Meticulous in most aspects of his life, it was important to him that things went as planned. In appointments, for tea or for his other passions, the opera and theatre, he was always on time, probably early.
One day, while sipping tea at SELS College, he asked me to follow him into the street. Our walk ended in a famous suit shop where he chose one and asked me to try it. The trousers were too long, but why? I listened with fascination his instructions to the tailor in the shop on how to cut it. It was Yunus the tailor boy talking.
“I want you to wear this to my funeral,” he said.
Fifteen years passed, perhaps a bit more. His pace was slowing down. His diabetes was becoming more than just a nuisance, his prostates gave ominous signs, his kidneys were becoming troublesome. He was admitted to the University College Hospital London in early July where he died at 1.45pm on Eid al Adha day, 11th August, 2019.
We were saddened, but I was glad that he was late in keeping that final appointment that he spoke about in the suit shop in Covent Garden that day. On that final day in Brookwood I hope he didn’t mind that I kept only half of my part of the promise. I wore only the top part of the suit that he gave me for that day.
Dato Yunus Raiss, born Mohamed Yunus Raiss bin Mohd Isah, 1934 - 2019.
Educationist, life-long student, Barrister-at-Law, Member of the Athenaeum, Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, Justice of the Peace. Survived by his son, Alex, a barrister-at-law, and by many hundred students who benefitted from his instruction.
Laid to rest at the Brookwood Cemetery, after prayers at the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking.
Growing Up in Trengganu