Old UM friends in a young Malaya

Old boys revisiting their Dunearn Road campus in Singapore decades after leaving university. From left: Saw, Alwi, Donald Wyatt, Khor, Navaratnam, Musa, and former senior civil servants Tan Sri Ahmad Sabki Jahidin and Ahmad Omar. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Old boys revisiting their Dunearn Road campus in Singapore decades after leaving university. From left: Saw, Alwi, Donald Wyatt, Khor, Navaratnam, Musa, and former senior civil servants Tan Sri Ahmad Sabki Jahidin and Ahmad Omar. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

PETALING JAYA, Sept 3 — The University of Malaya old boys network worked wonders in keeping the wheels of administration well-oiled and running in a young Malaya.

Located in Singapore, it saw friendships made and developed at the only tertiary institution in the peninsula and the island.

And when Merdeka came in 1957, it saw the young graduates of that august citadel enter public service in droves.

Former Public Service Department director-general Tan Sri Alwi Jantan, who joined the Malayan civil service in 1958, said several friends from varsity days joined the government about that time.

They included Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam and Tun Musa Hitam who rode up the ladder fast as well.

Other batch mates included former ambassador Datuk Khor Eng Hee and Tan Sri Saw Huat Lye, formerly of Malaysia Airlines.

In fact, Ramon was such a hit with Alwi’s family that “he was my Indian brother as my mother liked him very much as well.”

“University Malaya was the only university at that time and naturally attracted Malayans and those from Singapore wanting tertiary education. We joined government about the same time and kept in touch,” the 82-year-old said in a recent interview.

It meant university mates finding old friendships easing red tape that would probably have held up projects.

Alwi has a story of how the old boy system worked incredibly well in “saving” the job of a former university mate who was a Singaporean.

It was at the time in the 1980s when Malaysia and Singapore were in the thick of talks over a review of the water agreement with the republic.

The Singapore delegation led by Public Utilities Board chairman Lee Ek Tieng had arrived in Kuala Lumpur and was ready to enter into contentious negotiations.

“The door of the meeting room opened the next morning and I was surprised to see my old friend from university leading the Singapore delegation,” he said.

Alwi requested a private moment with him and told him “let the two of us sit and look through the sensitive points.”

“We were old friends. I ordered coffee and we agreed on the main points. He said with some emotion that I had saved his job,” Alwi added.

The meeting scheduled for two days ended in an hour with the rest of the period used for golf and catching up on old times.

All this took place during the watch of Singapore High Commissioner to Malaysia, Maurice Baker, who happened to be Alwi’s English lecturer at UM.

Such was the value of friendships that started from university days and extended to government service.

Alwi, a quintessential example of the early days of the civil service when British officials were still around, said he received little training when he joined the civil service.

There were only three officers in the Transport Ministry in Clarke Street, Kuala Lumpur comprising the permanent secretary A.H.S. Reed, a Malayan Civil Service officer and Alwi.

“I, like many others, only had on-the-job training to carry out our duties as Malayan officers. In my case Reed tutored me,” he said.

On the Tunku, Alwi said he was appointed assistant secretary in the prime minister’s department “but only got to pass notes to him in parliament as I was a junior officer”.

“But his personality was such that he was a father figure to all of us. We felt his presence everywhere,” he said.

On his association with Tun Abdul Razak, he said he was in one day to see the second prime minister who told him he wanted me to go to Selangor as state secretary.

Alwi, who had known Razak from his Malay College Kuala Kangsar days, felt there was something he was expected to do.

“He told me he had an assignment for me. The government wanted to create the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and I was to ensure it got done,” said the Terengganu-born.

He realised it was a tall order “as I was first of all not Selangor-born to obtain the post and secondly, I knew no one in the state.”

But he persevered and eventually the federal territory was created in 1974.

Alwi, who served the government for 32 years, still keeps in touch with his university mates whose numbers have dropped over time.

Some have managed over the years to visit their old campus in Singapore besides organising infrequent get-togethers.

UM friendships of yore are indeed ties that bind.

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