Loyalty is an extremely rare commodity.
No, that’s the wrong term. It would imply loyalty can be traded, bought and sold.
It can’t. Not where some are concerned.
I managed to pin down three busy men, men who were boys on the cusp of adulthood when they graduated in 1988 from the elite Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) boarding school. It’s quite difficult getting them, what with most of them belonging to the C-suite – a far cry from their days of breaking into the computer room or co-op store.
But apparently, no matter how many years it’s been since they’ve seen one another, no matter the day, when one MCKK brother calls on another for a favour, these men show up. Even if it means giving up a day off on a long weekend when the boss is calling from London.
Loyalty is what they do best.
This is quite heartening to discover when I think these men in their mid-forties will soon be heading organisations and formulating policies in years to come.
If you can imagine spending five years of your life from the age of 11 or 12, seeing the same 119 other faces day in, day out, sharing dorm space and classrooms with them, for at least ten months of the year, at a time when your view of the world is being formed.
You’d want a lot of people watching your back and on your side.
I wanted to know if this mythical quality of MCKK boys to pledge eternal, unquestioning loyalty to each other was true.
After all, not only am I surrounded by them but in ten years’ time these boys of the class of ’88 will probably be running the country, powering the engines of its public and private sectors.
It’s been 28 years since Anis Sani Ariffin, Tengku Radzman Shah and Feisal Yami left the grounds of the 111-year-old all-boys’ school that has the moniker ‘the Eton of the East.’ By Feisal’s admission during our Labour Day weekend chat, there wasn’t a dry eye on that last day of school in 1988.
While I harboured some small doubts as to whether these three men’s sentiments could possibly reflect the entire 120 boys’ feelings, those doubts were quickly dispelled.
These men finish each other’s sentences. It might sound amusing, but it is completely utterly true and quite fascinating to observe.
Tengku Radzman, sipping his coffee, will start a sentence and Anis Sani will complete it. The same happens when Sani, chief forex trader at Scotiabank, begins relating to me an incident and Feisal, an architect with a wicked sense of humour, finishes the sentence.
It’s quite sweet, actually.
Lest one think that because the school is one of only two in the country to fall under the jurisdiction of royal patronage that it is elitist, that is not the case. (There is a difference between elite and elitist.)
Radzman, a banker and executive director of Ozoil and also a member of the Pahang royal family, is quick to dispel any notions of discrimination or class snobbery. “Amongst the 120 of us, we had boys who were sons of alumni, sons of rulers as well as sons of Felda settlers,” he says in earnest.
“Yes, and we treated everyone equally,” says Sani while settling in on the banquet seat, classic Timberland boots being this banker’s choice of day-off casual wear.
This is something Feisal will concur and reaffirm with visible conviction.
(By the way, they all have lifelong assigned nicknames, some of which are Penyu, Siam, Janda, Kataque, Mamak, Web, Porron and Afu. It’s very funny watching these grown men calling each other by these names with total ease.)
They will never call each other by their birth names. It’s just not done. “It feels weird when Janda calls me Anis,” laughs Sani. I think Radzman was just being polite in front of me but as the chat progresses, he naturally falls back into addressing Sani by his nickname.
There is no class distinction
amongst the 120 boys of their year, I am reassured frequently by these three men.
“What you have to understand also,” says Feisal as he sips from his orange juice, “is that even in this later part of our life, when we know one of our brothers is struggling – and he’s too proud to ask for help – we will pitch in and help.”
There’s no if or but.
This form of help extends beyond the financial. “Take, for example,” says Radzman, “our classmate Muk. He is extremely religious, and even though we’ve not come to that stage,” he gestures good-naturedly to himself and Sani, “he’s never given up on us.”
Sani nods quietly, affection flashing across his features like some private unspoken understanding that permeates my long chats with these gentlemen.
And they are gentlemen. It has nothing to do with the colonial British tradition that suffused the school from its inception to the time after Independence.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor,” begins Sani. There were sons of fishermen and sons of village heads who studied, ate, slept and played alongside sons of princes and of successful fathers. “Once we’re there (in school) everyone’s equal.”
Feisal picks up the sentiment and reiterates how the rules applied to all, no matter their family connections or whose father’s bank account was fattest. Walkmans and Nikes were confiscated equally, no exceptions. Like Radzman, who was punished equally as Sani for something that they and several others were caught for, despite his uncle being the King at that time.
But how these boys, who acted out their natural adolescent naughtiness under covert cover of night, developed this communal code of right and wrong amongst each other, still mystifies me. After reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, you’d think they’d turn against each other instead of forming an invisible glue that would bind them for a lifetime.
“It wasn’t taught to us by the teachers,” smiles Radzman. It was simply part of how they boys understood it to be.
“If one of us does something wrong, we all get punished,” relates Radzman, at which point Sani smiles in recollection at (most likely) the escapades they got up to. (And I come to understand, as the day progresses, that there were MANY escapades. Apparently Sani was the only one that managed to get away with one that involved a teacher’s daughter.)
“But,” and this is where I hear a statement that is oft-repeated with equally-fevered conviction, “no matter how much the teachers threaten us to reveal names, we never ever snitch on any of our classmates.”
“Yup,” concurs Sani,
“and that’s something they don’t teach you in school.”
That quality that goes beyond discretion: not ratting out your fellow boy or man. The ability to remain tight-lipped even under the direst of threats.
That, I realise, is something you rarely find in this day and age when anyone’s loyalty can be bought and loose lips can be persuaded to open by wads of incentive.
So it didn’t matter if 20 of them were doing something they weren’t supposed to on spot-check day and only five of them got caught. Even if the five were remanded in the headmaster’s office for hours and threatened with punitive action in the form of 2am classes standing up in the field, no-one gets ratted out. Not even if it meant a two-week suspension.
And while there have been the odd occasional punch-ups among the boys (those hormones), when it came to threats from outside their group of 120, they never hesitated to stand collectively if someone — even a teacher who should have known better than to bully or denigrate a student — pushed past the limits of decency.
But there are no punch-ups almost 30 years on. Squabbles and sulks often dissolve and never left to ferment for very long.
Feisal is active in arranging get-togethers for the old boys of ’88. They meet fortnightly in smaller groups, but the essence of the larger brotherhood always looms large in the background.
I joke that this was the school where they went in as boys and came out as men, and without skipping a beat, a counter-joke bubbles up between Sani and Feisal, and they laugh almost simultaneously that “we went in as boys and came out as boys!”
This finishing each other’s sentences and this trading of knowing looks: you literally have to be there to see this. And if you leave them to it for a moment, they immediately verbally lunge into some private side conversation about a memory that no-one but the 120 of them can understand.
And what of this loyalty in the business and corporate world? Radzman is candid about this. “If one college old boy knows that a contract is about to be negotiated between two parties and the other party is a college boy, too, the deal is more or less 80% done.” My jaw drops slightly in unabashed surprise. Radzman is unfazed. “Oh yeah,” he smiles, and Sani does not object or issue a qualifying caveat. “I mean, they still have to go through the due process of credibility and all, but it’s pretty much a done deal.”
What, such blind trust in matters as important as a legally-binding contract?
Both men nod. Apparently I cannot argue against this one.
It is the way it is.
“But,” Radzman adds, “it’s no different from the way the same networks of Harvard or Eton old boys work.”
He has a point.
This blind trust extends to secrets they tell each other that they do not tell their wives, siblings, parents or even best friends. Their collective lips are iron-clad shut. So if there’s an emergency involving sensitive parties or sensitive information, these boys have silently pledged their lifelong loyalty to each other. And if there was a spit or blood pact exchanged in the walls of that majestic school building, I doubt they will tell me.
But I decide to test the limits of these friendships. There are things that can break a male friendship, such as poaching each other’s (ex- and present) girlfriends or never paying back loans.
“Well,” says Feisal, “even if one old boy lends another 10,000 and he never pays it back, do you really want to sacrifice the brotherhood for that ten thousand? Is it going to make you poor? No? Then for the sake of the brotherhood, we will say, ‘let it go lah’.”
They wouldn’t say about poaching girlfriends although there is something Feisal said about girlfriends which I dare not repeat in case I get someone into trouble. Let’s just say these boys will help each other out in a sticky situation even if it means taking an hour’s drive to the most inconvenient side of town. Because no-one else will do it without complaint, and with the kind of discretion only the heavens can witness.
But apparently developing crushes and fantasies about sisters is not taboo. In fact, it is the cause of (again) some private joke.
Just when I thought it wasn’t possible to be more surprised, Radzman blurts out, looks at me, unable to contain his laughter, and says, “Don’t you know in our school you were legendary?”
Sani laughs, completely delighting in my expression of both surprise and a questioning look in his direction.
So it’s true. These brothers really DO keep secrets from their own siblings.