I had just finished reading the article “Memories of Feynman” by Theodore A. Welton that appears in the Feb 2007 issue of Physics Today (p. 46-52). Feynman is of course Richard Feynman who was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. The article, which is actually a memoir written in 1983, anecdotally reveals the creative side of Feynman that is now legendary: insatiable curiosity, wit, brilliant mind and playful temperament, and more. For example, he loved to pick locks and had become very proficient at it.
Throughout the memoir, the author cited many instances of awe-struck moments when his friend just blew him away. Yet the author felt none of the acrimony, the envy, and the feeling of dejection engendered by the realization that a peer is so far ahead in ingenuity. Instead, the author was “amazed at having been given the privilege of knowing so interesting a character.”
Not everyone is as lucky as Theodore Welton. But certainly we have had our fair share of inspiration, mentor, role model, guiding light, whatever you would like to call it, who helps mold us into becoming what we are today professionally. So the article got me started on scouring the deep and not so deep recesses of my memory bank to identify such characters who fit the bill.
Here I’m going beyond my immediate family (parents, siblings, close relatives, spouse, and even children) who obviously have had a direct and profound influence on the evolution of my moral fiber to focus on those who have spurred me on in my academic pursuit.
At the primary/elementary school, a Chinese vernacular school that is, I especially remember my Standard Five class teacher, a man who was kind with his words and yet was a disciplinarian who tolerated no slackers nor horse-play from his class. I recall that our class had one of the more well-stocked class libraries in the school and I must have read every one of the books. Needless to say I excelled under his tutelage.
In my lower secondary school/middle school, an English school, I must credit Mr. Tan Lian Hoe for setting my foundation in math, which put me in good stead to handle the increasing complexity of higher math that would come in later years with relative ease. Then there was Mr. Lim Kok Seng, whose sometimes sarcastic critiques of my “verbose, circumlocutory, and bombastic” (those are his exact words that had graced the pages of my painstaking works of creation) style of writing had led to many hours of rewriting on my part, but not always succeeding in meeting his notion of elegant and concise writing. But he certainly had helped me hone my English writing to be good enough to earn a distinction in my LCE (as was known then) examination.
In my upper secondary/junior high school, located 24 miles away from my hometown (that was the first time that I had ever stayed in a rented room, home away from home, which marked the start of my many years of wandering life in search of academic goals), my English writing continued to receive excellent guidance from Ms. Wang and Mrs. Rose Easaw, whose (both) literary skills were an inspiration to those of us who dare to aspire to write. Mr. Yong, our elementary math teacher, gave us so much homework that solving math problems became an assignment to be eagerly awaited. And I had a string of distinctions to show for the MCE (as was known then) examination that marked the end of my upper secondary school days.
Then it was across the causeway to Singapore for my high school (A-level), at National Junior College. Well, things got a bit out of hand there as I was not studying as much as I should. I was so preoccupied with setting up weekly rendezvous with my girl friend (who would become my wife later on) on the other side of the causeway, leaving our foot prints behind at the Lido Beach area, that I hardly noticed the brilliance of the array of teachers that the school had lined up, as noted with nostalgia by my good friend, Pang Chin, not too long ago.
Two years of A-level went by like a flash, but I did just enough, thanks to my elephantine memory capacity, to graduate with a full certificate.
Continuing my college education, I enrolled in University of Malaya (UM), Kuala Lumpur, and started my four-year sojourn in the Pantai Valley High School, a less than complimentary moniker bestowed on UM following the (in)famous varsity student demonstration that occurred in my first year and that led to the full-scale enforcement of the draconian, as some would call it, Universities and University Colleges Act of 1971. A particularly symbolic act, as I recall, by the then powers-that-be was the chopping down of the big tree that marked the speakers’ corner right in front of the main library. A fellow U-mate of mine kept a spent tear gas canister on the wall of his dorm room (we were staying in the 3rd College), a bounty of sort from the street standoff with the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU), the red head squad, at the height of the varsity student demonstration.
That watershed event has had a telling/chilling effect on the campus mood: from a cubicle of future thinkers and conscience bearers of the society exemplified by academic freedom to a degree mill of the meekly subjugated whose raison deter is wholesale gobbling and regurgitation of sanitized knowledge, a revelation in hind sight. The ramifications did not hit me then, which was just as well as otherwise I would not have had the opportunity to have my interests in the water side of engineering kindled through such subjects as fluid mechanics and hydraulics ably delivered by Dr. Ong Boo Goh, which paved the way for my graduate works in hydraulic and coastal engineering.
And that shall be the part II of this trip down the memory lane of mine, while the door to my memory bank is still accessible, albeit creaking in protest.