By the grace of Allah, I am one of a handful lucky young Malaysians to have been sent by the Government of Malaysia to study overseas. It was a life-changing experience. One that would shape my life.
I remember receiving a green coloured letter from Blackpool dated 19th July 1979. It was a letter of offer for admission to the Blackpool College of Technology and Art – to do GCE A Levels – signed by M.J. McAllister, the college principal. So, on a warm and humid night, on 9th of September of 1979, after bidding my family farewell, I boarded a Malaysian Airlines System DC 10 aircraft at the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Subang Airport bound for London.
There was a tinge of sadness at the thought of having to be so far away from my family to stay in a strange new land. But if I was honest, for the most part, I felt very excited at the prospect.
After a long and tiring eighteen hours flight, which included a stopover in Dubai – and if memory serves, Frankfurt, we finally arrived at London Heathrow Airport.
Now, I had imagined that the world famous London Heathrow would be more modern-looking and breath-taking compared to our Subang. This was after all Britain’s premier international airport. World famous.
Was I in for a disappointment.
As it turned out, London Heathrow was much, much older than Subang. That’s for sure. But what struck me also as soon as I had cleared the customs and immigration checkpoints was that it was one very cramped and congested airport, too. It was a hive of activity. You’d see streams of people walking up and down. Some, lugging their bags. Others just walking along, but looking very purposeful in their strides.
Being a bit of an aviation buff, airplanes and airports was the surest way to stir some excitement in me. Quietly, I declared to myself, “welcome to London Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world!”
As I surveyed the building and people within, I remember seeing clear way finding signage and information boards everywhere I looked. The standard colour and design theme was black letterings on yellow background. They were very effective in guiding us, a bunch of wide-eyed kampong kids who had just stepped foot in England, to find our way around the building and find the exit points and passenger arrival waiting area.
And then there were Mat Sallehs – all over the place! Heck, what was I talking about? This was England. This is where they come from.
Although they were all air travellers, most of them at the airport were dressed casually and in light clothing as it was still early autumn. In contrast, my friends and I had our suits on looking very business-like – or nerd-like, take your pick – and ready to get down straight to work as diligent government sponsored students should. In fact, on that inauspicious day, I actually had my brown coloured school prefect’s blazer on me. I must have looked rather smart, resplendent.
My first true encounter with a local happened within the airport itself when a lady came up to my friends and I peddling music records and cassettes.
I still remember it very clearly when she mentioned in her deep gruff voice that her name was Nina Simone, and that she was offering us to buy her record album and cassette. As I squinted my eyes and peered closely, it was her picture on the cover of the album alright. But being fresh out of KL, of course none of us knew her, let alone her music. So we just smiled at her sheepishly and moved along.
But Nina was not in the least disappointed and straight away turned to other passers-by instead. It was only much latter on that I found out that Nina Simone was actually a great American singer songwriter.
As was always the tradition, we were met at the airport by senior Malaysian students. Having been informed by the Malaysian Students Department in London of our arrival, they were there to bring us to our temporary lodging in London before our onward trip to our respective colleges at various localities in England.
The seniors – or brothers, as we would be calling them - were from Blackpool which was the place where we would be studying for our A Levels over the next two years.
I remember the seniors came across as being cool and confident as they went about their ways. I was deeply impressed. I guess it is normal the world over for juniors to look up to their seniors and be in awe of their style and mannerisms. Then again, I suspect the fancy, casual, autumn jackets which they donned, as compared to our mundane suits, had also contributed to that.
One thing that stuck to mind also was the fact that they were very approachable and so accommodating of us freshies. Some of them at the airport on that particular day were Amaran Abu Bakar, Saad Abbas, Khairul Anuar Hashim, Abu Bakar Sahari and Halimi Abdul Hamid. I noticed that most of them had goatees. Some had heavy stubbles, yet others just had a few miserable strands of hairs on the chin to show.
All of the brothers were two years our senior. They had already successfully sat for their GCE A Levels and were about to enrol into universities to do their undergraduate courses. Most, as the case with Amaran, would be doing civil engineering. Yet there were also others who weren’t planning on becoming engineers – like Khairul Anuar Hashim for example, who was going into Physics.
We were led by Amaran, Khairul and the others to a waiting coach which would take us to London. As we left the terminal building to walk to the coach whilst passing by rows of very odd, boxy-looking black cabs, I could feel the nice chill of the early autumn English weather. It was quite similar to the coolness one feels during subuh time in Malaysia, I thought to myself.
Now, if this is how the typical English weather would be like, then I’m going to love it here, I told myself.
A few minutes later our coach was well on its way, negotiating the morning traffic, steadily crawling into the heart of London.
I looked out the window of the coach. Nice weather. Nice new place. New friends. And the promise of a whole new experience. How I looked forward to all these.
And then, suddenly, I remembered Apak. This must have been exactly how he felt just more than twenty years earlier when he arrived in London to do his teaching training in Kirkby, Liverpool.
I guess history repeats itself. Once again, a whole new world beckoned for another kampong boy from Ipoh.