Hard hat pioneers and their stories

History is seen through the eyes of those who’ve been there and done it, and still able to recount their tales, jogged into doing so for one reason or another

By SHIV DAS

There are two kinds of history. One is a dry timeline of hard facts and figures, events and names of individuals caught up in them.

The other is seen through the eyes of those who’ve been there and done it, and still able to recount their tales, jogged into doing so for one reason or another.

It’s the second variety that marks this book, “The Techs, Remembering the Golden Era, Technical College Kuala Lumpur (KL) 1940-1970”, bringing together a patchwork quilt of memories.

Monochrome pictures speak of the time when black was black and white was white, in the literal and even figurative sense.

And together with anecdotes and experiences, recalled briefly or at some length, they provide a window into an iconic institution that paved the way for the present Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).

But there’s also a story within the story, of the seed for the book being planted during the Golden Anniversary reunion dinner in 2016 that grew to fruition two years later as a hallmark of doers, rather than talkers.

Central to it all was Peter Ng Chau Chen, a 1965 graduate in civil engineering, who undertook the task of sourcing old photographs lovingly to kick-start the undertaking, but sadly didn’t live long enough to see it through. It was left to an editorial committee and a filial son, Danny, to rally together and complete the task.

Doing practicals (from left) is Ng Chin Yoke, Ng Yin Heng and Peter at the college

It was at Peter’s funeral that Danny learned of his father’s endeavour. Peter’s colleagues and friends had asked if they could gain access to some of Peter’s files. The editorial committee then plunged wholeheartedly into the project.

The end product is a 281-page hard- cover coffee table book for those very much in the story and even the casual browser, perhaps, in a library, for whom there’s lots of “Oh, I didn’t know that” gems.

Hark back to a time when Jalan Raja Chulan in KL was Weld Road and where the college began as the Treacher Technical School in 1904, named after Sir William Treacher, resident general at the time. Students came from all corners of the country, including Brunei and Singapore.

It produced technical assistants for the railway, survey and public works. Then came the war and plans for up- grading to a college were put on hold.

After the war, the Technical College, as it came to be known, was opened on March 1, 1955, in Jalan Gurney, now Jalan Semarak.

History aside, the trailblazing efforts, as captured in personal accounts in the book, are essentially divided in two parts. One, that accommodates Peter’s wish to produce a KL Technical College photo book; and two, a platform for little personal reminiscences and more substantive accounts of physical and mental exertions in a bygone era that laid the foundation of a good deal of the country’s infrastructure development.

Achievements of some of the early, outstanding individuals of the college provide for a deserving wow factor in the whole saga.

In the realm of property development, manufacturing, plantations and forays abroad, one can zero in on one group of professional engineers, many of whom were Technical College graduates in the 50s and 60s, who came together with stellar effect to form IJM Corp Bhd, now a household name in the country.

They were pioneers with zest and ambition, determined “not to play second fiddle to international giants”.

Today, some 30 years later, the company has an international footprint and plays a role in the country’s drive to be a developed nation.

There were those who took over from expatriate British engineers and built the first water supply schemes in Kuala Terengganu, and there’s recollection of old Techs who went against World Bank consultants and won the day in having concrete, instead of steel bridges, as the latter would have the danger of corrosion built into them.

The early graduates were heavily involved with road and highway building. The first Penang bridge, opened in 1985, saw a number of old Techs “involved in the planning and choice of design (concrete winning again)”.

These and other stories like it portray the pioneering spirit that prevailed and provide recognition that otherwise may have been lost.

The vice chancellor of UTM, Prof Datuk Dr Wahid Omar, in a message, highlights the immense contribution of “the alumni whose strong bonding with UTM initiated this publication, the first of its kind”.

“Our alumni are indeed our pride to be celebrated and given recognition”.

Tan Sri Dr Wan Abdul Rahman Yaacob (Civil, 1963), who rose to be DG of the Public Works Department from 1990 to 1996, in his message spoke of his first-hand knowledge of numerous national projects undertaken by Technical College graduates who took over from the British expats.

In congratulating those involved in producing the book, he said: “You have lived up to our college motto: ‘Through trials, to triumph’.”

College life wasn’t all serious. There were lots of youthful high jinks. Like the time the Techs kidnapped two Hong Kong film actresses, who were in KL for an Asian Film Festival and spirited them to the college.

The account speaks of the actresses’ “vivacity and charm, and sporting behaviour” that captivated their “abductors”.

A students’ union newspaper, Techs Mirror, dubbed as the country’s leading national student publication, seemed to have enviable editorial freedom and even took up the cudgel for higher allowances for those students on government scholarships.

There was also vibrancy in other areas — a film society, sports, exhibitions of what the cadets could do with their technical skills, a college band that played at proms and a college song that was refined and added
on to, making a comeback at the 2012 reunion dinner.

All told, the late Peter would have been most pleased with the finished product he had initiated.

The book is not for sale and can only be found in university and public libraries.