Friday, December 5, 2014

The trouble with Uncle Low

In our recent Class of 73 anniversary do, one figure sat pathetically in one of the tables, surrounded by fellow ex-lecturers and a couple of ex-students. The table was largely shunned, largely because of this figure. He was close to 90; yet many still find it hard to forgive him!

He is Dr George Low, whose callousness caused untold damage to the future of many of his students.

In the 1960s and 1970s, gaining a place in Engineering in the University of Malaya was no mean feat. It only accepted 120 or so students from Malaysia as well as Singapore. (The Engineering faculty of the University of Singapore only started shop in 1969.) I entered Engineering in May 1969 – at the height of the racial riots in Malaysia. The class was dominated by a couple of top schools in the country – Kuala Lumpur’s Victoria Institution, Penang’s Free School and Chung Ling High School, Perak’s Anglo-Chinese School and Johor’s English College. The rest, though from lesser known schools, were no push-overs; with few exceptions, they were the top boys of their respective schools. (Some ten Malay students were admitted under the affirmative action policy of the government; unfortunately, none could make it to the second year.)

Dr Low thought Thermodynamics in our second year. His reputation preceded him. “Watch out for Uncle Low” was the fear of the day. His subject was not really difficult, neither were his examination questions. But his warning: Draw a square block around each of your final answers; if an answer is wrong, you lose three-quarter of the marks for that question!

We used slide-rules then to compute our answers. In an examination setting, many tended to fumble. Many ended having to re-sit his paper. Out of those who resat, quite a number failed his paper again. Failing a resit was a very humiliating thing those days. It meant one had to repeat the year again. To add salt to this injury, repeat students were denied any class of honours then, even though he might have scored many distinctions in that or other years. This scarred the psyche of many. How can you blame those who still harbour the bitterness or rancour against Uncle Low?

We used to call lecturers of such behaviours “snakes”. There were quite a number, but few were as lethal as Dr Low. The one who taught us Engineering Design was particularly sadistic. His whole mission was to “trap” you. In our Third Year we were supposed to design a gear-and-pinion transmission. It involved some complex metallurgical calculations before one could go to the next easy step of designing the “teeth”. Out of the four-hour or so paper, the last hour had to be spent to putting the design on proper Imperial-sized drawings. I was still fumbling with the complex metallurgical computations when I saw my fellow students already starting to mobilize their T-square and drawing kit. How can? I read the question again.

I didn’t have to do the complex calculation at all! Right at the end of the question, it said, “Assume Big D over small d to be 4.” My gosh; I had wasted two solid hours! I did manage a straight pass, even though Engineering Design was one of my favourite subjects. A couple of my classmates were less fortunate. Luckily, though, they didn’t have to repeat the year.

Our Fourth and Final Year’s Engineering Design was again handled by this lecturer. The final examination was the design of an air-conditioning system. The word “brine” popped out of the examination paper. I froze! What is the meaning of “brine”? I have never heard of it? A quick whisper to my neighbour saved the day. “Water, but salty one lah!”

A classmate didn’t learn from his Third Year experience. He ended up with a General Degree, even though he was a top student in my Sixth Form class. He could easily have obtained a first class honours in any of the top universities in Australia or UK. But not in the University of Malaya! There were simply too many snakes there.

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