Words have a power all their own
Words have a power all their own (Photo credit: Lynne Hand)

Words have always been very important to me. Maybe it’s because of what I do for a living. I think however, it has more to do with what I have been taught over the years, ever since I was a child. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

I did not know any English word till I went to kindergarten. I remember we were given a task to do in the first few days (kinder in Malaysia was work based, not play). A boy next to me finished the task and the teacher asked him “finished?” and he responded simply, “finished”. I didn’t know what “finish” meant.

That boy (Johnny Lee) grew up with me in Klang and I now wonder what has become of him. The last time I met him was in KL, when we were both working there. We went to the same school and church but somehow did not strike a close friendship. In comparison with us, he was from a rich family. That was when I started to associate English speaking with wealth. I thought then that anyone who spoke English was better off than us. My late father was a contractor cum trader who eked out a living and was only able to provide the basics to us. My mum was always able to make every dollar go as far as possible. But I digress. Back to words.

After mastering the new word “finish” in kinder, I started my lifelong relationship with words in general. At school, essay writing was a favourite task and almost always, I’d have mine read out in front of class. That encouraged me a lot.

I started reading newspapers whenever I went to stay with my grandfather in a big house in a rubber estate. My late father would often travel interstate to peddle his goods and my mum would accompany him quite often. When she did, my brother and I stayed in one of our grandparents’ houses. My maternal grandparents lived on the first floor of a coffee shop which they ran and staying over meant great breakfast of “chee cheong fun”. My paternal grandparents lived in an old house in the middle of a rubber estate and when we stayed with them, there was always newspapers around. It was the New Straits Times but the NST in those days was reputable, not the “Never Speak Truth” rubbish it later came to be. I’d read the feature columns and sports columns. I started to discover the English soccer scene then. I think Kee Thuan Chye wrote for the NST then and he was always a favourite, although I now wonder if that was through the Malay Mail.

I can’t remember when I started reading boys’ books but soon after I discovered newspapers and fell in love with them, I discovered series like the Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators (somehow linked to Alfred Hitchcock). I’d ask to be dropped off at the Klang library opposite the bus station and would hope to find some of these books. I’d devour any I could find. Some kids in school got their hands on them and copies were being passed around.

One day in my early secondary school years, someone who was a fifth former mentioned Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. When you’re in form 2 and someone from form 5 says that was a brilliant book, you’d think it was a brilliant book. I borrowed a forth former’s copy and was spellbound. I think I was reading Ian Fleming’s Bond series at that time and had just finished From Russia with Love. Tolkien made Bond look distinctly ostentatious. You couldn’t fault Gandalf. Tolkien’s magic was replaced by the salt of the earth variety spun by Herriot. I fell in love with the English countryside. with the farms and working dogs, and towns like Darrowby (?) in Yorkshire.

I went to Taylors College in KL in preparation for university in Australia. In Taylor’s someone introduced me to the “Screwtape Letters”. Wormwood was a character as alive and relevant as Gandalf. I later discovered Lewis and Tolkien knew each other in Cambridge. In university, the OCF scene extended my discovery of CS Lewis. Reading as a means of thinking through beyond the book being read itself, became a fascination. Word carefully written set thoughts in motion and formed opinions, values and actions, translating to behaviour itself. I started to think about the written word and the more that happened the more I felt I needed to read even more. The Bible became an indispensable reading material and the more I read it the more the other reading took shape, often in very different light.

Words were how God created this world. The Word was how God saved this world.

Words have always been very important to me. It has probably nothing to do with what I do for a living.