Cockroaches – Singaporean versus Malaysian

Facebook has its countless critics but for me, it has done more good than harm. Earlier today, someone posted an old account of a high school science lab event he wrote about some 15 years ago. Apparently that account got him into a prestigious university in America. I’m sure his academic record and extracurricular activities helped, because while a very entertaining and well written piece, I’m not sure it is something which – on its own – suggests prodigious talent lurks somewhere within the author. Or maybe it was only an extract which was set out. This person is nevertheless, a highly talented and smart young man and I’m sure will go the distance and achieve much at work.

I guess different members of the panel who read the essay may have taken away different things but to yours truly who is an ex-Malaysian who continues to have Singaporean touch points, it shows Singapore as so much more sanitized than Malaysia. For I too recall a cockroach legend and it presented a rawness that has been cured out of Singaporean society.

One of the rites of passage for a student streamed for more success via a scientific path in Malaysian schools involved a close up of the anatomy of a cockroach. One is to catch one’s own cockroach, keep it alive in a container (a jar if you’re from a family of means or a matchbox if you’re not) and bring it to school for the ceremony. If you’re lucky the biology lesson took place during an early period and you get rid of the die-hard cretin early. Otherwise the matchbox stays in your drawer and slowly emits its defensive mechanism as the day wears on.

Mrs Gladys Louis was my biology teacher and I cannot remember now if it was her who provided the instructions. Come to think of it, I can no longer recall if the cockroach rite took place during Form 4 or in lower secondary school, where instead of Biology it was General Science (then known as Integrated Science). If the latter, it was Mr Tai – a small man with a limp – who was the teacher with the honour. My memory in this regard isn’t important fortunately because the incident in question actually took place in my brother’s class.

My brother is a year older than me and so he went through the rite of passage involving the cockroach, a year earlier. One of his erstwhile classmates is in Melbourne and we attend the same social functions every now and then. We often talked about this legend where someone in my brother’s class did not have a cockroach with him but the teacher could not bear to mete out any punishment. How do you punish a boy who has just won a bet by eating his cockroach? Actually the teacher also provided dispensation to another student, whose cockroach was also eaten. A double or nothing bet saw a second cockroach become lunch and I don’t think any teacher has ever seen (or has since seen) any student absorb the intricacies of a cockroach’s anatomy as comprehensively as my brother’s classmate. A legend was born after that meal and I think a teacher’s warning not to eat the cockroach one has brought for a Biology lab lesson no longer was just a warning by an absent minded science teacher.

The legend – a true story, I am satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt – also had it that David, the cockroach eater, stuck out his tongue to proof the poor creature was dead and had to swallow the remains as part of the bet. If you consider this boy had to lift the cockroach with his fingers, stick it in his mouth, chew it, open his mouth to show the animal was lying in state, before swallowing it, you’d think (1) he’d be a fool (2) he was incredibly brave or (3) the wager was substantial for him to do it a second time. But David was a prefect, he winced when we asked him about it and it was a RM5 bet.

Now that I have read a Singaporean version of a school boy’s rite of passage involving a cockroach in a biology lesson, I am convinced the incident in my school was possible because we were Malaysians. Or more to the point – we weren’t Singaporeans. No Singaporean boy who could be traumatised by the sight of a jam jar filled with the remains of violently shaken cockroaches can fathom how a Malaysian – or anyone – could do what David did. Twice.

Here’s the Singaporean experience (could be an extract):

Yet another one of my most memorable experiences from secondary school is an incident which my secondary three class have fondly come to term “The Cockroach Bottle”. It all began with a biology experiment involving the dissection of cockroaches. We “oohhed” and “aaahed” as Miss Phuan deftly clipped back the cockroaches’ wings with drawing pins, calmly exposing the mysteries of its insides. We applauded loudly as she named even the most minute parts of its anatomy. But she was most disappointed when we all coyly declined her offer to decapitate the next specimen. As a result, we had a number of the pests left over, which my friends Jarrod and Jacques collected and stowed away in a jam jar.

I next saw the bottle several days later. Inside, the cockroaches had breathed their last, but their final slumber was cruelly disturbed when Jarrod began to shake the bottle. He shook it very, very hard. Several days, and many hard shakes later, the bottle had already passed through the hands of every member of the class. Inside, a soggy white paste, not unlike mayonnaise, was splattered around the sides of the glass, and it was still possible to recognise a head, and several pairs of extremities. It was indeed a most ghastly sight, and not a few remarks were made about the appropriateness of using a jam jar.

One week later, Jacques decided to open the jar. In ten seconds flat, the class was empty. Like the survivors of a war, we gathered along the corridor outside, still reeling from this massive assault on our olfactory organs. Even at the end of lunch, when Miss Phuan came for her biology lesson, we were all still hanging around the corridor, and absolutely refused to return. With ingenuity which would have done credit to any scientist in a crisis, she decided to move that lesson outdoors. However, I hardly heard a word she said that day.

For me, the true lesson in biology had already been firmly imprinted in my memory – I had seen first hand the rate of diffusion of molecules in the air, and the speed was incredible. I had also learned that though it takes the molecule of an unpleasant odour an infinitesimally small amount of time to fill a classroom, it takes at least a week for these same particles to exit through the open window. Fortunately for us, that was the last lesson in our classroom for the day, and our teachers were not forced to make any more unscheduled changes to the timetable. But for the next few days, the air was filled with a surprisingly strong smell of cologne.

On hindsight, it was really fortunate that Jacques had had the presence of mind to close the bottle before he joined in the general retreat. Had he dropped the bottle, the consequences would have been unthinkable. Whatever the case, this little seemingly insignificant event has left an indelible mark in my mind. It showed me the lighter side to science; more importantly, it showed me that one should think before one opens a bottle full of decomposed cockroaches.

Entertaining and well written huh? And so sanitised compared to the Malaysian heroics, dont you think?