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The forgotten La Salle brothers

In all the talk about becoming a high-income country and belonging to the league of developed nations, Malaysians should realize that they are still painfully lacking in the attributes and values that make a nation truly developed. These missing attributes and values are not only the high ethical and moral norms that we incessantly talk about but seldom seem to practice, but also the common decencies of compassion and gratitude to those that are loyal or have sacrificed for us.

Absence of these common decencies is especially prevalent among various government agencies where unless the spotlight of public scrutiny is on them, the agencies basically give the bureaucratic run-around or even worse, play games based on a hidden agenda (including racial and religious) on those that have the misfortune to deal with them.

We hope that the publication of this piece arouses public indignation and leads to the rapid resolution of Brother Vincent Corkery’s plight.

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Brother Vincent Corkery, age 82, the former principal of St. Michael Institution, Ipoh, was admitted to Fatimah Hospital just before Christmas last year and was discharged after a three-week stay. He had a rare bacterial infection between the toes of his left foot. Before this problem could be cleared up, his right foot developed the same problem.

Unable to afford the high hospital charges given his modest financial position, he decided to seek treatment in the Ipoh General Hospital. He was admitted on March 1 and was discharged a few days ago after a 27-day stay. Now he has go back daily for treatment as an outpatient.

I have been visiting him quite frequently and almost on all occasions I was the only visitor. It seems that the La Salle Brothers have been forgotten.

Brother Vincent Corkery, who comes from Ireland, has served in Malaysia since 1948 or a span of more than 60 years. Several years ago, he applied for Malaysian citizenship after having obtained the necessary pass in written and oral Malay, but his application was rejected without explanation.

His main contribution has been to St. Michael’s Institution in Ipoh where he served since 1958. In addition, he took an active interest in Malaysian education. In the 1960s, he was the state supervisor for oral English, and served in the early 1970s as secretary-general of the national conference of the Heads of Secondary Schools. For some years he was an active member of the Malaysian Historical Society.

As with other Brothers who taught in Malaysia, the financial remuneration provided to him has been barely adequate. His last drawn monthly salary as Principal was RM1,000, and when he retired in 1988, he did not qualify for a pension or for other retirement benefits. Since retirement, the La Sallian communal fund has provided him RM1,000 a month for his food and car maintenance.

In retirement, he heads a centre for programmes for student leadership and for staff groups at La Salle Centre in Ipoh, and serves as secretary for the Brothers Councils for Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The La Salle Brothers made their first appearance in Asia in 1852 when they founded St Xavier’s Institution in Penang. Since then a network of Lasallian schools has developed throughout the country. When the British left Malaya, the Lasallian Brothers stayed on to manage their schools.

During the Japanese army occupation of the country all the foreign brothers were imprisoned. My old teacher, Brother Lawrence Spitzig, a Canadian was imprisoned in Changi, Singapore. Brother Lawrence retired as principal of my alma mater, St. John Institution and died last year on August 18 in Assunta Hospital, Petaling Jaya at the age of 92 after long service to the nation.

These Catholic schools have continued to flourish even when the Brothers have greatly diminished in number. The foundations were well laid, and Lasallian education continues to be an important part of our education system even in these changing times.

Several of our important leaders of the nation, including our Prime Minister Abdul Najib Razak, Hishammuddin Hussein, the Sultan of Selangor, the Raja Muda of Perak Raja Nazrin and many others have had their education in my alma mater St. John Institution, Kuala Lumpur.

I am sure that if they are aware of the plight of Brother Vincent, they will act promptly to remedy it.

During the Japanese Occupation

St Michael Institution, Ipoh

In terms of their service and loyalty to the country and the various communities, the Brothers hold a torch that is second to none.

Their dedication and commitment to the country was perhaps most evident during the Japanese Occupation period. Despite the warnings of many friends that they would be perceived as enemy aliens by the Japanese and of the dire consequences following, the Brothers opted to stay with the people. They paid a horrific price for this loyalty.

The consequences included incarceration in Changi prison where 15 Brothers were held; Taiping and Pudu jails where 12 were held; and at Bahau, in Negri Sembilan, where some 30 were held under primitive conditions in a mosquito-infested jungle settlement, surviving only on the food they managed to grow.

Once the Japanese surrendered, in spite of what they had endured, the Brothers returned to their posts and reopened their schools without delay. The fact that they had not run away but had chosen to stay with the people and share their pain, greatly enhanced their standing in the post-war years but this seems to count for little today.

I urge the authorities to do the right thing for Brother Vincent and for all other LaSallian and missionary educators who have sacrificed so much for our country. Provision of a gratuity and a pension, automatic approval of citizenship, appropriate medical and other civil service benefits – surely the country can afford this minimal humanitarian assistance.

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