Thursday, July 4, 2024


More than a few have expressed surprise when, in the course of casual conversation, they learn that I “dropped out of school” after sitting my A-Levels examinations as a private candidate at age 18. The A-Levels then were also known as HSC (Higher School Certificate) and were a necessary stepping stone to tertiary education.

“So you never went to university?” they ask incredulously. “I assumed you had a Masters!” To which my half-facetious response would be: “What? Not even a double PhD? Actually, I did spend some time at Universiti Malaya... but only to make out with my girlfriend who was staying on campus."

Among the many outstanding humans who have inspired me one way or another throughout my life, not one has impressed me because of their academic qualifications.

I regarded Bob Dylan as a Dionysian poet, Jewish prophet, and troubadour long before he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Harvard (and later a Nobel Prize) in Literature. Dylan’s urbane sagacity has stood me in good stead over the decades, and two things he said have been indelibly imprinted in my soul: (1) “To live outside the law you have to be honest” and (2) “The best thing you can do for anyone is to inspire them.”

Frank Zappa taught himself music theory as a teenager by religiously reading text books on music notation, composition and arrangement in public libraries. Long after his untimely death of prostate cancer in December 1993, reputable orchestras and ensembles are performing his symphonic works to universal acclaim.

I regard Frank as the ultimate autodidact. He was also a brilliant electronics and audio engineer, sociopolitical commentator, and a self-taught authority on constitutional and copyright law who heroically upheld the First Amendment by presenting a strong case at Senate hearings for not censoring artistic output.

As an exchange student in New Jersey in the late 1960s, the only rock concert I attended was when Zappa & The Mothers of Invention played at the Fillmore East in New York City. I had a brief conversation with Frank afterwards and he gave me a chocolate teardrop which I ate on the journey home. I became the only Malaysian member of Zappa’s fan club, United Mutations, and often dreamt about him, which prompted me to write several letters to him. Years later, in 1977, Zappa actually responded. It was a bit like hearing back from Santa Claus.

John Lennon, another early mentor, had two collections of his wacky poems and Thurberesque doodles (In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works) published because of his celebrity status as a founding Beatle. His quirky sketches have also been exhibited in posh galleries and oohed and ahed over by the glitterati.

I owe Mr Lennon a serious debt of gratitude for his profound artistic impact and influence on my teenage consciousness. Looking back, I was a full-fledged Marxist (à la Groucho) and Lennonist (à la John) for the greater part of my adult life.

A fourth mentor appeared in my early adulthood in the form of R. Buckminster Fuller, popularizer of concepts like “synergy” and “holistic” - and who has been aptly described as “a genial genius.” Fuller was another university drop-out, whose claim to academic fame was getting expelled twice from Harvard. He regarded himself as a comprehensivist (as opposed to specialist) and that was precisely what I found myself aspiring to become.

Apart from his most famous invention, the geodesic dome, Bucky had a carbon molecule posthumously named after him. Indeed, the Buckminsterfullerene or C-60 has since become an increasingly popular anti-aging agent, owing to its remarkable detoxifying properties.

The most valuable takeaways I was gifted with from my close encounters with R. Buckminster Fuller were (1) The concept of applying minimum effort for maximum gain through leveraging (which, when you think about it, is what kung fu is all about) and (2) What Bucky said to me over dinner at the Equatorial Hotel in 1976 on one of his many visits to Kuala Lumpur:

“Just do what you feel you must do. Do it the best you can and trust that you’ll be looked after. Believe me, it’s true. I’m an old man, and I’m not in the habit of giving irresponsible advice.”

I quit my job in an ad agency a year after that and have remained gainfully unemployed since.

Bucky with a tensegrity sphere

When the results of the A-Levels were released I felt chagrined to have been awarded a pathetic C+ for Modern History, while getting straight A’s for all my other subjects. True, I was cutting it very close by opting for the minimum number of subjects (General Paper, English, Art, and Modern History) and I strongly felt I deserved an A for my Modern History paper.

The exam question, if I recall correctly, was what factors have had the greatest impact on world affairs since 1945. I remember feeling exceptionally inspired, and the words flowed smoothly from my pen as I postulated that, in the post-war years, the fate of nations fell into the hidden hands of covert agencies like the OSS (which subsequently became the CIA), MI6, Mossad, KGB, DARPA, and so on.

My essay concluded with the thesis that these covert agencies had transmogrified into a Frankenstein’s Monster – beyond the control and oversight of elected governments.

In effect their hubristic activities were clandestine, unreported, and unknowable to the public at large. My conclusion was that, unless these covert agencies somehow got their wings clipped by an authority greater than the merely governmental – unless they were effectively declawed and defanged, if not entirely dismantled, the destiny of the world, our collective future, was in grave danger of getting hijacked by criminal elements.

(Back in 1968 I hadn’t begun to research the Occult and knew nothing about weird shit like adrenochrome addiction and Babylonian blood sacrifice cults.)

"Critic of Chaos" by Ross Williams
I finished the essay with at least five minutes to spare, so I could re-read what I had written, and I felt satisfied that I had answered the question to the best of my ability. Now, whoever marked my paper may have felt a tinge of annoyance at my 18-year-old self-confidence and precocity but, even so, I surely deserved at least a B+ for my effort, not a paltry C+… because that would have awarded me a Higher School Certificate, enabling me to proceed with my tertiary education, if I so chose.

The only option I was left with was to re-enrol in school as a Lower Six student and resit the A-Levels in two years. No way, José! I decided it was the Cambridge Examinations Syndicate that had failed, not me. From that moment on, I turned my back on Academia and what I perceived, in later years, as a very cunningly crafted miseducation system, designed to format impressionable young minds in a manner conducive to their being absorbed into the Job Market.

Well, I had heard of a character named Job from dipping my nose into the Old Testament and I wasn’t about to fall into the same trap of being jerked around by some two-bit God-impersonator. After all, it wasn’t Employment I craved, it was a Sense of Meaning and Purpose. I deeply desired to know why I had taken on human embodiment on this planet. What was my mission this time around? Was it all completely pointless?

In any case, these ontological questions were set aside for a while, when approximately two weeks after getting the results of my A-Levels, I received a phone call from my girlfriend informing me she was a month late with her period.

In retrospect, becoming a father at age 19 was perhaps the best fucking education I could have bargained for.

7 May 2020

[Originally posted 7 May 2020, reposted 24 January 2023 & 6 April 2023]