Monday, August 24, 2009

Reflections on Bro Lawrence

Terence Netto is a journalist of nearly 30 years' experience consisting of spells spent in the mainstream papers interspersed with bouts of freelancing...

Terence Netto concludes his reflections on Bro Lawrence


The last years of his life as a La Salle Brother were a gloomy coda to a career that was prolific in all the ways a missionary educator is considered so

By Terence Netto

I was not a student during the time of the late Bro. Lawrence Spitzig's tenures as Director of St. John's Institution (1956-60, 1978-83). My four years in the school occupied the span (1969-72) that was the initial years of Bro. Director Joseph Yeo, whose driving energy built on the foundations in the academic and sporting fields laid earlier by Bro. Lawrence and later, by Bro. Joseph McNally.

It was only after I left school and started on a career in journalism that I encountered Bro. Lawrence. In fact, my first encounter with him was in February 1983 when he was given a grand retirement send-off by the school, an event that a close friend, Master Vincent Fernandez, invited me to witness.

On that occasion, I could gauge the affectionate regard in which he was held by pupils and staff of the school. I could not help but feel a pang of gloom for I sensed his retirement foreshadowed the close of the illustrious days of the Lasallian tradition in education in the 59-odd schools that the Christian Brothers (FSC) had run in Malaysia since 1852.

They had done a magnificent job educating something like 2 million students who had passed through the portals of their schools. But beginning in the 1980's, that excellence was to receive niggardly acknowledgment from the powers that be in Malaysian education. I felt that Bro. Lawrence bore in his visage the sadness of that reality.

On a couple of occasions that sadness broke through his veneer of propriety but even then, it expressed itself in the apologetic tones of the studied gentleman. Anything faintly acerbic would have been improper of a man whose religiosity was deep though never worn on the sleeve.

I remember the gathering of old boys of the Lasallian schools in Kuala Lumpur in December 1991. These biennial gatherings would start with a seminar on what should be done by old boys to sustain the tradition of Lasallian schools. Socio-political luminaries of Malaysian society, all old boys, would grace the seminar in which much warm sentiment about the worth of the Lasallian tradition would be expressed. Attendees, spurred by the happy memories of their times in school, would be laved in a nostalgic glow.

For all the nobility of the intentions expressed, there was not a snowflake's chance in hell that anything save the most meager concession would be obtained by the most influential among old boys from the powers that be towards the maintenance of the Lasallian tradition in their last redoubts, which by the 1990's were lacking in even the white-robed gentry whose presence among the teaching staff, either as headmaster or as specialist teacher, was the distinctive mark of the Fratres Scholarum Christianarum (FSC).

Sadly, those biennial gatherings were exercises in futility, proof to me of the truth of a line from a favorite poet, T.S. Eliot: "Humankind cannot stand very much reality." Bro. Lawrence, too, must have found it difficult to face the reality that there was nothing much anyone could do about the decline of the Lasallian tradition in schools the Brothers had built and nurtured.

I had an inkling of Bro. Lawrence's bafflement at the way things were turning out for Lasallian schools in December 1991, on the margins of the seminar for old boys. In a sadly earnest way, Bro. Lawrence told me that other schools (meaning schools that were apparently envious of the high standards of Lasallian schools) could also be as good if they worked hard and did things right. It appeared he believed the downward spiral in Lasallian fortunes were due to resentment at its high standards on the part of those with influence in Malaysian education policy. Listening to Bro. Lawrence on that occasion, I saw a man already in his early seventies, a little worn from a lifetime's labor, lamenting a situation that he never expected he would see.

The fate of Lasallian schools he was bemoaning was not just the product of envy or resentment; it was something more sinister than that. The powers that be simply did not want to see these schools continue to project the high standards they had long been known for. That sinister intention was aided and abetted by a sociological trend in the 1960's and after: the decline of vocations to the FSC. Together, the two factors put the skids under Lasallian education in Malaysia.

This situation must have been very hard to take for the dwindling band of Brothers, especially the older set. Not only were the schools they helped build, sometimes by personally going around hat in hand (as Bro. Lawrence did) to raise money for their construction, disappearing; the Lasalllian tradition in the flagship ones were hard to sustain because of loss of control over appointment of teachers and headmasters, and also changes to the curriculum. Where once the writ of the Brothers ran unchallenged, they now were marginalized; a cipher in the system instead of esteemed contributors.

It was all very sad. But there was simply nothing one could do about it. The idea of a federation of alumni of Lasallian schools was mooted in the late 1980's to see if old boys of stature in Malaysian society could be moved to bring their influence to bear on policy makers to reverse the decline of the Lasallian tradition. When it was seen that chief ministers, cabinet ministers, top civil servants and corporate figures were among the alumni of these schools, hope in the early 1990's was euphoric that something could be done to stem the decline. Alas, hope was a good breakfast but a lean supper. be continued

the continuation...........

By the mid-1990s, it was evident that nothing could be done to stem, leave alone reverse, the declension. This was where I noticed in the sad figure of Bro. Lawrence the lesson I thought he taught everybody who was minded to: how a missionary educator faces, regardless of old age, dispiriting realities such as the decline of institutions he had contributed to building and the evanescence of an ideal - gratuitous service in the education of the young and the poor - he had upheld since the age of 17. Bro. Lawrence just forged on and sought to serve education in areas where he saw a need. In other words, there was no time for any attitude other than as St. Paul had counseled: to rejoice in hope, to be patient in tribulation, and persevering in prayer.

By 1996, pushing eighty, Bro. Lawrence had found another focus to his vocation - helping to obtain rudimentary materials for the schooling of kids in a hamlet in the Sabah interior. He would take pictures of malnourished children and of old women in their thatched huts and classrooms and show them when he returned to Kuala Lumpur to whoever he felt could help raise the wherewithal to bring hope to the downtrodden.

"You know it's for the government to do these things," he opined at one interview when I sought to write about his latest foray into the Sabah interior for a religious publication. By "these things" he meant building schools for the poor in rural areas. But of course there wasn't, even after more than three decades of Sabah's joining the Malaysian federation, going to be much priority on education for the poor in the Sabah, or even for that matter, Sarawak interior.
I remember the look of pained bafflement on his face when he sought to tell a general meeting of the alumni of St. John's Institution, held at the Lake Club in the year 2000, of his mission in Sabah. He framed his discourse with the term "Lasallian", by which he meant that the latest edition of what he had attempted to do at St. John's, St. Xavier's and La Salle Petaling Jaya decades ago, had now taken him to the Sabah interior where the need for Lasallian service was probably more compelling than he had ever encountered in his life. The fervent missionary wasn't going to scant, at a convivial gathering of SJI alumni, an opportunity to generate help for the needy he was presently committed to. An ex-student got up to remark that he thought he had come to a gathering of Johannians, so he could not understand what all the 'Lasallian' talk was about.

In that moment, the foolish sublimity of the Lasallian endeavor in Malaysia was patently exposed. In studiously avoiding any proselytizing and in confining religious instruction to the less than 10 per cent of the student enrolment who were Catholic, the Brothers in their teaching mission had adhered to supra-partisan standards and values in a multi-racial, multi-religious environment, long before the era of 1Malaysia. So non-partisan had they been that that former student, someone I recall as having the education and mingling of an urban sophisticate, did not after all his years at an apex school, know that the phrase 'Johannian' was conflated in the term 'Lasallian'. Sitting in the audience that evening, I did not know whether to laugh or to cry! If an intelligent ex-student did not know that there was no essential difference between 'Johannian" and 'Lasallian', it suggested that the Brothers had bent over backwards to avoid the faintest form of proselytization. Bravo 1Malaysia, not so St. John Baptist de Lasalle. It was sad but more importantly, it was oblivious of a cardinal requirement of the faith, incumbent of every missionary: That you make Him known in what you do.

It was not widely known that Bro. Lawrence Spitzig, serious of mien but subtly humorous of disposition if you knew the man behind the fa├žade, had a favorite one-liner which he, in avuncular fashion, dispensed on light occasions. "Don't do anything rash now," he would say in the mellow, slightly rasping tones of a voice that seemed perpetually on the mend from a common cold. One evening, in 1996, after sunset Mass at Holy Rosary Church in Brickfields, the Brothers were hurrying to their car which was parked in the area in front of the church. Trailing at the back, I called out, "Don't do anything rash now, Brother." Bro. Casmir Hannon, soon to pass away from cancer, chuckled even before his elder confrere could recognize the imitation of his familiar jest. They broke out in laughter at this example of the taught gently admonishing the teacher.

A subsequent occasion I could not resist asking Bro. Lawrence the intention behind the one-liner. "It simply means be good," he said. It was a clear, concise explanation that bore the hallmark of a good teacher -- ability to make things simple and crystal. Goodness, however, needs to be sourced and too extreme a reticence about the source of the Lasallian project will get you the kind of incomprehension that sees a difference where there is none (as when 'Johannian' is seen as different to 'Lasallian').

That at least was a mistake by somebody not of the same faith. When it is made by someone of the same faith, as I happened to witness at the ceremony to launch the centennial celebration of St. John's Institution on the school's premises on the morning of 19 January, 2004, I remonstrated with my co-religionist, another former student. He said he saw nothing amiss that there was no Christian prayer recited (the prayer said was a doa) on the launch ceremony because "After all, we pray to the same God." I just looked up to the spire on the roof of the building fronting the assembly area, at the small grotto with the figure of St. John Baptist de Lasalle, and wondered if he would also demur at this conception of the Deity. And if he would think it a fault of the system he founded that would allow a product not to tell the difference between his faith and that of others.

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