It was still early in the school day, probably a couple of hours after the opening bell.
In the corridors of Form Four (Americans would call it Grade 10) of Methodist Boys School Kuala Lumpur, a figure in a saree walked, cutting a look that was both elegant and imposing. And she was there that morning to cut — literally.
Some of the boys who had peered through the windows of their classrooms and caught sight of her with scissors in hand hastily began tucking their long curls up their necks. Boys in Malaysian public schools weren’t allowed to sport long hair and Mrs Moorthy, as she was mononymously known, was there to see that those in her charge didn’t.
With a smile that could light a room and an icy glare that made the toughest school bullies shudder, she was a mainstay of MBSKL for 28 years, loved by those she rewarded and even admired by those she punished.
Decades later, and after her death on Sept 9, 2021, many from the school still remembered the fervor and energy she put into the English and History classes she taught; her meticulous attention to detail and skill in organizing almost everything from a sports meet to a school gala; and, of course, the hair-snipping.
“Fierce lady who came around class with scissors in hand,” Vigneshwaran Ganapathi, a 1985 MBSKL alum, recalled of Mrs Moorthy. While he was relieved not to be caught on the wrong end of her shears or palm — the latter would have left a stinging cheek and ringing ears — Vigneshwaran said there was no doubt of the “good values” she imposed on the school.
Sivanaysam Balakrishnan, MBSKL’s senior faculty assistant during the 1980s, can attest to that. Few probably know as well as her about Mrs Moorthy’s long-standing service to the school and the nurturing impact from that.
Also always in a saree and using only her married identity, Mrs Bala was another name that commanded fear and respect within MBSKL.
The two women’s years in MBSKL were regarded by some as the school’s “golden era”, when a certain Yong Chee Seng was also its headmaster. Fondly known as Yong-sook, with Sook being the Cantonese endearment for uncle, he was one of the most beloved principals of the school, founded in 1897.
Interestingly, both Mrs Moorthy and Mrs Bala left MBSKL at around the same time to finish their final years of public school teaching at Methodist Girls Kuala Lumpur — the femina parallela to MBSKL, with its own celebrated culture and laurels.
The ‘Third Force’
In her heyday at MBSKL, Mrs Moorthy played the third force between Mr Yong and Mrs Bala. The three worked to keep MBSKL at the top of its game, providing untiring support to students determined to be the best in their grades and play, while unflinchingly handing out discipline to those who deliberately defied the rules.
What was different with Mrs Moorthy though was that the additional work was not asked of her. She just put herself to the task, with perseverance that made the entire school, including her senior most colleagues, follow without question.
“She was very compassionate, very selfless and very willing to help,” said Mrs Bala of her late colleague, whom she described as “the lady with a twinkle in the eye”.
“She’s always willing to listen to your problems and was never judgemental. She would not criticize you, and only advise you very kindly.”
Mrs Bala also remembers Mrs Moorthy’s work with the poor and needy — another endearing quality which she said was evident throughout her time in MBSKL and became pronounced after her retirement from public school life.
“She was already a very good and kind teacher, but she had lots of patience especially with underprivileged children like gardener’s children, the school caretakers’ children and that sort,” recalled Mrs Bala. “She will encourage them to do well in their studies and give them extra lessons.”
Malar Joel, an education volunteer at the Methodist Tamil Church in Kuala Lumpur, can corroborate that. She said Mrs Moorthy brought “amazing life change” to poor children in her community.
“She used to teach English to the underprivileged; she was so anxious to help poor children come up in life,” said Malar. “She taught kids English from A-Z and she will teach them patiently, from primary to secondary levels, so that they learn proper grammar; if they don’t do their homework, she will punish them. At the same time, she will show her love, so that they understand why she’s doing all these.”
Malar said she learned a lot from Mrs Moorthy. “Most of us volunteering at the church aren’t teachers ourselves. We may be professionals in other fields, with enough knowledge of English to do some basic teaching. But we weren’t perfect. So, Mrs Moorthy will teach not just the students but also us, the volunteer teachers, as we will sometimes slip on our grammar.”
Zubaidah Mohd Noor, a friend of the Moorthy family since 1984, said the veteran teacher had a way of getting her message across even to the most difficult of students. “I’ve personally met a few whom she’s caned, and they told me she was the best teacher they had and that they turned out well because of her.”
Caring for the downtrodden had always been a part of Mrs Moorthy.
Born on Nov. 20, 1937, to a pair of Sri Lankan Tamils, she was christened Monica Saroj Daniel at birth. She and her sister Veronica — her only sibling who was three years younger — were raised by their mother, who eventually became a single parent.
The girls grew up in Singapore, the neighboring state to what was then Malaya, the pre-independence name of Malaysia. During Japan’s World War II invasion of Singapore and Malaya, the mother worked for a local newspaper published by the Japanese, earning an income that could barely put food on the table. Frugality was at the core the girls’ upbringing, instilling in them the importance of education and hard work.
Being the “acka”, or elder sister in Tamil, Monica was inclined to lead by example and became a natural mentor to Veronica. From her attire to manners, she was careful with everything, choosing the traditional saree over skirt and preferring to read than socialize like her peers.
“Moderation was the essence of Acca’s life,” Veronica said. “She began wearing the saree since her varsity days. One reason was that it was a more affordable option to tailored dresses.”
“Later, as a married woman, she wore only the saree when she went out, as was the norm for a respectable Ceylonese woman. But Acca also knew how to match her sarees and blouses to perfection, and she’d look great in any combination of pastel or dark colors of these.”
Both the girls were devout Christians who attended Singapore’s Methodist Church, volunteering many hours in service of its mission and parishioners.
It was this “Methodist brand” that followed Monica through her life. Right after her graduation from the National University of Singapore, her first teaching job was at Methodist Boys Kuala Lumpur in 1962. After almost three decades there, she went to Methodist Girls Kuala Lumpur in 1990, where she spent a short two years as its afternoon-school administrator before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 55 for Malaysian government servants. Not content to give up yet on teaching, she went to the privately-run Methodist College in Kuala Lumpur in 1992, the same year that she stepped down from civil service. In later years and until the COVID pandemic of 2020, she taught and volunteered at the Methodist Tamil Church kindergarten and community center.
“The Methodist identity was with Acca from cradle to grave,” said Veronica. “The ethos of the church in those days was that you look after your family, and the people who come from your country; in our case, Sri Lanka. And because she was a practising and baptised Methodist, she found her way into the Methodist teaching system as well.”
It was at the home of a Methodist Youth Foundation senior in Singapore that Monica first met Vinayagamoorthy Chellamuthu, a Malaysian civil engineer who was there for a weekend. Instantly smitten by her intelligence, beauty and gentility, the young man knew right away that she had to be “the one”. It was 1959 and they were married by 1961, when she was 24. Their son Shanker arrived two years later, followed by daughters Prithiva and Prabha.
The Moorthy children were raised by the same exacting standards the mother set for her students, with the rod and hugs applied in equal measure.
“To us, she was teacher first and mother second,” said Prithiva. “She was quite the disciplinarian. But as a result of that, all three of us made her proud. As a mother, she also taught us humility and kindness.”
Both Prithiva and Shanker went to the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. She is a doctor for the underprivileged at the free clinics run by her church — something that used to make her mother swell with pride — while Shanker is a cardiologist in practice since 1993.
Prabha, the youngest, read law at the University of West London before taking up a job in banking. She concurs with her sister that the Moorthy-mould could be used to shape even the most recalcitrant kid into an ultra-respectable citizen.
“Growing up, we used to get a lot of whacking from Amma,” said Prabha. “My brother and I, especially, used to get trashed a lot because we were more mischievous. Even my cousins were fearful of ‘Aunty Monica’ or ‘Aunty Saroj’ as she was known. That glare of hers was ground into the minutiae of our brain cells.”
Even the grandchildren weren’t spared. “She used to teach us English at the dining table and any child lacking attention will get ‘the glare’,” said Prithiva’s daughter Maia Singham.
“You can’t cross the line with her on discipline. Yet once class is over, she’ll give us as much as we want to eat,” recalled Maia, who went on to Tufts University in Boston.
Despite Mrs Moorthy’s tough ways, it was ultimately her smile that prevailed, said daughter Prabha. “She touched so many lives with that smile. We had tributes and messages that came from far and wide, from every corner of the planet, and her gentleness and smile was what kept coming up in those messages.”
Even Heni, the Indonesian house helper of more than 20 years to Mrs Moorthy, said she rarely felt like an employee with her boss. “She would call when I was out to ask if I’m alright and whether I’ve eaten. It was more like a mother caring for her child or a mother-in-law concerned about her daughter-in-law, than a boss checking on her servant.”
‘People Mattered to Her, Not Money’
Dato’ Anthony Reynolds Peter, a veteran educationist who brought Mrs Moorthy to work with him at Methodist College Kuala Lumpur, recalls how she rushed him to hospital once after suspecting that he might be having a heart attack.
“Her office was in an adjoining room, and whenever I spoke loudly, she’d come out and ask if everything was alright,” recalled Dato’ Peter. “One fine day, I was scolding a boy for something and suddenly began feeling a burning sensation in my chest. She immediately feared for the worst and decided to take me to the hospital.”
She rushed him to Institut Jantung Negara — Malaysia’s National Heart Center — where Dato’ Peter was examined by cardiologist Shanker, who had been summoned there by none other than his mother. The diagnosis revealed nothing worrying. As the patient waited for his bill, he was surprised to learn that Mrs Moorthy had even paid that.
“A deposit was apparently required before any treatment at the center and she had taken care of it without asking me,” Dato’ Peter said. “Of course, I paid her back. But what overwhelmed me really was her thought and concern for me. Money never mattered to her as much as people did.”
Dato’ Peter also remembers how as deputy principal, Mrs Moorthy helped him build up Methodist College, in the same way she once toiled for MBSKL. “Due to space constraints, our capacity for admission at a time was only about 100, but we had about 700 students applying. That’s the kind of school she helped me build it into.”
The quest for academic excellence — and the need for a life-founded in faith — were the twin tracks that kept Mrs Moorthy chugging on in life. Incredibly, they were also the twin aspirations that MBSKL’s motto — Ora et Labora — was founded on. Adapted from the Catholic monastic practices of Saint Benedict, Ora et Labora stood for Work and Pray.
Still, Mrs Moorthy’s zeal for work sometimes pressured her colleagues — unwittingly.
“Knowing the value of early education, she set such high standards for our kindergarten,” said Rosalyn Joseph, principal at the Methodist Tamil Church kindergarten. “As a volunteer, she came there early, about an hour before opening. Even I wouldn’t be there that early.”
Malar, one of the younger volunteers at the kindergarten, admits feeling “embarrassed at times” in not being able to keep up with the older woman’s energy.
“Our class starts at 10 AM on a Saturday but she’ll be there by 8:30,” said Malar, with a chuckle. “Saturday is the one day I get time to sleep a little longer. Sometimes, feeling guilty, I’ll call her around 9 in the morning to see if she’s already there. Sure enough, she’ll say:’Yes, I’m here. Where are you?’
The ‘History Whiz’
Her students remember her for the same dedication and how she managed to bring alive subjects like history in her class.
“Typically, history could be boring if you’re discussing just events and dates. But Mrs Moorthy had a way of making it interesting,” said Jayanath Appadurai, who tutored under her for six years until 1968.
According to Jayanath, Mrs Moorthy had a methodical way of tying up anything she taught with a story from that timeline, like her own experiences during the Japanese occupation. “In that process, she made me fall in love with history,” he said.
Krushna Prabaskar, whom Mrs Moorthy taught during the mid 1980s, also remembers her for her history class.
“They were among my most memorable and awaited moments during high school,” he said. “I was never interested in history to begin with, as I believed it was a challenge to remember details of historic moments. But Mrs Moorthy inspired me to appreciate and be passionate about history with her teaching skills and style. I always get transported to that moment in history when she was explaining an event.”
Observing Mrs Moorthy breaking down a typically difficult subject influenced his own thought process, triggering in him an ability to remember data and information in ways that allowed him to do detailed analytical work in later life, said Krushna.
“I appreciate what she taught me, and the importance she gave to history. We are who we are because of history,” said Krushna, who went on to become a motivational speaker.
Even in her 80s, Mrs Moorthy retained an immense capacity for memory, fascinating former students who caught up with her.
Azlan Ismail, who was her class monitor for two years until 1972, managed to reconnect with Mrs Moorthy in 2019 and arranged tea at her home for a group of former students from his year. “It happened to be National Day and she insisted that we all stand and sing Negaraku as loudly as we could,” he said, referring to the Malaysian anthem. “After that, she wanted to make a speech and some were still talking. So, she turned to me and said: “Monitor, keep the class silent!’ …. exactly the same way she did 50 years ago!”
Dzaeman Dzulkifli, a Methodist College alum who tutored with Mrs Moorthy for three years until his graduation in 2001, said she was “sharp as a tack in remembering faces”.
“It’s not just faces, she also remembered choice phrases she had for some of us,” Dzaeman said.
To give an idea of how challenging that could be, he lays down a simple math: The average public school teacher in Malaysia presides over a class of 35 students, and teaches three classes a year on rotation. That itself makes for more than 100 students per year.
“Multiply that by 10, 20 or 30 years and you’ll know how difficult it is to remember all those faces, let alone phrases.”
Her meticulous attention to detail remained till her last days, especially after she discovered she was terminal.
“She missed her annual blood test in 2020 due to the Covid outbreak and the following year’s test showed renewed traces of cancer in her pancreas,” said daughter Prabha. “She had already beaten breast cancer years earlier, when she was just 36. This time, she was ready to go. She said: ‘I don’t want any intervention. Don’t keep me alive just for the sake of keeping me alive.’ And the specialists concurred, saying the malignant growth was in a particularly difficult spot to get to and would have taken an undue toll on her had they tried.”
To Prabha, who was in Melbourne, she uttered probably some of the most difficult words a mother could to her child.
“She said: ‘Don’t come to see me. I’ll be angry if you do’. This was because she knew I would have to go through multiple hoops to leave and return to Australia due to the Covid situation.”
“In the meantime, she went about calmly arranging her own funeral. Everything that she wanted to say and do was done. She even arranged the hymns and the Bible verses for the grandchildren to read. Nothing was left unturned. Since her school days, she had been the perfect organizer, and she proved that again by organizing her last rites.”
If there was one regret her children had, it was that none fulfilled her wish of becoming a teacher like her.
“My mother always wanted us to become teachers,” said Shanker, the cardiologist. “I can understand why, because of the so many people who came through her classrooms. I don’t think we doctors are mentors to as many people as teachers are to students.”
Shanker, however, made his mother immensely happy when he did teach for a while at the Manipal Medical College in Malaysia’s southwestern Malacca state. “I told her ‘Amma, if the opportunity arises, I will teach more’. I don’t think I could have given her more joy than that.”
Greater accomplishment in academics — and teaching — may yet be coming to the Moorthy family.
Prithiva’s elder child, Ishaan, had taught statistics during his second year of college itself, before pursuing his masters at the world-renowned MIT, or Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston. He isn’t ruling out becoming a professor someday and fulfilling his grandmother’s dream all the way.
“Nothing made my grandma happier than when she found out that I was a teaching assistant,” said Ishaan. “If I’m going to be a professor, it would make her happier than seeing my grades in school.”
Monica Saroj Vinayagamoorthy Nov 20, 1937 to Sept 9, 2021
- by Barani Krishnan, Founder & Americas Editor