Commentary Politics

How white shoes create a resilient people

July 29 2018

By Abdul Rahmat Omar

I was an officer cadet undergoing basic military training when during one compass-march exercise my syndicate, drenched in torrential rain, arrived late at the checkpoint – at 5pm.

As punishment, an instructor who is now a three-star general, ordered us to a “show parade” – a parade where one is to dress up impeccably in uniform for inspection – wearing the same camos and combat boots, but they must be in fit-for-parade condition, at 6pm.  While we could put on our extra pair of camos for the inspection, we only had one pair of combat boots each – and they were absolutely wet. There was no way that we could get them to shine inspection-standard. The instructor was not pleased. We were instructed to shine our boots and report to him every two hours for him to inspect them.

As a result, we stayed up the whole night, nolens volens, trying to shine our pair of damp combat boots – an impossible task to complete.  Finally, at 6am, we all reported to him with our not-shining combat boots. “I know it’s impossible for you to shine those damp boots,” he said. “I wanted to see if you would give up trying.”  At 7am, without any sleep, we joined the rest of the company for physical training.

I owe it to my parents, especially my father, for teaching me the meaning of perseverance.  Sometimes, my father would wake up early to make sure that I had tucked in my school uniform properly.  Every other day, my mother would make me wash my white school shoes, dry them, and then apply the whitener in several layers to make sure that they are truly white.  In school, the prefects and teachers would quickly but thoroughly inspect your shoes and socks during assemblies to make sure that they are truly white. You could do all that and still do well in exams.

I call it the whole process the building of a disciplined character.  This process includes making your bed, cleaning up your room, ironing and folding your clothes.  In the military we had latrine duties where you go elbow deep down into the toilet bowl and scrub the communal shower room floor so clean that you could sleep on it.  Yes, these are dirty jobs and we would rather pay foreigners to do these tasks for us.

This is where the problem lies.  Up until the end of the 1970s we could still see Malaysians lay bricks, carry bags of cement, empty rubbish bins, empty toilet buckets, become house maids – dangerous, dirty and demeaning jobs by today’s standards.

Come the 1980s, we imported labourers from neighbouring countries to do those jobs for us while we sought better-paying and less-demeaning jobs in air-conditioned offices.

Now, even after promising to rid the nation of foreign workers, the government has had to ask the Nepali government to reconsider its decision to bar its citizens from seeking jobs here.

Despite complaining about not having jobs, no Malaysian has reported to any labour quarters to take over construction or plantation jobs from the Bangladeshis who toil almost 24/7 for less than RM2,000 a month.

We now have a generation of Malaysians who would rather pee without aiming properly and have the Indonesian workers to clean after.  

We have a generation of Malaysians who would quit work just because they have to stay back once a month to help out with the monthly closing, or because they cannot wake up early to avoid the jam and make sure they arrive on time for work.

The things they are good at are demanding higher salaries, frequent job-hopping, and go on holidays abroad so that they can update their social media accounts to show that they live like they are jet-setting Hollywood stars.


Not so long ago, my Air Force squad mates and I would polish our officers’ boots, drill boots, combat boots every night before we go to bed.

We would keep an old toothbrush so we could blacken every nook and cranny of the boots, and then brush the soles to make sure that there are no dust sticking to them.  

The standard that you want is for you to the instructor to be able to look at your boots to see his reflection so that he could comb his hair. That was the standard I taught the recruits I trained.

Nowadays, their boots come out of the box shining.  They no longer have to stay up at night or forgo their weekend outings to shine their shoes and boots.

As a consequence, you get characters that are not resilient and loathe the disciplined life. As it is not easy to leave the service, they take the easy way out – drugs.  Between 1994 to 2003, 2,538 Army personnel were found to be involved in drugs-related activities.

The Drug Research Centre of Universiti Sains Malaysia in a 1981 study reported that 30 percent of drug addicts in this country got involved in drug abuse before the age of 19.  If this number still holds true then 5,532 of the 18,440 new drug users detected in 2017 started getting involved in drugs when they were still of school-going age.

White shoes and socks not only symbolise cleanliness but also show if the pupil is disciplined and has a sense of pride in him or herself, and of the school where he/she goes to.  It is the informal aspect of formal education.

Unless, we are now contented with the don’t-see-don’t-know, ignorance-is-bliss attitude, and agree that schoolchildren would have more time for their studies, and less treated water would be consumed, until something black emits foul odour.




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