The universities: breeding grounds for the future leaders

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The University of Yangon, the first-ever university of Myanmar, is the greatest and most prestigious university in Myanmar’s history.  PHOTO: Phoe Khwar.

By Khin Maung Myint

As the year 2020 marks the centenary of the founding of the Rangoon University (RU later YU), I intend to write an article as a tribute to my alma mater. While contemplating what I should write, I had some fruitful conversations with friends who had attended the RU in the nineteen fifties as I did.
During those conversations we reminisced fondly of how we were being treated as young adults and gentlemen, though we were still in our teens at the time. In fact the university life or its environs had gradually moulded us, or should I say, evolved us into ladies and gentlemen, and were being treated as such.
As varsity students we became gentlemen
I attended the RU for two academic years, 1955/56 and 56/57, before transferring to the Mandalay University College, which was an affiliate of the RU then. During those days and for quite sometime later, English was the main medium of teaching. The lecturers, tutors and demonstrators did the teaching of almost every subject, except the Burmese subject and the likes, in English.
Even when someone, may be a male or a female student, was seen attempting to copy from others during examinations, the tutor or the demonstrator overseeing the exam will warn by saying “Be gentleman” or “Act like gentleman” in English. That was enough to restrain a student from cheating in the exams. Here it should be noted that the term “gentleman” was used as a genderless word to apply to both genders.
In my opinion, I think such usage is peculiar and unique to our country. Because in our Burmese language the phrase “luu gyi luu kaung”, is a genderless word that literally means and generally translated as “gentleman”. Thus in the following passages I may be using the word “gentleman” as a genderless term where necessary or relevant and like to request the readers to understand that it represents both the genders.
Another “gentlemanly” behaviour we picked up at the university without anyone teaching us or imposing them on us was the table manners. Being a hostel student throughout my time at the university, I will be discussing this point from that perspective. Within a few days at the hostel most of us came to act like gentlemen in the dining halls. Apart for a very negligible few, I had never seen any greedy or selfish student who grabbed the larger portions of food or took more than their entitled share. If we happened to be the first ones at the dining table before others came, most of us took the smaller portion or even less than our share so as to leave more for those who came later for their meals.
I would like to attribute that behavior to peer influence. Such acts may seem not important enough to deserve mentioning here. However, those minor acts of consideration and sacrifice for others are great attributes of a good leader.
To understand and appreciate the above statement it would be necessary to know how the meals were served at the hostel dining halls in the olden days. Each dining table could seat four persons. The main dish, which usually was meat used to be served in a dish for either two or four persons (it differs from one hostel to another). So if the first comers took more than their shares or the larger portions, the late comers will get less to eat. Such things were never known to have happened.
No one told us to behave that way, but the habit came almost naturally. It was a decent trait of the university students that most old students may still remember and cherish those memories until today. While contemplating on writing about my university days, and when I told friends about my intentions they suggested that I should write about this trait that most of us acquired then.
Attires define a person
Also it is note-worthy to mention that when we became university students, our dressing styles gradually changed. This change could also be attributed to the peer influence too. Most students were observed to change visibly in the way they dress. Their dresses became more stylish and were of nice cuttings that were modern and elegant. Long sleeved shirts with stiff collars or collarless shirts were in vogue among the male students. Most RU male students prefer to wear silk “pasoes” or sarong, called “Bangkok pasoe”. They may be somewhat expensive than the cotton ones, but more comfortable, cool and durable. In other words stiff-collared long-sleeved white shirt and Bangkok pasoe became the “collegian style” of those days. Some, but very few, wore Western style trousers and coats to classes, but none were seen wearing jeans, except during their outings.
As dresses define a person, the university students of those days were quite distinguishable from other people by their attires. It’s not an exaggeration, but we can differentiate the university students or the “collegians” from others. Although we may not know them before, if we met them in the downtown areas such as the movie theatres, bus stands, railway stations, and the night bazaars, etc, we can easily identify them as university students..
Concerning the attires, I would like to cite one very interesting incident while attending the Yankin College. During an English lesson class, the lady lecturing tutor was explaining a passage from the text book. It said peoples’ background, such as whether they are city dwellers or are from the countryside can clearly be determined by the way they dress. She demonstrated that by saying to one student that he definitely must be a Rangoonian, to which he answered “yes”. Then she told the other one he must be from the countryside. The second student said nothing, but walked out of the classroom and we never saw him in class until the final exams. He was a friend of mine from a small town up country.
The mechanisms that moulded us
At the hostels, we had the Social and Reading clubs (S&R) for recreation. There we could play the indoor games — table tennis, chess, draught, and carrom board. There were also daily news papers and a small library. Every academic year a new group of Executive Committee (EC) members of the S&R were elected by the votes of resident students of that hostel. They were responsible for the social and recreational activities that included the holding of the annual hall dinners and entertainment programs, which were the highlights of the academic year at every hall. Those annual dinners were much looked forward to by the students.
A friend of mine, who used to be an EC member of the S&R and also of his district association told me that when he was elected, he tried to fit in to his position by behaving properly and dressing respectably to be worthy of those positions. Besides the S&R, there were many other associations and organizations, that every university student unavoidably got involved. There were the district or township, arts and culture, hobbies such as amateur radio construction (Spark), boat rowing, hiking and mountaineering, and some other associations, organizations or clubs. Almost every student got involved in one or the other, or some in more than one such group.
By getting involved in the various associations, organizations, clubs, S&R and the Student Union, the students were being instilled the good habits, behaviours, spirits of unity, loyalty, dedication, responsibility and the practice of cooperation and coordination since early on in life. It can be said that the hostel life or the university life trained and prepared young people to become well behaved and respectable leaders in the future. During our days at the university we were familiar with the remark: “Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders.”
Best training grounds for the future leaders
Thus, undoubtedly, the university is the best place to educate, train and breed well educated, cultured, disciplined, well behaved, respectable, responsible and matured leaders of the future. It’s undeniable that at the universities all these good attributes were gently instilled into us, but not enforced upon us. Today, when we are seeing some people in high positions acting like uneducated, uncultured, badly behaved, unrespectable and immature persons, the more we realized that these attributes are the most important ones that a leader should posses.
Let’s restore the glory of RU
Once upon a time our RU was recognized as the best university in the South East Asia region. I must admit I don’t really know the exact world ranking of the RU then. However, the fact that in those days there were quite a number of exchange students from Japan, Singapore, South Asian continent and Africa, was a very clear indication of her fame.
I am sure the present government will endeavor to bring back the old glories of our beloved RU (now YU) that it had enjoyed in the past. Even now the world ranking of the YU had climbed astonishingly in leaps and bounds during the past five years. I am quite confident the government will spare no effort to push the YU further up the ranking scale and it will regain its rightful place that it once held with pride in the region. Hopefully that day is not very far away and God willing, I may live to see that day.

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