Principal Chock turned his attention on Simon. “You’re aware, Simon, that this is a school built on strong principles.”
“Yes,” Simon said.
“And SMBS has no biases against students of other faiths. Do you know Yousef Ahmad?”
“Last year’s Head Prefect?“
“Yes,” Principal Chock said. All of a sudden he looked very pleased. “Good student, good athlete, a well-rounded boy. Highest scoring O Level Malay student in the country. He was interviewed in the papers. We’re proud of SMBS boys like him; we strive to make sure that all of you do just as well. It makes no difference if you’re a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or, like Yousef, a Muslim, so I hope you realize that there’s no pressure for students to change religions.” He looked pointedly at Ma. “But I’ll admit, we are a bit more… I should say, persistent with students who don’t follow any faith. Having religion on your life will round you out, make you a stronger person. Who doesn’t want the best chance at success in life? We try to introduce you to the Lord because we believe everybody should have a chance to know Him.”
Simon had never really thought about becoming a Christian before. In Primary school all the boys who converted were easy to spot because of their crosses—they advertised themselves with cross key chains, cross-shaped erasers, cross stickers on their exercise books. Simon preferred his exercise book covers plain with just his name and class printed across the front. Sometimes, even though he daydreamed during Chapel, quotes from past sermons would pop into his head and surprise him but he never dwelled on them because Ma wasn’t too fond of religion. She said it made people lose sight of who they truly were.
Principal Chock cleared his throat. “SMBS has a reputation for making scholars and good citizens out of our students,” he reminded Simon as if he didn’t already know. His classmates would be the sons of government ministers and important businessmen. If people saw him on the public buses and trains in uniform, they would think he was somebody’s son too. “Will you consider accepting Christ into your heart?”
Simon turned his head slightly so Ma would disappear from the corner of his vision. “Yes,” he said.
When they got home that day, Ma was not angry. She told him she wanted him to have the best education but he would have to be prepared to follow up on his promise to Principal Chock. “He will remember it. You have to at least pretend you’re interested in becoming a Christian or he will reconsider your place.” This time, Ma did not go on about how it was illegal for him to do so. She bit at the edges of her thumbnail. Suddenly, she did not seem sure of anything at all.
On the first day of school, Simon was tired. It was not the way he wanted to start the year. Neither he nor Ma had slept because of Grandfather, who spent the whole night crying loudly about his failed life, both of his disappointing children: one with a child out of wedlock, another one a homosexual. That was a day after Uncle Song had been sentenced to jail for unnatural sexual acts. The newspapers had re-published his picture alongside those of four other men, all of whom were also caught in the same nightclub raid. They would each receive a sentence of three to six months in prison and four strokes of the cane.
“You show that school you’re the best they’ve got,” Ma said. Even in the shadows, he could see that her eyes had not opened fully yet. The smell of stale deodorant clung to the work blouse she had worn to bed.
On the MRT, Simon dozed off and nearly missed his station, but luckily, he awoke to the rustle of the other SMBS boys pouring out of the doors. He was grateful to avoid being late and having to face Principal Chock on his first day of school. It was the first time he ever thanked God for anything.
* * *