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Down memory lane in a mission school

January 31, 2013

FMT LETTER: From Richard Kamalanathan, via e-mail

In the good old days school was not only a center of learning but also a place where we developed our social skills and enjoyed our childhood without any thought of race or religion. And on one Saturday in January, about 14 of us met to get reacquainted  and  relive the memories of being classmates from Standard one to Form five.

There was Ng Eng Meng,  Ann Chuan, Lew Ah Kow, Vee Hin, Ghim Choo, Siew Lian, Yun Leng, Tiong Loon, Geok Lan, Eu Ngoh, Ai Kok and Ching Lai. We met at a Nonya restaurant in Petaling Jaya. After lunch we drove down to the Gastrocafe at Subang Jaya for coffee and thence broke off to join back later in February for another fellowship in Seremban.

All of us, now between the ages of 64 and 66 years were educated at the Anglo Chinese School, Seremban. Our classmates  Manivasagan, Kamalatchi, Swee Chok, Lai Kin, Eng Seng, Szetho Kong Kee could not attend the fellowship. We had to miss our classmate  See Choon, who lives in Ipoh and physically unable to join us, though we frequently visit him and show him our fraternity and care.

Anglo Chinese School, Seremban, built in 1914  is a Methodist mission school situated amid the government quarters, facing Jalan Lintang and on the other side was Sungai Temiang. We had a small field where we played football, hockey and emerged victorious in athletics. The present main bus terminal is now built upon the site of our old school.

Coming from a Saivite-Hindu family, I raised my voice and sang the hymn, ‘Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war..’ (my favourite hymn). Then there were my other Hindu classmates, Rajendran, Mahadevan, Mohan Das, Kamalatchi and Saraswathy. For 11 years I attended chapel every Friday, not once was I asked to convert to Methodism nor did we become one upon  leaving with our school certificate  in 1965. However the teachings are still with us.

Seremban of those days was surrounded by large rubber plantations and tin mines, and had had not more than 10 main streets in the town proper. It was a  commercial centre for the plantations and tin mines. My father had  a tailoring outlet in the corner of K Abdul Rahim & Co. along Paul Street. We lived on the other side of town in Bukit Tembok across the railway lines.

After school, I would go home and carry the tiffin  carrier for my father and return home and then would have lunch and go back to school for games and athletics. Though life was precariously difficult for me and my four younger brothers at home, there was always a sense of relief and joy when we had to go to school. Our teachers were kind and loving and became the  benefactors of our lives too.

Miss Jesse David was my first teacher in 1956 in Standard One A. She was the daughter of our pastor Rev Milton David. Some of the teachers like Mrs Joyce Wong, Ms Veronica Yap, Ms.Heng, Mr Rajendra Mittal, and many others influenced our lives not only by educating us but also by their altruistic behaviour, like Ms Kulasingam.

By 1960 the school had had already a public address system in all classrooms in the primary school and our headmaster Mr SVeerappan or his Senior Assistant Mrs Arulrajah would give us instructions.

All of us had come from different cultures and different backgounds. Some of us were content with rice. If we had no curry for the day we would put the bakelite plate below the tap and rinse it before we gulped it with some salt while others would add soy sauce and eat it with a spoon.

Most Seremban Chinese spoke Cantonese and lived in the town centre and studied in ACS, or St Paul’s Institution in Paul Street (for boys, which has been completely demolished to make way for a commercial complex) and Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Birch Road (for girls, which was demolished about 20 years ago to make way for an extended bus terminal).

Of course King George V School was mostly attended by Ceylon Tamils and Malays and was the equivalent of Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur. There was the Chan Wa and Chung Hua Secondary Schools and the Indians who wanted a Tamil education attended the Vivekananda, Lobak or Java Lane Tamil Schools.

In 1958, the government introduced Pupils Own Language (POL) classes. All Indian students had to attend Tamil classes except for our classmate Amrit Kaur as her native language was Punjabi. The Chinese students attended Mandarin classes. Our teacher Mr Ponnudurai, already in his sixties  taught me the basics of  the Tamil language.

We would laugh when he missed some important phonetics; when he said zha,  the the gaps in this teeth would eject the air and it would be heard as yai.  Hence when he pronounced a word vazhaipazham (for banana) it would sound vayaipayam. We would all laugh and he would punish us. I was made to stand on the chair throughout the period. But later on in life I wrote and publish two collections of Tamil short stories and over 30 radio dramas, which was broadcast amongst many poems using the name Seremban Sa Kamalanathan.

This brief period of POL class for six months had elevated  me into  an orator in Tamil for thousands of workers when I became the organiser and executive secretary of the Negeri Sembilan and Malacca Textile Workers Union. I was applauded to have spoken the archetypal Tamil amidst a crowd of 300 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Harlem and The Netherlands in 1984.

I would never forget Mrs Lim, who was so tall and yet wore high heeled shoes and taught us English Literature in Form Three. The recommended text was ‘Wuthering Heights’. She would make us read word for word and explain every sentence and when eventually she completed the text, I became an admirer of the protagonist Heathcliff.

I became so interested in English Literature thereafter that I was voraciously reading Keats, Shelley, Byron, Russell, Milton and Shakespeare. She invoked in me the love for literature in  English, Malay, Tamil and Russian.

The character of  Methodist schools

Earnest Lau (2008) says when the Methodist missionaries landed in Singapore on  Feb 7, 1885, they had few financial resources. They had been sent by the South India Annual Conference to open a mission which relied largely on faith. Dr James Thorburn and his wife, Rev William Oldham and musical accompanist Miss Julia Battie, did not have enough money to complete their round-trip voyage to Singapore and back to Madras.

It was only the generous financial support given by Dr Thoburn’s parishioners at a series of evangelistic rallies in Rangoon, where the party stayed a short while, that made the rest of the trip possible. Unannounced, the four people arrived in Singapore and were surprised to be met at the wharf by Charles Phillips, an English Wesleyan who had been Superintendent of the Sailor’s Home and Christian Institute at Middle Road since 1866.

Active in religious and social work, he had written to Thoburn, urging him to open up Methodist work in Singapore, and now was ready to assist the party in settling down at the Sailor’s Home for the duration of the visit. Thus began the Methodist mission in Singapore and Malaya.

Within a short time Dr Thoburn established the Methodist Society. A new sanctuary was constructed at the junction of Coleman Street and Canning Rise and the first service and dedication was held in Dec 15, 1886. In 1894 the Missionary Society in New York took upon the responsibility of supporting the Malaysia Mission. In 1885, Oldham established the Anglo-Tamil School with an enrolment of 45 students. CW Underwood from Jaffna took charge of the school.

Upon his illness M Gnanamuthoo, a Tamil preacher from Rangoon replaced him.  On March 1, 1886, at a shophouse situated at No 70 Amoy Street with 13 pupils, expanding to 36 within a week. The Anglo Chinese School (ACS) was started with the assistance from Tan Keong Saik, which included his two sons and Tan Jiak Kim’s to brothers, both prominent businessmen  in Singapore.

The renowned Malay scholar Rev William Shellabear was largely responsible for the setting up of the Methodist Publishing House (MPH) in 1906 which was later renamed Malaya Publishing House and has now hundreds of outlets in Malaya and Singapore today.

After 137 years of  the founding of the Kingswood School in Bristol, United Kingdom for miners in April 1739, as the first Methodist mission school, William Oldham continued the Methodist tradition in Singapore and Malaysia. ACS was rapidly founded in other parts of Peninsular Malaysia – in Penang (1891, Ipoh (1895), Kuala Lumpur (1899), Methodist Girls Schools (MGS) in Taiping and Kuala Lumpur were taken over from the British colonial government in 1898.

In 1904, Mrs Shellabear founded the MGS in Malacca and six years later the ACS.  Methodist Schools were then opened in virtually all the major and many of the minor town as Earnest Lau says in Seremban, Sentul, Klang, Port Swettenham, Banting, Taiping, Sitiawan, Kampar, Telok  Anson, Parit Buntar, Tanjong Malim, Sungei Siput, Kuantan, Raub, Bentong, Kulim, Nibong Tebal, Sibu, Binatang, Sarikei and Kapit. By 1914, 75% of boys being educated in English were in Mission schools, which pioneered education for girls a s well.

All ATS was eventually absorbed into the Methodist Boys Schools and subsequently the Methodist Afternoon Schools – the migratory nature of the Indian labourers and government-initiated Tamil schools in the towns and plantation-based Tamil schools had contributed to this change in mission  policy.

Although ACS, as well as the Methodist Girls’ Schools, had the primary responsibility of teaching their pupils the 3Rs  – Reading, Writing, Arithmetic – supervised by the Government Inspectors of Schools, the atmosphere and character would be Christian.

This  was possible because the Colonial government, although limiting the freedom to proselytise, was generally benign towards all Mission schools. Formal education should be purely secular while religious instruction, voluntary.

But because of economic and administrative efficiency, the Colonial Government preferred to let Christian missions and other private bodies meet the educational needs of the population.

For the Colonial government, Mission schools were an economical means of providing an education in English, the cost to the Government per pupil being roughly one-third in the Government school.  In 1927 Bishop Titus Lowe outlined the aims of the Methodist schools:

  • the sanctity of the body – through gymnastics and athletics and a frank teaching of physiology and hygiene creating a new standard of physical manhood and womanhood;
  • the creation of mental efficiency – equipping boys and girls by tapping the spring of creative thought…to prepare youth for modern Malaya;
  • the establishment of an unimpeachable standard of morals – an universal moral standard not confined to any one culture;
  • the coronation of the spiritual motive – by introducing students to God, the Father of all mankind – the highest service which Methodist schools hope to accomplish.

The norms still prevail in all Methodist schools to this day and remain the cornerstones of mission-based education not only in Malaysia but universally.

I became the youngest member of the Labour Party of Malaya after leaving school in 1965, and moved on to assist workers in the Negeri Sembilan Government Workers Union (IMG) and  then formed the  Negeri Sembilan and Malacca Textile Workers Union .
I believe I was nurtured to to fight for social justice because of the education I had received in ACS Seremban. The ACS fraternity is a great experience and I’m very honoured to be part of it. The continued fellowship of my classmates in the same spirit will help me explain what education ought to be now and for tomorrow.


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