Lessons From My School: A memoir of Malaysia’s missions schools

After eight years of extensive research and writing, Chen Yen Ling’s book is finally published this year.

Since their establishment during colonial times, mission schools in Malaysia have long garnered a reputation as institutions of learning with high standards that consistently churn out quality students.

Just mention that you are a student of Catholic High School or Methodist Girls School or Convent Bukit Nanas or La Salle School and immediately, people’s expectations of you change.

Hundreds of thousands of Malaysian students have passed through the hallways and classrooms of mission schools, and most, if not all of them leave with treasured lifelong memories.

Yet, the history of some of these mission schools has been relegated to nothing more than historical footnotes, with the stories of their founders slowly being eroded by time.

With this in mind, former student of St Anne’s Convent School in Kulim, Chen Yen Ling, decided to dive deep into historical records to uncover the story behind the foundation of her alma mater.

With the publication of her book, “Lessons from My School: The Journey of the French Nuns and Their Convent Schools”, she shares not only her schooling experiences but also the tragic stories of the French nuns who founded the convent schools.

Speaking to FMT, Chen, 61, said she found the stories of the Infant Jesus Sisters (IJS), then known as the St Maur Sisters, very compelling. The more she learnt about their rich and inspiring history, the more she wanted to tell their stories.

Her book fulfils her desire to record the humble and modest Sisterhood’s immense contributions to Malaysian education.

The Sisters’ legacy has much to teach us, she says. “Very often, we need to know where we came from to be able to move forward or to revisit the good values that inevitably get lost over time.”

Her education at St Anne’s is important in giving her the discipline to work hard along with the confidence and optimism to keep focused on her responsibilities.

For the first-time author, writing such a research-intensive work was no easy task, with a large variety of topics to cover. It took a whopping eight years before the book was complete.

Author Chen Yen Ling stands between Sister Elizabeth Sandog (left) and Sister Francois Gabrielle (right), beneath a painting of IJS founder Nicholas Barre, during her 2014 visit to the Mother House in France. (Facebook pic)

For the first four years, she spent much of her time digging for elusive information and waiting for replies to her queries.

It was only in 2013 that she finally had what she needed to start drafting a book. “It was hard work but a very enriching experience,” she says.

The information Chen gathered is extensive, too extensive in fact, so much so that she had to omit some parts to not lengthen the final product.

Her work has not gone unappreciated though, with many former mission school students writing in to reminisce about the golden days and even French citizens expressing interest in her book.

During her research, she was most surprised to learn just how willing the early Sisters were in sacrificing their lives for their mission.

“They were willing to travel great distances into unknown and seemingly strange and dangerous places to educate others and spread their religion.”

Their sacrifices made Chen curious as to the backgrounds of the IJS and why they went to the extent they did despite the dangers.

In 2014, she travelled to France to visit the Mother House, the place the Sisters had started their journey from in the 19th century.

It was an awe-inspiring experience, with the trip strengthening her resolve to tell the tale of the Sisters, despite her lack of experience in writing.

Learning of the determination, perseverance and hardiness displayed by the Sisters left a mark on her.

“Sometimes, when you need to do things for yourself in the face of a lot of difficulties, you may give up.”

“But, if you have dependents and people who will be affected negatively because you do not stretch yourself, you make yourself strive harder.”

Regarding the traditions that hold strong in mission schools, Chen says that it is natural for students to feel proud for being part of a memorable journey.

“We are instilled with a lot of good values including loyalty to the institution and coherence among peers regardless of race and religion,” she said.

Education was not taken for granted in the past and students were grateful for the chance of a better future that schooling offered.

“We looked up to our teachers who were mostly strict and dutiful and we could sense their dedication and trusted what they taught us.”

According to her research, Malaysia’s founding father, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was a benefactor of St Anne’s and the Kedah royal family provided much support to convent schools, with the future premier sending his eldest daughter to St Anne’s.

Currently, she said, the IJS and other historical institutions still require financial aid from the government to maintain historical buildings and renew land leases.

Despite the decreasing membership of religious brotherhoods and sisterhoods, Chen says that the IJS’ “forward-thinking and practical dynamism enabled the nuns to stay relevant and effectively carry on their mission to serve an ever-evolving society.”

As to the importance of Malaysians knowing the story of the country’s mission schools, she said that the schools laid the foundation of formal education in the country.

“The missionary-established schools were indeed fundamental to the development of modern secular education in the country although they started from a religious-based administration.”

“This is distinct from religious-based education, a fact that must be clearly understood by present generations – young and old.”

Lessons From My School: The Journey Of The French Nuns And Their Convent Schools’ is available at retail and online Kinokuniya Bookstores, Gerakbudaya, selected MPH Bookstores, and the Infant Jesus Provincialate. It can also be purchased through the Lessons From My School Facebook page or by e-mailing [email protected].