Mission schools are as ‘Malaysian’ as can be. We really ought to be applauding, supporting and promoting their work as they are indeed an asset to our country.
THE canteen of an all-girl mission school in Ipoh is a riot of noise as the students throng to their favourite stalls. Shared by both the secondary and primary schools, it’s situated between the two institutions.
This school can trace its lineage back to an educational institution founded in 1895 by British missionaries, although it only assumed its current name in 1959.
In 2010, it was named one of the Sekolah Harapan Negara.
The secondary school is in the slightly grander, older buildings dating from the 1920s while the primary school is in the 1950s structure alongside the assembly hall.
Recess is staggered and the girls eat at different times.
The racial mix is striking, with Malay, Indian and Chinese students in almost equal measure.
I’m looking on, from the teachers’ dining room where I’m sitting with the enthusiastic and chatty senior teachers – all of whom are women.
“You could say that curriculum is our core business,” says one headmistress.
“I’ve been teaching for 30 years – of which 25 were spent in mission schools.
“I learned a great deal from the old teachers from the mission back in the 1980s. Their administration was no nonsense and yet we’d all have fun. Committee meetings were far shorter in those days!
“Still, I have a very active board and they have a strong sense of tradition. They’re very particular about our results and reputation.
“I personally prefer having a strong board. They provide a check and balance. They also help with fund-raising and are always monitoring our enrolment to ensure we’re preserving the character and tradition of the school.”
Tradition and continuity are important for the mission schools.
One of the teachers I spoke to was an oldgirl at the school from 1969 to 1980 before heading off to Teachers Training College and returning in 1985.
All in all, she has spent 38 years at the school, both as a pupil and a teacher.
Mission schools have played a central role in the story of education in Malaysia.
The first “missionary” school is arguably the Penang Free School, founded by an English Anglican clergyman in 1816.
This was followed by the Roman Catholic’s St Xavier’s Institution and Convent Light Street in 1852, also in Penang.
Since then, it is estimated that there are now 462 mission schools in Malaysia, including 227 in peninsular Malaysia and 235 in Sabah and Sarawak.
Among the famous schools were the Convent Bukit Nanas, St John’s Institution of Kuala Lumpur as well as St Michael’s and Methodist Girls’ School of Ipoh.
Mission schools have educated countless of Malaysians regardless of race, religion or class.
The distinguished alumni from mission schools include several of our prime ministers (Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is an old boy of St John’s), ministers, corporate captains, sports stars and artistes.
Still, many have bemoaned the perceived decline of mission schools in tandem with education in Malaysia in general.
As history will show, most mission schools became partially-aided schools in the 1970s, which meant that the Education Ministry supplied and paid the teaching staff plus operating costs, while the various churches retained ownership of the land and buildings.
Beyond the usual debate over the medium of instruction and quality of teaching, there have been criticisms that the schools have lost their distinctive Christian character.
On the other hand, some feel that this ethos remains unduly pronounced.
Indeed, questions of the appointment of head teachers and restrictions to non-Muslim religious activities in the schools have been the cause of much bitterness to certain alumni and parents alike.
Visiting the mission school in Ipoh, amid its leafy surroundings, however, I got a sense that many of these schools are fighting to maintain their identities while reflecting a truly Malaysian identity.
It helps that while the Anglican and Roman Catholic missionary schools have suffered due to the ageing and declining membership of their various religious orders, the lay-based boards of schools like the one in Ipoh remain very active.
In a sense, mission schools are accomplishing what our national-stream schools have failed to deliver.
For one thing, they’re largely multiracial: the student body of the premier girls’ school that I visited in Ipoh is 33.5% Malay, 36.4% Chinese, 26.9% Indian and 3.2% others, almost neatly mirroring the ethnic composition of peninsular Malaysia.
As my editor Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai says: “Mission schools provide a neutral platform for all the races to meet and interact.”
Their students are also accomplished both academically (the UPSR pass rate has been above 90% for the last five years, and in 2006, 40% of their students achieved 5As) and in extra-curricular activities (the school has had noted success in games, including swimming).
Mission schools are as “Malaysian” as can be. We really ought to be applauding, supporting and promoting their work as they are indeed an asset to our country.