kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Comment: Penang Free School — the abstract and the concrete

RESULTS: Schools are powerful instruments of character, discipline and ethos shaping nation and society

I WAS rummaging through the clutter of books, magazines and an assortment of papers in my room recently and found an artifact from my alma mater -- the 1976 school magazine. Titled The Magazine of the Penang Free School 1976, it was serialised as Volume Six, Number Four.

 I was in Form Six then. Those were my formative years. The world we lived in and the future  stretched our conscience and imagination. There was a whole new world before us.

 The year 1976 was Penang Free School's (PFS) 160th year. Indeed, as have been often echoed by many an Old Free, PFS is the oldest English School east of Suez. This year, it celebrated its 196th anniversary on Oct 21.

The editorial of the Magazine described the many new constructions and renovations (to the school building) made during the past decade. It noted that "the weathered old walls still stir up a sensation of antiquity, the worn-out desks and chairs relate of the Frees who have come and gone while the gloomy-looking corridors echo of the Frees who have walked and still walk along it."

Those who had studied and walked along the corridors in the early to mid-1970s would now be in their fifties. The experience configured by the school's built-environment was complemented by another kind -- that of the abstract.

The editorial reminded us, "the Free is not as easily described". Each new generation of Frees differs in character and it is difficult to tell how the present generation will turn out. Strength, perseverance, ability and will have continually been the motivation behind the existence of the Free.

The headmaster then was Goon Fatt  Chee, succeeding K.G. Yogam. A Geography teacher, Goon often peppered his speeches at the weekly school assembly with lines from poets, especially from the English Romantic  poet  John Keats  (1795-1821).

In his message for the Magazine, Goon wrote about the disciplining of thought, action and destiny. Our actions change the world we live in, for better or for worse and because actions are the result of thought, he called upon us to discipline our thoughts so that they are of a constructive nature -- "For our destiny and that of society lie in our thinking."

He solemnly reminded us that "every thought whispered in your heart can be heard in heaven." In the Magazine, Goon was also asked by the editorial board to write an article on the headmaster's policies and problems, which he reluctantly did.

At the same time he referred to his article The Role of the Principal in Malaysia, published in the previous year's school magazine.

If Goon, Yogam and a host of others in the alumni have been associated with PFS at one time or another, perhaps, even now as I write, no man can claim a longer history of association with the school than Captain Mohd. Noor Mohamed

We were terrified at the idea of Captain Noor, as he was known to us,  visiting the school. "Wherever I am, I am noted as a disciplinarian and a taskmaster. I inherited this quality from my father, and when I joined the military service, this was an additional asset to me in matters of controlling men and boys," he said when responding to a question on discipline.  

 Penang Free School, the oldest English School east of Suez

Captain Noor  has devoted a greater part of 64 years of his life to the school, first as a student, then a teacher, and finally as a member of its board of governors. He joined the school on Dec 12, 1912, after having won a Government Malay Scholarship which was awarded to boys in Malay Schools after a competitive examination. He returned to his alma mater in 1919 as a full-time teacher. He taught English, Malay, History and Mathematics. The only subjects the Captain did not teach were Geography and Art (then known as Drawing).

In 1946, he received the Efficiency Decoration which was awarded to Commonwealth Army Officers who had completed 20 years' commission service.

His public service included chairman of Penang Museum and president of the now defunct Penang Historical Society, a post he held for 17 years.

 During his active association with the school, he observed that the discipline was as good as it should be, "although there were signs of slight deterioration after the war".

"The teachers understood they were teachers, and the pupils knew they were pupils," he noted. This is the adab -- knowing one's proper place (see my previous article, Learning Curve, Responding to the Western World View, Oct 28) -- that schooling should nurture in us.

Indeed, schools are powerful instruments of character, discipline and ethos shaping nation and society. We should never underestimate the value of the discourse emanating from schools in building a civilisation.

 In the Malaysian education landscape, with its varied schooling system, such discourses compete and contradict, and in turn produce diversified and conflicting values. And certainly schools evolve and change over time too.

 The world view of Old Frees too may not necessarily be unchanged since we stepped out into the world. But PFS (and like all other good schools) has moulded its pupils into useful souls. PFS was a special place -- thoughtful and reflective.

And in that sense, it is instructive to reflect on Keats' words in a letter to his brother -- "The only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing -- to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party."

A, Murad Merican New Straits Times Learning Curve 25 November 2012
Tags: history, schools

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