Honourable company in east education

THE invitation card for the official opening ceremony of Marlborough College Malaysia last Sunday claimed that after the ‘Lagu Bangsa Johor’, the Johor state mufti and the Bishop of West Malaysia would both say prayers.

That did not materialise, but the speeches were fabulous. The Master, Mr RB Pick (who was deputy head when I left Marlborough’s Wiltshire campus) told the story of an Old Marlburian educator who, having spent years serving the college, decided to join the Malayan Education Service. This Mr JR Taylor subsequently became headmaster of Muar High School in 1929, which later educated the current Menteri Besar of Johor and Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Then Her Royal Highness Raja Zarith Sofia, who herself attended the Cheltenham Ladies’ College and the University of Oxford, delivered a much applauded address in which she welcomed the school to Johor and wished it all the best in delivering the high-quality, well-rounded education it is famous for in the United Kingdom. Anyone familiar with Raja Zarith’s brilliant articles would have found her speech to be entirely consonant with her writing.

The school is clearly gaining a foothold, with families relocating to Johor just to send their kids to there. I chatted with a few pupils whose previous schools were mostly in Singapore, and without exception they all said that they loved their new school (even after I asked them to be honest).

These days it is nothing new for schools and universities to open campuses abroad, but there are two important things to note in this phenomenon. Firstly, the flow is multi-directional – the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology has 11 campuses outside Malaysia. Secondly, there are Malaysian educators who have long attracted international students to their campuses – the Cempaka schools come to mind.

Last week I mentioned the importance of parental choice, and all of these private institutions are helping to provide it. And though the fees at these schools may be beyond the means of most, the number of scholarships and bursaries that are available is usually surprisingly large.

Naturally, there are some authoritarian nationalists who loathe all private schools and would even wish to mandate one standard school according to a copy-and-paste template. However, there is certainly no decrease in the patriotism of privately educated children, and every parent who takes their child out of the government system (which they have already paid for through taxes) means more resources for the children who remain in that system.

Apparently Sir Stamford Raffles did not attend an illustrious school, and as a teenager started work at the East India Company. I reckon most Malaysians are vaguely aware that he was an important figure in the Straits Settlements – his obituary stated that he “prevented the alienation of Malacca from the British Crown” – but in Singapore public understanding (and acceptance) of his role there is much more profound. This could be said more generally of Singapore’s accommodation of its colonial past: its authorities have not tried to eradicate old place names, like in KL where Birch Road became Jalan Maharajalela.

There was an exhibition of Raffles’ letters at Singapore’s National Library, and I went to have a look. Crucial to this display was the greater narrative in which the artefacts were placed. Each part of his life – from Penang to Melaka to Java to Singapore – was properly contextualised, and the letters brought to life his often central role to these events, complete with sagas of intrigues and personal vendettas. Raffles was involved in so many events that had vast consequences in the region, including the evolution of old Johor to modern Johor and the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 – that he is one of those individuals of whom we can ponder: if he did not exist, how different might our history be?

When I returned home I immediately opened my copy of ‘Letters of Sincerity: The Raffles Collection of Malay Letters (1870-1824)’ by Professor Ahmat Adam (formerly Professor of History at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Malaysia Sabah) published by the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (2009), which includes transliterations and translations of many letters from our sultans’ ancestors to Raffles and the Governor-General of India (of which Penang became its fourth presidency). Would it not be glorious if our National Library could one day exhibit these letters?

Alas, I recently read a shocking account of a recent visit to our National Library, complete with photographs of books strewn all over the floor. Such an exhibition will have to wait. Just as well, as it may take a while for our history curricula to appreciate the importance of figures like Sir Stamford Raffles. And even Mr JR Taylor.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of IDEAS.

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