Three Rivers School, the Pioneering Years

Mukah community leaders who attended the meeting with Macleland (seated third left), Wee (seated second left) and Bazeley (seated third right) in 1960 to establish the Three Rivers government secondary school.

On 27 August the Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud officiated at the launching of the book, “Three River School, the Pioneering Year (1961-1971)”. Since its inception, the school has adopted the motto, “Mind, Body, Spirit.” If ever a motto is not just a mere slogan it was during the early years of this quaintly named school. During those pioneering years the students didn’t just mouth those words, they lived it. The book, with some three hundred plus photographs, offers a glimpse of student life in those far off days.

Why was it named Three Rivers School?

Over fifty years ago, the only government school that served the whole of Sarawak Third Division was Kanowit Government Secondary School. The Third Division then was huge: it covered the whole of the Rejang basin and the contiguous areas. The educational need of the region then was taken care of by the few Christian Mission schools, namely, Sacred Heart and Methodist schools in Sibu, St Anthony’s in Sarikei and St Patrick’s of Mukah. The latter was only up to Form Three.

One fine day in early 1960 a meeting was convened and chaired by Mr MacLeland, then the District Officer of Mukah. The meeting brought together some of the key leaders of Mukah, Dalat, and Balingian. The main topic was the proposed establishment of a government secondary school to serve the need of the communities along the Mukah, Balingian and Oya rivers.

Coordinating this meeting and acting as the spokesman for the leaders of the local communities was Mr Wee Lam Hai. Wee was then serving as the Chairman of the Mukah District Council. He was influential as he was one of the few locals well-versed in English. Also in attendance was a representative of the Colombo Plan Australia, Mr Tom Bazeley.  He was later to become the first principal of the school.  It was at this meeting that the name Three Rivers School was adopted.  The choice of the name was obvious as it was expected that the students would come largely from the constituencies of the three rivers: Balingian, Mukah, and Oya.

These were the days before the introduction of comprehensive education, in other words, the students had to go through a filtering system. They were tested at the end of the primary six where they had to pass the Common Entrance Exam (also known as The Eleven Plus) before they could proceed on to Form One, the beginning of the secondary education. There were a fair number of primary schools in the region then. With the improvement in standard, more and more students were making the grade. The establishment of a government secondary school to cater for a burgeoning number of young minds was timely.

Things moved remarkably fast those days. The very next year, 1961, students began arriving at the sleepy fishing town, Mukah. Even though the intake was supposed to be from the three rivers, Oya, Mukah, and Balingan, some boys and girls from the Rejang Delta also turned up. They must have been rather disappointed because there was no school in the physical sense. They were housed in makeshift classrooms at the Mukah Youth Club and the Mukah Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

In fact, a site about two miles from town near the beach called Kuala Lama was ear-marked for the school. But at that time it was just a secondary jungle of bushes and coconut palms. The students helped to build the school in the literal sense. They helped to clear the ground at the proposed site and later in the maintenance of the school compound. In fact, they spent as much time out in the field as they did in the classrooms. Class ended at one o’clock and the afternoon was devoted to manual labour and sports. Later when the subject husbandry was introduced the students planted vegetable, sweet corn and even built a sizeable fish pond.

Three River School, the Pioneering Year (1961-1971)

The long trek to school

Nowadays it is a norm for children to be car-driven to school. The youths of those days did not have such luxury, and they did not mind. They had to travel by river and land, a journey that could take as long as two days.

The long trek to school was the most challenging for the students from the Balingian River. Though the river is the next river to the Mukah and as the crow flies, it is not more than 60 kilometres. In the 1960s, there was no road connecting the two towns. The journey was by boat. These small, slow wooden boats had to leave the safe waters of the river and make their way into the open sea. Ordinarily, this was not an issue, however, in the few months during the landas (wet) season (November -February), the sea could get very rough, making travel in the open sea dangerous. Travelling by boat was out of the question. As there was no road suitable for motor vehicles, the only option was to go by foot.

The route was through the upper reaches of the Balingian River and then a trek through the jungle to the headwater of the Mukah River. One student some fifty years on wrote about his experience.

“This took place in January 1965. I was supposed to enter Form Four. Due to the landas season, our departure (from Balingian to Mukah) by sea was aborted. The sea was unusually rough and turbulent during this period. Most of the coastal vessels at the time were small and could not handle the waves, thus prevented us from leaving Balingian.The only alternative was to trek through the jungle, the watershed highlands between Upper Selangau, a tributary of the Mukah River, and Upper River Bawan, a tributary of Balingian River.There were possibly six or seven of us, comprising several senior and junior students. We were ferried by our relatives, using a long boat fitted with an outboard motor, from Kampung Pulat Balingian, up Balingian River, then through the tributary of Bawan River right up to the river source, a journey that took more than an hour.When we reached the source of the Bawan River, guided by a local, we trekked along the jungle track used by the locals to travel to their farms in the valleys and hills within the watershed area, above the peat swamps of lower Balingian. The track was rather circuitous, slippery and muddy in some places, lined by light vegetation at the early part of the journey but becoming dense as we went further inland towards the ridge, with climbing vines, palms, ferns and a diversity of flora. I recalled there were scorched trees that survived the “slash and burn” practice – the traditional method for farming hill padi.The ascending terrain was rather challenging, but when we reached the ridge between the two watersheds, the descent towards the source of the tributary of Mukah River was a much easier journey. It was a long hard day as we all had our luggage to carry, mostly on our backs. We arrived at a longhouse at Upper Selangau just before sunset, in time to jump into the cold water of the river for a bath. That evening, after our dinner in the Ruai (verandah-like open space) of the longhouse, we negotiated with a boat owner who agreed to send us down to Mukah using his long boat the following morning. We arrived at Mukah town, safe and sound the next day. It was an experience worth recalling. However, I did not arrive at the school in time to join the Form Four Class photo-taking session.”

Zakaria Kawi (Three Rivers 1962-1966) worked for some years with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). He is now retired and resides in Geneva, Switzerland.

The first batch of students clearing the land to build the school.

Academic excellence

In those pioneering years, the school was staffed by expatriate volunteer teachers from the American Peace Corps, the Voluntary Service Overseas programme of the Commonwealth countries and contract workers from the Indian subcontinent. The locals were fresh diploma graduates and some untrained teachers who had just finished their secondary education.

Despite this, it turned out to be one of the best schools in the state. It produced excellent results in both the Sarawak Junior Certificate Examination and the Cambridge School Certificate Examination, culminating in a perfect score in 1966 – a hundred per cent pass. Of the 30 students who sat for the exam, 29 acquired the full certificates and one, an ordinary GCE (General Certificate Examination) pass. To appreciate the significance of this feat, we must bear in mind that this was an internationally recognised exam for all the Commonwealth countries.

Sports Powerhouse

Within a few years, the school proved to be the sports powerhouse in the Third Division. At the 1965 Annual Inter-school Athletic Meet, this school of rural boys and girls competing for the first time in their lives in a sports arena overcame their more established opponents to emerge as the overall champion, much to the astonishment of their competitors and even to themselves. That result proved to be no flash in the pan. The new school went on to be the dominant force in school athletics in the Third Division, winning the championship for six consecutive years from 1965 to 1970.

‘Three River School, the Pioneering Years (1961-1971)’ captures the story of how a group of rural youths and their equally young teachers lived up to the motto of ‘Mind, Body, Spirit.’ They united to build a school from scratch, and without any precedent to fall on, achieving academic excellence, sporting glories, and social advances.

Those interested to buy the book can contact Wilbert Kho at 019-816-2768.

The Three Rivers Alumni book committee led by Minister of Welfare, Community, Well Being, Women, Family and Childhood Development Datuk Fatimah Abdullah, who is a former student of the school, paying a courtesy call on Head of State Pehin Sri Taib Mahmud at the Astana recently to present him the book and invite him to launch it.

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