Tuesday, November 24

Life in a mission school in the 1950s and 1960s

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LIKE many of you reading this right now, I am the product of an early mission school in Kuching. I was first enrolled at St Thomas’s Primary School in the year 1956, when I was six years old, and left after Cambridge A levels at Upper 6 Arts in 1969. St Thomas’s was founded on Aug 5, 1848 by a priest and doctor Francis Thomas McDougall from England. He had landed earlier on June 29, 1848, when Rajah James Brooke had asked the Anglican Mission to adopt four Eurasian children.

In September 1848, Brooke had granted land for the school to be built and the main building was declared open by the Rajah himself on Aug 13, 1886. St Thomas’s became a boys’ school and the girls’ school was St Mary’s – its twin just across the road, which has since been named after McDougall.

The medium of instruction was English until 134 years later in 1982, when Bahasa Malaysia become the sole medium of instruction. The first Cambridge Junior Certificate was taken in 1930; followed by the first School Certificate in 1935.

Photo shows St Thomas’s teachers in 1961.

St Thomas’s is the oldest school in Sarawak and the fourth oldest in Malaysia. It is the alma mater of many well-known Sarawakians, among whom is our present Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg.

Today, the school is known as a government aided mission school, the management of which is fully run by a board of appointees from both the Anglican Church and the school establishment, headed by the President of the Anglican Church in Sarawak and Brunei, currently the Rt Rev Datuk Danald Jute. (The writer is the present chairman of the board.) The church too owns the school’s entire property and all its facilities, and it depends on the Ministry of Education for its day to day educational policies and curriculum.

When I started primary school in 1956, my classroom was still in an old wooden block, built on stilts and there were about 50 students in my class – most of them were seven years old, although a few of us, myself included, was only six. There were no hard and fast rules or regulation as to the age for admittance. I remember there were even a couple of eight-year-olds as well!

Photo shows the Primary 6 Class of 1958 at St Thomas’s.

My class teacher was the late (since Datin) Mrs Edward Brandah – she was a kindly soft spoken but very strict disciplinarian of a teacher. She spoke excellent English and had the most motherly of smiles, although she also carried a rattan cane most of the time, as kids those days were really rowdy and naughty. As there was no such thing as a kindergarten or any preschool in those days, for all of us it was the very first time we left the comfort and safety of our own homes to be placed in such a strange place as an enclosed and stuffy classroom!

Up till today I can still recall and name the class bullies and the naughty ones. I was considered very well behaved and on the timid side and had to put on my best behaviour as my mother was a fellow teacher among the staff of the school at the time.

I remember that in those days I was given an allowance of 10 cents, which was quite a princely sum as most other kids had either only 5 cents or had just packed food from home. With the 10 cents at the very popular school tuckshop run by the Ley Kit Soon family, I could buy two pieces of turnip cake (chai tao kuih) and a soft drink. For 30 cents, one could get a bowl of noodles (freshly made, not that instant rubbish which was still many years away from existence!) or for 50 cents a bowl of laksa. Fellow students with 30 cents daily allowance or more were looked at with envious eyes; but many of them by nature and good upbringing were rather generous and usually shared their purchased food with others. The practice of halal or non-halal status was unknown till around the early 1980s. The number of Muslim students too was rather low at around 20 per cent or less in most classes.

During the primary school years, from Primary 1 till Primary 6, I recall that virtually all our teachers were women, usually with a male headmaster;

we had only two in my time – Chong Eng Nyuk and Ong Kee Pheng. Most classes had between a low of 35 and a high of 50 students, and we studied everything from English to Mathematics, Art to Scripture, and Geography to Science.

As we were an Anglican mission school, we had daily morning assemblies which always started with a short prayer and the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer and singing of a hymn. During special holy days we had to attend St Thomas’s Cathedral church services in which even non-Christians had happily marched by foot to attend. At the time during the entire period I was at St Thomas’s, I was a Buddhist/Taoist but had willingly tagged along, without any thought of even asking to be excused or to be absent myself. I can’t remember a single case when any non-Christian had asked to be excused from such an event or occasion.

We used to look forward to our PE (physical exercise) and art classes as these meant that we could get out of our dreary, stifling, and very hot classrooms (those were the days of no air-con, no fans, no nothing). The more adventurous amongst us had sneakily wandered further afield, St Michael’s Canteen used to be a hot favourite whenever we were in the vicinity of the Sarawak Museum grounds; and the snack shops of Mong Soon and others along Wayang Street as well!

As we left the primary and advanced into secondary school, our classes became smaller in size, usually between 24 and 32, and the teachers we had were more experienced and qualified. They had come from England, Australia, India, Canada, parts of Europe, and we became more engrossed and serious in our studies in order to obtain good grades at the yearend public exams, be it GCE or HSC and Cambridge A Levels. But the fun we had in school had   continued.

All of us made lifelong friends and cemented long-lasting relationships with our fellow classmates, some even with those senior or junior to us and we owe it all to our alma mater, the Anglican Mission school, with its very high standards of education, discipline, camaraderie, and most of all a sense of belonging and a loyalty imbued into one’s soul to appreciate, endure, and love the institution that had given us a basic education in academia and in making for oneself a life worthy to be called honourable – with us we have gained from our years there  a great sense of personal dignity, integrity, and a love and respect for Almighty God, our country, and our fellowmen.

On behalf of all those from my era who had studied and graduated from St Thomas’s School, the premier Anglican mission school, we all owe who we are today to you – to the teachers who had taught us from primary to secondary, and to the high standards that the institution has inculcated in us to always Aim Higher.

Our sincere thanks must go to Francis McDougall and to the Anglican Church and to the Raj for making it all possible. Amen.