The first day I went to school, a Methodist kindergarten, I cried. My mother stood outside watching for a few hours, but I knew she would leave at some point and I dreaded the moment. Nonetheless, when the teacher asked whether any of us knew the song ‘Ten Little Indian Boys,’ I put up my hand. Drying tears, I opened my mouth to sing.
“One little two little three little Indians, four little five little six…”
I became so carried away that when I finished, I repeated the song in reverse, but the teacher told me I had done enough.
That was how my educational adventure began – with a humble rendition of a children’s song. I was not to know that this karaoke debut, full of fear and trembling, would one day lead me to the spires of Oxford University.
While growing up, I was fortunate to have an enlightened mother who emphasised the value of education. The girls in my novel aren’t so lucky. They live in an era when education for girls is deemed unimportant or ignored altogether. Even my feisty Nyonya matriarch struggles with sending her daughters to school. She fears that education would make them too clever to be appreciated by men. Below is an excerpt:
COPYRIGHT SIAK CHIN YOKE 2012 (from Spirit of Kueh, my unpublished novel)
“I wanted to send them to school but at the same time, was concerned not to damage their ability to find husbands, instinctively knowing that men didn’t like wives who were cleverer than they. Even my beloved Peng Choon, wonderful husband that he was, liked to think of himself as being the smarter of us two, which for the sake of peace, I of course allowed. He would make comments, “Ai-yahh! That is rubbish-lah! You talk just like a woman!” in a particular tone, as if talking like a woman were such a terrible affliction.”
COPYRIGHT SIAK CHIN YOKE 2012
Attitudes may not have changed as much as we like to think. Even while I was at school, one or two of the older girls warned me that it would be hard to find a man prepared to ‘put up’ with my brains. Therefore, they suggested I play down my intelligence, just a little. How many girls have been told the same thing, I wonder? To dumb ourselves down for the sake of boys?
The matriarch in my novel eventually sends her daughters to the Anglo Chinese Girls’ School in Ipoh, where they thrive. The school, now called the Methodist Girls’ School (see photograph), happens to be my alma mater. It is also the school which my mother and her mother before her attended.
I have fond memories of the place. I remember our old wooden desks, always badly scratched, with doodles all over, sometimes with the marks of penknives etched into them. We had a desk each, and a wooden chair on which we sat for five hours and forty minutes every day, facing a succession of teachers who would come in to teach us different subjects.
Presumably to ensure that we girls would become good homemakers, we were forced to take Domestic Science. It was a subject I loathed. We learnt sewing, the different types of stitches, cooking and I can’t remember what else. Because Domestic Science didn’t have to count towards my end-of-term mark, I would do as little as I could get away with. Once, I actually failed the subject. That proved too shameful; the next term, I made sure I scraped through. Still, I learnt nothing, not even how to sew a button. (If I need a button sewn now, I take the garment to a tailor.)
My best memory is the canteen. It served food which, living in England today, I would kill for. Fried noodles, rice dishes, steaming laksa, juicy tropical fruit. During a twenty-minute break, we would devour our food while sitting on benches in a large open-air area, under the cool of ceiling fans (see photograph).
Our facilities would have struck many in the West as ‘basic’ for a leading school. Yet, we had everything we needed: laboratories, a library, a single set of courts for netball or badminton, an open-air performance hall, and a playing field where we had to do timed runs of six hundred metres in the heat once a term.
Whatever we may have lacked, we more than made up for in attitude and spirit. All of us wanted to do well. Amongst my classmates, it was assumed we would go to university and graduate with a degree.
When I arrived at a private school in England, the opposite was true: facilities were better, but ambition and desire to learn were in scarce evidence. To be honest, I was stunned. My new classmates thought they did well if they passed O-levels in five or six subjects, whereas the norm in Malaysia at the time was nine or ten subjects. And it didn’t occur to my English peers that A-grades were there for a reason: to be attained.
It was only after reaching British shores that I appreciated what Malaysian education had given me. I discovered I had a solid base from which to build, so solid that the transition to England proved seamless, the lessons easy.
I cannot thank my Malaysian teachers enough for all that they taught me. When I say that, I’m not referring to what they explained from our textbooks. Rather, I mean the values they carried within, which seeped into the air to mould us into the people we eventually became. I’m grateful also to my former classmates, for the unique spirit they helped us engender. Unconstrained by expectations of who we would one day be, we accepted each other as we were then: pimply adolescents still unsure of ourselves, burning with hope for the future. We competed hard, but we also played hard. That easy mix of friendly competition, can-do and fun warms my heart whenever I remember those times.
We had a good life. And we probably appreciate it even more now.
The story of my Malaysian school started, ironically, in the country in which I now live, with an English vicar.
In July 1895, the Reverend William Horley was already in Singapore. From there, he was sent by the Methodist Mission to the-then frontier mining town of Ipoh, his remit being to open a school. Reverend Horley was, by all accounts, an energetic man. Five days after reaching Ipoh, he began teaching a class of boys in a small rented Malay house with a thatched (attap) roof. When girls started arriving, he taught them as well. This was how my alma mater started.
The thirst for learning among the local population was great, and classes of both boys and girls grew quickly. Reverend Horley literally had jungle cleared before arranging for buildings to be constructed. The buildings were financed not by the colonial government but mainly by wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs. Hence their names Anglo Chinese School Ipoh, or more affectionately, ACS Ipoh, and Anglo Chinese Girls’ School. ACS Ipoh went on to become one of Malaysia’s top boys’ schools. You can read the story here.
As for the girls, their school was located within the grounds of ACS until a separate piece of land was bought and a school constructed for them. (The schools remain twinned; at seventeen years of age, the young women move to the boys’ school to continue in the sixth form.)
Whenever I hear this story, I am filled with awe. I imagine the men and the elephants they would have driven. I smell their sweat as they haul trees in thick jungle, clearing the land so that our schools could be built. I think too, of the progressive Chinese entrepreneurs who gave Reverend Horley the funds. Without them, our schools might never have risen from the ground.
Of course, Reverend Horley and his fellow-missionaries didn’t do the physical work themselves: they hired local help. Nonetheless, they would have had to put up with the vagaries of the tropics: the mosquitoes and insects, the inhospitable climate, the uncertainty of how their efforts would be received. It is true that they arrived to ‘convert the natives’. Yet, this didn’t stop them from teaching children of all races and religions.
Many generations of Malaysians have passed through both the Anglo Chinese School and its sister Methodist Girls’ School (formerly called the Anglo Chinese Girls’ School) in Ipoh. We owe a debt to Reverend Horley and the men and women like him, who braved unknown climes to teach us.
I have acknowledged this by including missionary characters in my novel and depicting the vital role they played in education. Because the timeframe fits, I even imagine meetings between my Nyonya matriarch and the Reverend William Horley himself. This is an intriguing possibility: on the one hand, a fierce Nyonya who is sceptical of British rule, on the other, a genial, larger than life English missionary. I hope you will read my novel to find out what happens.
Meanwhile, on 1 August this year, it will have been a hundred years since the foundation stone for the grand buildings by which ACS Ipoh is known, was laid. Undeterred by the fears Nyonya matriarchs would once have had, I’ve donated a small sum to encourage the girls onwards. It is to be awarded as a prize to the best sixth-form pupil in Physics, if she is a young woman, or to the top sixth-form pupil, also if she is a young woman. Even better if there are two winners (in which case, the prize will be doubled)!