His­tory of the Old Frees

Pe­nang Free School cel­e­brates its 200th an­niver­sary this year.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By ArNOLD LOH star2@ thes­tar. com. my

A HUN­DRED years ago, Malaysia’s found­ing fa­ther Tunku Ab­dul Rah­man Pu­tra Al- Haj en­rolled at Pe­nang Free School ( PFS). By then, the 13- year- old prince from Kedah had been to var­i­ous schools but he was more in­ter­ested in play­ing than study­ing. But his mother Makche Men­je­lara’s de­ci­sion to send him to PFS in 1916 proved to be the turn­ing point in Tunku’s youth.

Tunku be­came an awe­some striker on the foot­ball team, a bad­minton divi­sion cap­tain and a ju­nior of­fi­cer in the Army Cadet Corps. He went from be­ing scout pa­trol leader to sec­tion leader. He did so well aca­dem­i­cally that he even­tu­ally re­ceived a gov­ern­ment schol­ar­ship to study at the St Cather­ine Col­lege, Cam­bridge Univer­sity.

Be­fore PFS, Tunku was “in­cor­ri­gi­bly play­ful” and was not par­tic­u­larly fond of go­ing to school. Ac­cord­ing to a bi­og­ra­phy of the Tunku, pub­lished when he re­ceived the Ra­mon Magsaysay Award for Com­mu­nity Lead­er­ship in 1960, his mother gave up try­ing to keep him in the palace by the time he was five years old. He fre­quently skipped classes and es­caped his royal con­fines to play with the vil­lage boys.

“My fa­ther was a prince. He told us he rode an ele­phant to go to his first school,” rem­i­nisced his son Suleiman Tunku Ab­dul Rah­man.

He said it was in ac­cor­dance with an old court tra­di­tion that dic­tated that the feet of roy­alty should never be dirt­ied. When the ele­phant proved to be a lit­tle over- thetop, his mother set­tled for putting the Tunku on the shoul­ders of a re­tainer who would man­fully carry him to school.

Ac­cord­ing to sev­eral his­tor­i­cal ac­counts, the Tunku did not like the pref­er­en­tial treat­ment ac­corded to no­bil­ity. As the sev­enth prince of Sul­tan Ab­dul Hamid Shah, the 24th Sul­tan of Kedah, the Tunku’s for­mal ed­u­ca­tion started when he was about six years old at the only Malay el­e­men­tary school in Alor Se­tar.

“He told us about how he of­ten ran away from class. He liked play­ing with the vil­lage boys even though it was a big no- no for roy­alty. When a small English school was opened by a teacher named Mo­hamad Iskan­dar, my grand­mother sent the Tunku there in­stead,” said Suleiman.

When the Tunku’s older brother, Tunku Yu­sof, saw that he was not mak­ing progress in his stud­ies, he took the Tunku with him to Bangkok in 1913, where he was en­rolled at Deb­surin School.

Alas, two years later, Tunku Yu­sof suc­cumbed to pneu­mo­nia in the jun­gle while com­bat­ting ban­dits and Tunku was sent home to Kedah. It was then that his mother en­rolled him at PFS.

“By the time the Tunku joined PFS, the school was al­ready 100 years old. It was es­tab­lished and steeped in tra­di­tion. The school pop­u­la­tion was a mix of stu­dents from dif­fer­ent cul­tures bonded by a strong sense of in­sti­tu­tional pride. Ev­ery stu­dent had an equal op­por­tu­nity to ex­cel,” said Old Frees alumni Quah Seng Sun, who is fondly re­garded by other Old Frees as the school’s unofficial his­to­rian.

By “free”, Quah said it meant that PFS was for chil­dren of all races. Want­ing to grow “a race of in­tel­li­gent and hon­est ser­vants”, Rev Robert Sparke Hutch­ings founded the school and en­sured that ev­ery child was wel­come with no race nor class placed above any other.

“That may sound like the norm in modern day Malaysia, but in 1816 when PFS came to be, it was a bold move in an era when class dis­crim­i­na­tion and mis­sion­ary schools dom­i­nated the Bri­tish Em­pire,” Quah said.

It was just what the Tunku needed. The four years he spent in PFS pre­pared him for a life in Eng­land where he sub­se­quently earned his law de­gree, formed the Malay As­so­ci­a­tion of Great Bri­tain and even­tu­ally re­turned home and led the coun­try to Merdeka with­out con­flict and blood­shed.

Al­though PFS had re­li­giously kept its records, doc­u­men­ta­tions of Tunku’s school­days were lost dur­ing World War II.

“The school build­ing suf­fered from Ja­panese air raids. Many of the records and ar­chives had also been de­stroyed to keep them from the mil­i­tary po­lice then. We have so few pho­tos and records of the Tunku’s time in PFS,” lamented Quah.

The war also saw the de­struc­tion of PFS’ records of an­other leg­endary Old Free Tan Sri Teuku Zakaria Teuku Nyak Puteh ( sic), bet­ter known as P. Ram­lee.

Born on March 22, 1929, P. Ram­lee spent his pri­mary school days at Seko­lah Me­layu Kam­pung Jawa and Francis Light School. He was en­rolled at PFS just as the Ja­panese Oc­cu­pa­tion be­gan in 1941.

“The war dis­rupted ed­u­ca­tion. PFS be­came the head­quar­ters of the In­dian Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Army. It lost all its furniture, books, science ap­pa­ra­tus, sports equip­ment and tro­phies. But worst of all, we lost al­most ev­ery record of pre­war Old Frees,” said Quah.

When PFS recom­menced af­ter the war, all the classes had pupils of dif­fer­ent ages. P. Ram­lee en­tered Stan­dard Five ( to­day’s Form One) at the age of 16.

There is no record of P. Ram­lee woo­ing his school­mates with his mu­sic. He was re­mem­bered as a “bril­liant goal­keeper” for the school foot­ball team.

“But his tal­ents as a mu­si­cian and singer were ob­vi­ous even then. Very of­ten, he would hum to him­self in class and be rep­ri­manded by his teacher who would tell him to be quiet, not know­ing then that a star was born,” re­called his ex- class­mate for­mer For­eign Min­is­ter Tengku Ah­mad Rithaudeen in a 2005 in­ter­view.

In 1947, when he was in Stan­dard Seven ( Form Three to­day), the sil­ver screen icon joined a sing­ing com­pe­ti­tion or­gan­ised by Pe­nang Ra­dio and won first prize. He be­came a lo­cal sen­sa­tion and left school to per­form in mu­si­cal bands.

Less than a year later, a film di­rec­tor from Shaw Brothers Stu­dio in Sin­ga­pore heard P. Ram­lee per­form­ing. He of­fered him a job and gave him a train ticket to Sin­ga­pore. And so P. Ram­lee left Pe­nang to em­bark on an il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer, even­tu­ally act­ing or di­rect­ing in 66 films and com­pos­ing and sing­ing 401 songs.

The school’s ar­chives from the post- war years have been kept metic­u­lously. There are vol­umes of school leav­ing cer­tifi­cate copies dat­ing back to the mid- 1940s. In many of them, the rea­son given for leav­ing school was “go­ing to work”, just like P. Ram­lee’s.

“That is how it was back then. Af­ter the war, PFS was a renowned school and its school leav­ing cer­tifi­cate was a re­spectable recog­ni­tion for Old Frees,” said the school’s board of gover­nors chair­man Datuk Ab­dul Rafique Ab­dul Karim.

PFS is now 200 years old. It holds the his­tory of thou­sands of stu­dents who left and made a name for them­selves, in­clud­ing the Raja of Perlis Tuanku Syed Si­ra­jud­din Pu­tra Ja­malul­lail, his fa­ther Al Marhum ( sic) Tuanku Syed Pu­tra Syed Has­san Ja­malul­lail, ex- Pe­nang Chief Min­is­ter Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, and Dr Wu Lien- Teh, who stopped a pneu­monic plague in Manchuria that killed 60,000 peo­ple in 1910 and be­came China’s fa­ther of modern medicine. Other noted Old Frees are bad­minton player Ed­die Choong, econ­o­mists Jomo Kwame Sun­daram and Danny Quah, and Think City chair­man Prof Datuk Dr An­war Fazal.

With such a wealth of his­tory, the school’s bi­cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tion prom­ises to be a ro­bust one. The school had a mega car­ni­val and a her­itage bi­cy­cle ride and cel­e­bra­tions for its 150- year- old board of pre­fects and 100- year- old scout­ing move­ment ear­lier this year. A gang of Old Frees is now driv­ing from Pe­nang to Dit­tisham, Eng­land, where the school’s founder was born, and on Oct 21 there will be a grand din­ner for more than 5,000 Old Frees, “young Frees” and guests at the school field.

to fol­low the cel­e­bra­tions, visit pf­s200years. com.

— pho­tos: GoH GAIK LEE/ the Star

pFS prin­ci­pal omar Ab­dul rashid ( left) and board of gover­nors chaiman Datuk Ab­dul rafique Karim walk­ing down mem­ory lane among the school’s col­lec­tion of arte­facts and mem­o­ra­bilia.

— CHArLES MArIASooSAy/ the Star

pe­nang Free School ( pFS) opened its doors to all stu­dents, re­gard­less of race or class.

Well pre­served copies of school mag­a­zines from the early 1900s in pFS’s ar­chive room.

An un­dated photo of speech day assem­bly in the school be­fore the war. this main hall still looks the same.

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