24 Oct 2014: The White Crocodile’s Tale

His memoirs revealed how he interacted with the students … it gives us a tantalising view of how the early citizens of our country were educated.

White CrocodileThis was a story that had to be written, if not for the ex-pupils of the Penang Free School, then for the people whose lives were touched by its former headmaster John Michael Broome Hughes (Mike to his family and friends). “He was”, his son John recalls, “a friend to all his Malaysian students and a ‘buddy’ to his valued colleagues and close associates”. Mike wrote his memoirs while in his eighties, coaxed by his family and former pupils and close friends from Malaysia. He passed away at the age of ninety-three in 2011, the whereabouts of his memoirs unknown. If it hadn’t been for the ‘Poirot-esque’ skills of Mike’s children, this book, The White Crocodile’s Tale, would almost certainly have remained unpublished.

John Michael Broome Hughes (1917-2011) was a celebrated teacher and headmaster who taught in the schools of Malaya from 1948 to 1963. He was born in Oxfordshire, studied at Oxford University and served in the British and Indian Armies in South Africa, Pakistan, Kashmir, India and Burma during World War Two.

white-2After the war he accepted an overseas teaching post, and it was in Penang that he met his wife Jean Wright. As a teacher at the Penang Free School and the Malay College Kuala Kangsar in Perak, and then as headmaster at Ismail English School (subsequently Sultan Ismail College) in Kelantan and finally the Penang Free School, he educated a generation of young Malaysians destined to play leading roles in post-independence Malaysia. They include ex-IGP Tun Mohammed Hanif bin Omar, former Defence and Foreign Minister Tengku Tan Sri Ahmad Rithauddeen, international concert pianist Dennis Lee and global consumer activist Dato’ (Dr.) Anwar Fazal. In his review of the book, PFS alumnus and The Star’s executive editor Soo Ewe Jin wrote that many of those who were in the schools during Mike’s time as headmaster are the ones most excited about the publication of his memoirs. It’s a sentiment also shared by Mike’s son John, who said that his father made some lifelong and bonding friendships with the boys he taught.

The White Crocodile’s Tale is a gently paced book written in a light-hearted style, peppered with clever dialogue, amazing anecdotes, sparkling wit and charming illustrations. It will endear readers to the story of a much-loved man and an admiration for his achievements even before they reach the end of the book.

The White Crocodile’s Tale was launched on 21 Oct at the Old Frees Association (OFA) annual dinners in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, two years ahead of the school’s bicentennial anniversary in 2016.

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