The White Crocodile’s Tale: My Memoirs


J.M.B. Hughes
2014. Areca Books
Hardcover, 26.5 cm x 18.6 cm, 304 pages
ISBN  9789675719127


By J.M.B. Hughes.

“I owe much to the wonderful little island of Penang, and my wanderings all over it were something to cherish.  The smells of the fishing villages still linger, mostly of rotting fish and bakau wood burning. I know of nothing better to restore one’s strength and recover one’s will when returning from a very physical trip, pulling oars, and propelling a sampan over the sea than the strong coffee loaded with sugar and thick with tinned milk available from every coffee shop in every fishing village along the Malayan coast.”
J.M.B. ‘Mike’ Hughes 

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

 This autobiography celebrates the journey of an extraordinary gentleman told in words exhibiting a flair for simplicity and sincerity, and one gifted for engaging storytelling not unmixed with humour. The people, places and their differing but harmonious oneness covered through real life experiences are a kaleidoscope of the world’s diversity and of an era gone by but holding their relevance even for today and tomorrow.
Dato’ (Dr.) Anwar Fazal
Director of the Right Livelihood College, and a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award

Reading this autobiography not only revives delightful memories, but also re-emphasises the values the author sought to cultivate in his students. The book is an irresistible read for all.
Dennis Lee
Penang-born international concert pianist, examiner and lecturer

This is a book for all times and for any reader. It is a book filled with universal truths that will influence all readers to a better life.
J.C. Rajarao
Author of The Penang Free School and the Old Frees Association, Kuala Lumpur & Selangor


The sense that I get from having read the book is that although Mike was a teacher for almost 35 years in Malaysia and other parts of the world, the fifteen year period that he spent in Malaya/Malaysia from 1948 to 1963 was probably the period in his teaching career that he appreciated most and when he was happiest. The newness of the country, the friendliness of the people, the colourful flora and fauna and warm tropical climate made a great impact on him. This in turn enabled him and his local and expatriate colleagues to nurture the huge and diverse talent coming out of Free School at this time (of which there were many). He has said ‘you cannot teach pupils you do not know, you cannot expect pupils to learn from you unless they know you’ (p.131).
Bill Chewarchitect and director of Bill Chew Architect Ltd (UK) and alumnus of Penang Free School from 1960-64.

His memoirs revealed how he interacted with the students, not only in school, but outside as well. The pictures of him with students exploring the country or engaged in fun activities give us a tantalising view of how the early citizens of our country were educated.
Soo Ewe Jin, The Star executive editor. PDF or text

About the Author

John Michael Broome Hughes was born on 11 July 1917. Known to all as Mike, he grew up with one sister in rural England at a time of the fading empire, which was haunted by the ghosts of global conflict.

Mary Hughes

Mary Hughes Mary Hughes talks about her father’s experiences in Malaya. Click on the picture for youtube video.

Out of the horrors of soldiering during the Second World War came a life- enhancing love of Asia. Through India (including what is now Pakistan), Burma (now Myanmar) and Malaya (now Malaysia), Mike met people who impressed him with their intelligence and insights – some would become his closest friends. Settling as a teacher in Malaya, he had posts in the Penang Free School, Sultan Ismail College in Kota Bharu and the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar. He counted these years as his golden ones during which he met his beloved wife, Jean, and where four of his five children were born. He left Malaysia as the Headmaster of the Penang Free School in 1963, and through the rest of his career, in the U.K. and Canada, never betrayed the lesson Malaysians taught him: that people learn through experience as much as the academic route.

By the time he died, in March 2011, Mike had enjoyed many years of peaceful retirement, being blessed with two granddaughters and four grandsons. His story is one of extraordinary change in remarkable times, but most importantly of family, a great love and respect for people (particularly those of Asia), and delight in the beauty of the world. What comes through very clearly is his passion as a committed teacher and headmaster for both educating and inspiring his students to greater heights of achievement, and a strong sense of respect and serious appreciation for the sheer brilliance of the people he met and worked with throughout his life.

Mary, Kate, John, Jo and Helen (the author’s children)

An appeal for donations is being made for the ‘Hughes Fund’. This fund is being established to commemorate and honour J.M.B. Hughes and his wife Jean Hughes, and to support two annual prizes to be awarded to students of Penang Free School.

1.J.M.B.Hughes “Best Student Prize.”
Jean Hughes “Best Music and Drama Student Prize.”

Donate to the Hughes Fund! Download the donation form.

Weight 1100 g
Dimensions 26.5 × 18.6 × 2.5 cm

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