The memoirs of the last British headmaster of PFS

2016 will surely be remembered for some momentous events. However I am not talking about Brexit or the results of US Presidential Election. I am referring instead to the bi-centenary celebrations of Penang Free School, my alma mater, which took place on 21 October 2016.

Founded by Rev. Robert Sparke Hutchings in 1816 not long after the British East India Company took over the island from the Sultan of Kedah, Free School was the first English medium school in South East Asia. From the early twentieth century it was modelled along English grammar school lines. The roads adjacent to the school named after former headmasters such as Hargreaves, Pinhorn, Cheeseman & Hamilton provide strong reminders of it’s past. The school has since spawned many distinguished alumni — from Prime Ministers to politicians, prominent business owners and sportsmen. Prior to 1816 education was provided for Europeans only and children of government officials. However due to the increasing numbers of Asian children, Rev. Hutchings petitioned for a ‘free school’ for poor children and orphans to give them a better opportunity and start in life. The school was open to all who wanted an English education as English was essentially the language of commerce, the stock in trade of the East India Company. The school’s motto is ‘Fortis Atque Fidelis’ (Strong and Faithful). So on 21 October 2016, the 200th anniversary of this distinguished institution was celebrated in some grand style, both formally and informally in a marquee in the main school grounds and in various hotels around town, as thousands of alumni flocked back to Penang from across the world.

The last British headmaster of the school was Mr JMB Hughes (known to all his friends as Mike). Mike was a well-loved and celebrated educator. It is therefore very timely that Mike Hughes fascinating book The White Crocodile’s Tale: My Memoirs was published in 2014. Sadly Mike passed away in 2011 at the age of 93 but the text for the book was completed when he was in his 80s (having been persuaded by family and friends to get his memoirs written). His chiIdren John and Mary Hughes and other siblings have worked hard to edit, format and illustrate this book, thus making publication possible, along with the help of a well-known local publishing house, Areca Books, based in Penang.

I attended Free School from 1960-64 after which I came to study in Britain. Malaysia gained it’s independence (Merdeka) from Britain in 1957. Mike was insitu as Headmaster from 1957 until 1963 steering the school through what were inevitably ‘choppy waters’ after independence. I was 12 when I passed the exam and gained entry into Form 1 in Free School. I was aware of the Headmaster, Mr JMB Hughes, and his great reputation. However I didn’t know him personally. I guess the pressures confronting a headmaster running such a large institution must be huge. Reading the book has helped to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the education system prevailing at the time and the school’s transition to the country’s newly independent status. Historical events such as the Malayan Emergency and wider world events (such as the WW2, the Suez Crisis, Indian Independence and the Partition of India, the fall of Malaya to the Japanese in 1942 and consequently the decline of British influence in the region) are explained and put in context. It is a fascinating account of an important time in history and a formative period in my life. To understand and be informed about the present we need to have some knowledge of our history. Good memoirs, biographies and history books provide us with this knowledge.

Born in Oxfordshire and the son of a vicar, Mike studied at Oxford University (reading Geography) and served in the British and Indian Armies in Pakistan, Kashmir, India and Burma during WW2. He was very devoted to his mother who taught him to understand and appreciate the arts, drama and music. After the war and retraining as a teacher at London University he was subsequently posted to Penang where he met his wife Jean Wright.

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). This topic in itself is worthy of a separate book and academic study and research. Mike’s secret in obtaining results of academic excellence coupled with the nurturing of well rounded personalities was, as the book explains, to get to know the pupils he was teaching not only in the classroom but also in the extra-curricula activities outside school. 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).

When he first arrived in Penang in 1948 as a geography teacher, he and his colleagues with the school’s permission organised expeditions to Langkawi, treks to Muka Head Lighthouse and rowing trips around the island in a sampan and so on. This facilitated and allowed a strong rapport to be developed between teacher and students. In addition other extra-curricula activities involved sports, scouting and amateur dramatics (with his wife Jean who was also a teacher they put on many plays encompassing Shakespeare and other worthy playwrights). These ex-students from the late 40s and 50s were very fond of Mike. They made contact with him 20 years after he left Malaysia (which somewhat surprised him) and have invited him back to Malaysia many times as well as visiting him and his family in the UK. This has touchingly continued to the end of his life. The book clearly demonstrates Mike’s love and affinity for Malaysia, it’s peoples, language and culture, the landscape, his students, his wife, five children and numerous grandchildren. In addition the book is peppered with many of Mike’s amusing anecdotes from his university, army and teaching days which add a very human dimension to his writing.

In the fifteen years that Mike spent in Malaysia he was first a teacher at Penang Free School and then the Malay College, Kuala Kangsar in Perak. Later on he was promoted to become headmaster of the Sultan Ismail College in Kelantan (formerly Ismail School) and lastly he was headmaster of Penang Free School from 1958-1963.

You may have wondered about the cryptic title to the book. Malaysia is a country steeped in legends and folklore handed down the generations. All I can suggest is buy the book, read it, be enriched and you will find out.

This book is an important and timely addition to the published works, writings and papers on Penang Free School which future archivists, scholars and historians of the school will find useful.

The writer is an architect and director of Bill Chew Architect Ltd and attended Penang Free School from 1960-64.
www.billchewarchitect.co.uk