Sometimes, we have to look through another’s eyes to see something special in the ordinary. Reading the memoirs of John Michael Broome Hughes, especially the section devoted to his time in this country, one is transported into an era where a pair of observant eyes and a powerful pen can make history come alive.
The memoirs of the last British headmaster of the Penang Free School (PFS), known as Mike to his friends, is not a history book, of course. It is, in fact, a deeply personal autobiography that chronicles practically his whole life from his childhood days in Oxfordshire, England, till his death at the age of 93 on March 16, 2011, in Devon, south-west England.
And it is also about a great love story with his wife, Jean Wright, whom he met when he was a teacher at PFS and she was a teacher at the nearby St George’s Girls School.
The first meeting between Hughes, who described himself as a confirmed bachelor when he arrived in Malaya, and Wright took place in the lounge of George Town’s grandest hotel at the time, the E&O Hotel. It was indeed love at first sight. Incidentally, Jean died five days before her beloved Mike.
Hughes’ many stories – about his family, his formal education at Oxford, and his time in India and South Africa during the War Years – would have remained unknown to the public if not for his Malaysian link, as it was here that he found encouragement to write his memoirs.
From 1948 to 1952, Hughes served as a teacher at PFS. This was followed by postings in numerous other schools – including the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) in Perak and the Sultan Ismail College in Kelantan – before his return to the PFS as its headmaster from 1957 to 1963.
A small group of Malaysians whose lives Hughes had touched encouraged him to write his memoirs, when he made the occasional trip back to Malaysia, and also when they visited him in England.
Which was what he did, quietly and methodically, over the years.
His children uncovered his writings when they went through his possessions after he passed away.
According to his son John, they were aware that their father had been keeping a faithful record of his life and had been encouraged to publish a book by his many Malaysian friends.
“However, I think he lost heart and eventually considered them largely for his grandchildren. The memoirs came in many parts, frequently with events duplicated but with different wordings. Some parts were on his computer hard drive, some written with a typewriter, some by hand. I undertook to piece this together, and it was a lot of work, a big task of editing, merging and blending different sections and versions,” John, 57, said in an e-mail interview.
“It was a hobby for me for about one year. After that there was a lot of fine-tuning and proof-reading by family members, a friend who is a professional proof-reader, and Areca Books. Datuk Lim Chong Keat, Khoo Teng Chye, Datuk Nik Husein, Dennis Lee and Jeyeraj Rajarao also reviewed some sections they were familiar with to varying degrees. To illustrate the book, I largely chose scanned versions of photos from his albums to fit the topics.”
As an Old Free (as former PFS students are called) from a different generation, I had heard about the legendary Hughes who was persuaded to stay on as headmaster after Merdeka in 1957. During that period of transition for a fledgling nation a number of British nationals continued to hold key positions in the civil service.
Although he knew that his tenure would not be for very long, Hughes poured his heart and soul into running the oldest school in the country. And he was quite an unorthodox headmaster, too.
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.
It is no surprise, therefore, that many of those who were in the schools during his time as headmaster are the ones most excited about the publication of his memoirs.
They include international pianist Dennis Lee, former student and teacher J.C. Rajarao, and director of the Right Lifelihood College and a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award Datuk Anwar Fazal.
Many of the older citizens of this country who went to mission schools or the premier schools like PFS and MCKK will have many a story of their own to share about their “Mat Salleh” teachers and headmasters. We get snippets here and there when the Malaysian personalities are interviewed on appropriate occasions. The memoirs of Hughes, however, reveal much more about the kind of life these Mat Salleh chose in heading to the Far East to teach. And many of these foreigners’ lives were intertwined. Hughes, for example, also taught at the MCKK whose first headmaster was William Hargreaves, then the headmaster of PFS. The MCKK had its first Malay headmaster in 1965, two years after PFS became fully local with the appointment of Datuk Tan Boon Lin as its first Malaysian headmaster.
According to John: “My parents spent the happiest days of their lives in Malaysia.”
“My father made some lifelong friendships with the boys he taught at the school with a unique bonding that occurred due to his love for outdoor activities and geography field trips.
“It is important to recognise that my father was HM at the Free School after Merdeka. He was asked to preside over the school until a Malay national was ready to take on the task. This was a great honour as he was expecting to be replaced with immediate effect.
“The transition involved changing the national anthem at assembly, migrating to a Malay language medium, adapting the school to a new system of funding that was no longer centralised, and student intake that no longer drew on the feeder school system.”
According to John, his parents made four return trips to Malaysia that were arranged and funded by former pupils.
“This was a tremendous honour as my parents had become quite humble old people, while their pupils had become people of great influence in independent Malaysia.
“I firmly believe the mutual love between an expatriate teacher and his pupils was born out of a true brotherly friendship without divides based on race, religion or political affinity.
“All were equally treated, supported, and welcomed while at school and thereafter for the rest of their lives. This was a close camaraderie that belies stigmas about colonial rule.
“While my parents were advantaged by now outdated colonial principles, they used their advantages unselfishly to develop people and position them to play leading roles in a vibrant young country. I believe that there are many today who would benefit from these now sadly ‘unfashionable’ principles.”
John himself was born in Penang in 1957. He has two older sisters (Mary and Kate) and two younger sisters (Josephine and Helen). Each but the youngest was born in Malaysia.
When the family left for Britain in 1963, John was barely six years old and his memories of Penang are recalled through the eyes of a child.
“Our home was the HM’s house, and it remains very familiar. Those hazy childhood memories include wandering around at garden parties snacking on satay, which I found delicious!
“I also recall there were two large coconut trees in the garden, sadly now gone,” he said after a visit to Penang in February.
“I also recall visiting the school, notably at a fund raising fair. I was most distraught to see my father being soaked at a dunking booth to raise money (he loved it, and so did the boys of course!).
“I also have memories of the old Penang car ferries, the Penang Swimming Club, and Batu Ferringhi as it used to be, a quiet idyllic beach with two rustic hotels: the Lone Pine and Golden Sands.
“I was fascinated by the snake charmers, and always enjoyed sampan rides with the local fishermen who had that curious upright rowing stance, while I sat and enjoyed the ride, surrounded by the smell of wet timber.
“On leaving Penang, I remember the red carpet send-off we received, with a band playing as I was carried to the waiting DC3. I felt most important!”
> The White Crocodile’s Tales will be launched on Oct 21, two years ahead of the bicentennial anniversary of the Penang Free School, at the Old Frees Association (OFA) Kuala Lumpur & Selangor Annual Dinner by HRH the Raja of Perlis, and at the OFA Singapore Annual Dinner, on the same date, by Jeyaraj C. Rajarao. For information on buying the book, contact the Penang-based publisher, Areca Books, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 04-261 0307.
Original article by Soo Ewe Jin, published on 14 October 2014 in The Star online