Many alumni and other ordinary people recently expressed concern about the status of the 122-year-old Convent Bukit Nanas prior to the renewal of the lease on its land by the government.
So, the news of the 60-year-extension brought relief and joy to all those who studied, taught or have been associated in any way with mission schools.
Many had good reason to feel apprehensive, considering the fate of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Seremban, which was demolished 27 years ago. The reason for the demolition: the buildings housing the primary and secondary schools were deemed to be hazardous structures. Surely, if that was the case, renovation work could have restored the buildings.
I am a proud Lasallian, having studied at La Salle Peel Road for nine years. Today, it pains me each time I drive past my alma mater to see that it no longer exists, and instead another school stands on the same site. This is deeply disturbing for my contemporaries and me, for we have many fond memories of the school.
Mission schools in Malaya have a renowned history. They played a critical role in the development of Malaysia’s education system.
In 1852, the first group of La Salle Brothers arrived in Penang to take over the running of a church school, St Francis Xavier Free School, which had been established in 1787. The brothers renamed it St Xavier’s Institution. Also arriving in Penang in 1852 were the Infant Jesus Sisters, who established Convent Light Street.
After the Catholics, the Methodists established the Anglo-Chinese School in Penang in 1891.
Other Catholic schools were established all over the country. Among the prominent schools were St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, St Michael’s Institution in Ipoh, St Paul’s Institution in Seremban, the La Salle schools in the Klang Valley, Assunta Convent in Petaling Jaya and Sacred Heart Convent in Malacca. All these schools today are the legacy of the Catholic religious brothers and sisters.
Most mission schools became partially aided schools in the 1970s. These schools agreed to a Ministry of Education proposal that the ministry would pay the teachers and cover basic operational costs, while the mission schools retained ownership of the land and buildings.
Lasallian education in Malaysia
St John Baptist de La Salle, who qualified as a priest, founded the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in France in 1680. (The institute was later relocated to Rome.)
Groups of dedicated lay teachers supported the La Salle Brothers in their noble mission to provide quality education through their schools.
Former students, both Catholics and those of other faiths, were drawn to the teaching profession because of the influence of these brothers. They eagerly reinforced the endeavours of the La Salle brothers.
After Malaya’s independence in 1957, the number of Irish, Canadian and Burmese La Salle brothers dwindled. Locals trained as teaching brothers and sisters filled the void.
La Salle brothers and Infant Jesus sisters were imbued with deep conviction. These individuals voluntarily chose this noble vocation, taking up challenging vows and living spartan lives for the sake of their charges. Such self-sacrifice in this world is a rarity.
In the early days, all the Lasallian schools in Malaya and later Malaysia, had La Salle brothers serving as teachers and school heads. In France back then, teachers were referred to as masters and this term was used by students to refer to their teachers here in Malaya too. John Baptist wanted the students to look up to the brothers as role models.
The Lasallian educational experience is not just about academic results. Equally important are the many extracurricular activities that students are encouraged to take part in. The choice is varied, and there is usually something for everyone.
Options in a diverse range of activities were available in sports and games. There are uniformed units for students to join, like the Boy Scouts, the cadet corps, Red Crescent and St John’s Ambulance. Students also have a range of societies they could get involved in, such as debating, drama, gardening, social action and the careers club.
Role of Irish educators
Irish educationists played a prominent role in development of education in this land. So conspicuous were they that education in Malaya then was closely associated with the Irish brothers and sisters in mission schools and convents. They embarked on long voyages to the East to teach in the prime of their lives.
Many of these Irishmen and women agreed to work in difficult-to-reach areas all over Malaya and Borneo. With their selfless work, they won the respect of the locals through their kind-heartedness, humanity, compassion and austerity. They crossed the ethnic and religious divides and provided quality education to students.
One such person was Brother Michael Jacques, a well-known teacher in East Malaysia known as “The Man from Borneo”.
Many Malaysians were educated by mission school teachers such as the late Brother Lawrence Spitiz, Brother Pius Kelly and Sister Enda Ryan. Brother Lawrence was an indefatigable advocate of the teaching profession. What a noble endeavour it was to provide selfless service to humanity in a developing country.
It was precisely for this reason that these educators stood out and won the respect and admiration of Malaysians of all walks of life. Even those of other faiths held them in high esteem for their selfless deeds in education.
We owe these missionaries a debt of gratitude for their dedication, commitment and contributions to our education system in Malaysia. Lest we forget.
Their selfless commitment to the cause will be etched in the memories of those of my generation for the rest of our lives.
The writer gratefully acknowledges the additional input on La Salle schools by Aliran member Ben Morais.