Thursday, 20 October 2016

Pride and determination

“We must be worthy of this great heritage and with
purpose born of pride and an effort born of determination
seek to ensure for our School
a future no less glorious than its past.”

-- Harold Cheeseman, Penang Free School, 21 October 1946 --

It is not often that one gets to speak from the stage of one's Alma Mater but I feel very lucky that the opportunity presented itself yesterday morning. Although I may have looked calm externally, in actuality I was a bundle of nerves on the inside. It was not about waiting to speak but more about the topic that I had chosen for myself. I could have chosen a safe subject like spouting information from the soon-to-be-launched book, Let the Aisles Proclaim, but no, I had chosen to speak about the Free School Spirit.

As I mentioned to the audience, which comprised mainly the teachers and pupils of the school, apart from the Old Frees who were there and representatives from the National Archives in Kuala Lumpur, the Free School Spirit defies definition. We often speak of it but we are hard put to describe what it is. Even as long ago as in 1946, as the great Harold Cheeseman himself discovered, describing the Free School Spirit was not easy: he attributed it to various factors.

I mentioned that earlier this year, I had asked several Old Frees by email and on facebook to offer me their take on what the Free School Spirit had meant to them but I ended up with a lot of replies and no definite conclusion. The Free School Spirit meant a lot of things to different people. So I was taking the bull by the horns when I stepped onto the podium to try and extract an answer.

I said that in 1968, the headmaster of the day, Tan Boon Lin, had published the Penang Free School Handbook in which he listed 10 attributes which a PFS schoolboy should possess. Foremost among his attributes were sportsmanship, leadership, service, pride and loyalty. A pupil, Tan said, should do his best in any given sport and not for self-glory or the sake of victory alone. The pupil should take full advantage of leadership opportunities in the school and the successful leader must also be a good follower. Tan stressed that service and dedication to the school was expected of all Free School pupils. He also said that the pupil must be proud of our glorious past but must also accept the future as a challenge to build on our past. Finally, loyalty was an implicit quality of a Free. 

I also brought up the School Rally as being a very patriotic song. The School Rally is a call to arms by the Frees, whether a present Free School pupil or an Old Free. Take, for example, the second verse which is hardly ever sung nowadays:

When duty calls be it School or State
We to it with God by our side
For the Sons of Free School don’t hesitate
Nor let cool their zeal and pride

Isn't this patriotism? To me, it sure is patriotism to the core when the composer called the Sons of Free School not to hesitate or let cool their zeal and pride when duty calls. Perhaps this was the part echoed by Tan when he said that service and dedication to the school was expected of all Free School pupils. Then there is the school motto, Fortis atque Fidelis, which is translated from Latin as "strong and faithful." Those qualities are part of the Free School Spirit too.

Finally, I introduced the Cheeseman persona to the audience. Gave everyone a short background into this great man who had arrived in Penang to take up a teaching position at the Free School in 1907 at a mere age of 17. No tertiary education under his belt. He stayed 15 years at Penang Free School before he was promoted to be the headmaster of a new government English school and then to Inspector of Schools in Penang. All that by the time he was 33 years old. In 1941, just before war clouds erupted over Penang, he was already the Deputy Director of Education in Malaya. The Japanese Occupation saw him interned at an internment camp in Changi, Singapore. In Cheeseman's address to the school in 1946, he recalled how the Old Frees in Singapore used to line the roads in sympathy while he and other teachers were marched off to camp and how after the Japanese were defeated, there were enthusiastic reunions when the Old Frees went to meet him at the camp gates. “It seemed to me that every Old Free in Singapore must have come, each one bearing a gift,” Cheeseman said.

“What accounts for this Free School spirit that so influences and binds together those who have been in this school?” he asked. “It is not due to this building or this site for it existed long before. It is not due to its large enrolment for we know that mere numbers mean little. It is not even due to its wonderful record of examination success. It is due to a variety of factors. But it is fitting that we should remember today one who exercised a very powerful influence in the creation of the Free School spirit.

“We know the driving force, the man who was behind that little school founded on October 21, 1816 in that insignificant building in Love Lane. It was Robert Sparke Hutchings. He was a man of great educational vision. He wanted not merely an English School but a school in which boys could learn their mother tongue. Only one part of his programme was fulfilled, only one part was final and enduring – the English school, the Penang Free School.

“The influence of this man was beyond measure. It was largely due to him that this school started with a background of high ideals and of a noble purpose. It was so started. It has so continued. We must be worthy of this great heritage and with a purpose born of pride and an effort born of determination seek to ensure for our School a future no less glorious than its past.”

Purpose born of pride. Effort born of determination. In my opinion, these two phrases sum up very well what I had been trying to say with such great difficulty in the mere 20 to 30 minutes allotted to me yesterday. “And that, ladies and gentlemen,” I concluded, “is what I think the Spirit of Free School is made from.”

FOOTNOTE: Earlier in the morning, the Penang Governor had opened an exhibition on the school's history which had been prepared by the National Archives. There was also a video presentation which left me quite bemused because many of the facts were found wanting.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

How the Hutchings memorial service started

In 1948, the Headmaster, Dennis Roper, had urged the School Trustees to approve funds for repairing the tomb of Revd Robert Sparke Hutchings at the Protestant Cemetery in Northam Road. The repairs were then carried out by Yeang Kah Chong, an Old Boy of the School and on the morning of Speech Day that year, a group of teachers and prefects, accompanied by Roper and Harold Cheeseman who was by then the Director of Education, gathered to lay a wreath bearing the school colours of light blue and white at the tomb. 

The short ceremony, the first of its kind since the School’s Centenary in 1916, was conducted by Archdeacon Stanley Collier. Roper later expressed hope that this meaningful act of remembrance should be observed annually. 

And indeed, it has continued to be observed on the morning of the 21st of October every year. It is a fine tradition to maintain. To mark the special occasion this year, the Hutchings Memorial Service at seven o'clock on 21 October 2016 morning is expected to be presided over by the Head of St George's Church, Bishop Charles Samuel.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Dittisham Church

The most prominent landmark in Dittisham must surely be the St George's Church. It stands tall over all the other buildings in the village. In the morning of 28th September, we went into the Church and looked around. Despite its simple magnificence, the Church's history is believed to have dated back to at least the early 14th Century.

We were told that the England flag is only flown during special occasions. If so, our visit to the Church - by all 40 of us from Malaysia - must indeed be a very special occasion. I'm sure Dittisham has never had such a large contingent of Malaysians visiting them before, all at the same time!

This is the main door into the St George's Church. We were told that the Church was already opened but try as we did, we could not get past this door and had to call for help. Help did come and with a turn of the door handle, it swung open! How embarrassing....

This little status of St George stood above the doorway

 At first, it was very unnerving to see gravestones all around the Church. I think almost all of them dated back to the 19th Century.

 This frame was located at the main porch. Robert Sparke Hutchings' name could be clearly seen. He was appointed Rector of this Church in 1805 until his death in 1827.

Looking towards the front of the Church. 

 A faint outline of a young cleric can be seen in this mural in the South wall of the chancel.

One of the windows in the North wall with its dedication to Robert Sparke Hutchings. 

The wineglass pulpit is clearly seen on the left.

That's us on top of the tower. We were invited to climb up the narrow spiral staircase - both interesting and a wee bit dangerous as it was almost pitch dark. But it was worth the effort as the view from the top was breath-taking. We were asked to remove our outer-wear for the climb or otherwise the clothes could get dirty from the cobbwebs and dust. That's why we were all in our T-shirts or polo shirts. The others weren't so lucky. By the time we went down, the rest of the convoy had already arrived and everyone was getting ready for the service. Still, some got the opportunity to ring the church bells.

The Church organist with some last-minute practices.

Father Will presenting his sermon at the Thanksgiving sermon. He stood on the carved stone wineglass pulpit which dates from the 15th Century.

Visitor's book in the Church. Glad to have recorded our presence there.

The Malaysian flag was provided by Dittisham. The text on the windows read; "To God and the Church in memory of John Hutchings and Robt Sparke Hutchings formerly Rectors of this Parish"

The stained glass window behind the altar.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

My involvement with the Bicentenary

It was by providence that I got myself involved with the Old Frees' Association commemorative coffee table book project in October 2011. There I was at the OFA annual dinner when Molly Ooi came to ask whether I would be interested to help out in the OFA project as a co-editor after the previous editor had been terminated. Up until today, I don't know why I took up the challenge.

But that job brought me a lot closer to the OFA and after FIDELIS - yes, that was the title given to the commemorative book - was launched on 31 March 2012 by the Raja of Perlis, there was no turning back for me. I became more involved with the Penang Free School.

In early October that year, I received an invitation to attend the school's Speech Day. I had never attended Speech Day before as a pupil, nor as a working adult in the later years, but suddenly this invitation arrived by post. Why not, I asked myself, why not attend Speech Day since I had been invited? And for good measure, why not go to the tomb of Hutchings at the Protestant Cemetery as well? That would be another first for me. So since 2012, I have been attending both the memorial service at Hutchings' tomb and Speech Day without fail.

I think it was sometime in 2014 that Rafique spoke to me about writing a commemorative book for Penang Free School in conjunction with the Bicentenary celebrations. I wasn't actively plumbing for this job but it sure intrigued me. It's for the school, see, we both agreed. Problem was, I didn't know where to begin. Neither did Rafique. We just left it at that. My problem now, not his.

Luckily, I still had my FIDELIS notes from 2011 and 2012, and this allowed me to carry on from there. I continued researching the online library at the National Library of Singapore and extracted some 3,000 newspaper stories that were related to Penang Free School. I scoured the Internet for books relating to old Penang. I needed to understand how life was like then. There were some initial email correspondences with the descendants of Ralph Pinhorn and JMB Hughes. I was also a constant visitor to the School Archives to dig out information from the old school magazines. Well, what remained of the old school magazines anyway, because many had been lost owning to the Japanese Occupation and many others were already in very poor physical condition - literally falling apart.

Then in March 2015, I met the local historian and author, Marcus Langdon, at a book-reading event in Penang. One thing led to another and he gave me a copy of his manuscript on Penang Free School, which would soon appear in his new book on the history of Penang. In turn, I passed him a copy of FIDELIS.

With the manuscript in my hand, I realised suddenly how the Bicentenary book was going to turn out. It was going to be a book on the history of the school. Comprehensive enough to fill in many missing gaps in the school's history. In a way, Penang Free School was lucky. A lot of what went on in the school had been documented in the newspaper extracts from the National Library of Singapore helped immensely. Apart from the Raffles Institution, no other school in the Straits Settlements or British Malaya was covered as much as the Penang Free School.

From about June or July 2015, I began the big task of writing the book. The chapter on Hutchings was supposed to appear at the end of the book as an appendix but Rafique insisted on moving it to the front. Thus, it became the first chapter and was re-titled as The Dittisham Connection, Dittisham being the village where he was born and baptised and later became the Rector of his local Church before he took the big step to arrive in the Prince of Wales Island in 1814.

In September 2015, I came down with conjunctivitis. I suspect that my eyes were infected from the dust churned up from pouring over the old school magazines in the School Archives. Anyway, I was affected for three weeks. For three weeks, I had to visit the General Hospital for treatment. With my eyes swollen, I could not do anything to the book. Luckily after that, there were no other mishaps.

In April or May 2016, we agreed on using "Let the Aisles Proclaim" as the title of the book. I had lobbied vigorously for it. Earlier, for want of a better title, Rafique had suggested titles such as "The Grand Old Lady" or "For the Brave and for the True." But "Let the Aisles Proclaim" struck a particular chord with all of us. It would be such an appropriate title for the book.

Discussions with the layout designer started in May 2016. At first, I was a bit apprehensive about working with Gene. Did Rafique decide to appoint her because she was an Old Free? Later, I said to myself that yes, I should work with her. Although she did have some previous work experience with layout designing, this would be her first big job on a big book project. It would be a good experience for her. I didn't mind giving her this opportunity. Basically, as it was for an Old Free, why not?

By the beginning of September, we had all finished work on the book. Layout completed. Proof-reading completed. The final draft submitted to the printer. The signatures had been printed but not trimmed to size yet. I could go to the Merdeka team chess tournament with an easy heart. Then came the sudden trip to Dittisham at the end of the month. I came back at the start of October to learn that the binding had all been completed and the printer was awaiting word from Rafique to make the delivery to the school. To date, it hasn't been done yet.

Meanwhile, my involvement with the Bicentenary celebration suddenly became deeper although I am not in the Bicentenary committee. Rafique asked me to coordinate with Gene on the postcards which he wanted printed for the occasion. A set of 10 postcards depicting the school buildings, old and new. I would be providing the captions for the postcards and generally checking on Gene to make sure that things were okay.

There was also the commemorative stamps and first day cover. The first set of design and accompanying write-up were rejected and I was requested to re-write the text for the brochure in August 2016. One of my pictures would also be used as the 70c commemorative stamp.

Also in September, I became involved with the sprucing up of Hutchings' tomb. Not that I wanted to scrub it clean myself. It was that I learnt that Billy, the OFA president, was at his wit's end not knowing who to turn to to get speedy approval to clean up the tomb. The Protestant Cemetery was a Class A heritage site and would need special permission for work to be done. And he didn't know who were the proper authorities.

Never mind, I told him, I'll handle it with you after my chess tournament. The moment I came back from Kuala Lumpur, I made an appointment for us to see the General Manager of the George Town World Heritage Incorporated. Ming Chee was most accommodating, largely due to us knowing one another professionally from some three or four years back. Once things clicked together, it was all systems go for sprucing up Hutching's tomb. There'll also be a new commemorative marble slab fixed to the ground on the occasion of the Bicentenary.

But that was not all. Just about a week ago, I received a telephone call from an Old Free who was connected with the St George's Church in Penang. "Help," he said to me, "I need information on Hutchings. My Bishop will be leading the service at the Protestant Cemetery on 21st October and I need information." So I had to point him in the correct direction and what can be more correct that Langdon's book?

Anyway, after that, he told me that from this year onwards, the service at the cemetery would henceforth be called the Hutchings Memorial Service and it would be a joint service for both Penang Free School and Hutchings School. That's coming full circle for me. I started out by joining the school Prefects and teachers at Hutchings' tomb in October 2012 and this October 2016, I shall be there again.

My one final connection with the Bicentenary celebrations. Several months ago, I was invited
by the Headmaster, Omar, to attend a meeting with the National Archives. In conjunction with the Bicentenary they were planning to hold a three-day exhibition at the school and then shift the display to the Komtar concourse. I was requested to help them wherever I could with information. No problem on this score. But out of the blue yesterday, I received a call from the National Archives saying that I was invited to speak at their function at the school on 19th October and would I accept? And the Penang Governor will likely be present. Darn...a big stage and happening in, what, six days time?? What should I talk about? I'm nervous, very nervous.

I can only hope for it to be over fast because I really want to enjoy myself with my mates. My schoolmates who entered Form One with me in 1966 are the original Sesquicentenary boys. Call us the Sesqui Boys for short. We were lucky to join the school as she celebrated her 150th anniversary. Never at that time could we imagine that we would be celebrating the school's 200th anniversary as well. Fifty years later, when we are all in our sixties now.

My batch of Old Frees are planning reunions on the 20th, 22nd and 23rd, and I want to be in the thick of them all. But there are two separate reunions on the 20th itself, at the same time in the evening. Both are enticing but I can only choose one to attend. I'll go with the Singapore boys as I had committee myself earlier to them but hopefully, I can just drop by the second reunion to say hello.

On 21st October, there'll be the traditional visit to the Protestant Cemetery at 6.45 in the morning before proceeding to the school for the Bicentenary Speech Day. Then the Bicentenary dinner at night on the school field. Almost 5,000 people are expected to be present. Let's hope it won't rain but I hear a bomoh is standing prepared somewhere.

On the 22nd, I'll be having lunch with my schoolmates at the school canteen and in the evening, a dinner at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. Finally, on the 23rd morning, a private lunch with some Singapore friends somewhere in town before they leave for home. But that's not all, actually, because there's still a talk to attend on 24th October. A talk given by Cheah Cheng Hye, an Old Free whom I've known since our primary schooldays at Westlands School.

One wonders with so many activities and functions taking place within so short a time, can I survive the six days? Let's see....

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Around Dittisham

A pictorial story of our three days in Dittisham. 

The four of us had travelled to Dittisham by car, a journey which took four hours on the highway from London before turning off at Totnes and continuing along narrow roads to our destination. Left to right, See Liang Teik, myself, Saw See and Allen Choong.

Here's where we stayed, at the Red Lion Inn, a bed and breakfast establishment which served as a grocery shop, post office and everything else you may think of.

 Breath-taking view of the River Dart in the distance from the Red Lion Inn. The car park is directly below.

 And this is the view from our bedroom, overlooking several noticeboards, including one from the Dittisham FC.

 The River Dart very late in the afternoon.

 That's how narrow most of the roads are in Dittisham. This one, directly outside the Red Lion Inn, sports a hairpin bend.

The St George's Church went well out of the way to welcome us Old Frees to their village.

The tower of the St George's Church, which we were lucky enough to ascend later.

Who would have thought that behind the church wall would be the cemetery? Who would have thought that we would be living practically next to a cemetery? Brrr.....

 The playing field of the local Dittisham Football Club.

Our morning walk took us past several beautiful cottages and houses.

The pub at the Red Lion Inn.

 Breakfast fare

After breakfast, we suddenly discovered that someone had raised the England flag on top the church tower. It wasn't there when we went for our walk earlier.

Down this road we would go for lunch at the Anchor Stone Cafe which was right beside the River Dart.

Fancy owning a house in rural Dittisham? It's only a cool STG500,000.