It was already at the end of the 89th annual dinner of The Old Frees' Association. My old schoolmate, Oon Hup, took one look at me and said that I looked tired. Why not, I told him, I was up since five o'clock this morning and it had been a very long day. And after I told him why, he had only two words for me: "You're mad."
Maybe. But my madness had some justification: I've now satisfied myself by seeing the final resting place of the Rev Robert Sparke Hutchings. As the founder of the Penang Free School in 1816, education in Malaysia has much to be grateful to this man. He was pivotal in laying down the vision that education in this country should be free of any racial or religious prejudices. That's why the school he founded was always to be known as the Free School.
For a very long already, I had been asking around whether the prefects of the Penang Free School do still make it a point to visit the tomb of Hutchings at the old Protestant Cemetery in Northam Road every year of Founder's Day. There was only one answer that I received every time: no.
Apparently, I have been asking the wrong people. I should be asking the school authorities, not just anyone who do not know the answer.
So last week when I received an invitation from the school to attend their Speech Day (or Founder's Day) on 21 Oct 2012, I grabbed the chance to accept it. I phoned the school. I spoke with their Senior Assistant in charge of co-curricular activities and she confirmed that yes, the school prefects and some teachers still make the visit to Hutchings' tomb every year. What time should I be there, I asked further. Seven o'clock in the morning. There'll be a simple service.
Hmm, seven o'clock. It would mean that I have to drag myself out of bed at five in the morning, get myself ready and drive the 30-odd kilometres from Bukit Mertajam to Northam Road. When I arrived at about 6.40a.m., the parking lots along the road were already almost full. Ahead of me, people were already walking towards the locked main gate into the cemetery. I recognised two PFS teachers in the small crowd. Everybody was waiting for the Penang Island Municipal Council people to come and open the gate.
Waiting in the dark outside the gates of the old Protestant Cemetery
Some of the teachers got impatient after a while. Together with Rev Ho Kong Meng, they climbed over the wall. I was debating with myself whether I should do so too, but I really didn't want to soil my clothes as I would then be going to the school for the Speech Day after this.
I took a closer look at the gate. There was a long metal chain and a lock. I thought to myself: if it was a chain, perhaps I could push the gate doors ajar slightly and squeeze through the gap. Better than climbing any wall. To my surprise, the chain was just wrapped around the gate doors. The lock wasn't even engaged. How long this has been so, I don't know. Anyhow, I called out to the other teachers and we all simply strolled in, the prefects following behind.
The simple and solemn service started at 7.10a.m. Rev Ho, the Minister from the Anglican Church, began: "We have come together to praise and thank God for the life and work of the Rev'd Robert S Hutchings, the founder of our School, Penang Free School. We remember with thanksgiving his services to the School; and for its continuing legacy in the development of our State and Nation through the countless students whose lives have been enriched."
There followed some Bible readings, then the laying of wreaths in remembrance and honour of Hutchings. Rev Ho concluded with a short prayer: "Almighty God our Father, we thank You for Your Servant Robert S Hutchings who served You as a missionary proclaiming the message of salvation in Your Son Jesus Christ at St George's Church, Penang, We thank You, especially this morning, for his pioneering work in education, in the founding of Penang Free School, the first public school in Malaysia, and the schools associated with it: Hutchings Primary and Hutchings Secondary Schools. Bless and inspire the Headmasters, teachers and staff of these schools; inspire them in the vital area of educating the young minds under their charge. Bless the students that they may fulfil the potential You have given each of them, that they may use their gifts and talents to serve their fellow citizens in Malaysia." By 7.20a.m. the service was over.