Friday, 20 May 2016

Really? 200 years of Tamil education?

Will the Penang Free School Bicentenary Committee or the Penang Free School Foundation be doing anything to refute this outrageous claim? Will they permit the Deputy Education Minister to get away with this? Will they allow our bicentenary celebrations to be hijacked on 21 October 2016?

The above report on "Celebrating 200 years of Tamil education", which appeared in The Star newspaper on 19 May 2016, is factually wrong. Like always, there's not been enough evidence to back up the claims of politicians when they start alluding to events that happened a very long time ago.

The Deputy Education Minister, P. Kamalanathan, said this milestone could "trace its roots to Penang Free School, which hosted the first Tamil language class on Oct 21, 1816." Does he have the evidence to support his statement?

As far as I am aware, Penang Free School never had a Tamil language school until 1821 which was five years after the main school was established in 1816. Although the Tamil school was forced to close in 1823 from lack of support and attendance, nevertheless it was still encouraging to know that there was even Tamil vernacular education in those days.

When Rev. Robert Sparke Hutchings submitted his Original Plan to set up the Prince of Wales' Island Free School (the original name of Penang Free School) to the Government in Council for approval on 6 Jan 1816, two of the objectives were:
10th. That the Children of Malay Parents who are not desirous that they should learn English, be instructed by a Malay Teacher to read and write their own Language.
11th. That the same Plan be adopted as far as circumstances will permit, with regard to the Children of Chuliah and Hindustanee Parents.
Unfortunately, some of Hutchings' original objectives could not be realised. One year after the school's establishment, the School Committee conceded to the subscribers at its first annual meeting in October 1817 that: "It was also intended, to Educate in their own national languages, a certain number of Day Scholars, the Children of Malay, Chinese, Hindoo, and Chuliah Parents, for whom Native Teachers, were to be provided. Neither of these objectives have yet to be attained, nor indeed put into progress; the Committee have found it most advisable to limit its first measures to the Introduction of a system of Education in the English Language..."

Therefore, unless Kamalanathan can assert positively that there was indeed a Tamil vernacular school or class at Penang Free School in 1816, all I can say is, definitely there was none. Indeed, circumstances did not permit the Free School to open any vernacular school until 1821. In that year, two Malay schools and the singular Tamil school were opened, while none was ever started for Chinese vernacular education. The Tamil school closed in 1823 while the Malay schools ran a bit longer till 1826.

This was the research of Marcus Langdon in his book "Penang the Fourth Presidency of India 1805-1830, Volume Two" published by the George Town World Heritage Incorporated in 2015. Langdon is the leading authority on Penang's early history under the East India Company, and his works are widely cited by heritage advocates, conservationists and historians.

Having said all this, if Kamalanathan has irrefutable evidence to the contrary that there were indeed Tamil language schools elsewhere in Penang in 1816, do let me know. I shall welcome any new evidence that can re-write the history of education in Penang.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

To Perth again and back: Serpentine (Part one)

It's been about six weeks since Saw See and I took a short holiday to de-stress after I had completed about 90 percent of the manuscript for the Penang Free School Bicentenary Book project.

For the second time in seven years, we went to Perth but this time, it was only for five days at the end of March, much shorter than the eight days we spent there in 2009. Actually, Perth did not come into our reckoning at all but we got carried away when Malindo Air launched their new flights to Western Australia last November. We found the price appealing enough and decided to go Down Under again.

So there we were, on 25th March morning, waiting for the ETS electric train service to arrive at the Bukit Mertajam station, which it did at about 7.10 a.m. promptly. As we've done the train journey so many times before, this trip wasn't out of the extraordinary. We arrived at the KL Sentral at about 11 o'clock and were picked up by our daughter. There would be about 12 hours to kill in Kuala Lumpur before the Malindo Air flight took off at 11 p.m.

We arrived at the Perth International Airport after five o'clock in the morning of 26th March, duly went through Australian Immigration and Customs control, and found ourselves queuing up at the Optus counter to buy a pre-paid SIM card for my mobile. Quite cheap, actually, because I paid only AUD10 for five days of usage which included 500MB of data daily. The Optus counter can be easily seen once you leave the arrival hall. Just turn left and you are there.

We next went to the car rental counter to pick up our vehicle from Thrifty. I had expected that they would allocate us the Nissan Tilda but was surprised to be given the Toyota Corolla, a bigger car. Suited us fine, actually, because of our big bags.

Because the holidays were short, we decided on only a few destinations in our itinerary. One of them, however, would have to be a visit to the Bodhinyana Monastery at Serpentine. When Ajahn Brahm visited Penang last December, I had asked him casually whether he would be in Perth during the Easter weekend and he had said yes. As such, not visiting the monastery would be totally out of the question for me as I had really wanted to catch the monk in his liar.

It was a rather quiet drive to Serpentine but for a brief flurry of excitement with my old GPS unit that I had brought along from home. I still had my old Western Australia navigation map installed but I had been unable to find my updated map of the place. Consequently, for much of my driving around the airport, the poor GPS unit kept telling me that I was driving on some undiscovered road in the middle of nowhere although I was definitely on the highway to somewhere. But soon I saw the sign board that said Armadale, and I remembered from long ago that Serpentine was in the same direction.

Pretty soon, the GPS took over and I found myself at the Bodhinyana about an hour later: just in time, actually, to catch the tail-end of Ajahn Brahm's morning prayers. We quickly offered him a dana of robes before joining the other people there for lunch.

I must say that the lunch served at this monastery was quite an eye opener. It was so much unlike the food that we get here in Penang, which is wholly Chinese fare. Here at Serpentine, we have devotees bringing in lasagna, chocolate, salad, biscuits and a cheese bar, assorted bread and yoghurt, among many other types of food. It was quite an experience.

Inevitably, we met a couple from Malaysia when we arrived at Bodhinyana. From Alor Star, they told us, and they had been in Perth for three weeks already. They showed us around the grounds after lunch was over. We went over to the meditation hall and submerged ourselves in the immense silence of the place, which was helped by a fully carpeted floor that completely muffled any sound from people walking around. We also met an elderly lady from Thailand who claimed to be both a Catholic and a Buddhist, if such a thing was ever possible. Anyhow, we couldn't stay too long at the monastery as we had to drive back to Perth. Fremantle beckoned next.

People lining up for food at the Bodhinyana in Australia is no different from people lining up back in Penang, except that they are more multi-racial
Enjoying our first full meal in Western Australia 
The silence of the well-carpeted meditation hall at the Bodhinyana Monastery
Our new-found friends at the monastery