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.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..."
11th. That the same Plan be adopted as far as circumstances will permit, with regard to the Children of Chuliah and Hindustanee Parents.
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.