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.

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