To mission schools with love

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The front page of The Star on 24 January 2012

Mission schools have left a lasting lecacy and they have changed many lives, says Adrian Lee.

The school anthem is one legacy bequeathed to a mission school student. It is remembered for life and evokes feelings of pride and passion.

Despite having left school for almost 20 years, I still vividly recall every word of my school anthem, and when asked about my alma mater, I proudly exclaim, St Paul’s Institution!

What is it about mission schools that evoke such pride and passion?

It begins with tradition. Passed on from one generation to the next, this tradition has maintained a systematic and quality education that educates, disciplines and nurtures.

In Malaysia, mission schools laid the groundwork for education with their rich history and legacy. They can be categorised into La Salle Catholic schools, Convents, Anglican Free Schools, Presbyterian schools, and Anglo-Chinese Methodist schools.

Their role in education cannot be negated as they exist in almost every state: St John’s, Kuala Lumpur; St Xavier’s, Penang; St Francis’, Malacca; La Salle, Kota Kinabalu; St Francis’ Convent, Sabah; and St Paul’s, Seremban, to name a few.

Established by European imperialists to spread education based upon the theological values of faith, hope and love, these schools provided shelter and education to the marginalised, the poor and the hungry.

Such righteous values inadvertently became embedded as the “missio dei” of many teachers and students, who continue caring for the lost, the last and the least of society.

Catholic brothers and nuns employed a no nonsense policy and an all-inclusive education system stressing academic excellence and personal achievements.

The nurturing of self-confidence in students was very important. Students are taught about multitasking, self respect, critical thinking and proper conduct.

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These attributes inadvertently inculcated self belief and taught students to be confident about taking the bull by the horns. Feelings of fear towards their teachers eventually developed into respect and reverence.

While I was never educated by these religious figures, my parents told me how a stare, the notorious “one tight slap” or caning were the choice methods of instilling discipine.

My teachers, who inherited this educational tradition, similarly employed discipline and dedication as part of their educational blueprint.

They were dedicated teachers whose duties went beyond the classroom. I would never neglect my English pronunciation or history or geography classes, as any inaccuracies were met with a cold hard stare.

During lessons, everyone remained silent. Whispering meant standing on a chair or being hit by an “airborne” blackboard duster. Not addressing them as Sir, Mister, Missus, Miss or Madam was akin to stirring an hornet’s nest.

But boys would be boys and the idle mind was the devil’s playground. Pranks were pulled but mostly forgiven. Naughty deeds, however, didn’t go unpunished.

Punishment was meted out through caning, but this was never seen as abusive. No lawyer or politician would visit the school. Not a word to our parents about the caning – for doing so only meant “Round 2”.

These teachers, who donned elegant saris or dresses or neatly pressed shirts, ensured that we became well groomed, disciplined and knowledgeable. They groomed us into independent, educated and disciplined all-rounders who spoke proper English.

They knew what they were doing and teaching. They taught us to be tough, to be prepared to face whatever challenges life threw our way. Each student was disciplined yet given the freedom and self-confidence to excel and achieve their fullest potential.

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They were our ad hoc parents who taught with joy and passion, and like their predecessors, never demanded any recognition. They customarily stood at the back of the class, silently rejoicing as the students celebrated their exam success.

We received an education steeped in tradition as mission schoolteachers took teaching seriously; it was not a mere job but a vocation, nay a calling.

Our teachers were proud of their lessons and believed in their form of education. They shaped us into intellectuals, sportspersons, politicians, educators, religionists, physicians and other important societal figures.

During competitions, knowing that a mission school was participating struck fear in the hearts of opponents for we were forces to be reckoned with.

As each mission school had its rival school in extra-curricular and academic activities, winning competitions was wonderful but defeating our arch nemesis would be the icing on the cake.

This instilled in us a healthy sense of rivalry and confidence that motivated us to do better. We grew up with pride, charisma, and confidence knowing that we were backed by centuries of tradition and educational excellence.

While most mission schools were either all-boys or all–girls, we did have our sister/brother schools where many were “paired up”, either willingly or unsuspectingly.

The loudest-spoken boy became as quiet as a church mouse when coming face-to-face with girls. But we eventually learned to respect members of the opposite sex.

Despite allegations of proselytisation, no other schools in Malaysia boasted of a more multicultural, multilingual, multi-racial and multi-religious demographic.

Prayers were once recited, and walls were once ornamented with religious figures. But these instilled a sense of respect towards authority and a fear of God.

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It was within these schools walls where moral standards were held high and leaders groomed. It was in the padangs and classrooms where we learned about unity, tolerance and acceptance. We didn’t need PSAs, billboards or PR campaigns to instil such values in us.

We respected our friends’ ethnicities and religions. Food was freely shared, games played and homework copied. We were forward-looking students who looked forward to recess, PE, and the dismissal bell. Exams were the most unpopular times of the year.

Mission schools instilled in us a sense of self-belonging and identity as one could be a prefect, sportsman or sportswoman or debater. The uniforms – the blazers and pinafores, crests, anthems and Latin mottos  – instilled in us a sense of tradition and self-pride.

The mission schools have left a lasting lecacy; they have changed many lives. Their educational glory and excellence is proven for they exist in five continents worldwide with 438 mission schools in Malaysia.

Why are these schools named after saints? Perhaps it was an optimistic attempt by the Church to produce virtuous and ‘angelic’ students.

Ultimately, an “Old Boy/Girl” proudly associates himself or herself as a Paulian, Franciscan or Xaverian to prove our signum fidei or sign of faith towards La Sallian education institutions.

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Janet Ambrose
Janet Ambrose

Thank you Dr. Lee. The article was indeed poignant and surely evoked lots of lovely memories including the strict upper-lip and clapping of hands of Sister Joan Van Ark to indicate that she’s coming round the corridor. Was proud to a a CBNer then and am proud to be an ex-CBNer today. Stand tall Convent Bukit Nenas (K.L.)….you are a trail blazer!!!

Francis Foo
Francis Foo

Well done Adrain.Well written and absolutely true.Couldn’t agree with you more.
A proud Ex Xavierian and life MU supporter.