The Extraordinary Story of French Mission schools in Malaysia [fr]

France and Malaysia share the little known common heritage of over 120 schools founded in Malaysia by French Missionaries between the end of the 18th century and the second half of the 20th century.

Spread all over the country, these schools are almost all still fully operating today and they are certainly no ordinary ones. Several are more than a hundred and fifty years old. Many are famous and known for the excellence of the education they provide, as they have bred a significant number of Malaysia’s political, social, cultural and economic leaders. Moreover, many are lodged in beautiful buildings which are now part of Malaysia’s historical heritage.

The priests of the Paris Foreign Missions Society or, in French, Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP), were among the first to establish mission schools in Malaya. A priest of the MEP created the very first one in Penang in 1787. French missionaries were of course not the only ones doing so, and acknowledgement should also be given to members of other religious orders for their contribution to the Malaysian education system.

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SMK La Salle Brickfields

There are still nowadays more than 400 Mission Schools in Malaysia. Among these, more than 120 were founded by French missionaries – more than half of the mission schools in Peninsular Malaysia. Variations in the numbers of these “French” schools – between 120 and 140 according to different sources – are due to the fact that one same school name can cover two or more institutions, e.g. actually five in the case of the La Salle Brickfields School for instance (under this denomination, there are 4 primary and 1 secondary schools: SK LS Brickfields 1, SK LS Brickfields 2, SMK LS Brickfields and LS Brickfields Chinese primary school + LS Brickfields St Theresa Tamil school). In other cases, schools were closed over the years, like the Convent School of Seremban (Negeri Sembilan) in 1993, or the St Joseph La Salle English School in Batu Gajah (Perak) which eventually closed down in 2009, but had not operated as a school since 1960. Therefore, depending on authors, the number of schools will be slightly different.

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Convent Light Street Penang in the 1930s, Going for Lunch

1. Geographic distribution

Mission schools in general are quite evenly divided into primary or secondary and boys or girls schools, and they are also almost equally distributed between the peninsula (227) and the states of Sarawak and Sabah (235). However, the ones founded by French priests and nuns are almost entirely concentrated on Peninsular Malaysia. They can mainly be found in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor (30); Perak (30); Penang, Kedah and Melaka (38); and Johore (8), leaving about 10 of them in Sarawak and Sabah. Obviously, the French ecclesiastics chose to open their schools at the places with the highest population density and where the need for education was the most crucial.

For historic reasons, Melaka and Penang were the first two places where foreign missionaries entered Malaya and created their first schools. The Portuguese established a diocese in Melaka in 1558, making the city a strategic base for the European religious congregations to send thousands of missionaries to South-East Asia and further to the Far East. Later, Captain Francis Light, on behalf of the British East India Company, leased Penang from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786 and established a trading post where people looking for work and money converged.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, Chinese tin miners began to settle at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers, which would become the very site of Kuala Lumpur. And by the end of the 19th century, Malaya witnessed large-scale immigration of Chinese and Indians brought in during the British colonial period to work in tin mines and rubber plantations, and for the railways, civil service etc. The distribution of French Mission schools followed the pattern of these migration flows.

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St Michael’s Institution Ipoh

2. Distribution by the different French congregations

In total, the Sisters of the Infant Jesus (IJS), a.k.a. the Dames of Saint-Maur (from the name of the street where their headquarters are situated in Paris), built 81 schools, 65 of which remain in operation today. The La Salle Christian Brothers created or took over 48 schools. The Marist Brothers opened 6 schools. The Brothers of St Gabriel founded 2 schools, besides 3 youth centres.

Priests of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP) were the first French religious members to arrive in Malaya, precisely in 1781 in Kuala Kedah, before they moved to Penang in 1786. The pattern of their expansion was well established: they would create parochial schools as part of the churches they built, teaching in Malay, English, Chinese or Tamil. Some of these parochial schools still exist, but most often they would be entrusted, a few years after they creation, to the care of larger French congregations, more specialised in education, who developed the schools we know today.

Called to Malaya by the MEP priests in 1852, the Infant Jesus sisters (IJS), and then the La Salle Brothers were the pioneers. They took over parochial schools or built new schools independently, moving from Penang and Melaka into the rest of the peninsula by the turn of the 20th century.

Members of the other French congregations arrived much later. The Marist Brothers only came in 1950, after being expelled from China in 1949 – they found shelter in Malaysia much like their predecessors expelled from Siam in 1781.

The Brothers of St Gabriel arrived in Johor Bahru in 1955 and took over the St Joseph schools, and thereafter started their own Montfort Boys’ Town in 1959 in Shah Alam. They were mainly engaged in running three institutions for the needy youths who dropped out of school, and provided them with vocational skills training: the Shah Alam Montfort Boys Town, the Montfort Youth Training Centre in Sabah and the Montfort Youth Centre in Melaka.

3. Building the first schools

St Xavier’s Institution was the first French mission school to be founded in Malaya, and as a matter of fact the very first of all mission schools. Although the school was only given its present name in 1858, it had existed long before. It was created in 1787 by a French Catholic priest of the MEP, Arnaud-Antoine Garnault, after he was invited by Sir Francis Light to settle down in George Town (1786). Evicted from the Kingdom of Siam, Fr Garnault arrived in Kuala Kedah in 1781 and in Penang in 1786. They built the church of the Assumption there and opened a school in its enclosure. At the beginning, it was a Malay-language school. Then it was relocated and converted into an English-language school in 1825. The school was called the Catholic Free School, to differentiate it from the Penang Free School, established by an Anglican clergyman in 1816. In 1852, three members of the La Salle Brothers took over the administration of the school upon invitation by Mgr Boucho, renaming it St Francis Xavier’s Free School. The school’s development still went through successive phases: in 1858, it was moved to its present grounds at Farquhar Street into a new building and subsequently renamed St. Xavier’s Institution; in 1895, the original building was replaced by a grander Baroque-style double-storey structure, later used as a Marine Barracks by the Japanese during World War II, and as such, finally destroyed by American bombers. It only settled into the present school building in 1954.

The La Salle Brothers went on to open an all-boys’ school in Melaka in 1903 on the basis of a parochial school built by the MEP in 1872 as St Mary’s School. In 1880 the original school had been renamed St Francis’ Institution but was temporarily closed down in 1902, to be re-opened in 1903 by the La Salle Brothers. St Francis’ Institution is the second oldest of the Lasallian schools in Malaysia. Something worth mentioning is the exceptional architecture and the unique work of art of the stained glass windows of its chapel. Br Augustus Vernier (MEP), a gifted architect, began the construction of the chapel at the end of 1937.

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Convent Light Street Penang in the 1930s

On their side, the IJS were prompt to implement their educative mission. As soon as they landed in Malaya, they planted the basis of Penang’s and Malaya’s first Convent school, known today as SMK Convent Lebuh Light and SK Convent Lebuh Light. At the invitation of Mgr Boucho, the then Apostolic Vicar of Malaya, Rev. Mother de Faudoas, Superior General of the Infant Jesus Sisters (IJS) Convent in Paris, decided to send a group of sisters to help with education in Malaya. The group boarded the ship “La Julie” in Antwerp in December 1851. Unfortunately, Mr St Paulin, who led the party, died at sea, another sister left the group in Singapore, another still fell ill and became invalid. The remaining two sisters arrived on April 12th, 1852 and were put up in an atap roofed house lent by priests of the MEP, with 16 orphans, 9 boarders and 30 day students. The sisters had to raise money for food and clothing. Happily, another group arrived on October 28th the same year and began work at once. They were Mr Ste Mathilde, and sisters Apollinaire, St Damien and St Gregory, who had travelled by the “SS Bentinck” and even overland by camel across Egypt. As the number of children increased, the sisters bought the Anglo-Indian style Government House located on Light Street for 50,000 Francs in 1859, as well as the seven acre compound surrounding it. Part of it was later sold to St Xavier Institution.

As Penang, Melaka was also an early hotbed for mission schools. As early as 1860, with the help of Father Maximiamo De Souza, a local priest, Reverend Mother Mathilde Raclot, accompanied by Mr Apollinaire and Sr St-Gregory, answering Mgr Boucho’s appeal, came from Penang and opened a class in a grocery store in Bandar Hilir, with 15 students and with boxes as chairs and tables. But soon bad health and lack of financial resources forced the sisters to close thae school, in 1867. Upon the insistence of the residents of Melaka, four sisters led by Reverend Mother St. Anselm, Sister St. Anais, Sister St. Bernard and Sister St. Gertrude arrived in Melaka from Singapore in 1875. They were given a military hospital at the foot of St. Paul’s Hill with the permission to teach there. Lady Clarke, the governor’s wife, donated school supplies. The number of students registered was 29 primary pupils. Reverend Mr Ste Marcienne managed to buy some land around the retail store, where the 1860 class was. On this land, a school, which would be called the French Convent, was erected. Until the beginning of the 20th century, boys were admitted, but they were thereafter transferred to St. Louis’ school. As the premises were still overcrowded, Fr Maximilien de Souza (MEP), serving the church of St Francis Xavier, helped the sisters buy a piece of land where a new establishment was built in 1932. Student enrolment being still increasing, then principal Rev. Mr St Martha bought another eight acres of land facing the school, allowing 16 new classrooms to be built in 1954. In 1957, the primary and the secondary sections were officially separated as SK and SMK Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Today the primary section which includes 2 schools has an enrolment of 984 pupils, whereas the secondary section enrols 1269 students.

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St John’s Institution Kuala Lumpur, from the sky

There are still a lot more stories worth telling about illustrious and high-profile mission schools. You have certainly heard of St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, created in 1906 by the La Salle Brothers; or about St George Institution, founded in 1915 and one of the oldest schools in Taiping, founded, like all other French mission schools, with the aim to provide education to boys of all religions, ethnicities and social classes; or about St-Michael Institution in Ipoh, enrolling nowadays more than 2000 students. St Paul’s (created in 1899) is also the oldest school in Seremban.

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Convent Taiping

Stories about the well-known Convent schools are also aplenty. One cannot miss the story of Bukit Nanas Convent School, another flagship school in the capital, which has equally been distinguished in recent times as one of the 30 cluster schools of excellence. Similar success stories happened in other parts of the country e.g. with the Main Convent school in Klian Pauh (Perak), later transferred to Taiping (1898), the Main Convent on Ipoh’s Brewster Road (1907), and Jalan Kulim Convent school in Bukit Mertajam (Penang, 1934) – among many, many others.

4. Difficulties and achievements

At the beginning of the 19th century, education in Malaya was essentially religious. The only schools were “pondoks” - religious schools teaching Islam, or government schools where children were taught in vernacular languages, and still very seldom in English. There was neither a national education system nor a clear-cut national linguistic policy. The schools received very little financial aid from the government in a tacit mutual agreement, which allowed the concerned schools to be totally autonomous, and the said government, for which education was not a priority, not to give the money it was unable or unwilling to give. As far as the IJS and LSB were concerned, in spite of their first notable achievements in Penang and Melaka, they only managed to make sluggish progress in the other Malay States. This was why in spite of France’s relentless “speak French” policy, the missionaries readily accepted the British proposal: they would create English-language schools (simply called “English schools” – which induces many to believe wrongly that these schools were founded by English people) and teach in English, in exchange for the government’s support through all the difficulties they could encounter when building new schools. The British were badly in need of an English speaking workforce for the tin mines and the rubber plantations, as well as in the local administration, whereas the missionaries’ decision was highly pragmatic, allowing the expansion of the French mission schools to take off.

Benefiting from the British colonial government’s protection by the 1890s, the IJS explored the whole peninsula to search for places where schools were needed. Along the way, they stopped at various towns to meet local residents and build goodwill for the establishment of their future schools. The Convent schools were by that time well known for the high moral standards they advocated and the excellence of their teaching. It was not rare that rich local businessmen stepped forward to propose financial aid to give the sisters a reason to set up school in their locality.

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Main Convent Ipoh

Although the French missionaries put a lot of goodwill in keeping their commitment to teach in English, they soon had to face a shortage of staff capable to teach complete curricula in English. The most crucial moment was just after WWI. Many priests of the MEP and La Salle Brother went back to France for military service. A lot of them did not return because many died or became invalid during the war. Meanwhile, the vote in France in 1905 of the “secularization law”, putting an end to all government subsidies to Catholic orders, seriously limited the scope of mission work abroad. At the same time, the British, needing more than ever well-educated and English speaking employees at every level of their colonial administration, enhanced their demand of promoting English education. This situation prompted the Roman Catholic Church executives to look at another European country which was catholic and English speaking: Ireland. Charles Nain, a MEP priest, was thus entrusted in 1908 the mission to draft the plan of a novitiate in Ireland, to train missionaries for the schools in Malaya. This was how the leadership of the French Mission schools in Malaysia progressively passed from French to Irish priests and nuns.

By the mid-20th century, the IJS could less and less cope with the expenses the running of their schools incurred. The larger convent schools started receiving partial government funding from the 1950s, and became rapidly quasi government-aided. Convent Light Street remained the main centre for administration of all IJS affiliated schools in Malaysia and Singapore until the early 1960s. An agreement was sealed with the Government in the early 1970s: the school authorities were to be partially-aided, with the Ministry of education supplying and paying teachers and covering basic operational costs while the school retained ownership of the property, but had to assume the cost of their maintenance. In this situation, the congregations did not have any more control over the schools or decide on the programs.

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Convent Pulau Tikus, Penang

5. Memories of days bygone

The nuns and priests who taught in Mission schools were commonly appreciated for the quality education they provided, and for the high moral and disciplinary values they inculcated to their pupils. The sisters’ courage and tenacity when struggling against all odds to build institutions liable to produce well-bred young women is still much admired. The early sisters managed with great care and wisdom the scarce financial resources they possessed. They saved every single cent they got from generous benefactors, and when they had eventually saved a sum, they would buy a piece of land to build a school on it. Many sisters devoted their life to their Malaysian mission, staying in the schools until as late as the 1970s, even after the schools were nationalized.

The sisters’ dedication to their mission was judged highly deserving at a time when congregations initially exclusively sent male missionaries to far-away countries. During those early days, very few Western women would venture alone to Asia except when there was a husband or relatives waiting for them there. Moreover, Penang, like everywhere in Malaya at that time, was a conservative society, where girls’ education was far from being a priority. But from the 1850s, responding to increasing calls in Europe to give women more responsibilities, missionary societies began to send female missionaries. In this context, the French nuns who braved all the dangers and endured all kinds of hardship, and crossed half of the globe to come over to Malaya to open schools for girls were all the more respected. They are fondly remembered as courageous, ingenious, selfless, and zealous persons.

For many, mission schools not only provided the ideal environment to study, but they were also the ideal melting-pot where everyone would find his or her identity while being part of Malaysia’s harmonious and peaceful multi-ethnic society.

Written by Hélène Ly-Batallan

All facts mentioned in this article were drawn from documents accessible on internet, and also some documents provided by the diocese of Penang and the MEP. Although each piece of information has repeatedly been cross-checked with documents of various origins, errors, oversights and memory lapses might still exist. If you notice any, please be lenient and kindly bring them up with us. Besides, the author welcomes any additional historical or statistical details on all the subjects brought up in the text.

Latest modification 10/03/2020

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