NO! My heart sank when it was announced that the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery would be closed for two years for a RM20 million restoration. It seems there are plans in the pipeline to move all the artefacts and temporarily house them at the museum’s Macalister Road branch in George Town. It was with a heavy heart that I made the decision to pay my favourite haunt a visit.
Farewell visits never fail to make me see the same things in a different light. I guess when we‘re conscious that time is no longer a luxury, we try to savour every minute of it. There’s a sense of calm when I arrive at the museum. Having had my ticket inspected, I proceed to look at the two bronze wall plaques which I’ve always ignored during my previous visits. The inscriptions list the names of the people who’d donated generously towards the Penang Free School building fund in 1816.
Continuing to read the explanatory card beside them, I discover that this Penang Museum building was the original site of the school before it was relocated to Green Lane in 1927. Inspired by the thought that the school spent an astounding 110 years at the very place I‘m standing, I decide to find out more about the early history of Malayan education.
Although Penang Free School holds the record for being the country‘s oldest learning institution, education in Malaya didn’t start with the arrival of the British in 1786. Before Francis Light first set foot on the island, Penang’s population already consisted of nearly a hundred Malay fishermen and farmers from Sumatra, Kedah and Satun. They settled largely around the Batu Uban, Jelutong and Dato Kramat areas.
Religious schools are believed to have already existed in the 18th century. Back then, it was common practice for young Malay boys to uproot and live with a renowned teacher for a certain number of years. They helped the teacher with household chores and at the teacher’s orchards and fields in exchange for lessons in Arabic as well as in reciting the Quran. Malay girls received religious lessons from their parents at home.
Discipline during those early days was very strict and the teachers had the blessings of the parents to mete out punishments as they deemed fit as long as they didn’t mortally wound the children. At this juncture, I’m reminded of the great Malay scribe Munshi Abdullah. He gave a vivid account of his personal experience in his autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah.
It seems that Abdullah led an early pampered life living with his grandparents. Everything changed when his father found out about his 7-year-old son’s inability to read and write. In a fit of anger, he sent Abdullah to the Kampung Pali Koran School. Abdullah wrote that all students, regardless of their family background, were treated equally. His teacher resorted to using various “instruments of punishment and torture” to maintain order. Among these was the Chinese press made from four pieces of threaded smooth rattan. This instrument, known also as apit Cina, was used to squeeze the fingers of boys guilty of stealing or beating their fellow students.