The First Prefects
arely two months after taking over the helm from Mr Bennett Shaw, the first V.I. Headmaster, Major Richard Sidney showed that he was every bit an innovative Headmaster by initiating two great traditions that have stood the test of time. One was the establishing of a school magazine called The V.I. Echo which was later renamed The Victorian.
The other was the creation of the Board of Prefects. On Friday, 6 April 1923, the first V.I. Prefects - nineteen in all - were invested at a short but impressive ceremony that commenced at 3 p.m. at the school assembly hall at the old High Street premises. The place had been specially decorated and the platform was alive with green ferns. Almost the entire school occupied the body of the hall while the staff occupied seats on the platform. The Headmaster, accompanied by the Chairman of the School trustees, Mr. E.W.N. Wyatt, and the wives of two teachers, Mrs. Ambler and Mrs. Redfearn, ascended the platform.
Mr. Sidney first spoke on the importance of the School Prefects. He gave details of the origin of the word and showed how in ancient Rome the office of the Prefect was an honourable one. He instanced the fact that nearly all English public schools had their after school hours run by Prefects who were chosen for their prowess in scholarship or in athletics. They had several responsible duties to discharge. Of course, they enjoyed some privileges as well but each prefect had to earn the esteem and respect of his comrades, as well as the confidence of the teachers.
The force of example is an article of faith among all who believe in education. Mr. Sidney elaborated on this virtue of the prefectorial system in his own words:
"The very young boys who see the elderly Prefects doing their job well - and they have done their job well — will gradually want to become Prefects themselves. I consider that the Prefect system is one of the things that is going to make the V.I. a real public school on the best model."
Some of the first Prefects - the House Captains - had been elected by the boys themselves while the others had been nominated by the Headmaster. The Prefects were invited to take their places in the front row. Mr. Wyatt, in his address, emphasized the prime importance of character, which he considered to be even more important than prowess in games or studies. The ceremony ended with the customary singing of God Save the King.
The Prefects system was, of course, already well established in all the famous public schools of England. In Malaya, the V.I. was not the first school to appoint a Board of Prefects but it was certainly among the first to do so. One can cite a number of idealistic as well as practical reasons for having Prefects in a school. A group of boys, singled out on the basis of achievement in sports and studies, will naturally stand out as good examples or models for the rest of the school. The Prefects, in turn, help to maintain discipline and order in the school environment. The educational psychologist of today would describe them as 'role models' for the student body and cite the benefits of hero worship, peer group influence and the aspiration towards excellence.
Others have cited character building as the chief aim of the Prefects system as well as the development of leadership qualities and maturity through carrying out duties in a responsible manner. Richard Sidney on that red letter day did remind his first Prefects that no Prefect who lacked the respect of his colleagues or the confidence of his masters would be of much use. He was confident that, in due course, the system he inaugurated would do the V.I. proud. After all, the British teachers at the V.I. were themselves products of public schools and, doubtless, were familiar with Prefects’ traditions. Deference to rank and hierarchy and belief in honour and duty are deeply entrenched in any good school system. Richard Sidney, an ex-major in the British Army, would have understood that.
So seriously did Mr Sidney regard his brainchild that, two months after the first Prefects were installed, he drafted a charter - the Prefects' Charter - to spell out the purpose and duties, as well as some privileges, of the V.I. Prefects. The preamble just about sums up the striving for excellence that was, and still is, expected of all V.I. prefects:
"On the Bearing of the Prefects will depend the Tone of the Whole School."
This Charter has served as a good model for the Prefects Board of many other schools in this country as well. It has been revised several times but the spirit of Sidney's words is always there. He regarded Prefects as being in loco parentis as far as the boys were concerned. Here are some selections from the list of duties and privileges in the V.I. Prefects' Charter of June 1923:
The Malay Mail of 7 April 1923 carried a full report of the installation of V.I. prefects, with the heading, Important Innovation at Victoria Institution. It commented:
In all public schools of importance in England, the Prefects play an important and necessary part. The system has been introduced with success to countries in the East which have adopted Western education and which aim at a standard equal to that of English public schools in education, athletics and general tone. Mr. Sidney is, therefore, trying an experiment which should be of far-reaching importance not only to the V.I. but to all the schools in the country.
The paper also published the names of the newly appointed School Captain and Prefects. The first School Captain of the V.I. was Othman bin Mohamed, the Company Sergeant Major of the V.I. Cadet Corps and Captain of Steve Harper House. The others were:
Wong Koon Yoon, the Editor of V.I.
The first junior prefects were Loke Ah Meng (Thamboosamy House Captain), Sulong bin Mohamed Ali (Scout Patrol Leader), Kwok Ah Keng (Scout Patrol Leader), S. Tambirajah and Abdul Aziz.
Othman bin Mohamed, the first School Captain, held that position until 1924, when he was succeeded by Leong Ah Tee. Othman was born on 5th January, 1905, in Klang and joined the V.I. around 1916 or 1917, under the headmastership of Mr. B. E. Shaw. Othman was active in everything, from the Cadet Corps to the VIMADS (Victoria Institution Musical and Dramatic Society). He was the House Captain of the now-defunct Steve Harper House and the monitor of the boarding school in Kampong Baru.
After leaving the V.I., Othman showed that Richard Sidney had made a correct choice of School Captain by chalking up a stellar record of public service in Malaya. Joining the Malay Administrative Service in 1925, he served variously as an Assistant Senior Administrator, a magistrate, and an Assistant District Officer before he became Postal Officer of the Singapore General Post Office. After five years he returned to Malaya and, in 1934, he was promoted to the Malayan Civil Service on his return from a visit to Britain accompanying the Sultans of Selangor and Perak. He served as District Officer of Kuala Langat and Ulu Langat until the outbreak of war. During the Japanese Occupation, he was forced to administer Japanese law in court.
After the war, Othman became the State Secretary of Negri Sembilan and was a member of the Negri Sembilan State Council. In 1949, he became the Selangor State Secretary. He was appointed Menteri Besar of Selangor in March, 1953, and as a member of the Legislative Council at the same time. In 1954, he was sent to Britain as High Commissioner for the Federation of Malaya and Singapore. In July of the same year, he was recalled and appointed Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs. Unfortunately, he suffered a breakdown in health and had to retire from the Malayan Civil Service. However, in 1958, Othman was appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as a member of the Public Services Commission and served as the acting Deputy Chairman until his retirement.
As School Captain, Othman would certainly have attended, in 1923, the first of Richard Sidney's V.I. Prefects' Annual Dinners - yet another brainchild of this irrepressible Headmaster. This formal affair was held yearly at Sidney’s bungalow on the banks of the Klang River within the school premises. Prominent European and Asian residents of Kuala Lumpur would also be invited along and Sidney arranged the seating in such a way that every Prefect had a guest on either side of him. Two scouts on duty would play gramophone records to provide dinner music while white-coated waiters hovered in the corridors of Sidney’s spacious quarters. Toasts were drunk at the end of the dinner with the boys taking either water or port wine or hijau, as they called crème de menthe. Some of the Prefects were even expected to make brief after-dinner speeches. Such was a Prefect's life in the early years. During his term as Headmaster, Sidney was able to organize four of these special dinners for the V.I. Prefects. One of the benefits, as noted in his book In British Malaya Today, was that
...Europeans had a chance of mingling freely with pleasant Asiatic boys, who in turn learned that Europeans were, after all, quite harmless human beings and ready to be very friendly...
Over the decades the V.I. Prefects’ Board was, almost by definition, composed of the lion’s share of high achievers, leaders, scholars and sportsmen of the school who went on to make their mark in Malaya and beyond its shores. With the outbreak of the Pacific War, this assembly line abruptly ground to halt. It would be almost four years later, with the surrender of the Japanese, that the Prefects would be among the first institutions to be resurrected, and for a good reason.
At the V.I.’s temporary Batu Road School premises, Mr Vallipuram, then the acting Headmaster, found that the war had done something to the V.I. boys. With the School reconstituted from prewar V.I. boys as well as new, overaged ex-primary school boys, he was facing unheard-of discipline problems. Because of the enforced "holiday" of nearly four years, there had been difficulties in enforcing discipline and in inculcating good conduct in some of the V.I. boys. Most were overaged, young adults, thoroughly street smart and had taken up smoking and other undesirable activities So, in early 1946, he took the bold step of appointing a caretaker board of nineteen Prefects. This number was in excess of the normal prewar number of twelve but was felt necessary until the V.I. recovered from the dislocations of the Occupation!
Chan Fu Ho and Fong Chu Chai were appointed School Captain and School Vice-Captain respectively. However, both left early in March, 1946, and, in their places, Yap Kon Puck became School Captain while N. G. Oorloff was elected School Vice-Captain. Their official investiture was put off until the V.I. boys returned to their home on Petaling Hill. It eventually took place at the school assembly held on September 9, 1946, when Mr. Ng Seo Buck, who took over briefly on Mr. Vallipuram’s retirement, invested twelve prefects with their badges of office. This reversion to the prewar number marked the School’s return to normalcy.
Mr Buck’s permanent successor, Mr F. Daniel - another innovative Headmaster - introduced compulsory classroom cleaning for which a challenge shield was awarded to the Cleanest Classroom of the Week. It naturally fell upon the Prefects to be the judges of this contest. Duty Prefects on their daily rounds would award marks as they went from classroom to classroom to inspect the brasswork and general cleanliness. At the end of the week the marks would be totalled by the Secretary of the Prefects Board and the winning class announced by the Headmaster at the Monday morning assembly. Daniel also introduced the famous/infamous Detention Class (again administered by his dependable Prefects) and worked immediately on a revision of the Prefects’ Charter which incorporated these new responsibilities along with others. Daniel's new Charter was published on October 1, 1946:
Over the years, the Prefects system in the VI crystallized into a great institution within another great Institution. As the school enrolment ballooned over the postwar years, the number of prefects has grown from twelve to today’s thirty. In 1956, under the aegis of the very innovative new Headmaster, Dr G.E.D. Lewis, the position of Head Girl/Senior Girl was created to give a voice in the Prefects Board to the growing number of girls joining the School. The first Head Girl was Teh Paik Lian. The Prefects' Charter was revised to recognize this new post.
Dr Lewis was also aware that amongst the increasing numbers of boys joining the V.I. Post School Certificate (Form Six) classes from other schools were many who were Prefect material as well. Hence a proviso in this 1956 Charter also required that there would always be a Prefect appointed from this group. (The post of Deputy Head Girl was created three years later; the first to hold that position was Goh Yoon Fong.)
The V.I. Prefects wear a different uniform – indeed, they still don the white coats and white longs that their prewar predecessors wore when on duty - and they have their own special badge. The installation of Prefects is always a solemn and special occasion and, often, it can be an elaborate ceremony. The symbols of office and the attendant rituals combine to give the prefects an aura of authority and power. Collectively, they develop a measure of aloofness and reserve combined with discipline and courtesy. Successive V.I. headmasters have shown that they still regard the Prefects as their foremost partners in maintaining the other traditions of the School. It is a partnership that has endured since that historic April day eighty years ago. Perhaps the following verse by teacher Mr J B Carr written for the V.I Echo (VIE) in 1923 - the seminal year for the Prefect system - best exemplifies the desired qualities, arguably still valid, of a V.I. Prefect:
Last update: 20 February 2005.
Contributed by: Chung Chee Min firstname.lastname@example.org