The V.I. - Pioneer in Science Education

n the annals of Malaysian education - in particular, science education - it can be safely said that the Victoria Institution once blazed an educational trail for other Malaysian schools to follow. Science had actually been taught as a subject in the V.I. when the Junior and Senior Cambridge classes were introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century but was discontinued in 1905 by R. J. Wilkinson, the famous compiler of the Malay-English dictionary and Inspector of Schools for the FMS.

New science labs

However, soon after the school moved to its present premises in 1929, it became the first school in the Federated Malay States to attempt to make science a part of every pupil's general education. In fact, when the present school building was built, a whole wing occupying about a quarter of the school was set aside for science, and in 1929 a start was made to furnish and equip this Science Wing. The original intention was to teach only physics and chemistry, but early in 1930, when 31-year-old Frederick Daniel arrived at the V.I. on transfer from the West Indies, he suggested that it would be wrong to confine science teaching to these corners of the scientific field and insisted that every boy in the school should be given a course of general science covering the whole field of pure science that prepared boys for life, rather than for scientific degrees or careers.

F. Daniel For the next ten years, Mr. Daniel, as the V.I. Senior Science Master, carried on the educational experiment which he had begun in the West Indies - another tropical region. Unlike his colleagues who welcomed frequent changes of their school postings and who looked upon him as a stick-in-the-mud, Mr. Daniel thought himself rather lucky to have found such fertile educational 'mud' at the V.I. Indeed, he put down his anchoring roots and settled down to gradually evolve a new type of General Science course. He envisaged a course designed on a broad basis to be part of the equipment of the average secondary pupil for everyday life in a scientific age, and carefully adapted to the linguistic attainments, the mental outlook and the everyday experience of Malayan, not British, pupils.

As there were no textbooks for such a course, boys used a special loose-leaf textbook, produced in the V.I. Science Wing. Over 10,000 of these loose-leaf textbooks, assembled by his two able laboratory assistants, were used in carrying out the experimental stages of the new science course. Most of the diagrams were drawn from Mr. Daniel's blackboard diagrams by Leong Pak Cheong, students an old pupil. In addition, Cheong San Thau and other Victorians helped in working out biological types. Too Chee Chew, Keshmahinder Singh and A. Krishnappah also pitched in to help even after leaving school.

Mr. Daniel knew he had to give careful attention to the physical environment necessary for effective teaching and learning. He was lucky to have a brand new Science Wing to start with - a clean slate, so to speak. Knowing that for a General Science course there was no need for specialized rooms for teaching physics, chemistry and biology, he designed dual-purpose science rooms in the Science Wing that combined the functions of both lecture-room and laboratory. Such rooms were furnished and equipped to enable any science class to sit and read and write, or to watch and co-operate in demonstrations, or to do personal practical work. This arrangement provided flexibility for timetable organization, enabling a science teacher to change quickly from one type of activity to another.

Mr. Daniel had no patience with teachers who did little more than recite sections of the textbook to their classes. He believed that dictated notes were unsatisfactory and unscientific, that matter put down mechanically made no lasting impression. A science teacher should make his pupils keep their textbooks closed so that he had their undivided attention while he was developing a fresh topic by a chain of reasoning based on experiment, observation, and inference. Teaching, he felt, should aim at "lighting a lamp" and not at "filling a bucket."

A special feature of his textbooks was the careful attention devoted to language simplification by eliminating non-essential technical words and using a standard vocabulary of 2,000 words adopted by the Oxford University Press as the basis for overseas school books. Mindful of the difficulties confronting a V.I. pupil whose mother tongue was not English, Mr. Daniel believed that this language simplification removed one of the main reasons for a pupil's reliance on mere memory, for once he understood the ideas involved the pupil could express them in his own words. In his textbooks, every new general-purpose word was marked by an asterisk and was simply defined in the glossary. The first occurrence of a technical word was always marked by a dagger and the word was also "daggered" in the index. During the whole of the General Science course, a V.I. pupil encountered about 1,400 technical terms and about 700 special words, representing an average vocabulary load of about three new words per lesson.

Mr. Daniel stressed good laboratory management as the factor that enabled some science teachers to cover more ground than others. He believed that the basis of good laboratory management was "a place for everything and everything in its place." He conceived the idea of a central preparation room, store and office (with both teachers' demonstration benches "just round the corner") to save a lot of fetching and carrying. The room also served to insulate two simultaneous classes from each other's noise.

The equipping of the V.I. Science Wing went on in step until the evolution of the senior science course and the V.I. Science Wing reached a very high standard of efficiency in organization and maintenance. In fact, many visiting scientists, who had travelled widely in the Far East, asserted that the V.I. Science Wing was definitely the best of its kind in the region. Old Boys under Mr. Daniel who had gone on to specialize in science at universities and institutions of higher education overseas almost invariably wrote back to say that the V.I. Science Wing compared favourably with anything they worked in elsewhere.

Ahmad and BasirMost of the credit for the excellent arrangements had to go to Ahmad bin Haji Osman, since 1930 the first laboratory assistant, around whom the Science Wing could be said to revolve. Ahmad had received his education in a Malay school and knew no science when he started with Mr. Daniel. But he rapidly acquired a useful knowledge of English and, according to Mr. Daniel, soon showed remarkable scientific ability. Ahmad also trained laboratory assistants for other schools that were introducing science into their curriculum. After a few years, Mohd. Basir bin Haji Abdullah joined the science staff as second laboratory assistant and was a very able second lieutenant to Ahmad.

For the first year Mr. Daniel taught science single-handedly to 130 Standard Six (now Form Two) pupils, but, in 1931, he was assisted by Mr. Lim Eng Thye, a member of the first batch of Raffles College graduates of 1928. Later still, as the number of science classes increased relentlessly, Mr. Lai Nyen Foo, also from Raffles, and Mr. G.G.L. McLeod, a New Zealander, became the third and fourth members of the science staff.

Lim Eng Thye and Lai Nyen FooAmong the many new concepts pioneered by Mr. Daniel in science teaching in the tropics was the establishment of a Biological Garden in the V.I. Located just beside the Science Wing, this Garden contained about forty beds, each 10 ft. by 5 ft. and 10 ft. apart, in which were grown the main economic and food crops of the country. Trees and bushes of economic importance were planted around the sides, and all the plants were labelled with their botanical names, their English names, and their local vernacular names. Plenty of space was left round the beds for pupils to walk about. Climbing plants were grown over archways, and small flower beds and flowering shrubs supplied many of the flowers studied in science lessons. A large concrete sundial also found a place in the unshaded centre of the garden. A thatched "potting-shed" served for raising young plants, and compost heaps were maintained in a shady corner. There was a dovecote with a small flock of pigeons, and also a concrete "frog-pond", about a foot deep and surrounded by a wire netting enclosure. Local fish were kept in this pond to control mosquito breeding, and a selection of water-plants was also grown, some floating on the surface and others rooted in submerged pots of soil. Rabbits and guinea pigs, however, were kept in small, portable wire-netting enclosures and wooden hutches, raised off the ground, which could be closed up at night.

The V.I. Biological Garden was always thronged with interested pupils during the recess. By planting a new bed of each short-season crop every few months, a continuous supply of plant material was ensured, including fresh seeds for germination experiments (a very important point in tropical countries where many seeds lose their viability very rapidly). Carefully nurtured over several years, the Biological Garden served as an invaluable adjunct to science education at the V.I.

The V.I. Biological Garden

After the four-year General Science course had been launched at the VI, the Science Wing became a "Science Centre" for other schools in Kuala Lumpur. The Methodist Boys' School took full advantage of this scheme and, after a few years, had about one hundred and fifty boys doing the full four-year science course at the V.I. in the afternoons, taught by their own science teachers.

By the mid-thirties, a modified form of the General Science course was being offered to adults in evening classes. The first course of fifty one-hour lectures and one-and-a-half hour laboratory periods was held in 1931-32, and attracted an average enrolment of over 40 students. The next course was held in 1935-36 when there was an average of over 70 students. The 1936 Victorian reported that a new course had been started in August of that year and that over 100 students were attending Wednesday evening classes. The School Bell of that same issue also reported that "the verandah of the Science Wing now has a number of animal cages for rearing the rabbits, guinea pigs and pigeons used for dissection by the science classes." It also noted, tongue-in-cheek, that "the toad, snail and cockroach population of Kuala Lumpur has noticeably diminished since our science classes started dissection." In December 1935, the appreciative pupils of the evening classes presented the Science Wing with a set of portraits of eminent men of science, followed a few months later with two wall clocks, one for the main lecture room, the other for the main laboratory.

In 1940, several girls' schools started afternoon science classes at the V.I. The girls made a most enthusiastic and encouraging beginning and distinguished themselves by providing top candidates in the annual Cambridge School Certificate examination in December 1940.

By 1941, the V.I. Science Wing had reached its high-water mark of efficiency and success. Then in came the Japanese and out went all the equipment from the science wing, twelve years of work destroyed in twelve hours. While that was happening, Mr. Daniel had been on leave in Australia where he met Turner, Professor of Botany, chairman of the Intermediate “General Science” syllabus and examination Committee. The outcome of the meeting would be the eventual adaptation by Turner of Daniel's texts for use in Australia.

Daniel cut short his holiday to return to Malaya. On reaching Singapore on December 23, 1941, he was immediately assigned to M.A.S. Headquarters, Singapore. With the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, Mr. Daniel was, to quote him, "kidnapped by the Japanese" and incarcerated at Changi Jail and Sime Road Camp. However, his General Science course that had proved so successful was safely embodied in a series of textbooks published by the Oxford University Press - General Science for Tropical Schools, Volumes I to IV, with an optional volume on Health Science and Physiology (IIIA). Just before he was taken captive, Mr Daniel had posted off the typescripts of his final two volumes to his publisher. His books were published overseas and were widely adopted by secondary schools in other tropical and sub-tropical regions during the period of Pacific War. So, although Mr. Daniel was imprisoned in Singapore, his works took on a life outside Malaya.

Some of Daniel's textbooks

In Changi Prison, where 2,000 people were packed in a space normally allocated for 500, Mr. Daniel helped organize a series of activities to maintain the physical and mental health of the POWs. He conducted a General Science course, partly to supply a foundation for more advanced courses in the special sciences and applied sciences, and partly to supply something that the servicemen had missed in their school days. About three hundred men enrolled for his General Science course and the class was split up into four divisions, each division attending for one hour on alternate days. (Another ex-V.I. teacher of the 1920s and 1930s was not idle either; Mr. F.C. Barraclough also ran a small school while in prison).

The prison science course followed the same lines as the one that Mr. Daniel had crafted in the V.I. The environment, however, could not have been more different. The classes met in the open air in a rectangular space about 20 feet by 30 feet, bounded on three sides by the high concrete walls of the Punishment Block. A portion of one wall, 12 feet by 4 feet, was smoothed over with a little cement, painted with green prison paint to give a matt surface to act as a blackboard. Salvaged barbed wire was strained from wall to wall overhead and plaited coconut leaves were laid loosely on top to give protection from the sun.

The resourcefulness of the inmates in acquiring material to conduct a general science course within prison walls was astonishing. One member of the class made an excellent demonstration bench out of timber salvaged from a bomb-damaged building. Other POWs working outside the prison brought Mr. Daniel accessories from abandoned motor-vehicles; one man cleaning out a Japanese store sneaked out a dozen test tubes; another man who was sent to a Singapore hospital for dental treatment brought back from the dentist (a V.I. Old Boy) a small but invaluable supply of glass and rubber tubing. One class member produced a tin of 'solidified spirit' and another a box of Meta fuel tablets which solved the heating problems required for chemistry and physics experiments. Enamelled soup-plates served as pneumatic troughs and wide-mouthed glass bottles as gas-jars. Burnt-out electric light bulbs, cut off near the brass cap, made excellent boiling-flasks. An Australian instrument maker made Mr. Daniel a remarkably good balance and weights, using the most primitive tools and materials. Coral from nearby Changi beach was burnt to supply quick lime and lime water. A laxative tablet yielded enough phenolphthalein to serve as an indicator.

Thus the Victoria Institution General Science Course was reborn, in a somewhat modified form, in Changi Prison. Mr. Daniel was able to deliver over three hundred lectures of his course to a motley assembly of mature students - with teacher and pupils in tattered attire - until October 1943 when the Kempeitai intervened and closed down all educational activities. Mr. Daniel could say, in all honesty, that he had the unique experience of teaching general science under very favourable conditions in one of the best equipped of all schools - the V.I. - in this part of the world, and also under the most unfavourable conditions possible, in a POW prison in war-time!

When the V.I. premises were reopened in October 1946, the Science Wing was an empty shell and the Biological Garden a wilderness. But new equipment was soon ordered and Mr Lim Eng Thye's gallant efforts to revive science teaching met with considerable success, for although all the furniture and equipment had been lost, the essential records of the entire educational experiment had been saved and the plans for reconstruction were completed to the last detail.

Toh Boon Huah, C. Ganasalingam and Chong Yuen Shak After recuperation leave in the United Kingdom (tragically, his wife had died in internment in Sumatra in 1945), Mr. Daniel returned to Malaya first as School Science Inspector and then was made the V.I. Headmaster, while E. H. Bromley was made Senior Science Master in his place. Bromley had spent a whole year in the V.I. Science Wing in 1933-34 and had familiarized himself with every aspect of the new general science course. Old Boy Toh Boon Huah, one of the outstanding pupils in the thirties who had graduated from Raffles College just before the outbreak of war, also joined the science staff at Mr. Daniel's invitation. Along with veterans Lim Eng Thye and Lai Nyen Foo, the V.I. still had all the men who had made the pre-war Science Wing what it was, and the future of science education at the V.I. was once again in safe hands. In 1949, Chong Yuen Shak and C. Ganasalingam, both pupils of Mr. Daniel in the thirties, joined the science staff upon graduation from Raffles College.

Science Teachers

In 1950, the first post-school certificate classes were set up - officially called Advanced Course in Arts and Science - to prepare pupils for entry into universities. Selected pupils from the 1949 Cambridge classes and their counterparts from other schools in Selangor formed the nucleus of the first P.S.C. classes. Reflecting its enhanced role, the school converted its downstairs laboratory into an organic chemistry laboratory to enable courses in organic and inorganic chemistry to be offered.

The heady atmosphere of the post-war atomic age spurred great interest in science among the V.I. pupils and on February 5, 1948, the V.I. Science and Mathematics Society was inaugurated with the aim of promoting greater interest in the study of both science and mathematics. The patron of the Society, who made a speech at the inaugural meeting, was none other than the V.I. Headmaster, Mr. Daniel.

Science and Maths Society

In 1951, the Science and Mathematics Society organized the first three-day science exhibition, what, nowadays, would be called a science fair - another pioneering concept. Thereafter, the V.I. Science Wing became a yearly Mecca for legions of pupils from other Kuala Lumpur schools. The name of the V.I. as science leader and innovator would be broadcast far and wide by the media for three whole days as curious visitors thronged past exhibits that informed, stimulated, surprised, challenged and teased all and sundry in the various aspects of science. Just about every room in the science wing would be resounding with pips, pops, squeaks, bangs and booms, punctuated by the occasional shrieks of laughter, as visitors willingly allowed themselves to be probed, quizzed, tested, fooled, manipulated and entertained.

Science Exhibition

The exhibition was divided into 4 main sections, the Chemistry Section, the Physics Section, the Biology Section and the Mathematics Section. In the sixties, a new Section was added - the Psychology Section, an extremely popular attraction by all counts. The very first exhibition in 1953 - its biggest attraction was the "Lie Detector" - drew over 5,000 visitors and its duration had to be extended from the planned three days to four days. Some visitors reportedly spent up to 7 hours at the exhibition, slowly working their way through the 300 exhibits. At the end of every exhibition, the public went away happy, leaving behind a lot of satisfied V.I. pupils with extremely raspy throats and lost voices. In the mid-sixties, the V.I. "scientists" were also manufacturing their own fireworks and rockets and firing them during the science exhibitions. The enthusiasm with which V.I. science pupils voluntarily plunged into this yearly effort, a project that required weeks of careful planning and preparation, showed that, as an adjunct to dry textbooks, this was a fun way to learn science - living science - by doing, by improvising, by documenting and by demonstrating and defending one's project in public. The tradition of these annual science exhibitions would continue until the early nineteen seventies.

The new 6th Form block

In the ground floor laboratory

In 1957, science education in the V.I. took another big step forward when the Sixth Form Block was officially opened by the Raja Muda of Selangor. The ground floor housed laboratories for the teaching of post-secondary biology, physics and chemistry courses. The microscopes in the Biology Lab were donated by parents and Old Boys. A new animal house for rearing rabbits and guinea pigs was also built in the approximate location of the hutches of the pre-war Biological Garden.

The Scientific VictorianThe Science and Mathematics Society did its part to promote science by starting its own annual publication, The Scientific Victorian, in 1953. Filled with quality articles written by senior students on all aspects of science, it enjoyed a wide circulation for the next twenty years in the V.I. and other schools throughout the country. By the nineteen sixties activities had reached a fever pitch and the ever-vibrant Society was concocting competitions out of every possible activity it could think of. For instance, there was an annual inter-House Science Quiz, a competition for the best Scientific Victorian article of the year, as well as an annual inter-House Analytical Chemistry competition. The latter was actually two competitions, one to select the Senior Analyst from amongst the Sixth Formers and the other to identify the best Junior Analyst of Form Five. A typical Analytical round, to which each House sent two representatives, would last several hours, and not everything was necessarily based on the examination syllabus. One year, in a rather wicked 5-hour round, the competitors were required to investigate the detoxicating function of the liver using 4 samples of their own urine drawn at one hour intervals. On the inter-school scene, "scientists" of the V.I. were Daniel in the Laboratory crushing the opposition three years consecutively from 1966 by winning the Gemini Trophy awarded to the best school in science quizzes. In 1970, the Society sponsored an annual Esso Science Quiz open to all Klang Valley Schools with Sixth Forms. The competition is still running to this day. Such were the pupils' irrepressible enthusiasm and initiative in the pursuit of scientific excellence.

Not surprisingly over the decades, from such a stimulating and supportive environment were spawned thousands of future science graduates in medicine, genetics, computing, engineering, pharmacy, physics, chemistry and many, many other specialties.

Of course, Mr. Daniel was not around to witness the full flowering of his Science tree. He had retired as Headmaster of the V.I. in 1949, but even so he had good reason to be satisfied with his efforts. His General Science course had been adopted well into the 1960s throughout Malaya and beyond - a total of 130,000 pupils had taken his course by a 1954 estimate. He retired to Gwarfelin, Vale of Rheidol, in Aberystwyth, Wales and there, applying all that he had taught his own V.I. pupils, he cultivated gardens so beautiful that they drew admirers from afar. Indeed, in 1967, the National Trust was anxious to acquire his famous gardens for preservation as its first public showcase in Cardiganshire.

Mr. Daniel passed away in July, 1971. His last communication with the V.I. was in 1968 when he sent a message for the school's 75th anniversary commemorative publication. He gave two pieces of advice to Victorians; firstly, "if you are going to be careful, you must be careful all the time." Secondly, "those things in life that are most worth keeping are not won - or kept - without special effort." The Gardener who had sown the seeds of science education in the V.I. almost four decades earlier ended his message in a similar metaphoric vein:

"Gardens are not made
By saying, 'O how beautiful',
And sitting in the shade."
Daniel's Welsh Valley

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created: 6 July 1999.
Last updated: 26 October 2017.

Contributed by: Chung Chee Min