The Memoirs of
Major R. J. H. Sidney

The V.I.'s second H.M.

Extracts from his In British Malaya To-day

R.J.H. Sidney

Major Richard J. H Sidney was Headmaster of the V.I. from 1923 to 1926. He was born in India in 1893, the same year the V.I. was founded. His mother - she was born in China - died when he was two and a half years old. He was sent back to England by his barrister father at age seven for his schooling. He entered Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, in 1912. However, his studies were interrupted by war in August, 1914. He enlisted in the army, trained troops behind the front and later served as a major in Egypt and the Dardanelles. He took his degree of B.A. in absentia during the war and returned to Cambridge in 1919, eventually earning his M.A. as well. For a few years Richard Sidney taught at King Edward's School in Birmingham and commanded the school's Officer Training Corps. Then in 1922, he met the first V.I. Headmaster, Mr B.E. Shaw, and heard a lot about Malaya - and the V.I. - from him.

He succeeded Mr Shaw as Headmaster in February 1923. Mr Sidney was an innovative administrator, introducing new ideas to the V.I., amongst them the Prefects' System, the School Magazine, the Conversazione (a whole-day annual open house when parents and guests were treated to exhibitions of school work), annual school plays, a revamped house system, and the annual Prefects' Dinners and "At Homes" at his bungalow. The first two institutions have survived to this day.

Mr Sidney played no small part in agitating for reforms in the Malayan education system as well. He wrote prolifically, helming a weekly column on education and reviewing books for the local papers. He travelled widely throughout Malaya and wrote up his experiences in two books, Malay Land and In British Malaya To-day.

He tried to infect V.I. pupils with his own love of reading, debating, writing and dramatics. He encouraged the mixing of his Asian boys with members of the European community. He involved himself in every school activity and even took a stage role in the school's production of Henry IV. He was an occasional member of the school cricket team.

After leaving the V.I. in 1926, Mr Sidney went to England for a brief period (he took his Chinese servant, Ah Siew, with him!) and subsequently returned to Malaya to teach at the Penang Free School. By some accounts he also taught at the Methodist Boys' School, K.L. The post-V.I. literary future he had set his sights on apparently never materialised. During World War II he was interned by the Japanese at Sime Road camp. After the war, in 1946, he started Young Malayans, a monthly youth publication distributed throughout Malaya. Its early issues were filled with his reminiscences of his V.I. days. Mr Sidney returned often to the V.I. to give talks to the pupils. When government funding for the paper dried up in the early sixties, Young Malayans folded. He passed away on 31st January, 1966.

Following are extracts from In British Malaya To-day which paint a fascinating portrait of V.I. life in the early 1920s as seen through the eyes of its second Headmaster.



was immensely surprised by my first sight of a School in the Tropics; it was in Ceylon: we passed children with slates, children in rickshaws, and others on bicycles. It was a cool early fragrant morning soon after 7 and the sun was filtering through the trees. Just off the roadway we occasionally glimpsed buildings with large overhanging roofs; open right through to the air; verandah-surrounded. These were Schools…. Now let me take you to my own School in Malaya.

The time is 8 a.m., you have been breakfasting with me early, and we are standing on my large verandah overlooking the school padang. Already it is full of boys - and just over the hedge which divides my private garden from the school field are some small Malays, in bright sarongs, playing football. Their usual morning performance. On the right gleam white buildings - while the field is shaded by large trees planted all round. It is the best time of the day: the grass still glistens with dew - but the sun is making its power felt. Shall we wander out and watch the boys arriving?

"Some of our boys are very rich," I remark, pointing to a fine motor-car disgorging three youths dressed in neat white drill and wearing bow ties.

"Is there any distinction?" you query.

"None at all. It is merely a question of classroom accommodation."


We come to an open space in the hedge which separates the school domain from the road. Here they are pouring in, some on bikes, others walking bare-footed and bearing a satchel of books, others (very often three at a time) in a rickshaw. Groups of masters can be seen standing about talking; boys can be heard playing outside their rooms on the wide verandahs. Small children swing round madly on a giant's stride. There is a medley of tongues - for although the rules prescribe only spoken English, the smaller Malays and Chinese lapse into the vernacular if no master is near. We hear older boys speaking in English, but the "chi-chi" accent makes their speech difficult to understand.

A bell rings. The effect is to stop all games, and to start a general rush towards the buildings, there are six of them. The footballers adjust their sarongs, tucked up to make kicking easier; others seize their books - laid down on a garden seat, mayhap - and climb the stairs. Such eagerness to begin work; no laggards here - except an odd boy whose train may be late, or who has had difficulties about breakfast. The masters mark the register, and soon as we pass rooms in the Preparatory School we hear the sing-song which indicates that lessons have begun:- "The rain is falling very fast and the wind is blowing," says the master:- "De lain is falling vely fast and the veend is blowing . . ." chant the boys. "THE RAIN . . ." but let us go and see the Infants at work.

We climb about twenty steps, pass through a large shaded class-room, and come to a small room where twenty spiky-headed young Chinese are having their first lessons in English.

"Let me introduce Mr. Yap," I say. You shake hands.

"Will you carry on please - Mr. Yap; we will watch."

Mr. Yap carries on. He is a young, always-smiling Chinese, dressed entirely in black; his face gleams above his silver buttons and we soon understand why all the boys love him. He is practising the hand and eye method. He points to his mouth:-

"This is my mouth," he says clearly and in good English.

"Dees ees my mouf," chime all the little ones in chorus - very pleased to have achieved so much. Mr. Yap smiles; he tries again - emphasising the th and the is sound:-

"This is my right hand," holding it up.

"Dees is my light hand," and a forest of tiny hands are flung into the air.

"THIS," says the master.

"Dees," repeat the boys quite unperturbed. And so it goes on. Coloured pencils are held up; they learn yellow, blue, red, green; one is taken away - the missing colour is quickly noticed.

The young Chinese learn to read very easily, and can soon read off a whole page with very little idea of the meaning. But it was in the more practical forms of education that we were really interested in the Infant School: clay modelling - how deft they are with their fingers; wood carving; paper cutting; stencilling, etc.

"Would you like to see a dance ?" asked Mr. Chan the head of this Department. I look at you - and you murmur - "Rather !"

Off they go: the music played delightfully by one of the mistresses, and the tune taking one back to an English village green. Such verve; and the expression on that little Chinese boy's face who is keen on every movement. Truly we could stay in the Infant School all day.

Whenever I have begun with the Infant School on a Tour of Inspection with a visitor, we have always got stuck there: the fascination of watching the young Chinese always overcomes anyone with a spark of love for children. But now I will wander alone into various rooms and try and give you some indication of what I find… Leave the Infant School, cross the main school road, walk up some more stairs and along a passage, and here we are talking to the Head of the Preparatory School. You could tell that Mr. Chin was an artist from one glance at his room - neatly framed engravings, posters of far-away lands, useful calendars, all help to give brightness to the room.

"How are you getting on? " I ask.

"Very well, Sir; the boys like that poetry book by Housman. Would you like to hear them recite a piece?

"Yes - certainly."

V.I. Boys, 1925

I sit down and look at the class. Here, though the bulk are Chinese, we have a few Indians and some Malays. The little velvet caps give the room a picturesque effect; while the general brightness contrasts markedly with an English classroom.

"Now Ping Hung," says Mr. Chin, "recite 'The Fairies break their dances.'"

A little boy stands up in the back row - he begins shyly at first, but soon gathers confidence, and it is quite delightful to listen as he clearly recites:-

"The fairies break their dances
And leave the printed lawn
And up from India glances
The silver sail of dawn.

The candles burn their sockets,
The blinds let through the day,
The young man feels his pockets
And wonders what's to pay."

"Do they understand much of this?" I ask.

"Well, Sir, they probably don't," replies Mr. Chin, but it is all simple and good - and they love learning it. Better this than some of the rubbish in those Text-books."

I agree, and reluctantly leave Mr. Chin. On my way to another part of the School I pass the room of a bearded Indian master - Mr. Singh. I can never resist going into his room - there is nearly always something interesting going on: once he was having a Debate; on another occasion it was a play, specially made up and acted by his small boys. Today as I passed there was great excitement: I called in to see what the new game was.

"Good morning, Sir; would you care to watch my new experiment? "

"Certainly, Mr. Singh - what is it?

"We are practising sending messages."

"Carry on," I said.

The procedure had evidently been carefully thought out. A message was written on a slip of paper; I read it - "The Head Master has been inspecting the Preparatory School this morning." This seemed simple enough. Now what happened? A boy was called up - told to read the message and when he was quite sure that he knew it, a second boy was summoned. The first whispered the message to number two. Neither boy was allowed to resume his place; as he heard the message and directly he had whispered it on he was segregated. Soon, all round the room were boys with grinning faces. Some boys seemed to find the message so funny that they spluttered as they whispered it…. Hello! something wrong?

"I think some boy has made a mistake," whispered Mr. Singh to me.

Never mind, I said, let them finish it. "The last boy had an unpleasant duty. He had to write it down. This accomplished, the boys sat down, looking at their master with eager faces as he read the message and smiled.

"Shall I read it out, Sir?" he asked.

"Yes, please do."

This is what he read: "A new teacher will be coming to the School next term."

There is nothing singular about this result; we often had similar mishandled messages in the Army. Try it and see.

V.I. Boys, 1927

Going downstairs I cross over into the building which houses the Middle School. Here the boys are bigger, and the teaching is beginning to resemble that of an ordinary Secondary School in England. I have so many friends among the masters here, know a great many of the boys, and am liable to stay so long if I once get into a room that I hesitate outside. The jumble of bikes distracts me; there ought to be a shed - or at any rate a rack. I can hear Mathematics in one room; in another it sounds like History - yes it is my friend Mr. Tay who is teaching about the British Empire - that sounds interesting… but stay - what is that? I hear a boy reading - the words sound familiar…

Come hither, boy: if ever thou shalt love,
In the sweet pangs of it remember me;
For such as I am all true lovers are,
Unstaid and skittish in all motions else,
Save in the constant image of the creature
That is beloved….."

Why it's "Twelfth Night" of course, the Shakespeare play which they will have to 'do' for their Examination next year….. Mathematics! History! I'm for Shakespeare!

"Good morning, Mr. Tamby. You're doing Shakespeare I see. Please carry on."

A boy is standing up and reading from the text rather mechanically. I doubt if they understand the play much, although every boy is absorbed in his book and apparently keenly following the dialogue. I look at Mr. Tamby, whom secretly I have named 'Substance,' because of his full frame. He is grey-headed and is, I suppose, about 40 - though still very active as he plays cricket and runs the Scout Troop.... I listen for a few minutes, and then able to bear it no longer say quickly:- "All right, Mr. Tamby. I will carry on now." The boy stops reading; the other boys look up from their books and wonder what is going to happen.

"Well!" I exclaim, "what's it all about?

Many hands go up. I sign to an intelligent looking Malay boy.

"Please, Sir, the Duke is in love with a lady who won't have him…."

"Anything else?"

More hands up. I sign to a Chinese boy.

"Two knights have been drinking too much - one of them is very fat."

"All right," I say. "Now if you are to understand this play - you must imagine it being acted on the stage. To help you I am going to ask Mr. Tamby to give you each a part."

Immediately there was a babel of tongues - not the noise you might hear in an English classroom - but something unusual for Malaya. Mr. Tamby and I conferred. He agreed to try the experiment, and I showed him how he might convert his room into a theatre by removing his desk from the platform, and using that as a stage. 'Substance' looked rather frightened, but I told him to cheer up. He would soon be able to do it all….

My friend 'Siva' is the Master in charge of the Middle School, and whenever we meet we always discuss long and earnestly the problems confronting him. They are too technical to be recorded here, but they often entrapped me nearly a whole morning: script versus cursive writing - how much homework - difficulties of getting boys back for games - form outings and what places ought to be visited; and how much one was justified in breaking into the Time-Table: all these problems are the same in Malaya as elsewhere.

My own teaching work lay mainly in the High School, and of this I shall say little for it resembled closely the work done in the Upper Fifth forms of our Secondary Schools. It was always interesting - and often quite amusing; and very soon I conquered a good deal of the apathy which is such a feature of the hot, moist climate.

It was, however, in the out-of-School activities that the interest lay for the outsider.

Of these activities the principal was certainly the Musical and Dramatic Society of which I tell in other chapters; and it was by means of that Society that I really became intimately acquainted with many of my masters and boys. And this was one of the real difficulties: to probe beneath the outer surface of smooth-faced subservience which I found among so many of the Asiatics. I would see little groups of masters drawn up here and there during the Interval - this was in the days before they had a Common Room - discussing the new regime. I wanted to know what they were saying.

"My dear Sir," I was warned by one who having lived in Malaya for some years considered himself an expert on all such subjects, "you will never probe beneath the Asiatic mask, nor get down to their mind. They will pretend to fall in with your projects, but so soon as your back is turned…"

I wondered whether he was right, and if my own instinct in this matter was entirely at fault. I resolved to behave just as I would have behaved if the whole School had been of the same colour - with this exception; I must realise that perhaps greater patience would be needed. We could do nothing until we really knew each other: there were 40 others engaged in summing me up, discussing me from all sorts of angles, comparing experiences ("he came into my room to-day and upset the whole routine of the work," one would say to a colleague, "asked the boys how long it would take to get across the other side of the river. The boys got up to look - we were doing mathematics - and some guessed ten seconds and others five minutes, you know my room is just on the river bank? And then what do you think he did? 'Two of you boys run to the other side and we will count how many seconds it takes:' they were there in 35 seconds - he called it a practical lesson...") and wondering… I must do my best to treat them humanly, each individual on his own merits so far as I could judge it...

Obviously I must give as many masters as possible jobs of their own and, leaving them entirely in charge, see what happened. My first concentration was to obtain a School Tuck Shop. Hitherto, underneath the rooms used by the Infant School, in shady cloisters, it had been possible for the boys to obtain food from hawkers. There were many of these Chinese, each with his little trays containing eatables of all sorts and cooked and prepared under the most insanitary conditions. The man who leased this portion of the School premises from us paid the School some $60 per annum. I determined to clear these hawkers out so soon as I had two masters and some boys who professed willingness to run the business side of a School Shop. (A big business: it meant employing three men who must be paid a wage and be trustworthy; buying fresh from the market daily; having separate stalls for Malay, Indian and Chinese foods; and an outlay of capital which was nonexistent!)

"I give you $200 a year if you leave my hawkers downstairs," said a poorly-dressed Chinese to me one day in the School office.

"No," I replied. "We intend to run our own stall and we can sell better food and cheaper - and still make more money than that."

He went away. A few days later he was back again. He had worked out the details and was sure we couldn't make a profit of more than $600 per annum; but he was willing to meet us. "I offer you $800 if we may stay." From $60 we had got to $800! I shook my head; he went away crestfallen.

It seemed necessary, however, to consult my colleagues. What was their view? I pointed out the risks we ran - capital was being advanced from another School fund; suppose our employees proved untrustworthy…? No; they were certain we could make more than $1,000 per annum.

The news that I had even considered his offer must have leaked through to the Contractor for he was back again next day. Would I accept $1,000? - that was his limit! For a moment I hesitated - called up Mr. Chin who was going to run the shop - and finally refused.

We were justified. The last Balance Sheet available (published in The Victorian Volume II No. 2) shows that for 1925 the Makan Shop made a Gross Profit of $2,575.32 and after deducting several gifts to other School funds - Scouts, Wolf Cubs, Stage for School Hall, etc. etc., the Net Profit was $1,453.29.

1st Prefects

The boys must receive consideration, however, as well as the masters, and there were no School Prefects. Much consultation was necessary before a body was chosen; they were inaugurated in a Solemn Assembly in the School Hall, with the British Residents' representative on the platform. Hamid was chosen as the first School Captain. The body has increased and grown in strength as the times have gone by, and gradually it has become the ambition of every boy to become a Prefect. I cemented the foundation in every way I could. "Of course you won't be able to entertain Asiatics in your own house as you can English boys," I had been warned before setting out. The speaker should have been present at any of our Annual Prefects' Dinners: his eyes would have been opened. As I write I am looking at photos of the Fourth Dinner held in February, 1926, just before I left.

There was a very distinguished company present. (We had spent some hours that morning arranging the tables to seat 40 people in my big room. With the large Chinese lanterns depending from the ceiling, fans overhead and at the sides, and the table prettily decorated with hand-woven English silks, and with a specially printed menu before each guest, everything seemed ready for the fray… Yes even the table plan was ready… Orders had been given by the School Captain that Prefects should wear their National Dress.) I began to receive them as they arrived, together with their guests, Europeans representative of the Planting Industry, Commerce, Medicine, the Press and Education. The sprinkling of Malay and Chinese silks (Hamid was wearing a wonderful dark brown silk Malay suit), with the beautiful dresses of the European ladies, and the white tunics of the Chinese contrasted most pleasingly with the severer black of the European male; while 'Substance' and another Malay had donned wondrous headgear.

Prefects Dinner

We took our places. At the head of the table on my right and left were two ladies, then beginning with the School Captain and interspersed by 'guests' came the Prefects. It has become an established custom for the Junior Prefect to act as Vice-President, and he was flanked at the bottom table by two of the honourable male guests. Silence was soon broken, and the meal went along merrily - my Chinese servants doing wonders. The fare was plain, and an attempt to compromise between non-pork-eaters and others who would only eat special food: Oxtail Soup, Cold Fish Jelly, Roast Fowl, Salad, Chocolate Jelly, Dessert and Coffee. In the distance Boy Scouts manipulated my gramophone, and strains from "Merrie England" and "The Mikado" floated through the room when the babel of conversation allowed it. Toasts were drunk at the end (water allowed, but most of the boys took either port or hijou crème de menthe) and after His Majesty The King Emperor, we had The Ladies, Our Guests, The Prefects, etc., etc. Some of the boys made very good speeches especially Chan Kim the Prefects' Secretary; and my guests remarked that such gatherings were bound to have a wonderful influence upon the School. 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…

I deal with Sport and Recreation elsewhere; but another phase of outside activity which should be recorded was that which gradually made all spare ground into gardens. Mr. Veerasamy was appointed Ground Overseer, and worked indefatigably to improve the School grounds. Under his guidance the work of the coolies was co-ordinated, and visitors remarked on the pleasing appearance of the gardens all round the field and near the classrooms.

Actually the giving up a part of my bungalow to house the School office, thus setting free a couple of rooms to serve as Common Rooms (the Prefects had already managed to secure a room for themselves!), proved a great boon to the masters. In here, when the School Magazine had been founded, were held Editorial Board meetings, General Sports Committee meetings, etc., etc. And here, instead of in little groups scattered about the grounds, could masters discuss policy and grievances. (I am saying little in this account about my European colleagues -because their work and mine resembled that to be found in any ordinary English School: but I should emphasise the fad that I could not have foreseen or expected such devoted service as was always given to me; whether it was in School Sport or in any other outside activity, or inside the School itself, there was always that enthusiaaic co-operation for which I can never be sufficiently grateful.)

An English School chiefly exists to teach English. We tried many experiments both in and out of School. The three chief 'out' activities were The Magazine, the Musical and Dramatic Society, and the Debating Society. Of the magazine little need be said: it still flourishes, and was the forerunner (though not itself the first in Malaya) of many. It introduced many special features, and aimed at a standard of which even a first-class English Public School would be proud. Interviews with prominent celebrities came in each number, the idea being to take the youth of the country into our confidence and show him the great man in undress. The Sultan of Selangor, a Chinese Member of Council, the Director of Education, the Chief Justice, and the Head of the Federal Government (Sir George Maxwell), were all interviewed. The writing of verse was encouraged. But the magazine had to be a chronicle as well as a literary production: in it must be found Balance Sheets; Boys Admitted and Left; Cadet Corps jottings; Debating Notes; Cambridge University Examination Results; Musical and Dramatic Gossip; House, Old Boys', and Prefects' Notes; All about Sports (mentioning as many names as possible; boys love to see themselves in print just as much in Malaya as elsewhere!); etc., etc.


Of V.I.M.A.D.S., as the Musical and Dramatic Society came to be called, we deal later. It was in the Debating Society that that shyness for the spoken word - and remember English is a foreign language to all the boys -, that hesitancy of airing views before one's own equals, gradually faded away. They chose quite good subjects, too, here are a few:-

1. "That rickshaws should be abolished and tramways introduced." ("In my opeenion I say," said one speaker, gravely addressing the Chair, "that mercy should be bestowed upon the poor rickshaw coolies, besides," he continued, showing that other considerations had occurred to him, "where I now pay 35 cents for under two miles, in a tram the fare would be 8 cents probably." Members of the opposition, however, would have none of it. If rickshaws were abolished, said they, the coolies would have no work and would become robbers. As one phrased it "I can say, Sir, as regards convenience, rickshaws are much better - besides think of the expense in widening the roads to take trams. However, 'Substance' - for masters and boys spoke freely at these Debates - feeling that when he and 'Shadow' travelled in a rickshaw it was a heavy load, and yet not wishing to give up this means of conveyance altogether, proposed an Amendment - "That Rickshaws as well as a Tramway system should operate in the town." The amendment was carried).

2. "That all Military training in Schools should be abolished, as such training is liable to hamper the world's peace." This was a Distinguished Visitors' Debate, and not only were there several hundred boys in the Hall to listen - but the acting Chief Justice himself had honoured us by presiding and consenting to sum up, while leading Europeans were the principal speakers. It matters little now what was said, though the result, 143 for the Motion and 83 against, may seem surprising; but it does matter that here again we had Europeans mixing up with Asiatic schoolboys and giving up their spare time to help them.

3. "That all Final School Examinations in the S. S. and F.M.S. should be conducted by the Education Department of the S.S. and F.M.S." In other words that Malaya should begin to set and correct its own examinations instead of letting Cambridge do it for her. This was an Inter-Schools Debate, and the Chief Justice himself (now back from leave, and shortly before his sincerely regretted death) presided, and two Europeans, a distinguished local Doctor and a professional lady sat beside him as Assessors. Ordinary voting could not be allowed as the Visiting School was definitely weaker in numbers, and reason might have given way to mere school patriotism on the part of the larger School! Few who were present at that debate can ever forget the scene. It was conducted in the approved Parliamentary manner. The School Hall had been 'turned round' for the occasion, and the platform served as a gallery for junior boys. The Chief Justice sat at the opposite end on a throne 'high and lifted up,' while beside him, on either hand, sat the Assessors. Down below was the Secretary to the Society, busily reporting, and the four principal speakers made their remarks from the Table. When the Debate was open to the House, members, having caught the Speaker's eye, spoke from their place in the House - and the Debate was sustained at a high level. The Proposers (the Visiting School) said that the Examiners were out of touch with local conditions and this led actually to bad teaching; if Examinations were set locally, business conditions on the spot could be catered for; large sums of money at present going to far-away Cambridge would be saved. The opposition stressed the value of a Cambridge hall-mark; it was valid anywhere. They felt that Malaya was not yet capable of conducting its own examinations; they hoped there would be no change. The learned Judge now summed up. The excitement was at its height. The debate had begun promptly at 6.30 p.m., there were nearly 400 persons in the hall, and it was now 7.40 p.m. The summing-up was masterly: first one School was sure that it would win (had not the lady glanced with approval at several of their speakers?), and then the other realised that the old system was bound to continue. At 8.20 the final words were spoken: "…. Just as in English Law it is necessary to prove the prisoner guilty before he can be sentenced, so in the Debate tonight it has had to be proved that a change in present methods is both desirable and necessary. The Assessors agree with me that no such necessity has been proved. The Motion is declared LOST."

The main object of a School in any part of the world I take it is to train citizens. This is particularly so in the British Empire and in such a place as Malaya, where not only do we have Malay pupils, but Chinese, Indians and Eurasians. And we are very near China itself, so that our training of the young should be the best we can make it. You have now seen something of the methods which I attempted to use, and you will see more from a perusal of further chapters. I want again to stress the social side of School life, to emphasise the importance I attach to getting to know something of the private lives of my masters and boys. With Europeans this is comparatively simple: with Asiatics less simple. There are caste distinctions; certain foods are taboo. Gradually, however, we compromised and I got a good working knowledge of men and boys. You have glimpsed a Prefects' Dinner; on the same scale were the Annual Cricket and Football dinners, and the Dramatic Society's banquets; but the most solemn entertainment of all, and incidentally the biggest and most difficult to arrange, was my At Home at the end of each School year - to every member of the Staff, all boys leaving, and certain guests. We called it The Farewell to Boys Leaving, and my idea was that before the actual moment when a boy left School, he should shake hands with all his masters, be told that he was always welcome to return to his Alma Mater, be encouraged to join the Old Boys' Association, and generally to realise that though he was now entering the larger world he should try and benefit as much as possible by his friendships formed at School.

The Staff was over 40; the number of boys who left annually (the School numbered nearly 1,000) was about 100; and we had besides many guests. A large party! My big room had to be cleared of all furniture, and then by placing small tables in it and all round the large verandahs we could comfortably seat nearly 200. But they not only had to eat; we must amuse them as well. Kind ladies helped me to arrange games. And last of all came speeches. My senior Asiatic colleague will forgive me for not having mentioned him hitherto (he spoke often at the Debating Society), but now he must come in. Upon him always devolved the burden of the principal speech. He would stand up, nobly clad in his black native dress and superb turban, and begin. Every now and then he would look down at his left sleeve, and pinch the cuff with his right hand as he made some telling point: "And don't forget, boys, that when you grow rich you may repay something which you have had here free. I am sure the headmaster will not refuse a contribution towards any of the School Funds." (Laughter.) Mr. Thampipillay was a great stand-by on all these occasions when a speech was needed. He never failed us.



AWAKE! for Morning in the Bowl of night
Has flung the Stone that puts the stars to Flight.

Servants t is 5.10 a.m. and already I can hear my head boy at work in my dressing-room, the light from which shines through an intervening room filled with cupboards and penetrates to the verandah whereon is my bed. In another minute a cup is placed on my bedside table and I am expected to get up. (If I don't get up within three minutes the boy comes to find out the reason, and no doubt would quote a verse from Omar Khayyam if he knew it. He would, however, be inaccurate, for what stars there are have not yet been put to flight, and as I disentangle myself from the mosquito net and sip from my cup - containing egg beaten up with mashed banana - I can still see the street lamps reflected in the river which flows near the house.) Yes, it is still dark - and the proper place is bed; but now it is cool, and so much work can be done in these early hours. I hate getting up in the dark, and yet that is my fate daily in Malaya; but at any rate it is not cold. Sometimes it has seemed chilly in the night and one has had to pull on a blanket: the temperature in my dressing-room has fallen to 71° I note!

Generally by 6 a.m. I am at work in my Office - formerly my bedroom - and already the thin wisp of blue smoke is coming up from the floor showing that the mosquito preventer is burning. I take no chances. Perhaps before setting to work at the piled-up IN basket on my left I sit and think for a minute about the work here and how it has grown in three years. Originally I had my private bungalow to myself, and every morning about 7 went over to the School to work and to have lessons in Malay. How stupid I was! My tutor, unfortunately, spoke English very well, and I was so interested to learn about his mode of life, and about Malay customs, that the hour would be up and my vocabulary would show little increase. In those days the masters had no Common Room and I felt this was an intolerable position and so gave up a room in my own bungalow where we housed the school office thereby setting free a room for them to use both in and out of school hours. This Common Room proved a great boon for not only had masters now some private place in which to assemble, but we were able to use the room for Committees etc., while the Europeans had a small room nearby which they found useful to work in during 'free' periods.

The Office had at first only one clerk and he and I tried to cope with the work of this large School of a 1,000 boys and found it impossible. Very soon, then, I was paying for another clerk out of my own pocket, and the three of us found it somewhat of a squeeze to work in one room. There was nothing for it then but to remove my bed on to the verandah and take over my bedroom as a private office… I reckon to clear that IN basket by 6.30 a.m. and it is wonderful how quickly it is possible to work just now: last night it seemed impossible to make a decision about some problem; this morning it is easy. At 7 a.m. - sometimes a little before - comes in my Chinese Private Secretary. Originally I employed him simply to do my own private correspondence, but as the school work grew I found it necessary more and more to encroach on this hour which was all he could give me in the morning, as he had to be at work in his own office by 8.30 a.m. However, between 7 and 8 we both worked. (He told me that though he had a highly responsible post in his commercial firm I often gave him more work in an hour than he got there in three days!)

Those who work in Schools, and especially those who direct and control them, will not need to be told what we did; though it may be surprising to those who don't know how hard Europeans must work in the East to hear that there is any hard work done in such a climate; but I shall suppose that the details of the organisation and management of a great school are not familiar to mobs of my readers, and shall therefore try and give them a glimpse of the work. In passing I might say that my own work was only fairly typical of that done by Europeans in responsible positions throughout Malaya. No work was more important than any other; we were all out for the same goal - the running of the country for the benefit of its inhabitants. I used to be amused when members of one Department told me that it was of course their work which really counted. For example: but for the Planters and the Miners there would have been no need for the rest of us; but for the Post Office, which must be alert day and night, business would soon be at a standstill; if the Police ceased to do their duties efficiently there might be chaos which would soon put a stop to railways, commerce, schools, etc., while if in the various Secretariats the machinery was not carefully oiled and kept running smoothly the Revenue would cease to be gathered, salaries would no longer be paid, and the whole country would come to a dead stop. So spoke each specialist; and I don't want it to be considered that I am trying to overrate the value of schools to the community; I am merely describing one because I happen to be very familiar with its working. What I did in one department was being done by hundreds of others all over the Peninsula.

My School was nominally managed by a Board of Trustees; actually it was under the orders of the local Inspector of Schools as the Government provided most of the funds to run the School. I had therefore to serve a body of Trustees, Europeans, Chinese and an Indian; the Government as represented by the Director of Education in Singapore and the local Inspector of Schools Selangor; and the public. In addition I had a staff of over 40: Europeans, Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians. There were about 1,000 pupils and the School was divided into four. In the Infant School were boys who knew no English, as we have seen in an earlier chapter; in the Preparatory and Middle Schools the boys were doing similar work to an Elementary School in England; while in the High School boys were preparing for the Cambridge Local Examinations. When I first came I was bewildered with all that there was to do; with the strangeness of the surroundings; with the amount of the work. But there was at once a compensation: the boys were forever smiling, and the Staff were most anxious to oblige and help; everything was done to make the way smooth.

Let me now return to my Chinese Private Secretary and see some of the work with which he and I dealt in that hour between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. As Headmaster I found myself ex-Officio secretary of the Board of Trustees and treasurer. Very soon after my arrival I found it necessary to address the Trustees in a letter from which I quote the following passage referring to the work of the one clerk allowed to me by regulation: "This clerk has the arduous duty of all the work of a Headmaster's Private Secretary so far as purely School matters are concerned; he and the Headmaster are responsible for all the accounts of the Institution which have to be passed by the Trustees and by the Education Department; he is responsible for the collection of fees and for the payment of masters etc…."

Collection of fees! When I first came I found that I was supposed to sign every receipt for fees for every boy in the School. But if these had been paid termly that wouldn't have been too bad: they were, however, paid monthly and on different days of the month, and the rates varied, and this did not include Games fee; nor were the boys at all regular in payment! The thing became one of the minor nightmares of the job, especially as many boys often found they couldn't pay and it was heart-rending to prevent their return to School until the money was available.

One other sentence in my early Memorandum to the Trustees is worth quoting: "The position at present is illogical and absurd and cannot long continue" - actually the Government found it necessary to take over the School in September 1925, and this had been written on June 30th 1923 - "The Headmaster in order to do the essential work of the Trustees, etc., has to neglect work which is of much more importance but which does not appear to show if neglected at the very moment. If by any chance the Headmaster forgot to collect the fees or to pay the salaries there would be an immediate outcry. If, however, he is unable conscientiously to supervise the work of his School in a manner which he considers satisfactory, few people will notice the vital omission until it is too late." I concluded with these words: "If the Trustees of the Victoria Institution are to be its Trustees they must not only attend an occasional meeting of the Board but they must really also take a vital interest in the School whose welfare lies so much in their hands." It must be said in all fairness, however, that each individual Trustee was a very busy man, and that it was not his fault entirely that things had got to such a bad pass.

Trustees' meetings usually took place in the afternoon and I always held them in my private dining-room. It was interesting for me to study the members of the Board and to note their various points of view about matters which I regarded as vitally important, but which they could afford to look at from a more detached point of view. One of my first attempts was to have the School equipped with proper lavatories, and I reported to the meeting that the present ones were in such a bad condition that they should be condemned at once. I invited some members of the Board to come and inspect them; but was not prepared for their attitude of amused interest in the whole affair. I had great difficulty, also, in persuading the Trustees to allow me to change the hours of the Time-Table. These were 9 - 12 and 1 - 3.45: and when the change was made became 8.30 - 1.30 with half-an-hour's break. I had made exhaustive enquiries and found that between 2 and 3.45 hardly any work was done because of the heat; in some rooms the mean temperature being over 90 degrees. It was without the consent of the Board that I started the School Tuck Shop about which I have spoken in an earlier chapter.

To return to my Chinese secretary, who is patiently waiting on the other side of my big desk while I consider what letters need dictation and what formal answers, the great bulk of his work lay in long letters to the Education Department and to outsiders to whom I wrote for money for the Sports, advertisements for the Magazine, or giving details about our projected tours with the Musical and Dramatic Society. Here is an extract from a letter which shows some of the difficulties inherent in any work in Malaya, all the masters referred to being Europeans whose loss was felt very severely when they proceeded on leave. "During the coming year, we shall feel the pinch considerably as Mr. W will shortly be going on leave, Mr. B a month or so later and at the end of the second term Mr. R, and even if we were given local masters in their places, it would not make up for the loss of three Europeans."

Here is an extract from a letter to another Inspector of Schools - this time of Perak - and refers to V.I.M.A.D.S.' projected tour:

"We propose to try and come to Ipoh on Friday the 15th May and leave on Sunday the 17th, giving one performance on the 15th evening and one on the 16th evening. I don't know what place there is in Ipoh, but I believe there is a Town Hall which is suitable and I should suggest that the price for schools, but for schools only, should be 50 cents a head…. There would be a few seats at $1… Thank you for the names of the Principals and I am going to write to each of them as you so kindly suggest...."

It was difficult to run the magazine even with a large advertisement revenue, and letters such as the following were constantly being written to commercial firms all over the Peninsula. We didn't use a printed form because we liked to try and appeal specially to each:- "I hope that you will be kind enough to take another page advertisement in the forthcoming number of The Victorian to be published on… This number contains a special interview with… and 2,000 copies are probably being printed and will be sold and circulated throughout Malaya…" And here is something that was received by every Headmaster or Headmistress of any School within get-at-able distance - and all of them acceded most willingly to my request, so that besides making my appeal I was also able to see something of the work of other schools: "I wonder whether you will allow me to see your school sometime before this term is over in order that I may try and persuade some of your boys (or girls!) to come and see our two productions (Twelfth Night and King Henry IV) in May."

The penalty of being a Ruler is that he is expected to contribute to all and sundry. The Sultan of Selangor was always very good to us, though I did not scruple always to write to his Dato Setia each year: "...our Annual Sports take place this year on March 28th and I hope that you will be able to ask His Highness the Sultan to come to them as in former years.... His Highness has been kind enough in former years to contribute generously towards the Prize Fund and if it is possible for him to continue his kindness in this matter we should be deeply grateful."

An attempt was made to secure the co-operation of Parents and Guardians in the work of the School, and an Association was formed some months after I came here. It was hoped that it would prove a direct educational stimulus by helping parents to understand some of the teachers' difficulties. The parent was asked not to shirk his own responsibility in the matter of bringing up his children - and it was hoped that the Association might even prove a useful outlet for public opinion which could be brought to bear upon such matters as the provision of better classrooms; and the necessity for healthy school surroundings (we were surrounded by a river which sometimes flooded; opposite was an Engineering Works which almost deafened the persons in some of the nearby classrooms; our frontage was on the busy and traffic-ridden High Street with its constant hootings of motors and shrieks of food-sellers; while at the back was the Railway from which came always a noise of shunting and a screech of engines!).

It had been fairly simple to rouse sufficient enthusiasm to form an Association: it was less easy to make it work. This is what I wrote later to a very prominent public man who had promised to help: "I want to discuss with you sometime the question of the Parents' Association which does not seem to be working very much but which, I am sure, if given a bit of ginger could do good work and help the School."

Our Boy Scouts were found peculiarly valuable by the local authorities, and seemed able to do work for which the Police themselves were either unfitted or for which they could ill be spared. This was notably so at the annual Malayan Exhibition (a veritable Wembley) held on the racecourse at Kuala Lumpur, where the Scouts under their redoubtable leader Mr. Tamby (with 'Shadow' in attendance as second-in-command) actually went into camp for 4 days; and at large garden parties at 'Carcosa'- especially when the late King of Siam visited Malaya. We, in our turn, sometimes were very glad to have the services of the Police, especially on our annual Sports Day when a crowd numbering, perhaps, 5,000 would enter the school grounds (apart from those who lined the hedge fronting High Street) to watch. Here, then, is what I had to dictate to my secretary, the letter being addressed to the Chief Commissioner who was always most kind and helpful.

"I am writing to you privately to ask whether the usual facilities may be granted to us this year concerning Police Constables. In previous years we have always been given the services of about 30 of these constables for duty at our School Sports… I should like to mention that on two or three occasions I have lent Boy Scouts to help out the Police in their duties, and notably when the King of Siam visited Kuala Lumpur...."

Staff, 1924

Our activities in those early morning hours - while the birds began their eternal squabblings and vied with the screechings of the engines at the back of the bungalow to distract us - were not, however, confined to letters sent to outsiders only. Though I saw a great deal of nearly every member of my Staff at one time or another I often liked to write to them about their particular duties because in so doing both of us had a record. Here is an extract from a letter to Mr. Veerasamy my Ground Overseer:- "I think that the ground which used to be my drive had better be used for badminton courts and I believe that you could get in half a dozen…. Kindly see about this and submit an estimate to me for 3 junior and 3 senior courts, the junior courts to have lower nets, say not exceeding a height of 4 ft. The tennis court (hard) must be put in order. … I consider this matter very urgent…"

Of course the amount of correspondence about the Musical and Dramatic Society was enormous; but even so I found it necessary occasionally to add to it by writing formally to Mr. Chin my Scenic Director. Here are some characteristic excerpts from a letter to him:- "I send you herewith Volume I of The Theatre Arts Monthly, in which you will see several suggestive pictures....." Now for the actual details of each scene.

"Twelfth Night: The general colour scheme in this should be based on the curtains - black and gold. I have tried to obtain costumes to tone with this .... Henry IV: A Room in Warkworth Castle. I must have a window in this scene, and you will, if necessary have to put up one underneath the balcony… Furniture will be a table and chairs..... Lady Kate will make her entry down the stairs, while the messengers will come in from different places."

Henry IV

Not only the Scenic Director: those in the make-up department had to receive very definite instructions, as for example:- "King Henry IV: he should be aged 45, with a beard and moustache which is coming from Clarksons. He should look rather care-worn…" (I hadn't when I dictated that foreseen the stomach-ache episode!)

"Sir Walter Blunt: …his garments are all muddy …a moustache … and the appearance of not having shaved for 2 days."

"Falstaff: he will have wig, beard and moustache and can be made up in conformity with these. He should have, however, a very dissipated appearance. Heavy cheeks and swollen pockets under the eyes...."

"Lady Percy: is young and very beautiful, as beautiful as we can make her." (She was!)

The long letter concluded: "I hope that it will be possible to arrange with each set of boys separately to have some practice in making up during the period between now and .... when we begin our final rehearsals."

In addition to letters about the production, the question of the financial risks always loomed in the background as these extracts from a letter to the Society's Treasurer will show:-

".... it must be clearly understood that I cannot face the possibility of a loss in going to Singapore this year (1925). I reckon that the capital expenditure reaches about $2,500, of which I am apportioning $1,000 to Kuala Lumpur, $500 to Ipoh and $1,000 to Singapore. It is difficult to say what our other expenses in Singapore will be, but supposing that we do not get free accommodation, and that we do not get any concession on the Railway.... our trip will cost us at least $3,000. ....First of all let us see what the maximum seating capacity of the Victoria Theatre is. I believe that there are 500 reserved seats with room for about 150 in the gallery. If, as I suggest, we play 3 Matinées and 2 Evening performances, we might raise money as follows:- Supposing that we charge for the matinées $1, 50c and 25c and supposing that we have 200 seats at $1, 350 at 50c and 100 in the gallery at 25c this would bring us a full house of $400 - i.e. 3 matinées = $1,200..."

Wyatt Shield

Here are some sentences taken from a letter to my Senior English Master concerning the writing of Essays: "I find it impossible to attempt to look at very many essays done by boys in the School, but I should like it to be known among masters generally that any promising essay in any part of the School should be sent up to me and I will guarantee to read it, and if necessary comment on it." Another of my colleagues ran the Cadet Corps, to him I said: "I think it should be specially borne in mind that all our training this year should be with a view to camp at midsummer... they seem to know nothing about sanitation, camp-cooking, and the general routine of Camp....." Concerning Sports in the same letter: "We have already had one net practice for first and second XI and there will be another one on Thursday.... I have seen Housemasters and have asked them to let Mr. Tay have a list of all boys who wish to play cricket and to have facilities for net practice this term.... I think Term II must be made a close season for football..." This remark was necessary because owing to the climate there was no reason why football should not have been played all the year round.

To my senior History Master I wrote concerning some books set for the Cambridge Examinations: "I foresaw that the senior classes would experience great difficulty with Burke, in fact I think it is a ridiculous author for them to take, and if you can scrap him now (28 March for an examination in December) without prejudice to anybody's pocket or chance in examination I think you had better do so. Certainly begin Kenilworth, but remember to give them three or four weeks to read it through first and then plunge through it quickly yourself taking little time for explanations, etc....."

By now my Secretary is beginning to get uneasy, for though I don't pretend that what I have extracted above took place on one day, an amount very similar was dictated on no fewer than four mornings a week - and he often came to me in the evening as well when I was very hard pushed. The clock says 8.05 a.m. but there is one more letter we must get off, it concerns the Old Boys. It seems to me sufficiently important to warrant giving at some length. It is headed VICTORIA DAY.

"It has always been my earnest desire to see greater co-operation between this School and its Old Boys. For many months I have been considering schemes whereby it will be possible occasionally to meet Old Boys, to see how they are getting on in their new life and generally to make them feel that they are welcome whenever they come near their old School… Queen Victoria's birthday is surely the most appropriate day on which any re-union of Old Boys might take place, and for this year there has been fixed an Old Boys' Cricket Match when I hope to have the pleasure of entertaining the two teams to tiffin. It seems to me that this will be a fitting occasion to ask every Old Boy to come and visit his School and watch the match, and I propose to be 'at home' to all Old Boys at 5 p.m. on the 24th May. I suggest that in future (written 5th April 1925) as far as the Victoria Institution is concerned, the 24th May in each year might be set aside as an Old Boys' Day and be known as 'Victoria Day.'"

My Secretary - who is not an Old Boy - looks up and asks me why all this. Has the name of the School anything to do with Queen Victoria?

"Certainly," I reply. "The School is the outcome of a movement, as I learned before I came here, to provide a permanent memorial at Kuala Lumpur of the jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign. The original subscribers agreed to found a school 'to be maintained for the purpose primarily of providing instruction in the English language to day scholars of all nationalities and classes, and for other educational purposes.'"

And now it is time for me to go off and get some breakfast before setting forth to the happiest part of the day - teaching English literature with my Senior boys.

At first I tried the scheme of teaching in the boys' form rooms: this was good because it gave me a more thorough knowledge of the various rooms and I could sympathise with the discomforts which the regular occupants had to suffer; in some rooms one could hear teaching above, on either side and across the road, and it was sometimes difficult to hear one's own voice. Formerly the boys had remained in their own rooms; very soon I gave each master a room and made the boys move. Certainly it took a few minutes between each period but it freshened everybody up and made them more able to grapple with a new subject. Think of it; every period of 45 minutes a boy has to swing his mind from one subject to another until it is bewildered. No master is going to make allowances for what was being done during the previous hour - dear no! A wretched boy will begin the morning, perhaps, with Mathematics of which he may get one or two periods straight off. Then he will be expected to plunge into the reading of some English book telling of places and persons of which he has had no previous experience; just as he is beginning to get interested the bell will ring (how we cursed that bell sometimes, for the Malayan boy is keen to work and isn't waiting to rush off at the sound of the bell), and then for half an hour his mind will be a blank, though his stomach may become distended with some of the weird mixtures which he will buy for it from the School makan shop. At 11.15 the bell will ring once more and now the youth will be made to grapple with all sorts of geographical problems of which he can make hardly anything, not being actually acquainted with even the rudiments of geography without which such decorations (which the Examiners will have nevertheless) are merely waste of time. And so the morning will draw to its close with perhaps Dictation to round it off.

Pupils Hall

But come into the Hall with me where I now teach permanently and let us see what happens. The boys sit at tables in two long rows facing my upright reading desk and I teach standing up with my back to the stage. This, to me, is the most fascinating of all my work - and I thoroughly believe in that saying of my late Chief (himself one of England's greatest Schoolmasters): "The Headmaster should be the best teacher in the School;" though I wish it were truer so far as I am concerned. I am fortunate, however, in having a very fine Staff, and there is here no question of any being superior to the other. I have often gone into the Hall feeling slightly tired, and yet in a few minutes all this has vanished: if one gives out to the boys - they certainly repay you by infusing some of their young life essence with yours.

This morning the subject we are studying is Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, and we have already read the piece through once or twice so as to get the feel of it: first I read it as fast as I could - not stopping to explain anything - and then the boys read it. Even so we have only the vaguest ideas about it and it is difficult to explain to the outsider how terribly hard most of the Asiatics find it to understand our literature. However it has got to be done and so we attempt to make it into a play - Chan Kim is voted Narrator; Wing Kong becomes the Ancient Mariner while Mohamed Dahalan is the Bridegroom. We spend some minutes and give it up: quite unsuitable. Then I say: "Well, let's find out from the text itself what sort of a fellow the Ancient Mariner really was. Write out every line which describes him. No use my describing him when Coleridge has already done it." The boys open their note-books (how ready they are to take down dictated notes, or to copy; but give them original work and they suck their pens, shake their knees, dig their toes violently into the floor, and think of - nothing!) and for some minutes they are writing hard. Here is one of the results which I ask Chan Kim to read to me:

"'It is an ancient Mariner,
...long grey beard and glittering eye,
...his skinny hand…'"

"Right," I say. "Now let's have something a little longer - try and do the voyage of the ship or part of it. This time the pens are scratching for a longer time - and after some 7 minutes I ask for the result: it is Kwok who now gets up and reads.

"'The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared
Merrily did we drop….
And now the Storm-blast came ...
And chased us south along ...
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast ...
And ice, mast high, came floating by ...
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea…'"

"Thank you!" I say: and suddenly to our astonishment the bell goes and we seem to have accomplished nothing.

During the next period with another form we try a Debate, the motion being: "That in the opinion of this House the Ancient Mariner should not have shot the albatross."

When doing Shakespeare's Richard II we also tried some debates, as well as acting through the play; here is one of the subjects chosen: "That in the opinion of this House Bolingbroke was wrong to depose King Richard II and did it in an unlawful manner."

These debates stimulated thought all round, and made the boys work as well as the master. One is so inclined to do all the work oneself.

I often attempted to try and make the boys themselves write English verse, and taking the poem of "Hiawatha" as a model I would string together a few lines (on any subject) and then ask them to continue. For some weeks I had the greatest difficulty with this - but gradually some boys learned how to do it and improved their vocabularies notably. Here is the sort of thing which I would make up to try and encourage them - it describes my first journey by car to Singapore and was subsequently printed in the school magazine:

"Should you ask us, should you question
Why on earth we journeyed Southwards;
Journeyed o'er the rugged mountains,
Journeyed o'er the jolting roadways;
In a motor made by Willys -
We should answer we should tell you
That the railway and the steamers
Both are mightily expensive
Costing many many dollars;
And, besides, to view the country
Glorious country of Malaya
With its coconut plantations
With its many miles of jungle
This indeed was our objective:
So by car we journeyed Southwards.

Extracts from Sidney's Malay Land

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created on 19 March 2000.
Last update on 31 December 2008.

PageKeeper: Ooi Boon Kheng