Victoria Institution

Education in Malaya

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During British intervention, Malay education was in the form of Quran schools. It was then realized that education of the citizens was the responsibility of the state. The priority of the British administrators in Perak and all the protected states was the establishment of an administration and preservation of law and order. The first time education was mentioned was in the report of Hugh Low, the Resident of Perak. He mentioned the setting up of an education institution to give secular education for the children in Sayong in Perak. It failed.

Malay Education

The authorities felt that it was their responsibility to educate the Malays because they had treaty obligations with the Malay rulers. In 1904, the FMS had 232 Malay schools. Malay parents were found to be reluctant to send their children to schools that gave secular education because of the absence of Quran teaching. In Perak and Selangor, there were 12 schools for girls. There were no girls’ schools in other states. At Bandar in Selangor, where a girls’ school was established by the Sultan of Selangor, he introduced a bullock cart service to shield the girls from prying eyes of males. In 1897, there were 130 Malay schools in the FMS. It was reported in the Resident General’s Report that the teaching in Malay schools was poor. Progress was only made by the girls school in Bandar because of the influence and encouragement of the Sultan. However, by 1900, there were 159 boys and 12 girls’ schools. Quran teachers were employed if desired by the parents in Perak and Selangor. No Quran teachers were appointed in Negri Sembilan and Pahang.

The arrival of R. J. Wilkinson in 1903 as Federal Inspector of Schools produced a new era in Malay education. A number of textbooks on Malay literature were produced. In 1904, the Government appointed a committee, of which Wilkinson was a member. The result was that the Roman alphabet was introduced for Malay and saw the rise of Rumi (Romanized Malay) in Malay education. Until 1898, there was no scheme for the training of Malay teachers. Perak and Selangor set up a training institute in Taiping. In 1900, the FMS and the SS set up an institution in Melaka under an European head. In 1922, R. O. Winstedt set up the Sultan Idris Training College in Tanjong Malim, Perak.

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Sultan Idris Training College

In the Unfederated Malay States, the pondok schools and madrassahs exerted their influence, particularly in the East Coast states. The emphasis was on the teaching of Islam. Malay-ness was equated to Islam. But in the madrassahs, secular subjects were taught. Some school leavers from the madrassahs were able to continue their studies in English secondary schools.

English Education


Penang Free School (from an old postcard)

The first English school in the country was the Penang Free School, which was established in 1816 [Note: the author was Head of this school from 1979 until 1983]. In the FMS, the first English schools were five Government English schools and 13 run by the Christian missions. The total enrolment in English schools was 2022. The early schools were the Taiping Central School (later King Edward VII School), Taiping Girls School (later Treacher Methodist Girls School – Note: The author’s late wife attended this school in the 1950s), Anglo Tamil Taiping, Anglo Chinese School Ipoh and the Methodist mission opened schools in Parit Buntar and Telok Anson. The French Catholic nuns set up Convents. Later, Anglo Chinese Schools were founded in other towns. The Raja Class founded in Kuala Kangsar led to the establishment of Clifford School in 1927. In Selangor, there was the Victoria Institution and Anglo Chinese School Klang (feeder to Victoria’s Institution). There was also MBS Methodist, St Johns Catholic and Bukit Nanas Convent. The Government’s Girls’ School became the Methodist Girls’ School.


Bukit Bintang Girls’ School

In Negri Sembilan, the first English schools were St Paul’s Institution, King George V and Tunku Mohammad School came later in Kuala Pilah.

By 1907 in the FMS, the leading English schools were in the town of Taiping, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Seremban. Enrolled in English schools were 2951 boys and 126 girls. The urban people were mainly Indians and Chinese. The English schools mainly served these people. The early teachers were pupil teachers. Young people were expected to shoulder the work of teachers. Practically, no help was received from the Head, either through ineptitude or being preoccupied with other administrative work. Various schemes were recommended but not implemented. English schools started with infant classes of two years, followed by the elementary classes of seven years, leading to Standard Seven. Some of the leading schools offered classes for Junior Cambridge Certificate and Senior Cambridge Certificate. These certificate classes were introduced in the FMS in 1900.

An expatriate teacher at Victoria Institution, Mr. Howard Tyte introduced the normal class. He had six students from VI and MBS and gave part-time instruction. At the end of three years, the trainees had to sit for an examination. It proved to be a success and it was extended to other towns in the Malay states and Straits Settlements. It was a vast improvement on the Pupil-Teacher system.


Datuk E. E. C. Thuraisingham

In the post-war years, there appeared a shortage of teachers. Earlier, Datuk E. E. C. Thuraisingham who was a member of the Federation of Malaya Legislative Council, recommended that the salaries of all Government employees should be raised to give them a decent standard of living. The Government appreciated the contribution of teachers but wanted an improvement to normal training. It was decided under Thuraisingham, who had become the Member of Education, to establish teacher training colleges. It was felt that teachers should be taught content and also the methods of teaching. It was also felt that having the colleges in Britain would expose the trainees to the vast expertise of the British education system. Training colleges were later established throughout the country. Day training centers were also established. The day training centers also trained teachers for the Tamil and Chinese mediums. The regional training centers were established in the 1960s because there was a shortage of teachers.

Tamil Education

Formal Tamil education in Malaya was mainly by Christian missionaries. The first Tamil class was held in Penang Free School. After 1870, Christian missionaries began establishing Tamil schools in Penang, Province Wellesley and Perak, to cater for the children of Indian workers in the sugar and gambiar plantations. In Bagan Serai in Perak, the Christian missions established schools where there were many Tamils. The government also established Tamil schools to cater to the children of Tamil workers. Ceylon Tamils also began setting up Tamil schools. The estates were required by the labour code of 1923 to establish Tamil schools. However, facilities provided were poor. Early teachers were the mandores, Tamil literate clerks, or Tamil literate labourers. In 1937, an Inspector of Indian schools was appointed in the education departments. Later, a scheme for Tamil teachers was introduced. In the 1950s, the Standard Seven examination in Tamil was introduced. All those who intended to become teachers had to possess the Standard Seven qualification. The authorities felt that the knowledge of agriculture and handicraft was sufficient.


An estate Tamil School

Chinese Education

The Chinese in Malaya felt that the ability to recognize and use 2000 Chinese characters was sufficient. First established were the dialect schools. The fall of the Manchus as a result of the revolution of 1911, Chinese schools in Malaya became a battleground between the Kuomintang and the Communist ideologies. The registration of schools was introduced in the 1920s. It was decided to localize the Chinese schools. In 1935, the Education Department was asked to make changes in Chinese education. Subsidies were to be provided. A teacher training program was introduced. Mandarin was given formal recognition as medium of instruction. Some Chinese schools rejected the grants and aid from the Government. In the UFMS, until after the Second World War, the Chinese community opened schools and financed them. In the West coast states, a lot of Chinese schools were set up. As secondary education in Chinese gave no prospects, Chinese parents generally did not support Chinese secondary education. There were only 36 schools with secondary classes. Hence it was difficult to recruit teachers.

After returning to Malaya at the end of World War 2, the British authorities appointed the Barnes Committee, headed by Mr. Barnes, an Oxford don. In its report released in 1951, the Barnes Committee recommended the establishments of a common national system taught in English ad Malay in order to build a common Malayan nationality. Criticism from many quarters led to the appointment of a committee consisting of two Chinese education experts, Mr. Fenn and Mr. Wu. The Fenn-Wu Committee Report supported the Barnes recommendations but said that Chinese vernacular schools should be retained in the national education system.


A Chinese school in Muar

In the election in 1954, the Alliance under Tunku Abdul Rahman, won in 51 of the 52 seats and Tunku Abdul Rahman became the Chief Minister of the Federation. In 1956, the Razak Committee headed by the Education Minister, Abdul Razak recommended a common curriculum within the national education system in order to foster common loyalty to the nation. The Committee’s recommendations were presented in the form of the Education Ordnance 1959, which explained the Government’s aim to establish a national education system with Malay as the national language.  After winning the elections in 1959, the Rahman Talib Education Committee was appointed. According to the Rahman Talib Report, the pluralist aspirations of the various communities were incompatible to the creation of national consciousness. Eventually, Malay would be come the main medium of instruction. At present, only English and Malay would be allowed at secondary level. Chinese Secondary schools had to change their medium.

Under Article 12 (1) of the Constitution, Chinese, Indians and Malay pupils who are citizens of the country were guaranteed the right of admission to public universities. But an amendment to Article 153 of the Constitution in 1971 introduced the quota system for admission, giving greater representation to Malays and a lowering of entry requirements for them. As a result, public universities contained a majority of Malays leading to greater polarization.

Presently, the country is experiencing a lowering of education standards. In the English medium schools of the past, there was greater mixing of the communities. English schools children were very united. Language medium of instruction is not important but mixing is. Greater mixing would bring greater unity. Objectionable features of the national education system should be removed so that national schools would become the preferred choice of non-Malay parents, as before. Chinese secondary education should not be permitted as such a measure would be divisive. However, there is provision for the entry of vernacular primary school pupils to enter the national system. The teaching of Chinese and Tamil in the national secondary schools should be further encouraged. This is provided for in the ordnances. Chinese and Indian departments should also be established in all public universities and courses offered.