To honour the passing of the seventy five years in the life of an institution is very different from commemorating someone’s birthday particularly when it involves not only the historical evolution of a school but also the changing times of a young nation such as ours. Hardly anyone of our School’s living population of today will be able to truly comprehend the meaning of its past as we have yet to achieve a collective appreciation of how we have come to be what we both as individuals as well as citizens of a vibrant new society.
Looking back at the emergence of HSBM since 1927 from the current standpoint, one of the first things that strikes you is the simple fact that exactly thirty years after it was established we became an independent nation. Thus, in a sense, the greater part of our school’s hisroty has been very much our own responsibility and, yet, the question that begs to be asked is: Just how much has the old School changed during this relatively short span of time? One does not expect any simple answer to such an intriguing way of assessing our past seventy five years but it needs to be borne in mind that change is inevitable, for nothing is static in history. And yet, the older alumni amongst us quite often find it rather a challenge to have to concede that time and tide have indeed waited for no man and that our alma mater after seventy five years may indeed be much more hallowed institution today than it once was!
Our very name, despite repeated attempts to mangle it, has remained the same not to mention a number of other icons such as Jacob’s Green and the various houses, namely, Cheeseman, Colin King, Soon Eng Kong and Stowell. Other snippets of our days at the school might include the delicious fare in the quaint tuck shop at the corner of the playing filed, of the verdant and luscious produce of Mr Kam Kee Hock’s much loved vegetable garden between the Teacher’s Quarters and the H.M.’s house, or even the ubiquitous office, visits to which, for many, invariably ended with a sharp pain in the buttocks! It is these things, both living and inanimate, that collectively make up one’s memories of what it was to be a HSBM boy. They are, indeed, the tangible links with our historic beginnings and our colourful pre-Merdeka past but what of the less physical and readily visible ties that give each and every one of us as Old Boys a warm and comfortable feeling of pride and a sense of belonging?
It is here that we need to remember that people who helped make HSBM, our alma mater, what it has been for all these 75 years. In fact, we celebrated the Diamond Jubilee not just for the material things that made life in the old school such a joy to recall and be proud of, but even more for the rare privilege of having such an absolutely dedicated team of headmasters and teachers virtually from the day it all began. And the truly remarkable thing is that they were all, as individuals, quite extraordinary people both as purveyors of knowledge and as good decent people. Without our teachers (or “Masters” as we knew them) none of us would have triumphed as well as we did both in class and on the field for, from the beginning, the emphasis was on achieving the seemingly impossible for the pure glory of the School’s name. Thus, from out of nowhere on the plains of Province Wellesley, there suddenly arose from 1927 onwards a colossus in academic brilliance and sporting excellence.
Apart from a short break cause by the Japanese Occupation, HSBM went on to challenge and, very often, soundly beat not only its immediate rivals in the rarefield confines of the Peninsula for more than half a century.
HSBM would have never amounted to much if it had been just another British colonial institution to educate the natives among a motley gathering of rice farmers, rubber tappers, civil servants and petty traders. Undoubtedly, the vision of the founding father, E La M. Stowell, to mould the newly established school along the strict but slightly elitist lines of the English public school model has much to do with the nurturing of the school’s character. But, surely, the amazing thing is that this no doubt well intentioned aspiration was left in the somewhat unusual charge of a small band of valiant locals and it is entirely to credit their that we have become what we are today. Looking back at old photographs of the School, it is almost incredible that the men who had gathered in the town’s photo studio for a historical group picture in 1927 were to be ultimately responsible for all that the school came to be known for especially in the quality of men that it produced. Even more, when one reads the almost unbelievably personal reminisces of some of the select few of this elite pioneering staff members in the Golden Anniversary edition of The Bukit, none of us will be able to deny the utter sincerity and total dedication of these early teachers.
Most old boys of the pre-Merdeka years will never be able to forget the names of these archetypal Malayan gentlemen of that period when, as a Malay, Chinese or Indian or Eurasian in what was then British Malaya, they were all caught in a fascinating dilemma. Themselves thoroughly schooled in the British educational tradition and yet ethically not entirely detribalised, one remembers them as neatly attired in stiffly starched, usually white, long-sleeved shirts and trousers with their de rigueur ties. It was this core of pioneer teachers whose names are now just a memory that was the backbone of the School’s rise to fame from a backwater such as Province Wellesley. As we observe the seventy fifth anniversary then, we ought to be acutely aware of their absence today as they have almost all to a man faded away with the passing of time and we’re left only with our fond memories of them, if we were so fortunate as to have ever been under their charge. For the rest of the Old Boys of today, it would be a most inspiring experience to seek out that 1977 edition of The Bukit and just imbibe the simple and yet noble virtues of the lives of these great former teachers of ours who mostly lived in their modest but cosy homes between No 81A to No 81L of Teachers’ Quarters.
In the context of the populist nature of our modern national education systems, one can hardly believe that there once was a breed of dedicated educators of the innocent young who gave so generously and diligently of their best to bring us up as men of some standing and committed to high values. They judged us neither by our creed nor our colour but preferred, instead to devote themselves to their youthful charges of a very heterogeneous ethnic and socio economic background entirely on the all but forgotten basis of professional duty and personal pride in a good day’s job done. It would be a valuable exercise if something could be done to acknowledge the incomparable contributions of the pioneering teaching staff in some tangible and permanent manner. Even though our boys and girls of today may have no idea of what it was like in those days to have been literally brought up from boyhood to manhood under the unwavering gaze of our “Masters” there is still much merit in having their invaluable and everlasting contributions recorded for posterity.
In recalling the glorious record of HSBM’s seventy five years but we are all undoubtedly very conscious of that proud tradition in the initial years of our nation’s rise to greatness. In all fairness, it must also be said that despite the vastly changed political and socio-economic environment from about the 1970s onwards, the later generation of HSBM products have maintained many of the great records of earlier years. Perhaps this will in some way serve to inspire the new generation to appreciate the value of honouring the past and even once in a in a while, to try and understand the real meaning of being an Old Boy of the HSBM. We are part of the general awakening of interest in the country in recent years for paying greater value to heritage conservation it and consider the preservation of the original wooden school block just past the flag post and School bell at the top of the step. The conservation of HSBM is, after all, a permanent symbol of the rise of this part of Penang from being an unknown rural countryside in the early part of the last century to a bustling high-tech industrial society in which the old school continues to outshine its rivals both academically an in sports.
As the school song goes:
At the high School by the Bukit
Where Mertajam lies her plain
Rears her head the are boys are ready
To face danger, conquer pain
Accomplish or do not begin.
Surely that is as true today as it was then, 75 years ago and will still be in the future!!