Teh Aik Lum: Jit Sin’s Dedicated Chairman

For 38 years, Datuk Seri Teh Aik Lum has been supporting the education of future generations. The humble school board chairman of Jit Sin High School sits down with Penang Monthly for a chat

Datuk Seri Teh Aik Lum

Can you briefly tell us about yourself?

I was born in 1935 in Guangdong Province, China. I came to Malaya when I was 11 years old. Before that, I studied in one of the schools in the province. All my school subjects were taught in Hokkien; each province back then learned in a different Chinese dialect.

I attended lower secondary school at Jit Sin in the 1950s and finished my upper secondary at Chung Ling High School. During those years, tertiary education wasn’t necessary. After graduating in 1955, I worked at my father’s hardware store with my brother. From then on, we developed our own businesses. I am now a developer and a construction businessman.

Tell us about your experience as the school board chairman of Jit Sin High School. What sort of challenges do you face?

I joined the school’s board of directors in 1967. In 1980 I was elected chairman for both Jit Sin High School and Jit Sin Independent High School – a position I still hold. I had actually announced my retirement in 2008 as chairman for Jit Sin, along with my roles in other associations, after a heart surgery and accompanying health issues. However, Jit Sin’s board of directors wanted me to stay on.

The major challenge that I face is maintaining the schools’ finances, especially for Jit Sin Independent: every year we face the same difficulty because it is a self-funded school. The school fees do not cost our students an arm and a leg; hence, they are not enough to cover all the expenses.

As for Jit Sin High School, government funds only cover books, teachers’ salaries and students’ school fees. The board of directors has to find funding for other facilities for the school.

As a Jit Sin old boy, what was it like growing up and going to school in Bukit Mertajam?

When I came to Malaya in 1946, I continued my studies at Jit Sin Primary School and faced difficulties during my first year, as the language medium for teaching was different. Here, everybody learned English when they entered primary school. As a transfer student, I struggled to master the subject. I was lucky that my father’s best friend was willing to tutor me. After a few months, I was able to catch up with my classmates.

Jit Sin began offering lower secondary education only in 1950 and upper secondary education in 1958. After finishing lower secondary, I sat for the exam to continue my upper secondary education at Chung Ling. Back then, there were only two Chinese high schools in Penang: Chung Ling and Penang Chinese Girls’ High School. The alternative was to opt for English high schools to finish our upper secondary education.

The school compound.

Groundbreaking ceremony of the new building by Jit Sin alumni on July 2, 2017.

Jit Sin celebrates its centennial in March. What anecdotes can you share with us about the school?

The primary school turns 100, yes. Jit Sin High and Jit Sin Independent were established in 1950, meaning the two high schools are only 67.

The government took over the education system in 1962, and Jit Sin was one of the schools that underwent change – only government-certified educators and non-over-aged students were allowed to continue teaching and schooling. Therefore, Jit Sin chose to split the high schools to enable the educators and students to continue to teach and study.

In the 1980s both high schools were cramped in a 5.5-acre compound. It was rather crowded. We already had more than 5,000 students. That was why we built the new building at Taman Sri Rambai for Jit Sin High students.

The land was provided by the Penang state government, and construction costs were borne by the school itself. We needed more than RM1mil to build the school, and so we organised crowdfunding activities and received contributions from members of the board of directors. As Jit Sin wasn’t famous and Bukit Mertajam wasn’t a big town, it was a hard journey, but luck was on our side, and in 1992 we managed to move Jit Sin High students into the new building. The old building continues to be occupied by Jit Sin Independent. With a better study environment, students from both schools have been performing far better in their studies.

Jit Sin is an elite school today. What was the journey like to achieve this?

It was certainly beyond expectations. There are other elite schools that were established earlier than Jit Sin – for example Chung Ling, which celebrated their centennial last year. Jit Sin began as a primary school and it was not till 1958 that the high school was formed. I am proud that Jit Sin is able to be an elite school, even though we started later.

"Jit Sin began as a primary school and it was not till 1958 that the high school was formed. I am proud that Jit Sin is able to be an elite school, even though we started later."

Jit Sin is a control school (sekolah kawalan), and it was through this system that we managed to become an elite school, ranking 22nd among 2,722 schools. However, starting this year, the Ministry of Education will remodel control schools and I am afraid this will affect our school’s performance.

Jit Sin Independent is doing really well too – its academic and co-curricular performance is comparable with Jit Sin High. There are many students who apply to study at Jit Sin Independent, but due to limited spaces, we can’t admit all of them; registration is open to only 400 students yearly, but we usually receive more than 800 applications.

What kind of “soft” changes do you think Jit Sin has undergone? Is it more multiracial now?

Yes, we do have Malay and Indian students these days at Jit Sin. We welcome everyone, and by sharing a classroom with other races, we can only gain more knowledge.

Today, we have the most students in our private school compared to other private Chinese schools. There are many international schools in town these days, and our school certificate is compatible with theirs.

People often ask me how Chinese schools generate extra income for school facilities. As a chairman, can you elaborate?

We rely mostly on crowdfunding and contributions from the members of our board of directors and alumni to generate extra income for the school. Since 2009 we have received state government annual allocations and other financial assistance. Everything goes to school supplies, maintenance and the building fund.

What inspired you to continue supporting Jit Sin?

It is my devotion to the school. After graduating from Jit Sin Primary, coincidentally they were offering lower secondary education, so my father decided to let me continue my schooling. While I was working for my father, Jit Sin established lower and upper secondary education. From there, I joined the school alumni and started to support and help build the school.

Can you describe Bukit Mertajam? What do you like best about this township?

I have been staying here ever since I came to Malaya in 1946. Bukit Mertajam has since developed and improved. The roads and transportation system have also improved.

As a business person, I find that business development here is a little slower as the town is smaller. Bukit Mertajam used to be a plantation area; there were a lot of vegetable export activities. Today, some areas of Bukit Mertajam have become industrialised. To witness all these developments and transformations for over 70 years has been the best thing about living here.

Noorhasyilah Rosli is a publication graduate who is fascinated by books. She is an island girl who loves her beaches and hills.

Related Articles

Feb 2014

Up close with Lat

Malaysia's icon talks about kampung living and the importance of intermingling.

Jun 2016

The Force behind the Festivals

Passionate and motivated by the search for excellence, Yeoh Jun Lin takes delight in organising the Borneo Jazz Festival and Rainforest World Music Festival.

Oct 2012

Cheah Cheng Hye

Dr Ooi Kee Beng sits down with Penang's very own Warren Buffett.