In the early 2oth century, Province Wellesley, or Seberang Prai, was flourishing. Already an important agricultural area, Bukit Mertajam was at the heart of the rubber boom when it hit Malaya. Surrounded by plantations, the town was also a critical transport hub for the whole region, with rubber and other commodities arriving by rail and road to be exported from Penang Port. It was the regional centre for the colonial administration, benefitting from good water supply, sanitation and policing. It was also the regional centre for the thriving smuggling trade.
As the economy developed, so did the need for education. Parents who wanted an English-language education for their sons beyond primary level had to ferry them across to the island to attend Penang Free School or St. Xavier’s Institution. To remedy this, Harold Cheeseman, the inspector of schools in Penang and future director of education for Malaya, proposed the building of the Government English School Bukit Mertajam. Later renamed Bukit Mertajam High School (HSBM), the school opened its doors to around 400 pupils in January 1927. The main wooden building, which had been completed the year before, is still the central feature of the school, along with the hall that was added in 1929.
The school buildings fell into disrepair over the decades, but were comprehensively and lovingly refurbished – with air-conditioning – in 2009, following a fundraising campaign led by the school’s Alumni Association. RM660,000 was raised, and their efforts were rewarded further when then-prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, himself an HSBM old boy, approved a renovation grant of RM3.5mil.
Today, the school buildings look much as they did in the early years, and the small hill on which they are perched remains a green oasis nestled below the much larger peak of Bukit Mertajam. The scenic nature of the school is enhanced by its playing field, Jacob’s Green, which divides the school buildings from the road below.
The culture of the school owes much to its founding headmaster. Edgar de la Mothe Stowell was first educated at Sedbergh, an ancient public school in the north of England, and then at Cambridge, before becoming a teacher in the Colonial Education Service. Stowell arrived in Malaya in 1922 as assistant master in the Education Department of the Straits Settlements and
Federated Malay States, and when he was appointed headmaster of the new school in Bukit Mertajam, he was determined to leave his mark.
Taking as a model his alma mater – coincidentally, also overlooked by a hill – Stowell replicated many of Sedbergh’s traditions. He wrote the words for the school song himself, and he divided the boys into Colours (now Houses). The Red, Green, Blue and Yellow Colours not only competed against each other in sport, but also had a council each responsible for investigating outdoor misbehaviour and administering appropriate punishment – seeing as Stowell was a stickler for strong sporting ethic and strict discipline.
HSBM school gate.
Old school bell.
Sedbergh’s motto was “Dura Virum Nutrix” (Stern Nurse of Men); but Stowell preferred for HSBM the more aspirational “Aut Coepisse Noli Aut Confice,” which translates as “Accomplish or Do Not Begin.” Other traditions he introduced include the Compass (a series of responses emphasising a commitment to duty, hard work and truth) and the Statement, a short reading including the sentence “From the School more is to be learnt than the wisdom of books: the conduct of a good man and true may be learnt at school.” These were both recited at the daily morning assembly.
The Statement is still recited today, although it has been amended to include reference to girls, who were first admitted in small numbers in 1963, and in larger numbers after 1988. The Compass, however, has been dropped altogether. At the time, Stowell wrote: “In Malaya, the boys have so many religions, I think something, like the Compass or Statement, is the best kind of substitute we can give them for a good, shared, basic ethical purpose with which to start the day.”
Stowell may have sometimes been overzealous in his application of discipline. In 1931 he was charged with, and later acquitted of, using criminal force after caning a schoolboy who claimed it was not justified. The incident was only a temporary interruption in his career progression; after covering for an absent headmaster at the Penang Free School, and then at the prestigious Victoria Institution in KL, he was appointed Superintendent of Education in Kedah in 1933, and promoted to Senior Education Officer in 1937.
Stowell’s name lives on at the school. When the Colours became Houses, Yellow was renamed Stowell. The other Houses were named after Cheeseman; Colin King, a headmaster during World War II; and Soon Eng Kong, a significant benefactor. A fifth House, Tun Salleh, was established in the 1990s, named after an alumnus who became the Inspector General of Police in Singapore and Malaya in 1966. Stowell was again honoured when a feeder primary school opened in 1958 was named after him.
A line from the school’s song states: “Famous sons and daughters have sailed forth.” These include former deputy prime minister and later leader of the opposition, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, and an entire roster of sporting, academic and business leaders.
The school’s strong legacy in sports can be attributed to the fine Jacob’s Green, and the emphasis early teachers placed on it. In its first few years the school had no playing field. But in 1931, new headmaster C.E.H. Jacobs took matters into his own hands – personally supervising the preparation of the ground for planting, watering it himself every day, almost coaxing the grass to grow.
By the end of the 1930s, the school’s prowess in cricket and rugby against other local schools was often reported in the press. Even in the 1950s, the school had a far better playing field than its great rival, the Penang Free School. And today the sporting legacy survives, with football, netball, cricket and rugby games for Old Boys versus Present Boys planned for the 90th anniversary celebrations this month.
During World War II, the school was occupied by the Australian Army. The boys and the staff decamped to a rice mill behind the Bukit Mertajam District Hospital. But when the Bukit Mertajam Railway Station was bombed by the Japanese in December 1941, headmaster King took the decision to close the school, and it did not reopen until the end of 1945. School uniforms were dusted off; the school’s traditions were revived, and some new ones were added – notably the Crest and the Bell.
Oh Boon Tat, who had been on the staff since the school’s opening in 1927, designed the crest in 1948. The crest contains the school motto, an outline of the hill, and grains of
padi to reflect the local landscape. Long-serving Oh was the mathematics teacher, coached cricket, rugby and athletics, and also took care of Jacob’s Green.
HSBM old block.
In 1951 the Penang Harbour Board presented HSBM with a school bell on the occasion of the opening of its new science block. Engraved with the expression “Punctuality is the Courtesy of Kings” attributed to Louis XVIII of France, it was rung by the caretaker at the beginning and end of lessons. It became such as important part of school life that a student wrote a poem about it for the 1987 Golden Anniversary edition of the school magazine. The old brass bell was still in use in 2002 at the school’s Diamond anniversary, but at some point afterwards was replaced by an electric bell. The original bell, now broken and neglected, remains hanging in front of the old school building.
However, the importance the school placed on celebrating its traditions continued. The longest serving headmaster, Dr R.D. Naidu, who was in charge from 1973 to 1987, was loved and hated, and feared and respected in equal measure. He forced the boys to speak English, but was an expert on Malay language, history and culture. He used the cane as liberally as Stowell if boys under-performed or wore their hair too long. But he also inspired loyalty and a sense of belonging by his refusal to accept defeat on the playing field.
As chairman of the football and rugby teams, Naidu maintained the school’s reputation in these and other sports. He retired in 1987, the year of the school’s Diamond anniversary, and wrote an article entitled “What Every Young Malaysian Should Have”, elaborating on the themes of piety, patriotism, bravery, good character, speaking the truth and dedication to duty.
And as HSBM celebrates its 90th anniversary, the alumni association is working tirelessly to demonstrate their pride in the school’s history and to involve as many former students, teachers, current students and other members of the Bukit Mertajam community as possible in the celebrations. As Stowell wrote in 1955, “like trees and plants, an institution has roots, or, as we say, traditions, customs, ways of behaving handed down from the early days. If they are cherished, the person or school can continually draw strength from them.”
90th Anniversary Organising Committee meeting.
The Bukit, 1987 and 2002 editions. High School Bukit Mertajam Alumni Malaysia. Accessed November 10, 2016. http://www.hsbmalumni.org.my/High School Bukit Mertajam Official Portal. Accessed November 10, 2016. http:// www.hsbm.edu.my/Penang Monthly, June 2015. Straits Times (articles from 1931, accessed via NewspaperSG). The Star (articles from 2015 and 2016, accessed online).
Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.