NEW MEANS, OLD MISSION: Malaysia’s proud mission school heritage adapts to new challenges


SMK Convent Light Street.

It was in early November last year when the news came in. It was a photograph of a letter bearing the letterhead of the North-East District Education Office, with the notice that three convent schools in Penang would cease enrolling new students. And it quickly went viral.

The letter, addressed to the principals of SMK Convent Light Street (CLS), SMK Convent Pulau Tikus (CPT) and SK Convent Light Street, was brief. In two lines, it said the phasing out followed a request from the Provincial Secretariat of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus (IJS) – the landowner of the schools.

Although within inner circles and among convent alumnae, the idea of certain convents being converted into private institutions had been thrown around for years, official confirmation of such a move still came as a surprise.

Wax and Wane

For a number, such news was far from welcomed. CLS, after all, was the birthplace of all convent schools in the nation, having been established by three IJS sisters who arrived on Penang’s shores in 1852. Interestingly, they came alongside a small group of La Salle Brothers who founded St. Xavier’s Institution (SXI) the same year – the oldest Lasallian school in the region. Both institutions were the first missions on foreign soil for the French Catholic orders.

IJS convent schools grew in the country and now possess what is believed to be the highest number of mission schools in the nation. The administration, make-up and running of the schools have, of course, greatly changed over the last century and a half. From schools staffed by sisters in habits, convents are now formally classified as “government-aided schools”, following the nationalisation of schools in the early 1970s.

SMK Convent Pulau Tikus.

Currently, mission schools operate much like government-aided vernacular schools in Malaysia; their teachers, heads of schools and staff are provided and paid for by the Ministry of Education, and grants are periodically given to help with utility bills. Everything else, however – from the upkeep of buildings and repairs to the provision of facilities and teaching aids – are borne by the individual schools.

For years now, the issue of funding has been a bone of contention for a number of mission and vernacular school landowners who point to the Education Act 1996 that defines a “government-aided school” as an “educational institution in receipt of capital grant and full grant-in-aid”.

The falling standard of education and the changing character of the schools following the retirement of a lot of the older teachers are major concerns to the Sisters of the Infant Jesus (IJS).

Food fairs, pledge cards and school plays have become regular fundraising events in mission schools, in their efforts to keep up with the maintenance of their buildings and the ever-increasing pace of modernisation in education. The alumni are also frequently called upon as the survival of the schools is quite dependent upon their support.

Falling enrolment rates in all convent schools across the nation have not helped. Aside from the three Chinese-medium convents in the country – Convent Datuk Keramat in Penang, Ave Maria Convent in Ipoh and Notre Dame Convent in Melaka – enrolment has steadily fallen for about a decade now, likely due to demographic changes and the proliferation of government schools since independence.1

The falling standard of education and the changing character of the schools following the retirement of a lot of the older teachers are major concerns to IJS – especially the diminishing “ethos” of convent schools, which had long emphasised the importance of discipline and good values.

New Plans

When the November notice from the education office came to light, no reason was hinted at for the taking back of the schools. Many assumed that the institutions would eventually enter the private education sphere where better funding and control could be obtained, but speculation of redevelopment on the sites fuelled an already apprehensive reaction.

Towards the end of the news day on November 3 – the same day the phasing out notice came to light – IJS released a short press statement, a rarity for the organisation that has always sought to stay out of the spotlight. In it, they outlined the history of IJS in Malaysia, with a special mention of CLS as their first “private mission school”. It continued:

“In a spirit of trust, dedication, love and sacrifice and with the help of numerous generous benefactors and friends, our Convent Schools and Orphanages multiplied throughout the country providing education to all children, irrespective of race and creed.

“The Sisters want to go back to our initial reason for being here, that is, the initial objective of providing a wholesome education in our mission schools.

“It is about bringing back our ethos, the special character and traditions of what a Mission school is … a Mission school that promotes the overall formation of an individual child irrespective of race, religion or social standing.”

Adding that preserving their legacy in the country – be it the education of young people or the conservation of their heritage buildings – was a matter of utmost importance to them, the sisters dismissed any notions of selling CLS and CPT land or buildings for redevelopment.

St. Xavier's Institution.

With no further official statement on the issue since then and the district education office’s letter being quickly withdrawn, the matter seems to be at a standstill for now.

Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy, who holds the education portfolio, laments at what he describes as the “diluting” of mission schools following their nationalisation.

“Especially after 1969, when there was an attempt to bring schools under one single system, the missionary schools were affected. I think it’s sad, because they trained some of the best and now, they have become unable to produce the kind of students that they produced earlier. We could have done better (in restructuring the education system). I think we can believe in bringing changes, but you don’t bring changes that affect the quality of schools,” he says.

Ramasamy, who himself attended mission schools in Setiawan and Teluk Intan, adds that he understands the attachment Penang has to its historical mission schools but does not question the motives of the landowners. “In mission schools, the teachers are paid by the government, but other than that, you have to find your own funds. It is not a simple matter. If these schools go completely private, then they will just become any other private school, but if they feel that that is the only option they have, then they have to go that way.”

He adds that the state government is committed to continue the annual allocation to aid mission schools, vernacular schools and religious schools in the state. A total of RM1.02mil was presented to 21 mission schools this year, with institutions receiving sums from RM10,000 to RM80,000 to upgrade and repair their buildings and facilities.

Statue of St. John Baptist de la Salle. The La Salle Brothers founded St. Xavier’s Institution in Penang – the first of Lasallian schools in all of Asia.

The La Salle Legacy

While convent schools in the country are synonymous with the highest standards of education for girls, one name tends to pop into mind in relation to mission schools for boys: La Salle.

Arriving on our country’s shores in 1852, three La Salle Brothers founded SXI in Penang – the first of Lasallian schools in all of Asia.

SXI Brother Director Datuk Brother Anthony Rogers says the Roman Catholic teaching order – also known as the Brothers of the Christian Schools – was founded by Saint Jean Baptist De La Salle in France in 1680. From its inception, it has focused on bringing education to children, especially those who could ill afford it.

From Penang, the Brothers expanded into South and South-East Asia, and later Hong Kong and eventually the Philippines, which now boasts the most Lasallian-affiliated institutions in the region. “In Malaysia, we currently have 44 schools – 32 in Peninsular Malaysia and another 12 in Sabah and Sarawak. KL and Selangor have the most schools at 14, while the other states generally have two or three institutions,” says Rogers, adding that aside from SXI secondary school, Penang was home to two Lasallian primary schools.

Traditionally, men in white cassocks walked the hallways and Brother Directors headed the schools until less than a decade ago, when Br Paul Ho retired as the last Brother Principal in the country in 2009 – in SXI, no less, the place where it all began.

Currently, just two local Lasallian Brothers continue to teach in the country – Br Jason Blaikie, who hails from Penang, and Br Michael Kum – who both serve at St Joseph's Institution International School Malaysia (SJIIM) in Petaling Jaya.

Most of the other 15 La Salle Brothers in Malaysia work closely with school boards, governors and management, says Rogers. “The 1970s saw the height of our numbers here in Malaysia, with about 120 studying to be Brothers in various departments of the St Joseph’s Training College in Penang. This college, which opened in 1918 and enrolled lay trainees (those training to be teachers but not Brothers) from 1960 to 1968, played a key role in providing teachers for all our Lasallian Schools and ensured a certain standard of education.”

He adds that the government ceased to allow lay people to enrol in the college in 1968, which significantly dropped the enrolment of the college and diminished its role as a teacher-training facility. In 1975 it was decided that all programmes at the college would be suspended.

Turning Point

Rogers says the order operating in Malaysia currently has two main objectives: to continuously devise strategies to make sure that existing La Salle schools provide quality education and to bring them to greater heights and, just as importantly, to initiate new La Salle initiatives, bearing in mind that their initial thrust should be to provide educational services to the poor.

“To do all of the above, we have different options open to us. Firstly, we must work together with all our Lasallian associates; the local community, our administrators, parents and most importantly our alumni.

“There are La Salle Alumni Associations across the country and in 1976, a number of them formed an umbrella organisation called the Malaysian Federation of Lasallian Alumni Associations (MFOLSA),” he explains, adding that currently, it had 19 member associations.

These organisations, filled with passionate Lasallians whose lives have been positively affected by their education, often mobilise and are called upon to collaborate with the Brothers in different, new academic initiatives.

One such initiative was St. John’s International School (SJIS) in KL that opened its doors to students in 2011. The school, which is privately funded and is in collaboration with the La Salle Brothers, runs side-by-side with St. John’s Institution – an accomplished government-aided mission school that was founded in 1904. The secondary school, which offers the Cambridge International GCE A-Level Programme, the Cambridge International IGCSE and the Cambridge International Lower Secondary programme, is the Brothers’ first foray into private education since mission schools were nationalised in 1971.

“The site of the international school is actually the former Brothers’ quarters. In line with the La Salle philosophy, SJIS offers the low-end of international school fees and now has an enrolment of about 700 students,” Rogers says.

Datuk Br Anthony Rogers.

After the opening of SJIS, another former Brothers’ quarters – Wisma Lourdes in Klang – was converted to become the first site of Regent International Schools. In the same year, the Lasallian East Asia District (LEAD) was born. The organisation, covering seven countries, brings together 150 Brothers and over 13,000 Lasallian partners and associates to embark upon, sponsor or manage more than 70 educational institutions in the region.

The first LEAD initiative began in Malaysia in August 2016 when St. Joseph’s Institution International School Malaysia (SJIIM) opened in Tropicana, Petaling Jaya. This primary and secondary school was established by the Lasallian Asian Partnership for International Schools and launched with a record number of 430 founding students.

Now, with students from around 30 different nationalities studying in the campus, the institution offers impressive scholarship programmes to make its private education offering more feasible and affordable to students. “Some lament that there are only 15 of us Brothers left in Malaysia, but we have now become part of a larger community which encompasses seven countries: Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Through this partnership, the presence of the Brothers here is secure and will not be reduced,” Rogers says, adding that there were currently two international Brothers – one from Thailand and another from Hong Kong – serving in SJIIM.

The next project for the La Salle Brothers is SXI, where it all began. The upper floor of a school wing that now bears plaques declaring “Brothers’ Quarters – Strictly Private” will soon welcome students to the new Lasallian Institute for Further Education (LIFE). “This institute will open in the afternoon and offer 27 VTC (vocational, technical and creative) subjects to help secondary school students tailor their education to their specific needs,” Rogers says.

From music to culinary arts, physical education and business management, the learning centre will offer specialised IGCSE courses in after-school-hours learning. “This will not be a full-time school in the beginning and it will allow students to explore different options without abandoning the national education curriculum. We hope to later open the door to other students in Penang. This new La Salle education initiative caters for as many students as possible,” he expounds 

SXI's old Brothers' quarters will soon be transformed into the new Lasallian Institute for Further Education (LIFE).

The renovated new centre, scheduled to open before the year’s end, is located above Brother Charles Garden; the school’s Brothers’ quarters will be converted into 10 classrooms that can admit a total of 300 students. It is Rogers’ hope that the centre will help students strengthen both their core character and academic qualifications.

On the foray of the Brothers into the private education sphere, Rogers describes it as a logical next step. “For me, this is part of our evolution. Our success in this new chapter of our journey depends on three things. Firstly, our history shows us that we have grown because we are able to dialogue with existing elected governments and we must continue this. Secondly, we must be ready to develop new forms of association with all Lasallians and Malaysians,” Rogers says.

This point, he explains, is two-fold: they will need to be open to form partnerships with organisations and corporations that can become business partners in the way of apprenticeships, grants and scholarships; and secondly, schools also need to learn to tap into the connections and support of the tens of thousands of Lasallians who have experienced learning in La Salle schools.

The new Wesley Methodist School Penang (International) is set to open its doors in September.

“Finally, all these new projects must be financially sustainable. We don’t want to be a charity organisation that lives hand-to-mouth. Currently, our alumni play a big role in supporting our mission schools and initiatives and this is based on loyalty. However, we need to have a steady source of our own funds,” he says.

To this end, the Brothers intend to continue to play an active role in both their mission schools and further education initiatives. “We have lost (direct) control of our schools, but we have not lost our influence. This influence is the innate potential to create something new and something that is relevant to the lives of students, and we intend to keep doing that,” Rogers says.

The Methodist Mission

Exciting developments are also on the frontier for Methodist educationalists in the country. For the first time in decades, a new Methodist school has been built from the ground up – and where else but in Penang?

Located a stone’s throw from Karpal Singh Drive, Wesley Methodist School Penang (International) sits just 250m from the beautiful seafront. Set to open its doors in September, this unique undertaking by the Methodist Council of Education is a landmark development in the church’s 127-year legacy in education in the country.

 “Education and the Methodist Church in Malaysia have been connected almost from day one. When the early church arrived in the country, they saw a need in helping to provide education to working-class families. Methodist mission schools, from its early days, had a very specific intention to help children of the working-class populace to avail themselves to education,” says the Methodist Council of Education’s Private Education Director Jenny Qua.

A statue of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, watches over the main assembly area in the new Wesley Methodist School Penang (International).

Education, she continues, is a great social mobiliser and an opportunity provider for children to access better work opportunities and thus, improve their position and social standing. “We believe – both now and then – that education will also be a foundational block to good citizenship of any land and a fundamental educated community will provide the latitude for wider possibilities and better-placed jobs,” she adds.

Currently, there are 49 Methodist primary schools and 26 secondary schools in Malaysia. The schools became government-assisted schools in 1971.

The Methodist Church also operates two private colleges of higher education – Methodist College Kuala Lumpur and Methodist Pilley Institute in Sibu. “Our commitment to education even extends to the preschool environment. The origin of our kindergartens sprung up as social-concern initiatives of local churches. It was not only to introduce affordable education to children of families within a locality but also to provide a safe place for children to be in with guided supervision while their parents go to work,” Qua says.

Because the kindergartens operated within church grounds, the fees were nominal on account of no rent being required, and the availability of volunteer initiatives added flavour and resources to the kindergartens. “Of course, over time, some of the kindergartens have gotten a bit more sophisticated and the children who attend them have grown in numbers,” Qua says, adding that there are now about 60 Methodist kindergartens in the country.

The new Wesley Methodist School Penang (International) also has two open rooftops that can be used for a variety of sports.

Other than kindergartens, the Methodists also operated some half a dozen “afternoon schools”. Sometimes known as “schools of second chance”, these establishments were found in KL, Ipoh, Klang, Seremban and Melaka and catered to students who did not meet the requirements of major national examinations held at Year Six, Form Three and Form Five.

Qua explains that the church did not want to leave these children without options, so, these schools were designed to offer education for them to re-sit major examinations to complete school. When mission schools were nationalised, these schools eventually lost their relevance, she adds.

In later years, as regulators began to open the window for private schools in the country, some of the older and smaller facilities in these afternoon schools were refurbished for the Methodist Council of Education to re-enter the foray of education in a more direct manner. These schools were reopened as affordable private schools running the national secondary school curriculum. The Methodists are also clear that private international education can become an alternate pathway for parents to choose.

In 2016 Wesley Methodist School Kuala Lumpur became Wesley Methodist School Kuala Lumpur (International). That trend followed in the council’s Ipoh private school.

Penang is a completely new initiative, as it was never a location for a “school of second chance”. However, the choice of the state is fitting in a sense, as Penang was where Methodist educationalists began their initiatives in the country.

Methodist Boys’ School – located in Air Itam – was the very first school the Methodists opened in the country. This was in 1871, with the enrolment of just one student on its first day!

“We wanted a presence in Penang, as we already have an international school in KL and in Ipoh. So, when the opportunity presented itself, we took it. This is the first school we have that is purpose-built as an international school,” Qua says.

The seven-storey building, which contains a primary school wing and secondary school wing along with preschool or “early year” classrooms, broke ground on March 2, 2016. “All in all, we have the capacity to take in 1,540 students ranging from the early years – ages three to five – to Year 11 of the British Cambridge curriculum,” Qua says.

On the academic side, the school will run a syllabus based on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, fine arts, mathematics), leading up to the Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) examinations, and will also have Bahasa Melayu as a compulsory subject for local children, building them up for an SPM qualification.

“We intentionally offer the lower range of fees among international schools in Penang. It is about opportunity for quality education and we put an emphasis both on academic and character development.

“It is an extremely large commitment for us but this is the Methodist church’s long-term commitment to affordable, quality education in the northern region. We expect to see students from as far away as Taiping, Alor Setar and Sungai Petani coming to study in the school,” Qua adds.

Without doubt, Penang is the bedrock for mission school education in Malaysia, which is set for a revival in their mission to provide education to the community. Many are starting, once again, in Penang.


Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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