Editorial-cum-book review: Francis Loh Kok Wah, Cecilia Ng and Anthony Rogers: The Xaverian Journey: The Story of a Lasallian School in Penang, Malaysia 1787-2019. Pulau Pinang: Southbound. 2019.
I AM A Xaverian, and silently (until now at least) I have been very proud of that fact. Not proud in the sense of “My school, right or wrong”, but in the more profound sense that as I lived life and travelled to distant lands, settled among different peoples, and accomplished diverse tasks, I have found myself very well equipped and surprisingly adaptable to meet challenges.
The formative years in one’s life are of course influenced very strongly by family conditions on the one hand, and by the school or schools we attend and the friends and teachers you meet there, on the other. And as one journeys into the world, much of the abilities gained from that, both the good and the bad, are put to the test.
So, in truth, one can be confidently certain about the usefulness and quality of one’s upbringing only late in life. As a young man or woman straight from school, one is more likely to be defensively insistent rather than delightedly insightful about the specific benefits of one’s early development.
I was therefore pleasantly surprised to be given by Francis Loh a hardcover copy of The Xaverian Journey in 2019, just after it was published. “About time we had such a book”, was my first thought. Kudos to the three authors for putting together what must have been a difficult volume to produce, given the lack of early sources on the subject and the amount of details they nevertheless managed to collect and comment upon. The publishers, Southbound, should be commended as well.
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Most importantly, this book gives long overdue credit to the Catholic La Salle Brothers by highlighting their historical role in schooling and educating the children of Malaya. More specifically, it is their impact on Penang that is explored, exercised through St. Xavier’s Institution (SXI) and its affiliated schools.
As a movement, the La Salle Brothers began in France in 1680. Founded by John Baptiste de La Salle 100 years before the French Revolution, it sought to provide education to “the numerous poor, often neglected, and sometimes wild children, who abounded everywhere” in his time. This enlightened care for the education of “The Last, the Lost and the Least” would see the first of these dedicated teachers – three of them – arrive in Penang 172 years later, in 1852.
They were welcomed into a school that had already been set up in George Town almost immediately after the foundations of the settlement had been laid. In 1787, the year after Francis Light arrived to take possession of Prince of Wales Island, the Eurasian community that had escaped persecution in Phuket and sought refuge in Kuala Kedah moved to the island, and there, their priest, Bishop Arnaud-Antoine Garnault, set up St. Francis Xavier Free School.
Work on a building to house the school, now renamed St. Xavier’s Institution, situated to this day on Lebuh Farquhar, was immediately begun and opened on 1858.
Small and accessible to the poor, this first Lasallian school in Asia proved sustainable. The dedication of the La Salle Brothers to their call to educate children of the poor saw the “St. Xavier’s Penang model” spread to India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the Philippines. In 1925, the St. Joseph’s Training College (SJTC) was completed for the religious, academic and professional training of young Brothers. By then, five other schools on the Peninsula had been established or taken over by the Lasallians.
These schools were taken over by the Japanese during their occupation of the region in 1942-45. The central and prominent location of SXI made its buildings easy targets for bombings, first by the Japanese, and then more thoroughly so by Allied forces later in the war. Much of the school archives were destroyed, and the school had to be fully rebuilt. For the first four months, once some sense of order had been restored, classes were held at SJTC. While funds were being raised, students attended lessons in makeshift attap huts raised on the school field by the sea at Lebuh Farquhar.
The new buildings officially opened exactly 10 years after the end of the war, in August 1955. The demand for education after Independence in 1957 grew, and apart from the SXI and SXI Branch School, another “feeder school” was established to serve children in the Ayer Itam area. It opened in 1962, the year I began my schooling.
I always felt childish pride at the fact that my schooling began the day La Salle School in Ayer Itam began. Like with most things, a child benefits blindly from the achievements of past generations. My consciousness of what the La Salle school system was about would dawn slowly over the years, triggered by the obvious dedication of the Brothers I came into contact with, and by the ubiquitous concern for discipline demanded by the teachers.
The dedication of the La Salle Brothers to their call to educate children of the poor saw the “St. Xavier’s Penang model” spread to India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
This discipline went beyond the mere achieving of academic excellence. As the authors claim of the La Salle legacy, “St. Xavier’s was to lead the way in integrity and character-building as founded in the vision of John Baptiste de La Salle.”
Indeed, prominent and respected SXI Old Boys and Girls became almost a dime a dozen in Penang and beyond. For example, I learned only much later in life that Hon Sui Sen, the first chairman of the Economic Development Board, Finance Minister of Singapore and chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore in the 1970s, and one of the men most responsible for laying the foundations for that island nation’s astounding economic growth, was a Hakka kid from Balik Pulau and a top-scoring SXI old boy.
For those many Xaverians who now populate Penang and beyond, this book should be a welcome addition to their bookshelves – and a necessary and very personal reference book.
For me, I still feel childish pride over the fact that I was the Penang State Flagbearer for the famous SXI Corps of Pipes and Drums back in 1971-72. (Sadly, I don’t have any commemorative picture from that time). My mature and lasting pride in the school lies in the conviction that I, like many of my schoolmates, did absorb the spirit of its motto: “Labor Omnia Vincit” (Labour Conquers All). We did that quite effortlessly, and that is a strong testament to the success of the La Salle education movement.