Our Legacy: Landmark Memories of Penang Free School

Our Legacy: Landmark Memories of Penang Free School
WELCOME. Penang Free School remains true to its name – to be “free”, to admit students irrespective of class, race and religion. This has been one of its distinguishing features for over 200 years – since its founding in 1816. All it asks of its wards in return are to be strong and faithful to the school’s ideals of overall excellence and multiculturalism.

MY MEMORIES of Free School would ebb over time, I had thought. They might indeed have, but for a chance occurrence in 2015 that brought a lot, and more, gushing back. After that year, with events of the Bicentenary flaring for a couple of years, I got more and more involved directly with the school. With a few dedicated Old Frees, we trained student leaders, produced videos on the school’s history and set up information systems that would hopefully help perpetuate the school as a “living legacy”.

AWESTRUCK. Many a freshie, like me in 1966, find these arches of the Pinhorn Hall intimidating and an awesome sight. They never fail to impress — even now. I like to see the hall empty with its main door wide open, like a grand tunnel welcoming activity. From resplendent speech days to the rigours of badminton practice. From timeless Shakespearean plays to captivating fashion shows.

In the midst of it all, I had a nagging feeling it was not enough. I still had memories to share that mere words cannot convey. That pushed me along this particular journey. It started last year, in October, when I was hugely impressed by a discussion on black-and-white (B&W) photography. The event occurred at my first solo exhibition at A Place Where (APW) in Kuala Lumpur. One thing led to another and by June-July 2023, I was shooting at school with the SL2-S courtesy of Leica. Executed over six days, the shoot was to result in this show, my second solo, which is a part of the Centenary celebrations of The Old Frees’ Association (1923-2023).

All 31 photos in this story are part of the exhibition.

PERPLEXING. For the first few weeks, indeed months, at school, everything looked and sounded different. Our first-year experience was amplified by the school’s Sesquicentenary (or 150th anniversary). We had joined the school with grand misconceptions, like seeing shadows on Plato’s “Cave”. As we moved from year to year, we gradually appreciated its essential worth – as an assiduous mentor to prepare us for our lives ahead.

My primary memories of Free School are set in the 1960s to early 1970s when photography was mainly B&W. Hence I jumped at the opportunity when the curator suggested I gave the exhibits a look of the period. Be that as it may, the photos have been treated digitally and printed using highly-advanced machines. They also bear RFID tags to ensure each piece is one of a kind. While my memories are from the 1960s, the photos bear many of the hallmarks of the 21st century.

MAGNANIMOUS. This is the Angsana under which we gathered before school in our first year in 1966. It gave us shelter and provided space to engage in small talk before the rush of class and other planned activities. It reminds me of many teachers, their zeal to develop as well as shelter us from the worst of the world. That did not mean we were spared punishment, a favourite being running to the far-end of the field and back.

Thank you: My deepest appreciation to the following for making this exhibition a reality: PFS project partner Quah Seng Sun, curator Stephen Menon, Ng Chi Loon and Kingston Saik of Leica, advisors KF Choy, Alan Ng and Kwong Tai Chee, print maker Wesley Wong and, last but not least, The Old Frees’ Association Centenary Committee for including the exhibition as part of the Centenary celebrations.

POTENT. This is Free School in a solid but dynamic posture with clouds pushing right. This was once its hub, housing the headmaster’s office, a grand porch to receive VIPs and all, the school clock, and above all, visually, a commanding tower. This image leaves a bit to be desired; the top right has little texture. To me, it is a metaphor for the unfulfilled, of dreams and potential. One thing’s for sure: The school gave us a potent sense of idealism anchored to its grand design.

Please scroll down to see the remaining 26 photos.

HEARTFELT. The sound of the school bell touches our hearts from day one. It is distant though, hanging 40ft above the ground in a simple housing. Yet it tolls for everyone, not just for starts and ends of rituals. It rings in my memories, for example, of decorum, order and respect for traditions — after its deep clangs, the hushed silence in the grand hall with 1,500 awaiting the headmaster’s entrance and the distinct sounds of his footfalls. This has been etched in my mind forever.
NUANCED. The school is not always its perfect unblemished white; nor does it stand alone majestically. It is woven into the surrounds, invaded by shadows, placed in an environment where it stands out but not absolutely. Free School grows on people not by its exterior but by the layers of nuances that one acquires. The school spirit embodies so many ideals: Diversity, student empowerment, excellence in academia and extracurricular activities, and responsibility of action in the service of others.
MARKED. After a while, we realised everyone wanted to leave his or her mark on the school — from being leaders to penning for print, from elocution to bagging gold in track and field. There was graffiti too – sanctioned or otherwise. These footsteps were allowed on the walkway up The Ascension of Knowledge built in 2016 to commemorate the Bicentenary. A few “marks” are contained in this monument too, a time capsule to be opened in 2066.
GRIT. The school made many of us feel towering, that we could reach for the skies in a multitude of areas, even at our tender ages. Indeed, most of those who fared well eventually made something of themselves. There were others who did not fit the mould of an all-rounder but made good in later life in their niches. The group that impresses me the most comprises those who, despite setbacks, some very severe, persevered to become highly successful. I think Free School gave us this can-do attitude, this “grit”.
SPIRAL. Full of surprises, the school offers people pathways to rise in myriad ways. It could be in the field, in class or in the various societies of the school. We just had to seek out our own paths, many of which were hidden. In retrospect, having to deal closely with people and relationships, none of the pathways was straightforward and simple to tread — like this spiral staircase behind trees and bushes at Kutub Khanah Tunku, the school library.
ARTERIAL. The well-trodden corridors of the school are its physical arteries. Making all parts of the school accessible, they help create a sustainable order. More than that, they provide ventilation and natural lighting. Their architectural detailing, on the columns lined on one side and French doors of classrooms on the other, has great aesthetic value — so much so they are a favourite subject for photographers.
REDUNDANT. There is “beauty of redundancy” in this system of drains just behind the junior toilets. Being overbuilt, a feature of redundancy-laden systems, it has acquired charm and practicality. At times of heavy rain or floods, the “unnecessary” parts will come alive again to take heavier loads or merely drain away the excess. There is a lesson here, as we pave our walkways to the future: Always have a backup.
REPOSITORY. As we journeyed through school, along our different routes, we began to build a store of experience and bear the weight of responsibility. Bags conceal as well as concentrate the weight of such contents. Few of us knew what the others carried in these bags. Were they predominantly burdens? Were they delights to feed the mind and physique? Were they ideas to create the out-of-ordinary?
POTENTIAL. Whatever we carried in our bags need to be aired, indeed hoisted and flown with pride. Free School encourages its students to fly their own flags so to speak, to display their work with pride, or to show their support for particular causes with flamboyance. In that respect, there are, at any one time, a number of empty poles all around the school — awaiting someone’s flag.
STUDENTSPEAK. Two “tricks of the trade” of being a student are to speak well and to speak freely. All part of growing up. Free speech however has to be tempered with responsibility, truthfulness, and the motivation to build trust. Looking back, the school taught us much about free speech. We learnt the proper ways to speak up; we also learnt about censorship, and the consequences of crossing red lines in communication, etc.
CONNEXUS. The Lecture Theatre in the Sixth Form Block, refurbished in 2022, has equipped the school for sophisticated debates and lectures with up-to-date audio-visual aids and all. The equipment, like this microphone, works in the background, in the dark as it were, to allow speakers to amplify, express, connect, and impact. They undergird the vital role effective communication plays in the lives of the student.
ORDER. This is the door to the Prefects’ Room. The nerve centre of the school’s disciplinary system, the space personifies order. The locked door is its metaphor; just as it restricts access, it also maintains boundaries and discipline, and provides structure and control in various aspects of school life. It is within a well-structured organisation that a gamut of creative school activities can thrive. Order safeguards against distractions and unwanted influences, ultimately leading to a more productive and balanced school life.
PROXIMATE. Via the wire mesh ventilation panels high on the walls of the Prefects’ Room, we see this. It symbolises the nearness and simultaneously the distance the Prefects had to maintain with the school population. We can never define the right distance. The key is to strike a balance that allows leaders to be approachable and supportive while maintaining professional boundaries for the benefit of both parties and the school as a whole.
MEMORABLE. Each of us probably has a few places of significance in school. This is one of mine. In 1967, behind this opening to the “garden” quadrangle, were the industrial arts workshops. We spent much time in them carving wood, etching metal plates, and tooling copper sheets; preparing for exhibitions. To the right was the room for “mechanics”, where the school installed single-cylinder internal combustion engines for us to take apart and re-assemble.
SANCTUARY. This far end of the enormous school field that fits four football pitches with a lot of space to spare, has been a sanctuary for many – away from the entangled, sometimes mangled, relationships forged to get things done. It was a place for quiet walks and serious conversations; for simple sit-downs to be detached from it all; and to gaze at others engaged in the fun and ferocity of field games.
RUMINATIONS. A line of eight tents signify that Sports Day is around the corner. There are eight sports houses now, from the six during our days. I approached them to view the goings-on and left to watch from afar to ruminate about what I saw. I could feel the camaraderie, the lofty ambitions, and a need to push their competitive spirit far and beyond. They were like ours.
CHANCE. Come Sports Day, the students would decorate the house sheds. It’s a tradition. It’s also a competition to be the best decorated. Hamilton was designing their mascot when I was invited into the store room to take a shot. It was very nice. Much nicer was a chance content of the shot: On the box was “It’s what’s on the inside that counts”. It left me thinking… How many times do unplanned things become a huge influence on our lives?
AWAITING. Free School was a powerhouse of gymnastics in the 1960s and 1970s. The sport has lost its lustre since its impassioned and skilful coach, Mr Quah Seng Chye, left the school. This ring hangs alone in the quadrangle that was the focal area of the sport, as if awaiting a reawakening
POISED. For the drum major, holding the baton is not only part of a ritual but a preparation for complex manoeuvres. Preparation lays the foundation for future success. It sets the tone for the journey and provides momentum to keep moving forward. This positive inertia can carry us through challenges and obstacles that may arise later.
SMASHING. Badminton was big when I joined PFS in 1966. We had just won the Agung’s Cup. Later, some of us had the honour to use the Pinhorn Hall to train for the school team. The hall has room for three courts but accommodates only two and gives space to spectators and an air of class. One of its most distinct features is the elegant parquet floor, but which gives challenges to players like slipperiness.
DIG. There comes a time everywhere when one must rise to the occasion. For example, when the volleyball is descending and within your reach, you dig to defend, even as your teammates prepare for the next volley. It’s your time to shine, even as others wait their turn.
PRAGMATIC. The bungalows that used to house teachers and other school personnel are symmetrical in design, reflecting neoclassical influences and an aesthetic appeal of the times. The design also gives status and prestige to its occupants, officers of colonial Britain. In addition, they offer comfort and ventilation in the tropics. Overall, it reflects the pragmatism the school was built on.
ANGLO-EASTERN. The seemingly innocuous can conceal a web of intricate connections to our colonial past. Behind the headmaster’s seat in his office is a safe. Recent close-up shots reveal that it was made by Thomas Withers & Sons Ltd, a maker of fireproof safes in West Bromwich, England. It was imported by The Borneo Company Ltd which was incorporated in England but operated in “Malaya, Siam and the Dutch East Indies”.
PUBLISH! Free School gave us the right to publish relatively freely on print. Our tools of production included the manual typewriter, blue stencils, wood-free paper and this Getstetner 460S. In the case of my class in 1969, it was not only the product but also the pride and camaraderie that were our most impressive takeaways from producing our class magazine, Insight 1969. I carry this spirit of placing relationships at the fore in all my future publishing endeavours.
LEGACY. Lim Ewe Lee, MBE, my grandfather, wrote this in his memoirs: “The School Magazine issued its first number this year (1909) under the editorship of Khoo Heng Kok with Lim Set Hong as Honorary Secretary, and I contributed two articles, ‘Buddhist Rules of Conduct’ (I think the information was supplied by my mother and others) and ‘A Trip to Western Hill’ when the teacher and most of the boys in Standard VII made the excursion.” This legacy fills me with great pride.
FORTIS. Our character was not built in strait jackets and learning by rote. We were guided up sturdy steps, albeit in an environment that empowered us, gave life to our creative impulses and made us responsible for our actions. Like the boys, we too had fun and a strong sense of camaraderie. Fortis atque Fidelis.
Lim Siang Jin

Lim Siang Jin