by James Gough
Cherishing the Past, Embracing the Future
The recently held St Michael’s Institution centenary celebration dinner held on September 29 saw the largest turnout ever in its 100-year history.
The celebration dinner, held on the school field in the shadow of the school, attracted over 3000 of its former students from all over the world as well as locally, some of whom have not returned to Ipoh for over forty years.
The Michaelian Spirit-Alive and Well in Ipoh
The annual dinner regularly attracts an average of 80 to 90 tables per year. However, this being a centenary year celebration, the attendance reached an all time high of more than 300 tables translating to over 3000 diners with some table bookings having been made as early as a year ago.
It was a ‘Who’s Who’ in Malaysia seated at the various tables as the list of old boys who have made it to the top of their fields gathered to salute their alma mater and pay respect to the La Salle Brothers, Dato’ Brother Vincent Corkery, Brother Visitor Brother Edmundo Fernandez and Brother Anthony Rogers, who have dedicated their lives to mentoring their charges and looking after the welfare of the school. Sitting with them were its Board of Governors Chairman, Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian and School Principal Madam Loh Wei Seng.
“No Press Please, I’m here as an Old Boy” – IGP
Being an old boys’ gathering, no invitations were sent to any VIPs. Nevertheless a prominent Old Boy, Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Ismail Omar was in attendance.
After greeting Brother Vincent he promptly told the media “today I am here as an old boy” saying he had wanted to attend the annual dinner many times and wasn’t going to miss this historical occasion.
As he spoke to the media, he pointed to the ground floor classroom where he attended the moral studies class. Then with a wide smile and arms linked, he introduced his classmate Hanson Lau and schoolmate Lawrence Lim whom he played badminton with regularly at the school’s badminton courts next to the canteen. “There were no badminton courts in enclosed halls those days,” he added.
So such was the mood of nostalgia that marked the entire evening as former students made merry and reminisced about the good old days. The dinner was also its noisiest ever as former students and friends hailed each other with shouts of joy some having not set eyes on one another for many years.
Faith, Service and Community
While the centenary celebration was the perfect “must attend annual dinner” excuse, it was also a good testimony that the old Michaelian school spirit of ‘Valiant and True’ was still burning proud and strong.
St Michael’s Institution when approached many years ago by the State Education Department to become an Elite school, the Board of Governors of the school promptly turned down the offer saying it was against the tradition of the school.
The three principles of SMI are the La Sallian values of Faith (strong spiritual conviction irrespective of religion), Service (to serve and not to be served) and Community (working together for a common goal).
According to Brother Vincent, the St Michael’s tradition for the school is to be all inclusive where no child is denied admission. Vincent also stated that St Michael’s does not practise streaming, stating that each class was made up of students of mixed ability with a quota for brilliant, average and weak students. He elaborated that it was “terrible to group weak students together where they experience no success or pride in their work”. As such, St Michael’s focuses on developing a wholesome student.
Teachers of the Past Dedicated and Genuinely Concerned
Undoubtedly it was easier previously as the school staff consisted of their former students who knew and could maintain the traditions of the school. Then too SMI was remembered fondly by her alumni even after 100 years because of the La Salle brothers and the teachers.
Teachers of the past taught with dedication and harboured genuine concern for their students’ future. It was their love for their vocation that motivated them. It was this passionate attitude from teachers that made SMI a great school. And it showed in the numerous activities available and achievements garnered then.
All Round Excellence
In sport its activities then included swimming, rugby, cricket, athletics, football, hockey, badminton, gymnastics, fencing and judo and produced numerous national athletes such as the pair of Ng Boon Bee and Tan Yee Khan, who won the All England Doubles Championship in 1965 and 1967.
Its other extra-curricular activities included the School Band, Cadet Corp, Air Cadets, St John Ambulance, Chinese Orchestra and, one of its longest active society, the Arts, Drama and Musical Society (ADAMS).
On this Centennial Year, the society appropriately staged a play on the story about Jean Baptiste de La Salle, the founder of the La Sallian Brothers, called Jean Baptiste – The Lost Chronicles directed by its former art teacher Timothy Chee, while the play was written by his son Ian.
The Challenge of the Future
Admittedly, the high standards of before have declined. Even though the activities of the school band and drama society are still very active, “it is the sports activities that have declined drastically,” lamented Brother Vincent.
Herein lies the challenge for the future on how to maintain the glory days of yesteryear. According to Brother Vincent “it will be difficult” unlike earlier as the duty of care by the teachers towards their students has declined. This is due to a changed environment, one of which is that the Headmaster is not a Brother.
To overcome this, the board tries to appoint suitable candidates for its administrative positions. An example of this is the appointment of Madam Loh Wei Seng, SMI’s first Lady Principal and an Old Michaelian, who did her Form Six at the school in 1973/74.
Where previously parents came to school and expressly gave permission to teachers to discipline their children, today, many parents do not support this as most parents are very involved in their children’s education.
Throw in private tuition, the distraction from the internet and computer games into the equation, and the role of the teacher is reduced to being a mere facilitator in the learning process, no longer the source of inspiration nor role model.
A Wholesome Education Still Encouraged
PTA Chairman Joseph Michael Lee highlighted that SMI still has a number of teachers dedicated to the concept of a wholesome education, encompassing both academic and personal development.
Additionally the Board of Governors (BOG), Old Michaelians Associations (OMA) and the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) cooperate with the school’s administrators to keep alive the La Sallian value of caring for the Last, the Lost and the Least.
Lee added that in SMI, “our Board Chairman does not ask the Principal how many top scorers we have but he wants to know how many children failed. We never fail to tell the teachers that it is all right for the students to make mistakes for it is only in school that they can make errors and need not have to pay dearly for them. Additionally, we encourage our students to organise and lead events. Our recent Centennial Mass was organised by the students and it went very well.”
La Salle Values
“There is also the role of the La Salle Centre, located next to the school, that selects student leaders active in the various school activities. These students are exposed to the La Salle values and traditions through workshops and seminars and whose goal is to carry on the La Salle values during their activities,” Michael Lee added.
The Chairman of the Schools Board of Governors, Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian echoed similar sentiments, saying the Board’s role was to ensure the school has the right environment to thrive and to facilitate maintenance of the school spirit.
“St Michael’s is a recognised name among the Ipoh community. Every generation that walks through its doors won’t be the same but the tradition we maintain to develop a wholesome student will help them remember that they studied in an institution with a good learning environment where long friendships were made,” Tan Sri Lee concluded.
Over the last five years, SMI, which consists of SM St Michael’s Institution, SK St Michael’s 1, SK St Michael’s 2 and SK La Salle, Ipoh, has been upgrading its infrastructure.
The main building had its roof replaced and was given a new coat of paint, its chapel was upgraded and reopened last year while its toilet underwent a 5-star makeover. Even its primary school SMI Primary 1 and 2, previously a single storey block, has been housed in a new 4-storey building aptly named the Brother U-Paul Building.
It is said that a school, no matter how magnificent its architecture, is just bricks and mortar. It is the teachers and administrators within the school that make a school great.
After 100 years and through all its efforts and initiatives SMI has risen up to face its many challenges and can now embrace its future confidently.