Malaysian school celebrates 200 years of Tamil section

Students recall Penang Free School’s track-record of egalitarianism

Updated - December 02, 2016 10:50 am IST

Published - October 22, 2016 03:20 am IST - PENANG:

Penang Free School that celebrated 200 years of formation. Photo: Special Arrangement

Penang Free School that celebrated 200 years of formation. Photo: Special Arrangement

Friday (October 21) was a special day for G. Periyasamy, a civil engineer with a long-standing experience in construction and his friends.

Mr. Periyasamy and half-a-dozen of his friends, who finished their 10th standard in 1978, chose to visit the Penang Free School, their alma mater, as the school celebrated its 200th year of formation. “It’s called a free school as the doors of the institution were thrown open to students, irrespective of their race, as far back as 1816,” he recalls with a sense of pride. They were equally proud that they learnt Tamil at this institution.

But, what is more significant is that the school launched a separate section with Tamil medium of instruction and this was the first of its sort in Malayasia. “It’s also on this day 200 years ago that the Tamil section began its classes,” recalls Paskaran Subramaniam, Assistant Director (School Management Division) in the Ministry of Education, Malaysia.

Known for a large section of people brought from Tamil Nadu during the British colonial period for work in rubber plantations, the Southeast Asian country gradually turned home for more and more Tamils who settled in different parts of Malaysia. In 1897, the first Tamil school was established in Seremban, about 50 km southwest of Kuala Lumpur. By 1925, Malaysia (which had included Singapore then) had 8,153 students in 235 Tamil schools. In the 1930s, the shortage of qualified teachers was the biggest problem. Medical assistants, clerks in estates and temple priests functioned as teachers, according to an official publication.

Over the years, the situation improved.

“Today, you have 524 Tamil schools with 90,000 students and 10,000 teachers,” the Assistant Director points out, adding that up to the fifth standard, the students are taught 11 subjects in Tamil. This is in addition to English and Malay. The official goes on to say that for the last two-three years, two universities in Malaysia are permitting students to pursue Ph.D. in Tamil. To mark the 200th anniversary of the commencement of Tamil classes, the Education Ministry is holding a four-day-long conference of Tamil teachers at the Universiti AIMST in Kedah, about 30 km from Penang, in which 200 local delegates and 50 foreign participants are taking part.

On Saturday (October 22), Malaysia’s Ministers of Health and Education, S. Subramaniam and Mahdzir bin Khalid, are expected to participate in the conference.

A number of other events have also been planned including a competition for students of Malay schools on Tamil.

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