Fives at Kolej Melayu Kuala Kangsar, Perak

By Dale and Krystyna Vargas

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Kuala Kangsar is the royal town of the state of Perak, idyllically situated on the River Perak, home of the Sultan and one of the most splendid mosques in a country well endowed with such buildings.

Malay College is a government maintained, all Malay (i.e. Muslim) boarding school for some 600 boys aged 13-18. There is a selective entry and the five top boys from each state win places each year. The school, dating from 1905, has a ‘royal’ foundation and the Guest of Honour at Speech Day each year is one of the nine Sultans or four Governors of the thirteen states of Malaysia. The Queen and Prince Philip visited the college in October 1989.

There is general enthusiasm for organised sport and twelve games are on offer: rugby, soccer, cricket, hockey, tennis, squash, basketball, badminton, athletics, swimming, Eton Fives and Sepak Takraw, a sort of ‘kick volley ball’ which is popular in Malaysia.

The main playing field lies in front of the impressive colonial-style building, which is now the boarding house. It is used for rugby, soccer and hockey as well as cricket. The wicket is matting on earth and the outfield rough. They claim to have five boys currently in the representative Perak Schools Cricket team. Rugby seems popular and the boys play in a tournament every year, alternately at Kuala Kangsar and Bangkok.

We were received by the Principal, Tn. Haji Hassan Hashim, in his office. After a short chat and the presentation of some local food as is the custom, we were taken on a tour of the school by one of the Assistant Masters, Tn. Noor Zaidi Mohammed Noor. Mr Mohammed had been a pupil at the school himself, had also spent six years in the UK and is a graduate of the University of Kent. He is in charge of games.

We were shown the Exhibition Room, which contains College memorabilia and many records of academic and sporting achievement as well as the successes of former pupils.

The Eton Fives Courts are two in number and are free standing in an area behind the boarding house and next the basketball courts. They are the only courts I have seen where the cutter’s partner, jumping for a wayward cut, might end up picking a banana!

The dimensions of the court are more or less standard. The only abnormality is the roof of the buttress which is rather too steeply angled to the wall. The floors are cement in good condition, the walls cement/plaster likewise. There is plant growth in the corners of each court and in the floor of one, but removal would take a matter of minutes. There is a crack in the right-hand wall of the right-hand court that would not affect play; in general the conditions are excellent.

A notice in front of the courts in Malay, states: “These courts were built in 1928 under Principal C. Bazell. The game is played with a rubber ball by four players wearing gloves. The team that first collects 12 points will be the winner for each set.”

The climate is not really ideal for Eton Fives – although considerably better than for rugby! Daily temperatures are between 25º and 32º C with high humidity all year round. Rain comes in afternoon storms. The courts have neither roofs nor lights, needless to say.

The courts are not used. The problem is the age old one which we have met in schools in the UK from Chigwell to Rydal: there is no teacher with any interest, no reason for any boy to want to play, no prospect of competition outside and the game has no status, national or international.

So what of the future? The College is proud of its position as one of the leading schools in Malaysia. They welcome interest and visits from abroad, especially the UK. (The first nine Headmasters were British). They would be pleased to entertain and accommodate visiting teams but would not be able to produce an Eton Fives pair. A demonstration match would be appreciated. Perhaps a school cricket tour might include some Eton Fives players who could arrange something, and who knows? . . .

Realistically, the Eton Fives courts at Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, will remain as a quaint relic of the colonial days – perhaps of passing interest to tourists who have admired the Sultan’s Palace and the Mosque. There is a report of two ladies, quite recently, travelling through the country and stopping off and playing in the courts. I was unable to identify them from the description.

Lastly a question for the archivist or amateur historian: why are the courts there? Was C Bazell (H M from 1923-1938) an Etonian or had he taught at an Eton Fives playing school? Or was there another Edward Gordon-Spencer (of Zuoz fame) at large in Malaysia?

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