School of Kings, King of Schools: The Malay College Kuala Kangsar, Perak


It is not just any school.

Nestled in one of the most scenic and heritage-filled settings of Perak, indeed of all Malaysia, is a fully residential secondary school that is unique not only to the country but it could be said, even to the world.

MCKK, as the college’s acronym is now long known, would in turn bring worldwide fame to the charming, quiet hamlet where it was born.

Kuala Kangsar was already a royal town of Perak state when at the start of the 20th Century, the 28th Sultan of Perak, Sultan Idris Murshidul Azam Shah (1849-1916), began calling for an exclusive school to be set up to educate children of the local elite. Even at the 2nd Conference of Rulers in Kuala Lumpur in July 1903, the Sultan had criticized the discrimination in British education policy for, in his words, “…producing better Malay farmers and fishermen only…”

This event carries more significance than its face value. It was one of the clearest examples of how a Malay Sultan showed His Majesty’s sincere concern for the well-being and future of his people. Subconsciously it reinforced the confidence that the Malay people have had in their Royal Heads to when push comes to shove, take care of them, and explains why Malaysia’s multi-family royal system endures till today.

This support became even clearer when Sultan Idris was joined by the Sultans of Pahang and Selangor, and the Yang Dipertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan, all being of the Federated Malay States (FMS), in prodding and persuading the British to open a school for Malay elite education. Soon the British came to see the benefit for themselves as well in having a good set of native sons to be able to administer this relatively peaceful corner of the British Empire.

Thus R.J Wilkinson, the FMS’ Inspector of Schools in 1904, together with J.P Rodger, the British Resident of Pahang, fully supported the concept of “…establishing at a suitable locality in the Federated Malay States, a special residential school for education, of Malays of good family and for the training of Malay boys for the branches of the government service…” That ‘suitable locality’ would be assured by Sultan Idris himself, who generously donated 30 acres of his land in his royal town for the college grounds.

With that, on 2 January 1905, the idea finally became a reality and what was initially called the Malay Residential School opened with the registration of 8 students and 3 teachers.

The news of the school’s establishment spread throughout the Malay states to much approval, as proven by the number of students rising to 59 students before the year ended, comprising sons of royals and nobles. Notwithstanding that, the growth was so fast that in the early days some classes even had to be conducted in a chicken shed while facilities were being quickly added.

The first headmaster, William Hargreaves, was instrumental in modelling the school along the lines of the great old British residential school system, especially Eton College founded in 1440 AD by King Henry VI.

Indeed, MCKK would from then on be monikered as “the Eton of the East”. In this tradition of a proper, disciplined and all-rounded education, both the psychological and physical strengths of the boys as well as the infrastructure of the school were built up.

On the structural side, this gave rise to a magnificent central edifice of Graeco-Roman style that stands to this day, known as the Big School. It was during the officiating of this historic building by Sultan Idris on 11 December 1909, in the presence of the High Commissioner of the FMS, that the school was renamed the Malay College of Kuala Kangsar.

Many notable structures have been added ever since – such as the Prep School and the Big School’s 1950s East and West Wings – and today the expanded college houses a pleasant campus of colonial era and new buildings amidst fields and literally big trees. The grounds even hold the first swimming pool in Perak, built in 1924.

As for the boys, they were given exposure to Western civilization, culture and knowledge. This was however, complemented by Islamic religious instruction and Malay studies. Education was not limited to just the academic, as the masters or teachers also oversaw the students’ daily lives from proper dress and behavior codes to rigorous sports practice. The games were mostly Western, more precisely British including football, the first introduction of the ‘Eton fives’ court game in the East, hockey, cricket and certainly rugby, which became the game commanding high respect among MCKK boys.

A long succession of British headmasters came and went until the college’s first Malay principal, Abdul Aziz Ismail, replaced N.J Ryan during Malay College’s 60th anniversary.

One would have thought that with such strong British and Western influence in its buildings, curriculum and daily life, the college would have churned out highly westernized men. As it turned out, while superficially the boys may have adopted western clothing or lifestyle, their core remained Malay-Muslim. Wrote Edwin Thumboo of the National University of Singapore in ‘The Making and Development of National Cultures’, “Unlike in India where dedicated imperialist headmasters had some remarkable successes in producing brown Englishmen, the Malay College set up in Kuala Kangsar, the royal town of Perak, and meant for princes and the nobility, did not.”

Instead, with the likes of Zainal Abidin Bin Ahmad, known popularly as Za’aba, the prominent Malay intellectual who was also a teacher there in the 1920s and MCKK producing other patriots like Dato’ Onn Jaafar (who also persuaded the British to expand the school to accept all Malay commoners by scholastic merit in the late 1940s), the college became a breeding ground of Malay nationalism. This was such that, when MCKK was closed due to World War II and the campus taken over by the Japanese occupiers, the British were late in reopening the school after the war.

Before that, since 1929 a group of alumni, or Old Boys, had already formed the Malay College Old Boys Association (MCOBA). The move to repair and resume the college for post-war operation was in fact begun by a group of concerned Old Boys, who on their own raised funds for the effort.

MCKK was finally reopened in 1947, whence it adopted its present Latin motto ‘Fiat Sapientia Virtus’, which in English is rendered as ‘Manliness Through Wisdom’.

Within a few years of its first batch of graduates leaving the school and making good of themselves, MCKK had a coveted reputation. By the time it was open to commoners as well as nobility, getting called to enrol into the College even entailed rare village feasts to celebrate the occasion.

When the “Darurat” (Emergency period) was declared in 1948 and travel from the East Coast to Perak through the usual railway via south Thailand was unsafe due to the Communist terrorists, the Kelantan Government even deemed its 16 MCKK scholars (plus four girls in the women’s counterpart Tunku Kurshiah College) so precious that for the first time in history it would fly the students to school.

Recall that flying in those 1940s was very expensive and a novelty for most Malayans, with many never even having seen a plane before. Hundreds of relatives turned up at the Kota Bharu airfield to send the students off and to pray for a safe flight. For the lucky MCKK boys, such significance never left them.

Throughout its long history, MCKK produced an illustrious list of distinguished men: Kings, scholars and intellectuals, politicians and statesmen, professionals and corporate leaders; all to serve the nation and beyond. More than just national, even the late Sultan of Brunei, HM Sultan Sir Omar Ali Saifuddien, including rather surprisingly a couple of Indonesians as well went to the Malay College, joining a long list of very prominent Malaysians.

These include half of Malaysia’s Kings or Agongs to date, including the very first Agong, of Negeri Sembilan, at the nation’s Independence. Certainly calling for mention include the country’s second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, who instrumentally assisted first PM Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra (himself an MCKK student of albeit just 9 days) in gaining Independence, and later slashing Malaysia’s poverty rate as PM himself; a plethora of federal Ministers and state Menteris, the longest serving Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Haniff Omar, literarian Datuk Ishak Mohamad (better known as Pak Sako), Tan Sri Zain Azraai, Tan Sri Yahya Ahmad and many more in industry, academia, the arts etc. – too many to mention in one go.

At one point, not only Malaysia’s Special Envoy to the United Nations, Datuk Abdullah Ahmad, but also Tan Sri Razali Ismail who became the first and sole Malaysian to be elected President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 1996, were both Old Boys of this same school. This is the first time such a coincidence has happened in the history of the UN world body.

Indeed, the roll call of MCKK alumni will occupy a disproportionately large list in Malaysia’s Who’s Who, making it not only a school of kings but a king among schools.

But with the proliferation of over 50 residential schools after Merdeka, MCKK began to lose its premier position, as resources were diverted to other new institutions. The feeling of neglect was such that many alarmed Old Boys in the mid-1990s – worried that their beloved alma mater was losing the very basis of what had made the college great and beneficial to the country – made initial moves for a reverse takeover to privatize the school. It was the first time in history that such a bold act was attempted on a government school by its alumni.

A surprised Government declined, reiterating that MCKK is a national treasure and heritage that could not be let go. Instead the Government promised to take better care of the college that has served the nation so much. This is just another incident that shows how the edification of boys in the college’s special environment has given them the ability to take care of what is dear to them to this day.

And what is dear here is not really race, despite its ‘Malay’ name. It is far from a racial institution. In fact in all its years there have been unmistakeably pure Chinese and Indian looking kids in its classes speaking Cantonese, Hindi or Tamil, plus a sprinkling of near-blond blue-eyed Whites to boot. Why, in the late 1970s, even the first boy descendant of China’s defunct Qing Dynasty to be born in Malaysia was happily welcomed into the ‘Malay’ College. That put paid to its racist detractors.

What is important is not race; not some Malay gene, but a ‘Malay being’. To be precise, “Malay is a state of Mind, not a state of Blood”. You are Malay if you want to be so, as simply reflected in your essentially respecting the native Nusantara-Islamic culture. This is in fact an advanced and magnanimous concept of race, indeed reflected in overall Malay society until today. But its most developed and generous manifestation lay with MCKK’s Old Boys themselves.

Besides the given generosity of early Old Boy leaders accepting immigrants per seas countrymen in the interest of unity, this is still apparent in their ‘Old Boy network’, a formidable vehicle in helping each other move forward. This network is not just to blindly help fellow Old Boys, but they genuinely believe that Old Boys are good at what they do and are worthy of being helped. This itself is a heritage, which many of them informally call ‘the College tradition of excellence’ (College referring to MCKK itself).

In fact, in an overall society where jealousy of one’s peers’ success (complete with a local term ‘hasad-dengki’) – a characteristic of stratified societies like Britain’s too – the Malay College and its Old Boy network is like a breath of egalitarianism and mutual support. The selfless, or rather mutually-supportive network that the MCKK Old Boys have in place is near-legendary among especially Malay businessmen.

Indeed, the Malay College has been an avenue for young Malay boys of all walks of life to rise largely by merit in a still feudal society, albeit not a blatant one and in a different guise than in colonial or sultanate times.

That avenue of a special well-rounded education in ‘the College tradition of excellence’ that provides a far and wide vision, coupled with a long-woven Old Boy network of assistance that ultimately benefits the nation, is the greatest legacy of MCKK, which above all else had begun to forge the nation from 1905.

The writer is an Old Boy of MCKK Class of 1983.


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