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On a mission to educate

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

SABAH was ruled by the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company till 1941. Throughout their rule, the company only provided primary education. The objective was to impart some elementary knowledge in the 3Rs - reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic - to enable the locals to assume positions as native chief officers, village headmen, or native clerks.Based on these objectives, the government established a School for the Training of the Sons of Native Chiefs in 1915 and a Malay vernacular school in 1921. Aware that its efforts were insufficient due to a lack of funds, the government encouraged and supported Christian missions and the Chinese community in building schools by providing financial assistance in the form of grants.

The government was supportive of mission schools as they provided candidates to fill positions such as clerks and junior officers in the state administration. Due to this reason, at the outbreak of World War II, there were 15 government schools: 14 Malay and one Chinese (specially built for the Northern Chinese community in Jesselton) offering primary education only from Standard One to Standard Five. The mission schools, on the other hand, not only provided primary education but secondary level education as well. There were, in fact, six mission schools preparing students for the Cambridge Overseas Junior Certificate examination.

As in the case of other colonies, Sabah attracted a considerable number of missionaries. It was the Catholics who first established themselves in Sabah, in 1882. Catholics had, in fact, established themselves earlier in Sarawak. Rev Jackson played a crucial role in extending missions to Papar, Kota Belud, Teginambur, Bundu Tuhan and Sandakan. The Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel first appeared in Sabah when Rev W.H. Elton started his mission in Sandakan in 1888. Like the Catholic missions, the Anglicans, too, had started their activities earlier in Sarawak, in 1848, before venturing into Sabah.

In Sabah the Christian missions' work centered on three areas: the church, hospitals and schools. And of the three it was schools that proved to be the most fruitful. Furthermore, the involvement of missions in education was in line with the government's objective of ''civilising'' the natives as well as reducing their burden in providing education.

Although the British North Borneo Company generally acknowledged the valuable educational work done by the missionaries, company officials were initially suspicious of Roman Catholic missions as it was felt that these missions tended to interfere in local politics. A Roman Catholic priest, Rev Goossens, was, for instance, accused of involvement in a land case at Papar and Putatan. The priest was seen as acting in the interest of the natives against the government.

Before World War I, another issue arose between the government and the Roman Catholic missions: the latter were thought to be bringing in German spies. The activities of the missionaries in the interior districts such as Tambunan helped to heighten government anxiety. The Acting Inspector of Schools, D.R. Maxwell, felt that the missionaries should limit their activities to the coastal areas.

''In more inland and interior districts, I am altogether opposed to letting missionary ambition in the guise of education spread itself for some time to come and consider it a pity that Tambunan district has made a poor job of it amongst the natives elsewhere. The Government would do well to keep education in these districts in its own hands for the present. Such schools would be largely self-supporting by their own moderate fees.''

The governor and the acting state secretary, however, were not in full agreement with Maxwell. Hence they were not in favour of restricting missionary activities in the interior as long as the missionaries acted within limits. The governor was aware, too, that the natives in the interior badly needed schools. He cited an incident in which a village headman came down to Papar to ''buy'' a missionary who would educate the local children.

The vice-president of the British North Borneo Company, Mountstuart Elphinstone, had proposed that the government build two vernacular schools in Tambunan, but due to financial constraints he was in favour of the ''extension of mission and other schools than to start government schools ... and therefore, decrease the funds required for establishing government schools where there are no educational facilities''. The officials had picked Tambunan because, apart from being eager for education, the people there were considered ''peaceful''.

After World War I, the restrictions imposed on Catholic missionaries were lifted in stages when it was found that they were, indeed, providing much needed educational services in the interior. The restrictions lifted included controls on missionaries who were non-British subjects and permits to travel and teach in the interior.

When the British North Borneo Company realised the Roman Catholic missions were no threat to stability, more generous assistance was offered to these missions. In 1928, when assistance was extended, the Court of Directors in London recognised the good work done by the missions: ''The Court appreciates the valuable work done by the missions and is entirely in favour of some concessions on the lines recommended.''

In fact the president of the British North Borneo Company, Sir Neil Malcolm, in writing about a priest, mentioned specifically that ''Your mission (a Roman Catholic one) does wonderful work in North Borneo, where it has the confidence both of the government and of the people, and the person principally responsible is Monsignor A. Wachter''. Monsignor Wachter (picture left) was very popular among the Dusun - he even considered himself a ''Dusun''. He had been working very closely with the Dusun in Penampang, Keningau, Tambunan, Tangilan, Tagas and Benombinan.

When it came to a question of land, the missions were either granted land free or charged a nominal fee. The condition, however, was that the land should be utilised for the purpose of spreading the faith and that a school should be built at each station. To fulfill these conditions, the missions were allowed to occupy any vacant land to establish their stations. As the missionaries were often required to travel from one station to another, they were accorded the facilities and privileges enjoyed by government officials. This courtesy was extended in recognition of their services to the development of education in Sabah.

In discussing the activities of the Christian missionaries, it has to be stressed that evangelical work was carried out together with the spread of education. The missions never lost sight of the fact that schools would be the most effective channel for spreading the faith. Hence, it is not surprising that, in the initial stages, the schools were manned by Christian teachers and missionaries who were brought in from London, Hong Kong and China. The main target of missionary efforts, especially of the Catholics, were the ''pagan'' Dusun/ Kadazan who were also the largest indigenous group in Sabah. The missionaries were most active in districts such as Penampang, Papar and Tambunan where there was a concentration of Dusun/Kadazan. Here, a number of stations were built complete with churches and schools.

The missionary schools that were established to provide education as well as spread Christianity included St Micheal's, Penampang, St Mary's and St Aloysius, Papar, St John's, Tuaran, and St Teresa's, Tambunan. These schools were instrumental in educating and, subsequently, coverting the Dusun/ Kadazan as these schools provided an environment where the faith, ''can become a way of life, witnessed and taught through Christian values, liturgical celebrations, school traditions, active associations of former students of the schools...''.

By 1940 there were 27 Roman Catholic schools, eight schools run by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and 17 schools of the Basel Church. In all, there were 52 mission schools compared to the 25 vernacular government schools.

For the first three years, instruction was in the Dusun language; from the fourth year, English was the medium of instruction. The subjects taught included Arithmetic, Bible Knowledge, Geography of Borneo and Europe, Hygiene, and Art.

St Michael Church Panampang, 1965

Prior to World War II, secondary schools were only found in the larger towns like Sandakan and Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). In Penampang, for example, secondary education only became available in 1949. The subjects taught in secondary schools included Arithmetic, Algebra, History, Literature, English, and Bible Knowledge. The syllabus was based on the requirements of the Junior Cambridge examination.

As these mission schools were private efforts, they were left free to make decisions about administrative matters and the curriculum as well as the intake of teachers and students. The schools were, however, very dependent on government grants in the form of Capitation Grants at the rate of $1.50 per student every six months and a system of Block Grants initiated in 1930, and financial assistance from central missions.

Before World War II, the number of native children attending secondary schools run by missions was very small as these institutions not only charged fees but were also few and far between. Hence, the majority of school-going children attended the primary vernacular Malay schools that did not charge any fees. Furthermore, more Malay primary schools were built in the interior areas, such as Bundu Tuhan, Kota Belud, Keningau, Bandar Pimpin and Menumbuk.

Although only a limited number of indigenous children had access to secondary schools, the activities of the missionaries, through their schools and churches, did help to create the first generation of Christians in Sabah. It was this group that formed the core of a progressive Christian intelligentsia during the formative year of Sabah's independence. Among the Christian leaders who were in the forefront at that time were Donald (later Fuad) Stephens, Herman Luping, Peter Mojuntin, Fred Sinidol and Jinto Mogunting.

It cannot be denied that the missionaries, with their tireless efforts and abundant energy, criss-crossed the state to bring the sacred mission and ''good news'' to indigenous people. They worked very hard, sometimes at great personal sacrifice when they had to work in quite hard conditions and with few comforts, and lived among the people, particularly the Dusun, in remote areas.

Through their religious activities, that had the blessings of the government, the missionaries created a Christian community that played - and still plays today - an important role in Sabah politics.

The English/Western education provided by the missionaries, especially the Roman Catholics, has proved to be of immense economic value. In fact, it was the students from mission schools who were able to fill positions in the government sector as clerks, teachers and administrators. The positive exposure in mission schools made the students confident as well as receptive to the changes taking place around them.

The mission schools, especially those run by Roman Catholics, also helped foster unity among students from different ethnic groups. This was evident among students residing in the hostels. Group unity and awareness was reinforced by the fact that they studied and lived together. As the Anglican and Protestant missions focused their attention on the Chinese, it was the Roman Catholic missions that played a vital role in bringing together indigenous Catholics bonded not only by religion but also by language.

In the Catholic (primary) schools situated in the Dusun areas, students were instructed in the Dusun language. This recognition accorded to the language was a psychological boost to the Dusun to promote their language after World War II. A Dusun dictionary was compiled by Rev Antonissen to facilitate the learning of the language.

Besides converting the Dusun, the missions, by promoting a standard Dusun language to be used in churches and schools, helped foster greater love for their language and culture, thus contributing to national consciouness and pride. After the war, Dusun/Kadazan leaders like Stephens helped to popularise the Dusun/Kadazan language through the ''Kadazan Corner'' in publications like the North Borneo News and Sabah Times.

The practice of Catholic schools establishing sports and youth clubs (as in St Michael's school in Penampang) taught Christian youth the need to group together to form associations. This explains the formation of the Kadazan Youth Association that was formed by the Dusun/Kadazan intelligentsia in Penampang in the late 1950s. It was this association that acted as the genesis for the first Dusun/Kadazan political party, the United National Kadazan Organisation, formed in 1961.

n Sabihah Osman is currently Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences in Universiti Sabah Malaysia.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, of Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF -: In the Millennium Markers' continuing focus on Sabah, SABIHAH OSMAN looks at the influence of mission schools that taught the Bible along with the 3Rs to help create a young generation united through language and religion.

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