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Training future leaders in Sabah

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

SABAH--or North Borneo, as it was known then--was governed by the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company from November 1881 to 1941. From the beginning of its rule, the company's expenditure depended on its surplus revenues. Thus, it had to ensure a wisely administered government as well as a policy of extreme economy in which its administrative machinery was small and interference in native life kept to a minimum.

In order to achieve these objectives the company had to depend on local headmen. The position of local headman was legalised in 1891 by the Village Administration Proclamation. The proclamation defined the responsibilities and powers of those appointed. Among various responsibilities were the power to act as native magistrate, the inspection of the district, and the supervision of the collection of taxes; essentially, appointees would perform the work of a district officer in remoter districts.

In the early period, the qualifications and abilities of headmen/chiefs were not considered. But once the company was fully established, officers began to question the ability and background of the chiefs. In relation to this, the then governor E.P.Gueritz commented that, "the only chiefs of any assistance in the whole territory could be counted on the fingers of one hand.'' The shortage of capable chiefs, therefore, led Governor A.C. Pearson in 1915 to suggest opening a school for the sons of native chiefs.

Taking the education policy in the Federated Malay States (FMS) as a guide, Pearson drew attention to the existence of a Malay College at Kuala Kangsar in Perlis where the sons of the Malay aristocracy were educated for public service. He admitted that governmental posts in Sabah, particularly at the upper levels, were staffed almost entirely by aliens--Eurasians, Chinese and Britons. In his letter to the chairman of the British North Borneo Company, he pointed out the urgent need for reliable native chiefs in Sabah.

Pearson was concerned about the illiteracy of native chiefs and the advanced age of experienced and influential chiefs, especially since the services of these people were vital to the Company's administration.

He reminded the company that "scarcity of reliable government chiefs is a matter for grave concern. There are a few principle chiefs such as Orang Kaya Kaya Haji Arshad in Tempasuk, Pengiran Mohd Abas in Province Dent (now the Padas-Klias Peninsula) and Pengiran Haji Omar in South Keppel (Putatan and Papar), whose services are invaluable, but they are well advanced in years, the majority of the minor chiefs are absolutely illiterate and without much influence ... and many are incapable of comprehending how to enforce government orders.''

To solve this problem he suggested the recruitment and training of natives likely to make chiefs of the right stamp in years to come "since such a service cannot be created by a stroke of the pen.''

To begin with, about six youths could be chosen from good families throughout Sabah, preferably the sons or relatives of chiefs who had rendered good service to the government, he suggested. These boys were to be sent to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) for a course in reading and writing in romanised Malay and simple arithmetic. The period proposed in the governor's plan was 12 months, including a one month vacation.

The period of training could be varied to suit individual cases and the urgent needs of the service. The pupils would receive an allowance of $120 per annum to cover living costs and lodging would be provided until the number of pupils exceeded 10. The course of instruction would be conducted in the Constable School, to which a Malay teacher was attached.

After finishing the course, the pupils would be examined by the Inspector of Schools, who would then grant a certificate to those with a satisfactory pass. Having obtained the certificate, pupils would be appointed native clerks, grade II, on probation, with a salary of $180 a year, rising to a maximum of $240 a year by annual increments of $12. They would be eligible for promotion to native clerk grade I, or to the post of demarcator when there were vacancies, provided that their work and conduct were satisfactory. In addition, as vacancies arose, they would be appointed chiefs in their native districts.

In comparison with Pearson's limited scheme of 1915 in Sabah, the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar opened in January 1905 with 63 pupils, including 39 boarders. The college followed the curriculum of English schools using English as a medium of instruction. In April 1906, E.W. Birch wrote that the exclusive school for boys of "gentle birth'' at Kuala Kangsar should be run along the lines of an English public school, in which not only academic studies were emphasised, but an increasing amount of time and attention were devoted to "character building'' and inculcating leadership qualities. In this way it differed little from other English schools in the FMS and the Straits Settlements. The school became known officially as the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) in 1909 and was referred to unofficially as the "Eton of Malaya'' or the "Eton of the East''.

It can be seen that Pearson's suggested school for the sons of Sabahan native chiefs, which opened in 1915 at Jesselton, was insignificant compared to the MCKK since it covered only the elementary 3R's and the medium of instruction was Malay. The difference was understandable because in Sabah class differences were not clear. There was no ruling class of Rajahs and Sultans. Furthermore, the pupils were trained not as potential civil servants but as native chiefs or native clerks as the company could rely on immigrants--Chinese, Indians and Eurasians--to fill subordinate public service positions.

For these reasons, it was not worthwhile to establish an institution like MCKK in Sabah. Furthermore, the company was short of money.

The training school for the sons of native chiefs at Jesselton opened on July 1, 1915, with three boys initially and two more admitted later in the year. As a start, the school was put in the charge of Band Sergeant-Major Daud who gave instruction in reading and writing romanised Malay. The cost of the school was $330.77, leaving a balance of $459.23 on the vote of $890 unexpended.

In the second year, the pupils were still being taught in the police school, with eight sons of chiefs as resident pupils. Four more were accepted, making it a total of 12. It was stated that in order to maintain the character of the school a boy must be nominated by the Resident of his district, who would only recommend those whose parents were of good standing. Although it was not advisable for the boys to be taught side by side with policemen, lack of facilities and the need for proper supervision and discipline compelled the government to put them together in the police school for a while.

A school master was obtained from Labuan in 1916. The number of students in that year and the next remained at 12. In 1918, the son of the Dusun Chief of Kampong Kiau Tempasuk was admitted. Further arrangements had been made to admit Sundang from Keningau, Matusin from Melalau and Gustinum from Papar; unfortunately, all decided not to join the school. Finally, at the end of that year only five pupils remained, four having left the school. In 1919, three more left, one of them got out of hand and was sent to Sandakan under the immediate supervision of the headmaster of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel school. This was, however, balanced by three new admissions.

Despite the new admissions, Inspector of Schools W. Weedon reported he was not satisfied with the school's progress. In his view, school master Mohd Salleh was responsible for the weak discipline which made it difficult to persuade pupils to remain at school. Thus, the school master was warned that stricter discipline was necessary.

However, other factors, like lack of incentive, the content of the course, the medium of instruction and the change of the system from traditional to secular, had to be considered as well in examining the school's poor performance.

In addition, the sudden introduction of the Residential School System in Sabah also needed to be taken into consideration. By contrast in Malaya, the MCKK was only set up 70 years after the introduction of vernacular schools. In Sabah, the Malay vernacular school was first introduced in 1921, i.e. six years after the training school for the sons of native chiefs was established.

By 1921, the number of pupils was seven, marking no increse since the year before. However, for the first time, good progress was reported. What is interesting is that those who remained in the school at the end of the year came from the Interior residency and most of them were Muruts. In 1922, one boy left the school and obtained employment as a native clerk in Timbang Batu; and there were four admissions. When the first school master, Mohd Salleh, resigned, he was replaced by Haji Mutalib, from the FMS.

Since it was difficult to persuade the boys to stay long enough at the school, the number of pupils attending the school had never exceeded 18. At the end of 1921 only 21 boys had been educated, completing the course at the cost of $36.63 per boy. The governor was of the opinion that the poor progress of the school did not justify this cost. Furthermore, the education given was more or less the same as that offered in vernacular schools open to ordinary boys who were not sons of native chiefs.

To improve the situation, the government employed an Imam to teach the Quran once a week at the training school for sons of natives chiefs. To attract more parents to send their children to this school the government introduced the teaching of English to three senior boys. Thus, when the reorganised school began in January 1925, the situation had improved a little with an enrollment of 11 boys. Three of them came from the Interior, three from the West Coast, two from Kudat, one from Sandakan and two from the East Coast.

With the provision of more accommodation it became possible for the school to admit seven more pupils, making a total of 18. One of the reasons for the increase in admissions was the teaching of English. As the Inspector of Schools noted, "the teaching of English is very regular with the pupils and is an important factor in inducing the older ones to continue their studies.''

Despite the progress with 18 pupils in 1928, Governor J.H. Humphreys was doubtful whether the results justified the annual expenditure on the school. Difficulties arose in 1929 when B.S. Keasbeary, the English teacher, fell ill and had to give up his English lessons with no replacement in sight. To solve this problem, the Inspector of Schools suggested that the pupils be sent to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel school at Jesselton for instruction in English.

Since the teaching of English, the primary reason for maintaining the school, could be shifted elsewhere the government felt that the annual expenditure--$3,500 by then--could no longer be justified.

Furthermore, the results of the education given by the training school were discouraging as the government did not pursue the project vigorously. Throughout the 15 years of its existence only one pupil succeeded in passing the learner's examination. And under the system of elementary education in Malay, the pupils could fill such junior positions as rangers, demarcators and native clerks--but even this limited objective had not been attained.

At the same time, a similar type of education could be obtained in the vernacular schools without much expenditure incurred. For instance, in 1921 the government had spent $2,616.16 on the training school for seven pupils, compared to $1,391.44 for three vernacular schools with 40 pupils.

By 1930 it was considered unnecessary for District Officers in British North Borneo to rely on native chiefs. In his letter to the president of the court of directors, Governor Humphreys pointed out that "conditions have changed and the need for powerful and influential chiefs no longer exists. The need for a special training school for native chiefs is similarly lessened.''

He added that the money allocated for the training school should be utilised to increase the number of vernacular schools instead; enrolment in vernacular schools could also be increased by promising Muslims boys that they could receive English lessons in approved mission schools. In view of these factors, the directors agreed to close the training school in 1930. The school then re-opened as an ordinary vernacular school.

Unlike its model, MCKK, the training school for the sons of native chiefs, did not achieve great heights. Nonetheless, it marked a period in the early colonial era when a partnership, albeit unbalanced, between the European and the native elite was in place.

Sabihah Osman is a Fellow of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, with research interest in Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei. 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.


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