Penang Free School marks 200th anniversary

From left: The main gate and arch of the Penang Free School today. Among the school's famous and successful alumni are singer, actor and film director P. Ramlee, author and educator Catherine Lim, and Singapore's former Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.
The main gate and arch of the Penang Free School today. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE OLD FREES ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE, ST FILE
From left: The main gate and arch of the Penang Free School today. Among the school's famous and successful alumni are singer, actor and film director P. Ramlee, author and educator Catherine Lim, and Singapore's former Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.
Among the school's famous and successful alumni are singer, actor and film director P. Ramlee (above), author and educator Catherine Lim, and Singapore's former Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE OLD FREES ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE, ST FILE
From left: The main gate and arch of the Penang Free School today. Among the school's famous and successful alumni are singer, actor and film director P. Ramlee, author and educator Catherine Lim, and Singapore's former Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.
Among the school's famous and successful alumni are singer, actor and film director P. Ramlee, author and educator Catherine Lim (above), and Singapore's former Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE OLD FREES ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE, ST FILE
From left: The main gate and arch of the Penang Free School today. Among the school's famous and successful alumni are singer, actor and film director P. Ramlee, author and educator Catherine Lim, and Singapore's former Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.
Among the school's famous and successful alumni are singer, actor and film director P. Ramlee, author and educator Catherine Lim, and Singapore's former Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin (above).PHOTOS: COURTESY OF THE OLD FREES ASSOCIATION SINGAPORE, ST FILE
From left: The main gate and arch of the Penang Free School today. Among the school's famous and successful alumni are singer, actor and film director P. Ramlee, author and educator Catherine Lim, and Singapore's former Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin.
The book, which costs $20, can be bought from #25-03A, International Plaza, 10 Anson Road. Tel: 6345-5700

Stories of eminent alumni who made S'pore home told in book celebrating bicentennial

It is a school with a history that goes back to colonial times and one that has produced many public sector leaders in Singapore.

These include the Republic of Singapore's first Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin; its longest-serving Speaker of Parliament, Professor Yeoh Gim Seng; and the first Malay Minister in the People's Action Party Cabinet, Mr Ahmad Ibrahim.

No, the school is not Raffles Institution (RI), but one that is seven years older than RI and South-east Asia's oldest English-medium school.

The Penang Free School (PFS), which was founded in 1816, will mark its 200th year next week with a grand bash in Penang, Malaysia.

But RI and PFS have many links and similarities, as detailed in a book that was launched last month in the run-up to the bicentenary celebration by the Old Frees Association Singapore (OFAS), the Singapore chapter of the school's alumni club.

The book, Live Free In the Spirit Of Service, written by Ms Tan Chung Lee, notes that the founder of PFS, Reverend Robert Hutchings, was invited to Singapore to play a role in the founding of RI and became a member of RI's board of trustees in 1823.

Both RI and PFS came to be known for producing national leaders. Malaysia's first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, studied at PFS while Singapore founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was schooled at RI.

Mr Lee noted in 1964 that then Singapore Chief Justice Wee and three High Court judges - justices Tan Ah Tah, Alfred Winslow and James Ambrose - were all from PFS, and "Penang's contribution to the success story of Singapore".

The book celebrates the many PFS alumni who have gained success and prominence in Singapore in various fields.

First among equals was CJ Wee, who went on to read law at Cambridge. He later practised law in Singapore, was made chief justice in 1963 and served for over 27 years, becoming the longest-serving chief justice in the Commonwealth.

In a 1991 Straits Times report, he was quoted as saying what he liked best about the full-time school day were the afternoons when he did not have to go home but could play cricket, basketball and football.

Justice Alfred Winslow, a star student who passed his Senior Cambridge examinations at 13, won the Queen's Scholarship to study mathematics at Cambridge University before switching to law.

Like CJ Wee, he later became a High Court judge in Singapore.

Another PFS old boy was Singapore's longest-serving attorney-general Tan Boon Teik, who held the post from 1969 till 1992. He was also the founding chairman of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Professor Lee Seng Teik, known in Singapore as the father of plastic surgery, also hailed from PFS.

"We were very fortunate because PFS was at the pinnacle during the era of colonial English schools and English government schools," he said in the book.

Veteran lawyer C. Arul said the school emphasised "independence in learning". "How did the school mould me? To be independent, self-reliant and broad-minded," he was quoted as saying in the book.

Author and educator Catherine Lim, who was born in Malaysia and attended PFS, credits the school for instilling in her skills such as public speaking.

"Our literature texts were more demanding and this pushed us up to a higher level of thinking," she said in the book.

Other outstanding PFS alumni include the legendary P. Ramlee, who is considered the most popular Malay actor in Singapore and Malaysia, world-renowned pianist Dennis Lee and architect Lim Chong Keat.

As OFAS president Alex Ooi wrote in the book's foreword: "Most Old Frees, if not all, consider themselves blessed alongside the miraculous transformation of Singapore. We have become part of its fabric and call the Republic our home."

•The book, which costs $20, can be bought from #25-03A, International Plaza, 10 Anson Road. Tel: 6345-5700


Correction note: An earlier version of the story said that Penang Free School is eight years older than Raffles Institution. It should be seven. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Penang Free School marks 200th anniversary'. Print Edition | Subscribe