Sunday October 21, 2012
Where the girls stand tall
By PRIYA KULASAGARAN
WALKING into the Heritage Room at SMK St Mary, Kuala Lumpur feels like time travel.
Designed to look like a classroom from an era gone by, the space is furnished with vintage school tables and chairs.
At the front and back of the room, the wall panelling features blown-up photographs of the school’s original structure at Jalan Tengah.
The other walls meanwhile, hold a narrative of the school’s progress since its establishment in 1912.
There is a nostalgic feel when you walk across the room as the faces of past principals and students smile back at you.
Outside, the air is filled with the everyday hustle and bustle of a typical school; the low murmur of students and teachers in class punctuated by the occasional bell signalling a new study period.
Inside this room however, the talk revolves around the significance of the past.
Initially discussing plans for the school’s 100th anniversary gala dinner, a group of St Mary’s School Alumni Association committee members have ended up reminiscing about their old school days.
From stories of meaningful friendships to inspiring teachers, there is a common thread of what it means to be a St Mary’s girl.
Cindy Lee Lai Seong feels that St Mary’s is special because everyone is recognised for what they are good at, and it doesn’t have to be academically-inclined.
“It (the school) has this magic of making you realise what you have,” says Lee.
Aslini Abdullah adds: “And it’s not for the glory or limelight, but just to give it your all in whatever you do; it’s about being the best person you can be and staying humble.”
“I want the memory of my school to keep burning, like a flame that will never be extinguished,” says Melisa Wong Meng San.
An all-girls’ government-aided mission school, SMK St Mary’s strong alumni base serves as an example of what a school can achieve with community involvement.
Last year, the school had to halt its computer classes as its audio-visual equipment was stolen and most of the remaining computers were obsolete.
Reaching out to their own professional networks, the alumni recently convinced four corporate sponsors — Rentwise, Allied Telesis, TrendMicro and Canon Malaysia — to refurbish the computer laboratory.
Additionally, HELP University agreed to provide free Information Technology (IT) consultancy work to oversee the implementation of the school’s IT learning.
The school’s Information and Communications Technology project advisor Dr Sien Ven Yu is not only HELP University’s Department of Information Technology head but also an alumnus of the school.
Aside from general repairs and maintenance work, the school is now seeking more funds to replace old band instruments, establish a Music Room, renovate its Domestic Science facilities, and refurbish its Heritage Room.
Although numerous fund-raising activities have been held throughout the year, the main event will be the dinner on Nov 3 in conjunction with the school’s 100th anniversary.
It seems that the goal of the school is to allow every student the opportunity to shine in an area that they are passionate about.
Or as principal Goh Hai Bee puts it, “it’s not about a competition” between students, but rather a “celebration” of everyone’s talents.
As she speaks about her school and students, Goh never once lists the academic track record of high-achieving students or the extra-curricular competitions won by the school.
Instead, she chooses to focus on the overall well-being of her students.
“Our joy lies in seeing others become better than what they were with the guiding principles of integrity and sincerity.
“We may have produced two Prime Minister’s wives... but it was never the goal of students to reach that level of fame. Rather, it was to develop their gifts to the best of their ability.
“It’s not just about becoming the ‘who’s who’, but making a significant impact on society however you can,” says Goh.
While the roots of the school may be Christian, its culture places emphasis on working together regardless of colour or creed.
“Our motto is “I serve”, and this means serving the community no matter what your background and beliefs are,” she says.
“The focus will always be on developing our girls to contribute to society in their own way, and to be confident and independent women.”
With around 1,260 students currently at the school, she adds that it is important for the school to stay small.
“We want to keep it personal — we’re not a factory producing students,” says Goh.
The major obstacle of the school however, is how best to cater to a holistic education for its diverse group of students.
Goh explains that some students come from challenging environments and poverty.
“Even girls from wealthier households can have their own issues if the values taught at home are ‘life-denying’ instead of life-affirming.
“In this day and age, young people are exposed to values that are so superficial.
“But if we can correct even some of these issues, then they will grow up being sure of who they are.”
In the end, Goh hopes that all her students will have a zest for life.
“When my students leave St Mary’s, I want them to be able to speak with confidence, conviction, and compassion.
“Someone once said that the heart of education is the education of the heart — that’s what we can do for our students,” she says.
Standing at the spot where St Mary’s used to be, it is hard to imagine the area as it was a century ago.
Smack in the middle of the city’s Golden Triangle, the land that used to house the school is now home to a luxury apartment complex called St Mary’s Residences.
Back when the school started in 1912 however, Jalan Tengah (or Middle Road as it was known then) was a leafy, colonial-styled suburb.
As the city progressed, the school eventually found itself within a hotspot of skyscrapers, high-rise office complexes and swanky nightclubs.
In 1998, the school was relocated to its current premises in Taman Intan Baiduri and the Jalan Tengah building was closed down.
Before the original building was torn down however, the school’s alumni managed to salvage precious mementos from the school such as plaques, furniture, window fittings, and even the dark wooden floor planks, to be showcased in the school’s Heritage Room.
Instead of exhibition boards, history here is presented in a series of suitcases and there is a rather practical yet poetic explanation for this.
“We agreed that all the principals played a big role in steering the school,” says Wong.
“So I had an idea to divide the school’s history based on the principals. That way, students and alumni can have an idea of what a particular decade was like under the relevant principal.
“Most of our previous principals came from overseas, hence the suitcases symbolising their travel to Malaysia.”
She adds that each suitcase also reflects the “look” of a particular era as well as the personality of the principal in question.
Wong and Lee were initially the only two people working on developing the Heritage Room although they insist they were aided by many people along the way.
“The school’s board of governors was very generous, especially (the board’s) chairman Datuk Stanley Isaacs. Even the contractors were willing to chip in by cutting down their fees!” says Lee.
The lengths taken to preserve the school’s heritage was given due recognition when the school received a silver award for the Special Category in the Malaysian Institute of Architects Awards 2012.
“For me, the driving force was to give the school’s current students a way to have some sort of attachment to St Mary’s history,” adds Wong.
“It’s to show them the long-standing culture of the school, and how it’s always been about being part of a big family.
“To this day, when I meet a fellow St Mary’s alumnus, I feel like I’m meeting a kindred spirit. I think that’s something worth preserving.”
For more information on the gala dinner on Nov 3, contact Tan Cheng Kim at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 013-3695918 (call after 6pm), or Wong Hee Ling at
email@example.com or 012- 3372678, or visit