LOH FOON FONG meets up with the first Malay girl who enrolled at the Methodist Girls’ School in Malacca, and discovers interesting anecdotes about life during the missionary era.
IN 1933, a couple of American missionaries came to Asnah Puteh’s house in Masjid Tanah, Malacca, and persuaded her parents to send her to the Methodist Girls’ School in town.
Asnah stayed on the ground floor of the Pastor’s Manse, which had been turned into a hostel for Malay girls. “When I first went to school, there were only six or seven Malay girls in the hostel and when I left in 1939, there were 18 Malay girls,” says Asnah, 83, at her home in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.
The other girls were from the surrounding villages, Tampin and Alor Gajah; some were from other states. At that time, schools were only found in towns.
At the end of Standard One, Asnah jumped to Standard Three and later that year, jumped to Standard Five. “I completed my schooling in six years,” says Asnah who became the first Malay girl in Malacca to sit for and pass the Senior Cambridge examination. She was even featured in the newspapers.
“I was proud of myself. Our papers were corrected by the Cambridge University in England,” says Asnah. The subjects she took were English, English Literature, Malay, History, Geography, Mathematics and (Christian) Religious Knowledge. The Malay language was taught in Jawi as well as in Romanised forms by the American missionary and pastor of the Wesley Methodist church in Malacca, R.A. Blasdell.
“He was very good in Jawi,” says Asnah.
There were hardly any Malays who went to English schools then; they attended Malay schools instead. “I was in Malay school for a short while before going to MGS,” says Asnah when her husband, Ismail Mohd Amin, 84, interjects: “Please don’t ask her about her life in the Malay school. It was a total rojak. She went to four Malay schools within a short period of time.
“She followed her great-grandfather wherever he went. She was his pet. He was an emotional man. Whenever the old man had problems with his family members and felt a little hurt, he would drag his favourite buffalo with his favourite great-grandchild sitting on the buffalo and off they went to another relative’s place to stay. When he went to Masjid Tanah, she went to a school in Masjid Tanah. When he went to Malacca town, she went to the school in Klebang.
“I was very young then,” says Asnah.
“Both could not be separated. Her great-grandfather loved her and she loved the old man,” adds Ismail. “Whenever there was a kenduri, she would be sitting together with the men because her grandfather would let her sit with him, to the annoyance of her mother.”
“My mother didn’t like that because girls and women were not supposed to sit with the men,” says Asnah.
One day while she was studying in MGS, Asnah’s relatives came and told her that her great-grandfather was very ill and wanted her to go home. “When I got home, I found that he had passed away. The shock was too much for me and I fainted,” recalls Asnah.
Ismail studied at the Tranquerah English School and stayed at the Shellabear Hall (hostel) for two years. However, he did not meet Asnah until he was transferred to the Malacca High School. They met during a school function.
“I was involved in acting and he’d come and watch me perform on stage. When there was a debate between the two schools, I saw the way he debated and I was attracted by the way he spoke English. That was how our connection started,” says Asnah.
Thereafter, they got in touch with each other through letters. “I gave him the address of a Chinese schoolmate who lived across the street from the school. We sent letters to each other through her,” says Asnah.
The letters escaped the scrutiny of the missionaries who screened all the students’ letters. The two continued their correspondence even after Ismail moved to Singapore to work as a clerk at the Education Ministry.
One night at about midnight, Asnah heard a voice calling her name softly. She looked out the window and was surprised to see Ismail. He dared not meet her during the day because boys were not allowed into the compound.
“I walked through the Malay graveyard in front of the hostel, crossed the compound and went to the Old Manse where she was sleeping. I called her name softly and she got out. We sat on the pavement and talked for half an hour. Then I left. That was foolhardy. If Rev Blasdell had caught me, I could have gotten Asnah into trouble,” says Ismail.
Asnah was supposed to go to England for a three-year Montessori course, but when the Japanese landed in 1942, her plans were thwarted. Ismail told Asnah that his prayers had been answered as he was praying that she would not leave for England.
The couple married the following year. Asnah was 22 and Ismail, 23. They later had three children.
The Wesley Methodist church started a private school and Asnah taught at the school. When Ismail was transferred to Kuala Lumpur, she went along and taught at the Methodist private school there.
In 1966, the family left for Australia when Ismail was appointed welfare officer at the Malaysian Students’ Division of the Foreign Service. They returned to Malaysia in 1978 when Ismail retired.
Recalling his stay at the Shellabear Hall when he was 12, Ismail says: “There were about three dozen Malay boys then. There was a Malay cook to prepare food specially for the Malay girls and us. I missed home during the first few months.”
Ismail remembers sneaking out of Shellabear Hall with a couple of friends to watch a movie.
“My uncle visited me that day and gave me 20 cents. That was a lot of money then. It was enough for me to buy a cinema ticket.”
Ismail headed for Capitol cinema together with two other boys. “We bought the ‘Parliament seat’ because it was right in front of the screen. I think we were watching a movie starring Dick Powel, an American singer and dancer. He was my favourite,” says Ismail. “We sneaked into the hostel that night but we were caught. I heard Rev Blasdell calling me, ‘Ismail, tomorrow you come and see me after school,’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
The following day the three boys went to see Rev Blasdell, and were given three strokes of the cane on their bottom.
“But I like him very much,” says Ismail. “Before he died, we went to the US to see him and his family, and as we were walking out of the door, he called after me and told me: ‘Look after Asnah,’ and I said, ‘Certainly, sir, certainly.’” The couple visited Rev Blasdell and his family in Washington in 1969 and in Buffalo in 1983. Not long after, Rev Blasdell passed away. He was over 90 years old.
One of his two sons still sends Ismail and Asnah Christmas cards every year.
“If it were not for the Blasdells, I would not have learnt English,” says Asnah.
“We will always remember Rev Blasdell for his kindness,” says Ismail with a tinge of nostalgia.