BEING a convent girl (in the 1960s and 1970s) and author of the book Lessons From My School: The Journey Of The French Nuns And Their Convent Schools, I believe I am more qualified to speak about convent schools than most in the generations who attended the schools after they were nationalised.
I am of the Buddhist faith; I spent eight years researching and writing my book on the history of the Catholic Infant Jesus Sisters (IJS) and their convent schools in Malaysia, which includes my alma mater, St Anne’s Convent School Kulim in Kedah.
The nuns’ contributions to this country were phenomenal. Like many of the baby boomers’ generation, I was one of the beneficiaries of their great sacrifices that began with the first convent in 1852.
During the period of intensive research for my book, I travelled back in time and space to where the French nuns came from. I communicated with the sisters often, visiting IJS archives and historical sites, including the Mother House in Paris. I have learnt to appreciate, respect and love the sisters whom I dealt with as well as IJS for all its contributions over 160 years in Malaysia.
At the end of 2017, The Star carried my articles “The sisters’ education crusade in Malaysia” (Sunday Star, Nov 12; online at bit.ly/star_crusade) and “Keeping the legacy of convent schools” (Sunday Star, Dec 10; online at bit.ly/star_legacy). They were in response to the controversial interpretation of the institute’s request to return the properties of the three Penang convent schools, namely Convent Light Street primary and secondary schools and Pulau Tikus Convent secondary school.
Sadly, the same is now being repeated, with even more disturbing and ignorant messages being fed to the public.
Who would treasure the legacy of the dedicated and sacrificing nuns more than the nuns themselves? Who would yearn most to preserve and maintain these properties that were and still are the heritage and reminders of their existence and heyday in Malaysia other than the sisters themselves?
They served this nation so faithfully when they were needed most.
For more than a century before the school was nationalised and the sisters moved out of their own premises, Convent Light Street was the complex where the heartbeat of IJS reverberated. It encompassed the central administration office and financier of all the schools in Peninsular Malaya (and Singapore until early in the 21st century), the novitiate, the orphanage and the most famous international private boarding school (quasi-government at a later stage).
Almost everyone knew Convent Light Street. It educated girls from all races, religions and layers of society, from working class to royalty. Fees were collected from able parents to subsidise the education of the children of financially less able ones.
Can anyone imagine how the sisters, who have dedicated all their lives to educating young people, must have felt when they were phased out of their own schools?
The premises that were once homes of the sisters at Light Street is their heritage and their soul. Nobody should lay their hands on it – not any politician, not any government.
As long as the sisters and institute of IJS live on, their legacy must be preserved for posterity in the character they have built it – not just in the superficial physical appearance of the buildings. How can anyone make reference to what a convent school truly is if they do not know the ethos of the schools that the nuns once so diligently promulgated? The convent schools were called convent schools because they were traditionally a part of the sisters’ convent complex, and they have a distinct culture of their own.
In them, the pupils – as we were once called – learnt to become more complete human beings with strict discipline in manners and academics. Our education included learning necessary living skills and being inculcated with the duty to serve society when we left school. The no-nonsense nuns called this a character-moulding and wholesome education.
If anyone cares about speaking sensibly and responsibly about facts concerning the sisters, he or she should have the decency to find out on how the sisters – who have contributed so much to the nation – are doing today. I dare say many don’t even know where the elderly nuns are now and how their welfare is being taken care of.
Shouldn’t this be the responsibility of a good government, which has taken over their school properties to use?
Putting on my cap as an accountant and speaking solely on my own accord, I believe not a single cent in rent has been offered for the school premises currently being used by national schools (still referred to as “convent schools”).
Has anyone asked, if the sisters do not derive income from their buildings, how have they been coping with the cost of maintaining these properties? And another big ticket item is the cash required to extend the leases of some leasehold properties, which are due.
Does the government subsidise any reasonable amount of funds for the maintenance of the ageing and intensively-used properties? And does it allow any concession on the renewal of leases?
The sacrificing sisters, as always, continue to struggle to cope with money and suffer in silence. Being dutiful as always, they remain amicable and inexpressive of their problems.
It hurts me so much to think of the frail and ailing sisters who are now in need of care, and the able and younger sisters trying their best to provide that care while also trying to maintain their legacies.
I leave it to the conscience of the authorities, politicians and public at large to ponder this issue.
More importantly, as responsible human beings, shouldn’t we be seeking the truth and checking facts with open hearts and minds rather than making wrongful assumptions and spreading speculative accusations that fuel anger against and doubts about the sisters whom we should, instead, respect and appreciate for all their dedicated contributions?
CHEN YEN LING