Bishop and naughtiest boy among 600 alumni at SJS' 60th anniversary

While Malaysia is reeling from international criticism over the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim once again, I took time out to visit St Joseph’s School in Johor Bahru for the school’s 60th anniversary celebration on Valentine’s Day.

Feb 27, 2015

Anil Netto

BY Anil Netto
While Malaysia is reeling from international criticism over the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim once again, I took time out to visit St Joseph’s School in Johor Bahru for the school’s 60th anniversary celebration on Valentine’s Day.

The Anwar decision put the spotlight squarely on the judicial system and the administration. But I was transported back in time to the Merdeka era when the Gabrielite Brothers established St Joseph’s School (SJS) in 1955, from a collection of schools near the JB Church.

I had a special interest in the celebration as my mother, Mary, taught in this school in the early 1960s. Now and again I would hear familiar names mentioned at home — Brother Noel, former principals Dominic Cherayil, and Alex Anthony, discipline master Toh Chuan Hock and Bessie Miranda, and a few of her pupils, including one Sebastian Francis. Among the former teachers at the dinner later that day, was 91-year old Mrs P Kathirasoo, the first non-Catholic teacher and a former principal of the school.

It was a privilege to meet some of these ‘legends’ in the flesh, and to witness Mr Cherayil addressing the old boys seated inside an old SJS classroom once again, just like old times.

Heads turned when the self-proclaimed ‘naughtiest boy’ in the school back then showed up from the other side of the world for the walk down memory lane at the school on Valentine’s Day morning. He delighted in reacquainting himself with his old ‘adversaries’ Mr Cherayil and Mr Toh. Nearby, the present day principal Ms Loke Kwai May welcomed the former teachers and old boys to the school premises. Congratulations to Paul Netto (no relation), Vincent D’Silva and the rest of the organising team for a splendid job.

The Naughtiest Boy regaled the old boys with his exploits including an occasion when a teacher had challenged him in his studies. Apparently, the teacher had said that he would commit suicide if the Naughtiest Boy passed his LCE (Form Three government) examinations. The Naughtiest Boy surprised everyone by passing and duly went to the teacher to ask that he make good on his word, but the teacher brushed the teenager aside, saying he had just been “lucky”!

Those were giddy days, with post-independent Malaya on the verge of becoming Malaysia. An exciting new future as an independent nation under the Tunku’s administration beckoned. But of course we know about the challenges in that era — the detention of critics including Labour Party activists and others, the Confrontation, etc.

Still, there was a buzz and an air of expectancy that the seeds of the nation could be built on a platform of a solid inclusive education for all, irrespective of ethnicity and religion.

Johor Bharu holds a special place for me as it is my hometown, which I left when I was four. The city is bustling and modern, the landscaping immaculate, much brighter and cleaner than the shabby rundown place a decade earlier. All this evidence that much money has poured into Johor Bharu in recent years.

And yet, inside the taxi from the airport to the heart of JB, before passing by the GH where I was born, I looked to the right at Lido Beach and my jaw dropped at the sheer scale of the land reclamation work in progress.

Here earth works are in progress and luxury bungalows and high-end ‘sea-view’ condos are about to sprout. The taxi driver lamented, “Condo ini bukan untuk kita. Mana boleh beli? Dua bilik - RM700,000. Tiga bilik - RM1 juta.” Coming from Penang, where property prices have similarly soared, I found his remarks familiar.

Meanwhile, the Astaka @ 1 Bukit Senyum, the country’s tallest condo tower rising 304m above sea level, is expected to be completed by 2017. Prices? Don’t ask. From RM2 million to RM8.5 million.

Politically, the sentiment in Johor, once a bastion of BN support, is changing. At the reunion, the fate of Anwar, 1MDB and the future of the Najib administration were not far from the lips of many I spoke to.

The Independence era expectations and the buzz of optimism have given way to uncertainty over the future — the economy, GST, the depressing political scenario.

The future of the mission schools hangs in the balance too. Speaking at the gala dinner, Bishop Sebastian urged the 600 diners, most of them alumni, to “take a more active interest in the school and be part of the Board of Governors.” He said the old boys could still connect with the school through the Board and even in the appointment of principals and wondered if they might help found private schools that could be managed by the Church.

Finally, he tossed this question to the 600 diners: “Are there more avenues to continue the mission schools so that they can contribute to a better quality of education and help the young in nation building?”

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