An Old Sea Salt
by Kim Gooi
1st published in Penang Club magazine 2002
[Author’s note: The most beloved headmaster of Penang Free School Mike Hughes passed away on 16 March 2011, six days after his wife Jean Hughes. Their joint funeral will be held on Tuesday 22 March at Chapel of Rest, Okehampton, Devon. Legions of old boys scattered around the world mourn their demise.
“They contributed greatly to enhance the school’s already excellent academic, sports, arts performances…and made huge impacts on many of us personally. Stories of their generosity of their time, words and acts of support and encouragement, and in kind to the students are legendary, writes Chew Poh Soon, among tributes that poured through the internet.]
In early 1900s I have a pleasant surprise when the last English headmaster of Penang Free School, JMB Hughes who retired and went back to England in 1963, wrote to me in Bangkok.
“Are you Gooi Mong Kim, the one I taught geography in Form Two? I don’t know you are now known as Kim Gooi. Heard you are a journalist based in Bangkok. I got your address from one of the old boys.
“Remember our dunking days in the sea of Batu Ferringhi. (He used to take a bunch of us camping in front of ‘Silver Sand’, while the family stayed in the bungalow)
“How is Weng Thim, Say Kok, Lye Heen?” He said he is still in contact with Poay Lim and some of the old boys but among all the students he remembers us best and the liveliest. Must be due to the fact we were the last group taught by him and the one who dunked him in the sea.
“One good dunking deserves another,” he says. And Mike, as he now wants to be called, would dunk as back in return.
After a week of sun and surf, just as we were about to cycle home with our piles of ruck sacks and camping gears, I remember vividly, Mike coming towards me and dished out about fifteen dollars (ringgit, quite a lot of money in those days). “Take this and have a meal in the coffee shop,” he said.
Those were the days – great school, great teachers! “I would always make it a point to take my students outdoor as part of the education,” he would say. Among the field trips he had taken were to Pulau Langkawi in the early remote days (Lim Chong Keat among the group), he said. And the most memorable – when the whole school took a day off to hike up Penang Hill in 1962, the year I was in Form Two.
Penang Free School then was noted for its academic excellence and sports prowess nationally. The teachers were a different breed compared to now.
Many of us Old Frees, now in our autumn years, would agree that the Penang Free School is special in many ways and hold fond memories of the alma mater. From its founding in 1816 until 1963 when the last English principal left for home, it has always been headed by a British headmaster.
When Old Frees meet, they would inevitably inquire: “Which year (were you in)?…..Todd?, Hargreaves?, Pinhorn?… and so on. For me the greatest headmaster will always be Michael (JMB) Hughes.
Already an octogenarian when I heard from him, Hughes has not lost his shine and humour. “We can stage the biggest dunking of all times if you come to England,” he wrote. “Except it won’t be as warm and sunny as Batu Ferringhi; yours Old Sea Salt,” he signed off.
Coincidentally at that time Old Frees of my year had just started email contacts; Lye Heen when informed of Hughes suggested we pooled resources and get him a laptop.
But it was OK. A few weeks later Mike emailed saying: “Thanks for your kind thoughts but it’s not necessary, my daughter and son-in-law, just got me a computer and ‘wired’ me up.
“Times have changed, what I understand as a mouse and hardware are no longer the four legged animal and tools I used to know,” he wrote amusingly.
We were in regular email contact. In year 2000, Hughes visited Penang at the invitation of Lim Chong Keat and company. I met up with Mike at Chong Keat’s Penang Hill Hotel. At 84, except for the cane he uses when walking, he was robust and healthy, his mind as sharp as ever, rattling off names of old students and events, to the amazement of all.
In 2001 I was the Southeast Asia editor for Outthere News, a London based news portal, actively reporting on the American attack of Afghanistan Taliban forces. My job was to get ordinary people to comment on the Afghan War, their fear, worry and so on.
Mike and I were in regular contact. Needless to say Afghanistan featured mostly in our exchanges. Being a newsman, I was amazed at the profound insight and knowledge Mike had of the Afghans and the region.
I sent his comments to london and sure enough the editor, Paul Eedle, was astonished. “This is great stuff!” the Editor commented.
Below is the commentary of Michael Hughes as it appears in OutthereNews. I am sure Old Frees who were with Hughes would be delighted to read about the Old Sea Salt’s vast experience, knowledge and empathy for the people.
Wednesday 21 November 2001
[I SERVED IN AFGHANISTAN IN 1942
Michael Huhges, now 84, is the former headmaster
of Penang Free School in Malaysia, the oldest English
school in southeast Asia (founded in1816). He served
in the British army in India, Ceylon and Burma in World
War II before his life as a teacher in Malaysia. he
retired to Britain in 1963.]
I am not surprised those reporters were killed in Afghanistan. In 1942 I was stationed not far away from there. The road from Peshawar to Landi Kota (a frontier fort) had one role. Any British officer straying 50 yards from the track could be shot and several were. There was a guide book telling you this. British officers had to wear pagris like their men. It has always been a fierce area. Tribesmen could be feasting you and going overboard with hospitality one day and trying to put a bullet in your head the next. You never called them ‘Pushtuns’ then but ‘Pathans’ who spoke a language called Pusthu. My orderly was one such man and he was the salt of the earth.
When I left the army in Rangoon in 1946 and he left me, I wanted to give him 400 rupees to help create a better life for him and his family. At first he refused but I insisted and he took it. Six months later when I was back in the UK I got a letter from the village headman signed by every man in the village. He had gone home
and distributed the money between the whole community. this was a man who lived in a mud and wattle hut with one room divided from another by a rough partition. The animals on one side, the people on the other. Mostly they slept outside on a string bed called a charpoy.
With all respect you have to know these people well because robbery is common and westerners would be targets. I respected them and loved them. Allah was everything to them and Mohammad their guide. I know that there is no excuse for what happened in western eyes but in theirs there was nothing wrong. I could tell you more about them but it would take me half a book. One thing I do know. They do not fear death. Of course one cannot condone with murder but they live in a harsh climate where life is a constant struggle and death very common. Probably the infant mortality rate is higher than 60% and the death rate at about the age of 50. Of course I am talking about 60 years ago and things may have changed but I doubt very much whether attitudes have.