Saturday, June 20, 2009

In my beginning is my Terence Netto

La Salle Brothers ended where they began

Terence Netto | Jun 20, 09 11:43am
“In my beginning is my end,” runs the refrain from a poem of TS Eliot’s, lines with a special poignance to Ho Kok Chee, brother director of St Xavier’s Institution and a Masters in English - a postgraduate qualification he has had to equip himself with, as otherwise his fitness for the headmastership of the school would have been deemed by the authorities as inadequate.

In the event, it enabled him to last 16 years as brother director, the longest tenure of the 28 principals who preceded him since the foundation in 1852 of this flagship school.

Ho’s retirement today brought to a close the 157-year presence of the La Salle Brothers in Malaysia, a Roman Catholic teaching order that at its height was responsible for the administration and ownership of 59 primary and secondary schools in Malaysia that educated something like two million students.

Alumni of these schools have graced the upper reaches of Malaysian socio-political life since independence and have not been averse to crediting their alma mater for the training they received.

However, a glance at the list of Malaysian luminaries who have been educated in these schools would stay the impulse to any triumphalism about the worth of the education afforded there, for the products occupy the range from the proud to the sordid. It must be admitted that much the same could be said for the legatees of most other famous schools in the country.

Why then the poignance that attended the closure rituals at Bro Paul Ho’s departure?

Perhaps it was because of the ideal of gratuitous service that animated the La Salle Brothers, who at the height of their presence in Malaysian education in the 1950s and 60s, numbered about a hundred members spread among the staff of the few score schools, mainly located in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, that they built and ran.

In a skeptical age, it would be easy to deprecate the value of this service but when it is seen that barely 10 percent of the enrollment in each of these schools was composed of pupils of the same religion as the Brothers, and that the latter did nothing in the way that could be construed as attempts to proselytise, their record of service was indeed what they claimed it was: gratuitous.

Faintly optimistic of the future

“It’s a new beginning,” opined Bro Paul Ho in remarks made to Malaysiakini as he packed his belongings in the modest office near the entrance to the school earlier this week in preparation for Friday’s departure.

He sounded faintly optimistic of the future, that the “special character of this school and its like” – meaning the half dozen other schools in the major towns of the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia – would resist the attrition that would come from being administered by Education Ministry appointees not imbued with the spirit of the La Salle order.

It was hard to see the grounds for his optimism, albeit a faint one. But there wasn’t anything contrived in the way he gave vent to it.

“It now depends on those who value the education they have received in these schools to preserve their alma mater’s special character,” he elaborated.

“They have to exert the effort to preserve it,” he asserted. “If they cannot be depended upon to do that, who else would do it now that the Brothers are no longer around to preserve it?”

He added: “The La Salle order has looked upon students that have come to it for their education as special gifts to be respected for their human dignity and worth, irrespective of whether they belonged to the religion the Brothers professed.

“That was what made the order and the schools they ran special. That was why no proselytising was done because we respected the dignity of the person entrusted to our care.

“Our ideal of gratuitous service was based on that respect for the dignity of the human person and the end of our presence does not mean that the value of that ideal is no longer relevant nor is ended the possibility that it could endure in the hearts of those who have been touched by its worthiness,” said Bro Paul in a light-hearted tone that belied the gravity of what he said.

“The Brothers were never in this for profit or proselytising,” he emphasised. “They were in it for the dignity of the human person and that is why a void in their presence does not mean the cessation of that ideal.”

Bro Paul Ho chuckled when it was suggested to him that he was standing TS Eliot’s famous refrain on its head – “In my end is my beginning.”

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