The White Crocodile’s Tale is a memoir written by John Michael Broome Hughes, a British teacher at the Penang Free School who later became its headmaster

KUALA LUMPUR: IF the walls of the Penang Free School could talk, it would have endless tales of its illustrious students, like the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, Datuk Eddy Choong and Tan Sri P. Ramlee. 

The success of the school and its famous sons in its 198-year existence is, of course, a testament to its educators.

From its founding, the school has been blessed with men and women who have shaped the future leaders and stars of this country. Among them, was John Michael Broome Hughes, who had two stints in Penang Free School, which he talks about fondly in his memoir titled The White Crocodile’s Tale.

Chapters of the memoir detailed how a young Michael came to Penang in 1948, looking forward to a fresh start after World War 2, as a First Assistant European Master.

Michael describes how Penang and its people, especially his students, had left an impression on him.

There was the gifted scholar, Lim Chong Keat and Tengku Ahmad Rithauddin, who was described as “the essence of charm and politeness”, as well as the funny Teng Lye Hock.

Michael believed that to teach his students, he had to know them first, and saw an opportunity through Geography Society outings. 

He shares memories of the wonderful time he spent with his students during these outings, such as hiking Penang Hill, swimming in the Sungai Pinang waterfall and even an expedition to Langkawi.

During the expedition, the team had stayed in the rest house in which two students from Kedah were also staying in. 

Michael recalled that his “tribe of Hokkien-speaking boys” made so much noise, that the two students moved out. 

It was only later that Michael discovered that one of these two Kedahans was a young man who would later become Malaysia’s fourth prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Four years later, Michael would serve in the Malay College Kuala Kangsar, the Sultan Ismail College, then known as Ismail English School and Klang High School before returning to the Penang Free School, only this time, as its headmaster.

It was during this stint as headmaster that the school won the first ever Agong’s Cup, a prestigious badminton tournament.

Michael also tried to raise money to build a swimming pool for the school through organising a fun-fair, hoping it would be an annual affair.

He left the school in 1963, when its first local headmaster Boon Lin took over the reigns. Michael’s farewell saw all students and staff trek Penang Hill for a farewell picnic.

In a review of her father’s book, Mary Olwen Hughes said her father’s love for Malaysia began in Penang.

“Malaysia healed Mike and kept him awake for the rest of his life.”

Mary writes that his students’ delight in learning and their respect, compared with their war-jaded British
contemporaries, were refreshing.

“Whatever, nowhere else was ever quite like Malaysia, and the extraordinary,
brilliant people he met there, and whose friend he became,” she said of her well-traveled father, who died at the age of 93 in 2011.