Growing up at Penang Free School

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THE Ahmad brothers are each highly motivated and charmingly exuberant, and they all have one thing in common —they all went to Penang Free School.

Getting together with Malay Mail recently to recall the good old days, there was no stopping the flow of stories and laughter.

The six self-proclaimed mischievous lads used to live in a housing estate opposite the school. Every morning, they would wait for the first bell to go off before striding across the road, five minutes later for the daily morning assembly.

Adi Satria recounted his schooling days as an experience in multiculturalism in a free environment, where each child is exposed to healthy competition — both in the classroom and on the playing field.

The teachers taught students to see each other as equals. Old Frees to this day would recount that they are all “colour blind” as they never saw others in terms of race, colour or religion.

Adi, who started his career as a teacher in Penang, went to Kuala Lumpur to set up a private school in 1980 before joining the world of advertising, working for multinational agencies and retired as a media group owner. Not one to rest in retirement, Adi has joined a sports management agency to organise a major regional sports event.

“If there is one thing I learned from Free School, it’s that we are all the same and are judged by our capabilities,” he said.

Eldest brother Datuk Sri Nusa Ahmad Thaharuddin, 71, recounted his best years under the school’s last British principal, J.M.B Hughes, who taught English Literature and was principal from 1957 till 1963.

Sri Nusa took up teaching as a profession where he served as teacher, lecturer and vice-principal at various schools and teachers’ training colleges in Malaysia.

During his tenure with the Education Ministry from 1990 to 1999, he held several prominent portfolios. After his retirement, he now serves as member of the board of governors at Yayasan UEM College.

The third brother, Tjandra, 64, recalled his strict and serious civics teacher Phang Peng Yook, who ingrained in the impressionable boys the idea of consequentialism, which is commonly encapsulated in the English saying, “the end justifies the means.”

Most of the teachers at the school were familiar with all six brothers. Tjandra recalled getting an earful whenever he met Bahasa Malaysia teacher Cikgu Ibrahim who would complain of their mischief.

Sending a black board duster flying towards a sleeping student is definitely out of bounds these days!

Tjandra was reed thin but tried all the sports in school much to his chagrin.

His episodes in playing cricket, hockey, basketball and rugby were hilarious — he recounted that being a sprinter saved his life as he could outrun larger rugby opponents.

The Ahmad brothers used to play badminton at a public court near their home at 20 Thorpe Road, which become a chill out corner for friends to stay over, chat and study in a cafe helmed by their parents.

When the boys grew older, their home became a music and jamming studio and their home is fondly remembered by peers.

The elder Asri and Redha were born in the same year and entered school the same time.

Asri, who is a creative designer loved art when he was in school, having no favourite teacher as all were the same in terms of discipline, strictness and expectations. Striving hard was mandatory as good performance and results were expected of every student.

Redha became a retailer after retiring from teaching. His most memorable moment was playing goalkeeper for Wu Lien Teh house and having Asri as the opposing winger on the Hargreaves house.

“When Asri took a corner kick against my team, the ball slipped off on my butter fingers and scored a goal. That was a defining moment when Asri became a champion and I lost one for the team.

“However in the spirit of good sportsmanship, we celebrated together with the best teh o ais the canteen served us in a plastic pail during interval,” Redha said.

Like his older brothers, Azman was the last to join Penang Free School and continued his Lower and Upper Form Six after receiving a scholarship.

“In our days, we respected the discipline master and detention classes were imposed on errant students. Compared to the present day, we were quite a disciplined lot,” Azman said.

One of the things shared by all the Ahmad brothers was the unforgettable canteen food, with nasi kandar and ice syrup made by Mamak Charlie taking top place.

The youngest Ahmad brother, Mohd Israf Ahmad did not attend Penang Free School, but his son Ismandi Mohd Israf made it to the school to complete the family tradition.

Ismandi, 40, whose favourite subject was Economics used to play cricket for the school team and joined the historical society.

And just like his father and uncles before him, Ismandi was equally mischievous in school and whenever the headmaster announced a public caning; he and his classmates would be most frightened.

Asri summed it best when he said that to encourage today’s generation, no matter what the challenges were in life, to remember the school motto “Fortis Atque Fidelis” — stay strong and faithful.