Penang Free School


Photography by Ridhuan Abu Bakar, a freelance assignment for Penang Monthly Magazine . You may view the online entry of this photo essay at

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I was a student at this school, attending from 1995 till 1999. My primary school was another oldest school, Sekolah Kebangsaan Sungai Gelugor, which was established in 1826, 10 years after Penang Free School, was the first Malay school in Malaysia and SEA.

During form 1, I commute between school and home in Sungai Nibong with a school bus that picked us up as early as 6.15am, and back home around 2pm. Sometimes when I had extra curricular activities I took the public bus home. There were several buses I had to take including the legendary Penang Yellow Bus, Mini Bus or Transit Link.

I love playing chess, and one of the earliest club that I joined was the chess club, until when I saw most of the members were way ahead of me, including one Vinoshen Vinayagam,  I knew that chess wasn’t really for me. That was when I knew I had to stick with art, at least I’m in between the best and the worst!

When I used to live in Sungai Nibong,  there’s a teacher that live a stone’s throw away from mine, Mr David Ram. He was the English teacher in my school and also a cricket coach. Since he knew I went to PFS, he bombarded me with countless cricket videos, brainwashing me into joining the cricket club. His method succeeded, and I joined the club and went to several training sessions. Because of the unpopularity of the sport in the school compared to football, hockey and rugby, you’re 99% sure to be selected for the school team if you know how to throw the ball properly. It didn’t last long though, when Mr. Ram moved out and changed school, I left the club, while still haven’t got a clue how the scoring system works.

I was pretty OK in football, although I only learned to kick a ball correctly in standard 5, managed to get into the school team in form 5 mostly because I live in the hostel, so I could train regularly. If skills alone were the factor for selection, for sure I wasn’t good enough to be selected even for the B team, let alone the A team. Besides all the negativity in my sporting abilities, I was quite good at bowling, and nearly joined the state selection but had to backed out (staying in the hostel has several disadvantages, one being the difficulty in accessing in and out of the compound because of the rules & regulations)

In the 3rd quarter of 1996, my parents moved to the mainland so I had to enroll in the hostel. It was a life changing experience, from that point on I looked at the world in a different perspective. First time living away from your parents and the comfort of home at the tender age of 14 does affect your mentality in the long term.

The food was awful (no surprise), but I adapted quickly that at one point I was at my most skinny self during the hostel years (1996-1999). I remember clearly in 1999 i weighed only 56kg, with a height of 168cm, but (sadly) never achieved the same feat since. Talking about proper diet! Cold, hard, skinny fried fish with no taste veggie served almost everyday with the occasional ‘high table’ where chicken curry is served with some decent extras. Food appreciation were one of the most important lesson I learnt during that time, that’s why you’ll never gonna see me not finishing any food that I’m having. 

Human interaction and friendship were also very important when you’re living with a group of people in the same premise. We were always taught about “Ingat orang belakang”, meaning whatever you do, remember there are other people waiting for the same thing. Example, if you’re taking a shower, don’t take your time too long because there might be other people in a hurry too and need to use the same bathroom. In short, don’t be too selfish. When it comes to sharing good food though, this was one of the widely used quote.

All in all, i love my school. 90% of my friends today are friends during primary and secondary school, not even college and colleague came close to the bond of school mates. We grew up together, sharing most of our time in school, fight, laugh and get caught doing stupid shit with the same people for years, and most people will say that their most memorable moments in life happened during their school years. 

Everything that we did and did not do during our school years, is what makes you the person you are today. There’s no two way about it.


  • The school’s iconic clock tower peeks over the school quadrangle. There are two quadrangles in the school, separated by the main hall on the far right.


  • The trophy cabinets leading to the main hall house some of the school’s biggest achievements in sports and co-curricular activities, notably football, hockey, cricket, chess and rugby. It was the scene of one of the most memorable event in the school history, when in 1995 a group of senior students bombed the cabinet with powerful firecrackers.


  • Some areas of the school are closed – including the main building – during the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) exam to give the students more focus. I remember getting out of the hall after 30 minutes during my add maths paper. One of my biggest regret during school was why I did’t change my class to art stream. Although I took an extra Art Subject, I was still occupied with biology, physics, chemistry and add maths where I had no interest whatsoever to memorize. (Examination is all about memorizing, not learning)


  • Recently I discovered that most of the vendors at the canteen will be replaced by new ones, and that including some of the most famous vendors in recent history, such as Rahim Nasi Kandar and Farouk drinks station.


  • The school pavilion. They say there’s a secret underground tunnel connecting the pavilion, school hall and Fort Cornwallis in Padang Kota Lama some 8kms away. Nobody was able to confirm the story though.


  • Students from the Red Crescent Society practising their skills. PFS students  are obligated to join at least one uniform body – or other co-curricular  activities – to make them more rounded individuals. I was having none of it and never joined any uniform bodies.



  • Students – teachers bonding time. It great to know that there are some teachers who are completely sporting and easy going with the students despite the gap, but there are still respect shown both ways.


  • The famous school band practising for a function later in the day. The band has won numerous awards throughout its illustrious history.




  • Students crowd to buy drinks at the canteen. The prices here are subsidized by the government to make it more affordable for the students; teachers and outsiders have to pay the full amount. This particular vendor has been selling drinks here for 3 generations.



  • The smiling faces of students who are excited about the upcoming school holidays. At the centre is Yap Gark Soo, the head of sports, who is also one of the most senior teachers still serving the school. He has been here for almost 22 years and been mostly credited for producing national-level hockey players. He will retire in four years’ time.


  • The prefects at PFS consist of students from forms 4, 5 and 6. Their main duty is to maintain harmony and discipline in the school by conducting spot checks and foot patrols, and apprehending law breakers. They have a fearsome reputation for their no-nonsense approach towards discipline.



  • Students clean their classrooms before going off for the year-end school holiday. The culture of cleanliness and teamwork is taught here from an early stage.



  • A Form 2 Sikh student and his friend get ready to leave school. Parents from all walks of life send their children to PFS because of the quality of education, co-curricular activities, sports and culture it has to offer.




  • The massive arch at the main entrance was constructed in 1977 and was officially opened on September 29, 1979. Its construction was funded by several famous Old Frees – most notably the Choong family, Teh Choon Beng and Lim Hock Seng. The Old Frees play a major role in the continuous welfare and upgrading of school facilities.



  • The school library, also known as “Khutub Khanah Tunku”, was the brainchild of the school principal at the time, Tan Boon Lin. Planned in 1967 and officially opened on December 29, 1969, it was heavily funded and supported by the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, also an Old Free. As a sign of respect, the library was named after him.


  • Penang Free School Hostel blocks



  • Jalil bin Saad, the current principal of PFS, is the first Malay Old Free to be the headmaster in its 200-year history. Jalil is serving his fifth year in the school, and he is as enthusiastic as ever.


Penang Free School will be celebrating its 200 years this year.

Fortis Atque Fidelis

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