Cheered on by a boisterous gathering of the Fifth Formers of 1978, the late Brother Director of St Xavier’s Institution, Charles Levin, shares with us his life story during a reunion dinner in a heritage restaurant in Penang on 4 June 2011.
Notice he makes a couple of scathing references to the declining standard of education these days.
He stressed that the year 1852 inscribed on the school building merely indicates the year the La Salle Brothers took over a school that had existed since 1787 i.e. the St Francis Xavier’s School for boys, established by a French priest, who also started a school for girls. The schools were located near the original site of the Assumption Church in the present day Church Street area. That French priest was eventually made a bishop and to mark the occasion, Francis Light presented him with a residence along what became to be known as Bishop Street.
The medium of instruction in the schools in 1787 was Malay, a language that the French priest knew. It was only when Rev Hutchings set up Penang Free School with English as the medium of education that St Xavier’s switched to English as well, to stem the exodus of pupils looking for an education in English. The families of the pupils knew which side of their bread was buttered in terms of the medium of education; so did the Brothers who then maintained English as the medium of instruction until the switch back to Malay in the 1960s and 70s.
Brother Charles, who had a flair for languages, spoke about the importance of adapting to change – including in the medium of instruction. One of the early truly global citizens, he himself mastered the art of adapting to change when he had to adapt to changed circumstances many times – when moving from Berlin to Ireland to Singapore to Penang to Taiping and then back to Penang again. Those who know him say in Ireland, he became more Irish than the Irish, and once in Malaysia, he became more Malaysian in his outlook than many locals.
That said, Brother Charles noted Malaysia does not live in isolation. He said he was not prejudiced against Bahasa; after all, he himself studied the language and received an O-level credit and went on to achieve great things using the language, more than even many native speakers. “It might interest you to know that in the 1980s, I wrote the first series of Pendidikan Moral in Bahasa Malaysia.”
Hinting at the importance of English as an international language, he added: “I have a great respect for Bahasa Malaysia, but I also know what is important when it comes to adapting ourselves to the present circumstances in the world.”
As a parting shot, he told the old boys of SXI: “Be proud of your origins. And be grateful for what has been done for you. Today, you are grateful to your teachers. Continue to be grateful. I have said enough.”
And he has done more than enough through his life’s work. May he rest in peace.