Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The First Schools in North Borneo

I’m sure many of my former students would have loved to live in the good old days. Life was so much simpler. Kids didn’t have to get up at dawn to get ready for school. They didn’t have to slog through school assignments or be pestered to read a certain number of books per year. The kids who always complained about being up to their ears with school work would have loved the good old days because there were no schools to go to.

In the early days of the North Borneo Chartered Company (NBCC), the government did not concern itself with teaching the natives how to read and write. So anything a person learned was from the elders or through his own experiences and interactions with his environments. Because no one knew how to read or write, all lessons and knowledge were committed to memory.

Menggatal Lok Yuk School 1930 (Click pic to enlarge)
Although the NBCC began to administer NB in 1881, the government only opened its very first school in 1915. This was the Government Training School and was established specially for the sons of Native Chiefs. It started with a mere five recruits, all boys, naturally. The aim was to teach the students to read and write Malay as well as do simple arithmetic. These boys formed a pool of indigenous administrators, ready to succeed their fathers as government servants.

The Government Training School didn’t last long and was closed in 1930, only fifteen years after it was opened. What had contributed to its short existence? The school didn’t make much progress. Moreover, the NBCC had begun to establish Malay schools, known as Government Vernacular Schools. In 1931 such schools were opened in Kota Belud and Papar. The following year schools were established in Keningau and Menumbok.

It must be noted, however, that between 1881 and 1915, years before the NBCC opened its first school, the Company allowed Christian missionaries to establish schools especially in areas where many Chinese lived.

Thanks to the Spanish pirate-turned-priest, Father Cuateron, who asked Rome to send priests to continue his work in NB, the first school run by Catholic missionaries, St. Mary’s Primary School, was opened in Sandakan in 1887. By 1905 the Catholic, Anglican and Basel Missions had established schools in Sandakan, Jesselton, Papar, Putatan, Kudat, Penampang and Labuan.

The Chinese who had been recruited by the NBCC to open up farms—along the north-south strip of land stretching from Telipok to Inanam—also  opened and ran their own schools. The Inanam Lok Yuk School was opened in 1914; Telipok Lok Yuk School in 1925 and two years later, the Menggatal Lok Yuk School was established.

In 1909, the NBCC established the Education Department. It was manned by two ‘Inspectors of School’ who had to report the yearly progress of schools.

By comparison, Sarawak established the country’s first school, St. Thomas, much earlier, in 1848. And the oldest school in WM was established by Catholic missionaries in 1787.

We’ve come a long way since those long ago NBCC days. Now Sabah has 1,283 primary and secondary schools. That would be 1,282 schools if you disregard one primary school because it is a ‘sekolah tanpa murid’.

Back to my former students who didn’t like studying, homework, books, etc. If only there had been a ‘sekolah tanpa guru’ during their time!

Ref: The Hakka Experiment in Sabah

JPN Sabah, Website
Picture from 'The Hakka Experiment in Sabah'


  1. Very interesting history lesson on how schools were started in NB. Weldone cegu!!!

  2. Yup I would very much love to live in good ol' days... No soots, haze, noises...

    Now I know what earlier schools being settled in Sabah. History lessons learned! Thank you Teacher!

  3. Dad would tell me about dropping cash payment into tins hung on unmanned fruit/veggie stalls along the Ranau road back in the days.

  4. Well done for the history and may I share this, too.