Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Living Stream's 1978 Interview With Bro Ultan Paul

The Front Cover Of "The Living Stream" 1978

I just found this 1978 copy of "The Living Stream" within my home recently. I must admit, I have completely forgotten about it and now, I can't even remember how I got it. "The Living Stream", by the way, is a magazine that is published, once every two years by the 6th Form Arts Council of the St. Michael's Institution (S.M.I.), Ipoh. I think they are only distributed to the Arts Stream students in the Upper Secondary in S.M.I., which makes this a mystery as I was in the Lower Secondary in 1978.

When I flipped through the pages, I seem to have some recollection of the cartoons depicting life at S.M.I. back then. But I don't think I have actually read the rest of it, which is a pity actually as there is an interview with Reverend Brother Director, Bro. Ultan Paul about the history and background of S.M.I. that is not found anywhere else, as far as I know - not even in the pile of school magazines, "The Michaelian", that I have. Hats off to the 1978 Editorial Team of "The Living Stream" for filling this void.

Below is this interview, conducted by Denise Teh Swan Teen and Choong Mee Yong, both of Lower Six Art 2 1978. See what you think. There are some typos. So, my corrections are in brackets and in blue.

There is no mention of a tunnel of any kind by the way. With all that piling in the school hall at that time, is building a tunnel possible?


An Interview With Reverend Brother Director

The idea of interviewing Reverend Brother Director was first brought up by the Editorial Board because the Editors felt that the students of this school would like to know something about the history and background of S.M.I. plus his personal opinions on certain topics. So the two of us took the initiative in getting an appointment with him. Here are the results of our efforts.

Q: Brother Director, what was the land used for before S.M.I. was built?
A: The land was part of a kampung area - it was mostly swampy land. The back portion of the field behind the present old wing was very swampy land. It had to be filled with sand taken from the bund area. In fact during the old days you could hear the frogs croaking away.
Q: Whose idea was it to build S.M.I. - we mean the original building?
A: The school was built in 1912. It was a small attap bungalow bought by the Parish priest of St. Michael's Church, Father J.B. Coppin. He turned it into a school and got a gentleman, Mr. Mor Singh to take care of it. He was an Indian Catholic from Penang and he took care of the early S.M.I. Father Coppin started the school as there was no school for Catholic boys. You see, there was already a school for Catholic girls and A.C.S. was already in existence. In the early days, the school was prone to frequent floods as it was built on considerably low ground. In fact the land on which the school is built is thought to be part of the bed on which the Kinta River once flowed.
Q: Where did the funds for building the school come from?
A: The school was first bought with Parish funds and later built with donations from the people of Perak and Penang.
Q: What was the school named after?
A: The priest named the school St. Michael's Institution after St. Michael's Church.
Q: When did you started working in S.M.I., Brother Director?
A: I started working in 1939, that is 27 years after S.M.I. was built.
Q: Can you tell us something about the history of S.M.I.?
A: I can't tell you much of it except what I know from the records. The school started in 1912 with a very small number of pupils. The first headmaster was J.P. Mor Singh. After 8 years Father Coppin found that it was difficult to manage and went to Penang to get some brothers to help out. He got the services of 3 brothers in 1920. In 1920 the brothers started building the substantial block stretching from one granite staircase to the other.
Q: What was the first enrollment of the school?
A: There was only one class with 44 pupils. One class for each standard starting from Standard 1 to 3. When I first came there were already 2 classes each up to Standard 3. There was Primary 1, Primary 2, Standard 1-8 and the School Certificate class. Primary 1 to Standard 4 would represent the present Primary school. Standard 5 up to the School Certificate class would represent the secondary school.
Q: When was the rest of the school built?
A: Towards the end of 1939, the school hall, science labs and chapel were built. Materials were hard to come by as war was being declared. We couldn't get the big cross-beams - that's why the school hall is so low. The beams in the school hall are about 3' 6" build of reinforced concrete to support the hall. You notice there are no pillars in the hall. In order to give it strength one had to do a lot of piling. During the Japanese Occupation, (the Japanese) took over the school as their headquarters in '42. In 1946 we had reoccupied the school bit by bit. In actual fact the school (was) functioning in 3 places: in old Sam Tet school, the dormitory in the Convent and St. Michael's. In '54 Director Brother Dennis decided to put up the 2 ends of the building - the 2 class behind the hall and the 2 classes at the end of the block together with the dormitory for the boarders. In '66 we put up the Sixth Form block with all the facilities: the library, the bookshop, the science labs, etc.
Q: Why didn't they built the old (new) block in the old Colonial style?
A: The old building is in the old English style. If you continue building in that style, the cost would be very high. However, you will notice that the building is 4 storeys high while the (old) one is just 3 storeyed.
Q: Since the school was built during the British era, did they help in any way?
A: The British gave some money but the bulk of the money came from the people and also from the Brothers' savings
Q: What shape is the school?
A: The school is like an inverted 'P'. The old long block forming it's tail and the square of the Sixth Form block forming the top portion.
Q: During the Japanese occupation, did they use the school as a sort of burial ground?
A: No, the Japanese had the school as their civilian H.Q. though they brought people here for interrogation. However, there are a lot of stories going round. In actual fact, the Japanese used one place as a sort of air-raid shelter and this place needed a lot of earth giving the rise to a lot of misconjecture. At the back of the field the Japanese built some individual air-raid shelters. They were dug into the ground, circular in shape, 4' or 5' deep and people can get a lot of ideas from that.
Q: It seems that there has been a lot of rumours going round that the school is haunted. Is it true? Have you heard any funny noises at night?
A: No. I don't think this is so. I haven't heard anything nor has anything disturbed me at night. I haven't experienced anything,even when I walk around at night.
Q: Brother Director, we would like to ask you about your life in Burma. How long did you live there?
A: I left Burma when I was quite young and came to Penang to continue my education.
Q: Why exactly did you come to Malaysia?
A: There was no training centre for Brothers in Burma but there was one in Penang. So those who wanted to join the Brotherhood had to come to Penang.
Q: What do you think of the girls in this school, Brother Director?
A: Oh, They are very pleasant, hardworking and intelligent and I must say very dedicated to the school. All my years with them, they have proved to be very helpful and cooperative when it comes to fun-fairs and drama performances the school has produced. As far as academic achievement is concerned, they have had a very high standard.
Q: How about the boys on the academic side?
A: The boys are excellent too. The boys do extremely well but somehow in school they seem to keep behind the girls. However, when they go to the universities they catch up and get ahead of them. This shows the boys have plenty of staying power. The boys too have given us very good results and many of them who have gone overseas have done extremely well.
Q: What do yo think about students getting involved - having a, let's say, a meaningful relationship in Form Six?
A: I wonder what you mean by meaningful relationship? People can take a lot of different meanings from that phrase. If you mean a healthy attitude towards one another then Form Six is a very nice place to meet and learn to relate to one other. My sympathies go out to a boy who doesn't have any sisters and vice versa. He may have missed out on little aspect of life and would not know how to relate to other. I would rather see boys and girls having a lot of friends instead of just one particular friend. It's too soon to have one friend - we are still young and also it is not fair to ourselves. We are forgetting that there are many other people in the world and one can learn a lot from one another - life is something we learn from people. One should have a broad spectrum of friends.
Q: Do you learn Bahasa Malaysia Brother Director?
A: Yes, I do, on my own. I read the Utusan Malaysia, listen to news on radio, watch the T.V. regularly when there is any programme in Bahasa Malaysia. I make it a point to draft a letter in Bahasa Malaysia and get it corrected when I get any correspondence from the Government departments. When making speech, I try always to draft it in Bahasa Malaysia and then try it out.
Q: That means you are quite good in Bahasa Malaysia?
A: I won't say that but I can make myself understood. Studying by myself, I try to take all opportunities that come my way. When a teacher who teaches in Bahasa Malaysia speaks to me, I talk to him in Bahasa Malaysia and he replies in Bahasa Malaysia.
Q: Have you considered taking any Bahasa Malaysia exams?
A: I have taken what you call government exams. I hope one fine day I shall be able to sit for the H.S.C. exam.
Q: What do you think about the standard of education in S.M.I. By hearsay it is supposed to have dropped considerably.
A: It's a very difficult question for me to answer. If you take it by numbers I don't think it has dropped. Nowadays we are teaching about 2,000 boys and girls in school - some years back the number of students we had in Form 5 and 6 barely came to a hundred. Now in Form 5 alone the number of boys taking the exam is about 450 - 500. So by numbers alone you get 200 boys passing. Percentage wise we seem to have dropped but by numbers alone we have gained. So it's hard to compare the standard now with the standard of yesterday. The curriculum presented to the boys is far larger than that offered to the boys 20 years ago. In the old days the students were offered about 8 subjects but now they have a wider choice. You are learning more as far as your syllabus goes than your parents did in school. So it's hard to compare. The teachers today teach just the same as the teachers did years ago. As far as they are concerned, they are giving more attention in depth to the lessons. What is the students response? So it is not the amount of instruction that is given as the amount of instruction that is assimilated. Education is not only instruction. Education is training the whole person.
Q: What do you think about the 'Livingstream' in comparison to the school magazine?
A: It fulfills a need for arts classes (arts section) whereas the school magazine is meant to cover all the activities of the school. That's the difference. As a work of art, the 'Livingstream' can contribute a lot to school life and also serve as a vehicle for students in the arts classes. If you don't have the 'Livingstream', the arts students would feel a loss - a sort of disparity with the science students, the science section has its 'Explorer' magazine. Years ago Brother Vincent suggested the 'Livingstream' because is sounded novel. You see it gives the impression of a stream that is flowing and living - in fact going on continuously. So every new generation coming to the school would have something to contribute. The 'Livingstream' and the 'Explorer' come up once every 2 years but they take alternate years. Last year we had the 'Explorer' and this year it is the turn of 'Livingstream' to appear.
Q: As the last question to end the interview, do you have any message for the students?
A: I will be writing a foreword in the magazine, so for the time being, use all the opportunities you have and do the best you can for others and ask God to help all your efforts.

Denise Teh Swan Teen LSA2
Choong Mee Yong LSA2


  1. Thank you for this. Rev Brother Ultan Paul was my uncle - I knew him as Uncle Bob - his sister was my mother.

    1. Hi! Gerry. I am glad that you enjoyed this blog post. Bro Paul did mention something about visiting his brother in London in 1985 - I didn't know that he have a sister.

      I was fortunate enough to be a student at S.M.I. when Bro Paul was Bro Director (the Headmaster). He was truly an amazing man. Me and a lot of us old students of his miss him a lot.

      I hope your Uncle did tell you some war stories about his life during the Japanese occupation at the school. They are quite fascinating.


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