Making Heritage Listing an Attractive Way Forward for Catholic Mission Schools

The recent controversy regarding the extension of the land lease of the Infant Jesus Convent at Bukit Nanas, Kuala Lumpur has once again placed the plight of Malaysia’s Catholic Mission Schools in the news. Although the lease for the secondary school’s land has now been extended for a further sixty years, the emotional tug-of-war that was played out in the media has left a feeling of dissatisfaction in the hearts of many CBN old girls in particular, and by extension, the alumni of Mission Schools in Malaysia in general.

Whereas the earliest Mission School in Malaysia was founded in the 16th century (a now lost Jesuit primary school located within the grounds of the chapel of St. Paul at St. Paul’s Hill, Malacca), the majority of our prominent Mission Schools date from the late 19th century to the 1930s. The twenty or so most significant schools (from an architectural standpoint) stand out amongst hundreds of newer Mission School campuses that exist throughout Malaysia, encompassing buildings both very old and comparatively new. The most well-known of these were started by two major religious institutes – The De La Salle Brothers and the Infant Jesus Sisters. Most prominently, their pre-war schools are present in George Town, Taiping, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Melaka, and prior to tragic demolitions, were also present in the city centre of Seremban.

The Convent Seremban school complex when it was partially demolished in 1994/95. The school was founded in 1904. Photograph courtesy of Juana Juen Junit FB Page.

The significance of these schools was historically linked to providing a strong English-language education in Malaysia prior to the 1970s. The ‘special character’ of these schools was similarly linked to being managed by large numbers of missionary staff from dozens of countries, most prominently Ireland, France and the UK, but also from as far away as the Americas and as close to home as Burma (now Myanmar) as well as many locally-trained Malaysian Brothers and Nuns who were trained in dedicated teacher-training colleges in Penang and the Klang Valley.

St. Michael's Institution in Ipoh, original block designed by architect Thomas Steele of Messr. Stark & McNeill.

Our Mission Schools are therefore custodians of an important tangible as well as intangible heritage, which time has unfortunately not treated well. The loss of the schools’ intangible identity has been well-documented and is obvious to any former student of the Mission Schools graduating prior to 1990, when the Mission Institutes were still heavily involved in the management, leadership and day-to-day running of their schools. Political pressure, demographic change, a decrease in missionary vocations worldwide, changes in the main language of education and economic pressure have all combined to crush the intangible character of the schools in particular.

The loss of the schools’ intangible heritage was and is a great loss to the country, but we are at least left with a strong tangible heritage in the form of the buildings of these formerly great places of learning. It is vital that we do not repeat the same mistake, by ‘sleep-walking’ into a scenario where, one by one, the very buildings that once represented the most academically successful learning places in the country are erased from our collective memory. Architecture matters. It proves that something once happened, and is one of the most convincing reminders to future generations of the history and heritage of the country we all call home. ICOMOS MALAYSIA stands steadfast in urging all stakeholders to come together to gazette the major surviving campuses of the Mission Institutes as National Heritage sites, immune from demolition and open to funding from the government and civil society whilst remaining under the ownership of their Mission Institute custodians.

Dr. Keith Tan Kay Hin Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, Building and design, Taylor's University; Author of Mission Pioneers of Malaya (2015) and Mission Schools of Malaya (2011); Advisor to ICOMOS MALAYSIA's MY HERITAGE SCHOOL : Heritage School Rehabilitation Program. A recording of Dr. Keith's lecture on 'The Architecture of Malaysia's Mission Schools : Memory, Identity & Heritage' is available at this link _____

The MY HERITAGE SCHOOL: Heritage School Rehabilitation Program involves the setting up of a complete digital database for Malaysian heritage school while looking into the production of a Heritage Management Plan for heritage schools in the country. For more information, contact us at