Memories of Muar High School

Desmond Pereira [Left] escorting Malayan Scout
Commissioner on his visit to Muar High School

It was August 1957, just days before the birth of the Federation of Malaya when Desmond Paul Pereira became Headmaster of Muar High School, a role he held until his retirement in May 1973. 

Taking over the reins from E. A. Balshaw, the last expatriate head, Pereira was the first Malayan headmaster of Muar High School (MHS).  In a time of radical change in the country’s political structure and educational system, MHS was then by enrolment, the largest English secondary school in Johor.

Born in Malacca on 19 December 1922, Pereira was educated in the Malacca High School and went to Raffles College in Singapore at age 16. 

Pereira presenting his speech at Parents Day event
at Muar High School in 1960
Two fellow students who stayed in the same hostel block with him were Tun Hj Hamdan Sheikh Tahir, who became Director of Education in Malaysia and Penang State Governor and Ungku Abdul Aziz bin Ungku Abdul Hamid, who was Malaysia’s first Royal Professor and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Malaya. 

While Raffles College was established to train teachers for secondary schools, it also produced a number of post-war Malaysian and Singaporean leaders, including Prime Ministers.  Although he was not personally acquainted with the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Pereira who was President of the Literary & Dramatic Society, worked with the society’s Honorary Secretary, Lee Kuan Yew, who’s now Singapore’s Minister Mentor.  Their time in college was however, cut short when the war broke out.

Pereira has no doubt that the Japanese invasion and Occupation was the most traumatic experience for people who survived.  During the Occupation, Pereira’s father was given back his headmaster job in a primary school which was under Japanese control and he persuaded Pereira to join his staff as a teacher.  Pereira had tried doing a business selling household goods but without success, so he agreed with great reluctance because the main function of the school was to teach the language of the conquerors and inculcate loyalty to Japan. 

Pereira [3rd from Left] and HM Garfield Woods [Centre]
with Mohamediah House in 1946
Between 1942 and 1945, MHS was turned into a Japanese school called Nippon Gakka and also used as a concentration camp.  When Japanese forces in South East Asia surrendered in Singapore on 12 September 1945, Pereira recalls how roads near the field behind the Malacca Club were jammed with people gathered to watch what remained of the Japanese garrison, surrender their arms to British and Indian troops.

When Pereira first joined MHS as a teacher, Garfield Woods replaced C. D. Westwood as headmaster. While MHS was an all-male establishment since it’s founding in 1902 and had Johor’s first hostel for boys, it became co-educational in 1947 when they accepted female students into Sixth Form. 

Pereira, aged 87
In 1951, Pereira was among 10 teachers from Malaya and Singapore who were offered Smith-Mundt Scholarships to study in Stanford University, California.  Returning with a Masters Degree in Education, he was disappointed that the British education system did not recognize his American degree.  So he went to University of Malaya then based in Singapore, to get his Honours Degree in English before being posted to Johor Bahru’s English College, now Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar, to teach English and English Literature until he was promoted to head MHS in 1957.

Pereira, who was Vice-President of the Muar Amateur Athletics Association for many years, said that MHS sports activities were organized in school “houses” that were named after roads around the school like Meriam, Mejidi, Petri, Omri and Mohamediah. 

From 1960 to 1973 he was a member of the Muar Rotary Club which started the Interact Club and encouraged the school to be involved in joint activities like debates, oratorical contests and musical performances.  Pereira remembers a Lucky Draw in a joint Rotary and Interact Club fund-raising project with the prestigious top prize of a brand new motorcycle which a policeman won. 

A selection of English textbooks and workbooks
written by Pereira
In the mid 60’s, MHS accepted a few blind boys, some on transfer from Johor Bahru’s Princess Elizabeth School for the Blind.  The school had a battalion of Cadets who did military training with old rifles that were kept in the Central Police Station located a short distance away.  It also had 4 Boy Scout troops and on special occasions like the Sultan’s Birthday, the Scouts and Cadets would participate in parades with uniformed units like the police and army.

“My policy and advice to my staff is to leave contented and be happy to serve the school,” said Pereira, who attributes the school’s success academically and in extra-curricular activities, to a team of dedicated staff. 

In addition to his role as headmaster, Pereira had a host of extra duties that was a follow-through of the system which involved the most senior British headmasters before Independence.  He was “Senior Normal Instructor” to administer Normal Teacher training class for North Johor, and Director of the Regional Training Centre (RTC) for teacher trainees of North Johor.  He also supervised the annual Oral English exam for the Federation of Malaya Certificate of Education and was Chief Examiner for the Sixth Form entrance exam English Paper.

His autobiography,
"The Sun Rises, The Sun Sets"
In his illustrious career with Muar’s premier school, Pereira is proud that it’s alumni includes prominent names like Dato Abdul Ghani Othman, Johor Menteri Besar, Tan Sri Othman Saat, former Johor Menteri Besar, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Mohd Yassin, Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Chua Jui Meng, former Minister of Health and Tan Sri Jaafar Hussin, former governor of Bank Negara.

For 14 years, he was editor and writer contributing 2 articles per issue to “News & Views” the bi-monthly Malacca-Johor Diocese publication.  Pereira, a prolific writer who published a series of more than 30 English textbooks and workbooks, now lives in Johor Bahru.  His autobiography entitled, “The Sun Rises, The Sun Sets” is available in selected bookstores in Singapore. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in August 2009

Comments from Anonymous:

"I sought admission to the Muar High School in 1968, to the Lower Sixth class. I had 6 points for my relevant Arts subject, although I had 9 for my Science. I met the Headmaster, who rang the Ministry of Education Johor Bahru immeditately for me, right in frong of me. Until this day, I am still grateful to him. I wish I could have studied in Muar, where I studied at the CHIJ in 1965. Could the Head-master be Mr Pereira? He had a daughter who studied at the Muar Convent?"

My Reply to Anonymous:

It's likely that the HM was Mr Desmond Pereira because his daughter did study in the Muar Convent.  If you write to me under the Contacts page and give me your email, I can put you in touch with them.  Thanks for your interest in my blog and Happy Reading! 

July 2011


  1. Thank you for writing this interesting article about my uncle, Mr. Desmond Pereira. He will soon be 90 and I had the opportunity to meet him today in JB. He deserves the recognition for all his efforts made in educating so many people, especially during his time in Muar.

  2. Kamaruddin Abdullah6/26/2013

    Very interesting piece and brings me back to my days in Muar High School. I remember Mr.Pereira most vividly. What a nice man he was.

  3. Anonymous2/23/2014

    I enjoyed the posting. He still wears his pleasant smile at 87 in the photo; it reflects his friendly personality. I recall, as an old boy of MHS, one evening when he gave a talk organized by the recently retired MHS headmistress (Milan Tai when she was a pupil there) on how to appreciate fine music. Opportunity to listen to classical music (include Chinese classical music) was the only thing I missed growing up in NW Johore.

    1. Interesting, I remember that night with Desmond playing his classical music.... Classical music is the ONLY thing I missed out, growing up in NE Johore, but it is retrospective.

  4. I was a High School pupil completing my school certificate in 1960. I am pleased to know my old English teacher and headmaster has done so much for the school. Hong Hai

  5. I was Mr Pereira's student in 1960 when I completed my Cambridge School Certificate. Good memories of his account of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities.

  6. Glad to know that Pereira was educated in Malacca High School.

  7. Lilian Low-Quek10/22/2014

    My HSC years 1965-66 were in Muar High when Mr Pereira was Headmaster. His daughter Jenny was my classmate in the CHIJ Muar.
    Some students of Muar High from Batu Pahat, Kluang and Segamat became my university mates.

  8. Kenneth Tan3/29/2015

    In the 60's and 70's Muar High School was more of a boys school. It was co-educational only at the Form Six level beginning 1965 when classes were started for HSC students.

  9. Anonymous8/01/2016

    Hello Peggy,
    Do you have any recollection of the students from Sabah, namely Lim Fang Kan and Chong Yu Choi. After they finished at Muar High, Fang Kan went to Penang Free School and Yu Choi went to RMC. I hope that you will be able to share their school photos with me if they are available. I thank you in anticipation. Best regards, F.P. Lim

  10. I have fond memories of the English College where I served as a teacher of English and Chemistry, and coached the tennis team - 1965-1966. I went as a volunteer from the British NGO Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). Another Brit joined me - David Lomax. Anybody remember us? Best wishes Michael Wills