Her Convent Bond

Ramlah Mohamed at a school
corridor in Convent Batu Pahat
Ramlah Mohamed, 82, fondly known as Auntie Rom, was the first Malay lady to run a Convent school in Malaya in 1955.  She started the Convent Batu Pahat and ran it for 28 years and from 1983 till her retirement in 1986, she was principal of Convent Primary Johor Baru.

Looking back on my career with the Convent, I’m so proud of all the students and teachers who started the school with me from a small shed and storeroom at Jalan Tan Swee Hoe in Batu Pahat.  While the school building was under construction, I used to commute daily from my lodgings at the Batu Pahat Rest House and still shudder when I recall how I avoided the drunken soldiers who would enjoy their drinks there every night.  As soon as the school building was ready, I got permission to live in one of the classrooms for three months, even while the electricity supply was not connected yet.

Living with the bare essentials is nothing new to me because I was the second of three daughters, born in a humble home in our kampong in Bakri in 1930.  Both my sisters died young and I grew up as an only child with a strict upbringing under the care of my aunt and uncle in the kampong.  During the Japanese Occupation, we evacuated to Parit Sulong near Air Hitam and even though we lived a relatively comfortable life here, I cannot forget the horrifying sight of human heads hung in a row, a grim warning by the Anti-Japanese Movement to those who worked with the invading Japanese.

Ramlah Mohamed with Sister
Francois in Convent Batu Pahat
I started my education with the Muar Convent that had 5 classrooms in a big house but stopped school when war broke out.  My father was a friend of Father Renee Ashness, a Catholic priest and used to have dinner at the priest’s house along with Dr Hassan Mohamed, a dentist with the Muar Hospital.  At one such dinner, Fr Ashness suggested to my father that I join the Malacca Convent in Bandar Hilir that offered student boarding.

After losing 3 years of education due to the war, I joined the Malacca Convent in Standard 4 and over the next 6 years, I was moulded under the strict discipline of Irish nuns.  For instance during meals, we started to eat and stopped eating at the sound of a bell and by that time, we should finish all that was provided on the plate.  We washed our own underwear and in the evening, those who forgot to collect them from the clothesline would see them piled up in the school hall.  I remember how Sister Saint Finbar would lift up each piece with a long stick and as the careless culprits were too embarrassed to own up and face punishment, the unclaimed underwear were given away to a girls’ orphanage!


My father was sickly after suffering a heart attack and he wrote to Reverend Mother Martha, requesting to take me out of the Convent but Reverend Mother, who was a mentor and a mother to me, replied telling him that he can “Pay When Able” and I will not leave the school until after I completed my Senior Cambridge exams.  One of my fondest memories of the Convent was how Sister Saint Bernadette organized my 21st birthday party in the school hall, complete with birthday cake, flowers, chocolates, gifts, dancing and singing.  Father sent me a wrist-watch which the nuns gift-wrapped to present to me and I can still picture the entire scene, feeling overwhelmed with emotion because I had never celebrated my birthday before!

In 1952 while I was waiting for my Senior Cambridge results, Reverend Mother assigned me to a temporary teaching post with the Muar Convent.  At that time, my friends were applying to join the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, England but I did not apply because my father was sickly and I wanted to remain close to him.  But Sister St Bernadette, then based in Penang, posted the application forms to Muar Convent with instructions to Reverend Mother Margaret Mary saying, “Tell Ramlah to fill all forms and get them signed.”

Ramlah Mohamed with friends [Left to Right],
Datin Tan Peng Khoon, Tan Chooi Kim and Ramani
Rajaretnam; [Standing] Datin Tan's daughters,
Tan Swee Lian and Tan Swee Imm
In those days when we did not have the convenience of a car or telephone, Reverend Mother Margaret Mary and I went about on a trishaw, to meet the District Officer and others officers to get them as references and obtain their signatures on the forms.  I remember going for the interview in Johor Baru and one of the questions asked was, “What is your hobby?” to which I replied, “Cooking.”  When asked to describe how to cook sambal tumis udang (prawn sambal), I explained the step-by-step use of ingredients and was pleasantly surprised to be interrupted by an English lady on the panel who enquired, “Don’t you put in assam jawa?” because she was also familiar with the recipe!

The list of successful candidates to go to Kirkby was published in the newspapers and while my friends’ names were printed there, mine was not.  Just 3 weeks before the departure date, I attend a Malacca Convent anniversary lunch and here, Reverend Mother Martha handed me an envelope with my acceptance documents into Kirkby!  They had tried sending it to me through all the Convents in Malaya except to Muar Convent, where I was, and redirected it to Malacca Convent where I finally received it!

Ramlah Mohamed, 82, is fondly known as Auntie Rom
I did not have any passport or suitable clothes but Reverend Mother Martha gave me a used coat that was warm enough for me, 1 dozen ‘Pyramid’ brand handkerchiefs, toiletries and RM100 cash.  Through the guidance and kindness of these nuns, I was among the second batch of Kirkbyites who had two wonderful years of well-rounded, life-long educational experiences in Kirkby College.  Two weeks before I was due to return to Malaya, Reverend Mother Martha arranged for me to go on a holiday to Ireland and meet with Sister St Finbar at Drishane – the institute for Infant Jesus Sisters in Millstreet, Cork.

Three months after my return from England, Reverend Mother Martha would pick me from Muar Convent on Friday and cross the Muar River by ferry to go to Batu Pahat where we usually sat on a log at the school site, to have tea.  After she told me that Batu Pahat Convent needed a qualified teacher, I took the challenge to run the school that started with 68 children and developed the school over the next 28 years.  It is my privilege to have a treasure trove of memories with the nuns who guided me from childhood to adulthood and I’m ever grateful for the uncompromised Convent standards of training that moulded me into who I am.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 27 November 2012

12 comments:

  1. angeline4/11/2013

    Love you, Aunty Rom!

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  2. Dear writer, is there anyway of contacting Tan swee Lian. My mum got excited reading your blog and she happens to be their very close neighbour friend.

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    1. Thanks for your query. Please give me your email address to write you with more info. I'm sure your mum will be delighted to reconnect with her old friends again!

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  3. Anonymous8/21/2016

    Hi, I am Tay Lefun and would like to reconnect with some old friends. I graduated from Convent School Batu Pahat in 1972. How may I do so?

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  4. I am High School BP 1974 - but I heard a lot gratitude, joy, and very heart filled story of Puan Ramlah - the teacher from Convent Batu Pahat - Salutre to you Puan Ramlah

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    1. R u related to the Mok family with nine sons. Or Mok Teck Tong from BPahat

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  5. What an inspiration......

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  6. A women of substance and strength. What a privilege to know you Che Ramlah!

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  7. Stoic! My admiration to one women with great strength and tenacity to overcome such odds. Thank you Miss Ramlah

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  8. There is nothing wong with a Malay woman doing the good works of Christian missionary love: there is no hatred then. But did this kind of universal love survive into Malaysia's independence days.

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  9. Hi Peggy how can I pen a note to Pn Ramlah? She was my headmistress when I was in Convent Primary😁

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    1. Hello Yinluang, Please write a private message to me using Contact [Click on Contact at top left] and give me your email address. We will take it from there. Thanks.

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