Today Penang’s Dalat School appears as modern as the beachside condominiums it stands beside. Computer labs, large gates and even a swimming pool—it has everything the modern school needs. But behind the new facade is a history unmatched by any other educational institution on the island.
“It all began in 1929 in the central highlands of Vietnam,” explains Ruth Kelck, who worked at Dalat School from 1959 to 2002.
“The campus, known as Villa Alliance, had been purchased in 1928 with the idea that a school be developed for the children of missionaries whose parents served in Indochina.”
The next year lessons began, with one teacher leading a class of just three students. And that is how things remained until the French Vichy government placed the missionaries and students under house arrest during World War II.
“Later, in 1943,” Ruth continues, “they were transferred to a Japanese internment camp in My Tho, a city south of Saigon,” where the staff and students remained until after the war. The end of the fighting meant respite for the school, which recommenced back at the Villa in Dalat despite the political uncertainty in Vietnam during the 1950s.
Such was the school’s success and reputation, in fact, students from across Southeast Asia travelled to the highlands, joining several US military families that had taken up residence in Dalat. The school was thriving, quickly outgrowing its modest facilities. Until the escalation of the Vietnam War.
“Missionaries who worked in neighbouring countries questioned the wisdom of sending their children to Dalat,” Ruth says, remembering a pivotal point in the school’s history. “On Friday afternoon, April 16, 1965, the US Embassy in Saigon notified us that they could no longer guarantee our safety. We would have 48 hours to pack.”
The destination was The American Club in Bangkok, a far cry from the cool highlands of Dalat they were leaving behind. Triple-deck beds slept students eight to a room, electricity cut out frequently and 50 boys shared just three bathrooms. It was far from ideal, Ruth says, and the move to Cameron Highlands six months later was most definitely welcome.
“Tanah Rata—a sleepy town in those days—has much in common with Dalat,” Ruth explains. “Cool weather, a rainy season, waterfalls, mountains to climb and trails to explore.” Here the school settled into the Eastern Hotel, a step up from Bangkok’s accommodation, but still lacking the facilities and convenience of the original villa.
Though the reception in Cameron Highlands was good—Ruth remembers Mr Shee at the local store doing all he could to cater to the new Americans—the building was not equipped for teaching. “We held classes in hallways and tin-roofed Quonset huts. When it rained you couldn’t hear, much less think,” she says.
Nevertheless, Dalat’s time in the Malaysian highlands was full of adventure for the students—and for some of the staff. “We made national and international news,” Ruth recounts, “when one of our teachers, taking a wrong turn on a mountain jungle path, was lost for three days and nights.”
The school adapted well to its new surroundings, growing to love the Cameron Highlands, but things took a turn for the worse towards the end of the 1960s. The British military were withdrawing, and disappearing with them were hospitals and other facilities required by Dalat.
Yet again, a new home was needed and the British rest and relaxation centre of Sandycroft in Penang seemed to fit the bill. “In 1971 we inquired about Sandycroft,” Ruth says, “but it was difficult to get any definite word. The timing wasn’t right.”
It looked unlikely that Dalat could secure the lease until an unlikely source helped the school out. “Unknown to us at the time, a professor at the Baptist Seminary here in Penang had a special interest in Dalat; he had a daughter who wanted to attend. If Dalat moved to Penang that would be possible,” Ruth says.
In April 1971, Dalat was granted the lease for Sandycroft. The centre would need a huge amount of work before the August opening but it was a challenge that teachers and students took up straight away. Walls were knocked down, shower blocks became a science lab and the buildings were readied.
“In late June, 37 truckloads of school supplies, furniture and personal effects were loaded in Tanah Rata and unloaded in Penang, all within one week’s time,” says Ruth.
When the new school opened there were 214 students enrolled and, once again, Dalat settled quickly into its new facilities. “Penang had so much to offer us,” Ruth explains. “The beaches were beautiful, we were no longer an isolated school.”
Now students could fly straight into the Bayan Lepas airport rather than face the eight-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to Tanah Rata.
It wasn’t all smooth going though. The new seafront location brought with it problems that the school had never encountered. The seawall that protected the campus needed continual upkeep and repairs, and Ruth remembers staff and students helping with the required work. “Our high school boys spent many a Saturday carrying rocks to fill the huge black holes that would suddenly develop under the smooth cement facade.”
Problems were dealt with in the traditional Dalat way, however, and soon the main hurdle facing the school was a need for expansion. With most students living on campus new facilities and buildings were required.
“First was the student centre and then the gym,” Ruth says of the development in the 1990s. Then came the school’s swimming pool in 1995. Things were looking good on the Penang campus until a decision in 1999 put the school’s future in serious doubt.
The Christian and Missionary Alliance that had run Dalat from the beginning announced that it would no longer operate a school in Malaysia. Dalat was to close the following year.
It took a group of local expatriate families to stop the closure. “They approached the school leader and asked if they would consider keeping the school going as an independent school. After a bit of study of the community it was determined that the school would continue operating,” Ruth explains. Dalat would see some changes though, as it opened up more to the growing expatriate base in Penang.
“When Dalat came to Penang it never meant to be a school open to children in the Penang community,” Dalat’s director of development Larry Chinn explains. “It was a closed school for missionary boarding kids.”
With the increase in day boarders through the 1980s and ’90s, Larry explains, things started to change. “After 2000 they changed drastically. Now only about 15 per cent of Dalat students live in the dorms.”
That said, and despite the growth of the international student body—Dalat adopted the name “Dalat International School” in 2002 and today has students from over 28 nations— boarding, and the traditions of the school dating all the way back to 1920s Vietnam, still form a very important part of the school’s culture.
Where Dalat found Malaysia almost by chance, Uplands School’s roots are firmly in Penang. The school dates back to the 1950sand the time of the Malayan Emergency.
As a communist rise threatened the country’s stability and attacks increased on rubber estates owned by the Incorporated Society of Planters (ISP), a safe school was sought by the ISP’s expatriate members. They required somewhere away from the trouble where their young children could be schooled at low risk while staying in Malaya.
“Penang Hill was identified as a suitable location,” a representative of the school explains, “and the ISP leased the premises of the former Crag Hotel on Penang Hill to open a new primary boarding school for approximately 60 children.”
It was mid-January 1955 and the school was first attended by a group of students from a small private institution called Uplands previously run from a bungalow on Penang Hill. It was soon absorbed into the new school.
“It is very likely that because the new school stood for high standards in education and was also at some altitude,” Uplands continues, “it was seen as fitting that the name Uplands also be adopted.”
The location was exceptional and the school, split into two parts, occupied the hilltop Crag Hotel—a nineteenth-century building once operated by the Sarkies brothers of E&O and Raffles fame—with the kindergarten at the nearby Grace Dieu bungalow.
Uplands remained in these buildings for the next 20 years, taking on another building, Hillview, in 1965 as the school expanded. It was a great time for the school, highlighted by the royal visit of Queen Elizabeth II in February 1972.
Much like Dalat, Uplands was always a boarding school and students were a mix of full boarders with some weekly boarders whose parents lived in Penang.
In 1976, however, that changed slightly as the school opened to day students who made use of the famous hill railway to get to and from the school buildings. And the following year saw further changes for Uplands.
With the school outgrowing its bungalows on Penang Hill, the decision was made to move down to sea level, to the former St Xavier’s Branch School on Kelawai Road in Pulau Tikas. “The boarding house was set up nearby in an elegant mansion along Burmah Road and later moved on to York Road for a brief period,” the Uplands representative explains.
The St Xavier’s buildings were not the end of leased property for Uplands however. Following further growth and a need for more space in 1988 the school looked to the heritage building formerly of St Joseph’s Novitiate behind the existing primary school.
After years of separation in various bungalows and buildings, the new acquisition “finally brought the whole school, including boarders, together on the same campus.”
Until this point, the school had retained its Uplands name despite the move down to sea level. A change was in order, however, and while the school wished to hold on to the name to preserve its roots, it soon became known as The International School of Penang (Uplands).
As well as keeping the Uplands moniker, the new name also pointed to the very beginning of the school. “The name not only retains our heritage,” the spokesperson says, “but also illustrates our evolution into a modern school with an international curriculum and student body while at the same time retaining the initials ISP, which it shares with our founders.”
The school remained in Pulau Tikus for 28 years before finally finding a permanent home, taking the school out of leased accommodation for the first time. The brand new, purposebuilt campus in Batu Feringgi perhaps marked the school’s biggest change, and certainly highlighted an incredibly successful progression from the first bungalow classrooms to the most modern of facilities.
Through more than 50 years of development, the parallels with nearby Dalat are obvious. As the school confirms, the history and what brought Uplands to this point will not be forgotten: “Despite the major changes in our history, the school’s spirit and world-class standards remain unchanged, if not higher.”
Dalat School opens in Dalat, Vietnam
Dalat School transferred to My Tho, Vietnam as fighting escalates
Dalat School moves back to Dalat
Uplands School opens on Penang Hill as safe school during Malayan Emergency
St Christopher’s Primary School opens in Penang
Dalat forced to move to Bangkok, Thailand due to Vietnam War
Dalat finds new home in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands
Dalat moves to old Sandycroft R&R centre, Penang
Uplands welcomes Queen Elizabeth II on royal visit
Uplands leaves Penang Hill for new home in Pulau Tikus, Penang
Sekolah Sri Penang opens as first private school in Penang
Christian and Missionary Alliance announce they will close Dalat
Dalat School kept running after requests from local expatriate families
Uplands moves into new, purpose-built campus in Batu Feringgi, Penang
Tenby International School launches as offshoot of Sekolah Sri Penang
Prince of Wales Island International School to open in September
Dalat International School
Tanjung Bunga, Penang.
Tel: 04–8992 105
Prince of Wales Island International School
8–10 Jalan Sungai Air Putih,
Bandar Baru Air Putih,
Balik Pulau, Penang.
Tel: 04–8662 399
St Christopher’s International Primary School
10 Nunn Road, Penang.
Tel: 04–2263 589
The International School of Penang (Uplands)
Jalan Sungai Satu,
Batu Feringgi, Penang.
Tel: 04–8819 777