St. Nicholas Home, Penang: 75 Years and Beyond

This very brief paper consists of three parts:
The first part is an account of the historical development of St. Nicholas Home from its inception in 1926 to the current year; the second is a collection of human-interest stories gathered from former residents of the Home and from interviews with staff members at the Home, and the final part deals with the Home as a national and international organisation serving the visually disabled.

Part 1: History
St. Nicholas Home was founded on 10th September, 1926 by the medical mission of the Anglican Diocese of Malaya and Singapore to care for children who had been abandoned in various mission hospitals, including St. Andrew’s hospital in Singapore and even three boys from Burma (now Myanmar). The Home was named after St. Nicholas, a renowned 4th century saint of Asia Minor (a region now in Turkey). St. Nicholas was a kind and caring bishop who devoted much of his time to helping the poor and the unfortunate.

The first site of the Home was at the grounds of St. David’s mission hospital in Malacca. The “Home” under the charge of Miss C. M. Satchel then consisted of one main atap-roofed wooden house and a few smaller sheds housing twelve inmates – six were blind and most of the rest had other disabilities. The children were taught Braille, English and simple arithmetic. Those who were considered musical were also given elementary music lessons. The wooden houses were soon badly infested by termites and a new place had to be found for the inmates. In 1929 the Home, now with 16 inmates was moved to Kelebang, Malacca.

In 1931 under the care of Miss B. E. Sherman, the Home was again moved, this time to Penang. The reason for this move was to locate the Home in a more strategic place for soliciting funds from the public during the world business slump. The inmates stayed for a short time in a house in Kelawei Road. They were then moved to a site at 27 Scotland Road. However, this site proved not to be big enough, and in 1938, with a generous donation from Lord Nuffield (a British Philanthropist) a six-acre site was bought at no. 4 Bagan Jermal Road and this had been the site of St. Nicholas Home ever since.

In 1940, a blind teacher, Mr. Mark Mah, known to the blind as Mr. Mah Ko (educated in China before he lost his sight) was employed to help in supervising and teaching the male inmates. In 1941 there were 28 inmates, and a new extension called the “cottage” (later renamed after Miss Sherman) to house the young children was completed. The first kindergarten in Malaya for handicapped children was started at the home.

After World War II, with the return of the British, the first sheltered workshop for the blind in this country was started. Under a lady called Mrs. M. Aitkin, the men were trained in light basketry and rattan work, and in simple carpentry, and in the weaving of blinds (then called “chicks”) made from split rattan. The women did knitting and a little simple weaving.

Miss Phillipa Kelly, who had been a missionary in China, arrived at the Home in 1949. Under her charge, the Home went through a transition in the 1950s: from a mere home providing care and shelter for the blind and the homeless, it became the first residential primary school for the blind in Malaya. At first, three classrooms were built in 1952. By the end of 1957, two other classrooms had been added through generous donations from the Ministry of Social Welfare and the public. (two more classrooms were added a few years later.) By the end of 1958, St. Nicholas had become a full-fledged residential primary school for the blind with properly trained and qualified teachers, and an enrollment of 74 students.

At this stage, it was felt necessary to consider providing secondary schooling. After struggling for a year or so with a few students, the home felt that it could not cope with secondary education for the blind. The only answer was to send these few secondary students out to study in schools for normal sighted children. The first attempt was made in 1960 when four blind students were sent out to study in normal sighted secondary schools in Penang. Under this project, blind students were to study side by side with their sighted peers. The girls were sent to St. George’s Girls’ School and the boys were sent to the Penang Free. They had to type out their homework on sheets of paper instead of writing it in exercise books. The Home provided some additional help such as with extra tuition and the transcription of textbooks into Braille. Because of the success of this pilot project, the government gradually began to assume responsibility in the 1960s for the secondary education of the blind under a programme known as the integrated programme.

In 1972, St. Nicholas had its first executive director. The Board of Management was transforming the Home from a residential primary school into an institution providing multiple services to the blind. Under this third phase of development, the secondary students who were then studying in the Light Street Convent and St. Xavier’s though staying at St. Nicholas, came under the direct charge of the Executive Director of St. Nicholas. Added to this was the Occupation Centre, started in 1964. The purpose of this centre was to provide blind women with some independent living skills so as to prepare them to be independent blind mothers or to prepare them for open employment. In 1975, a rural training scheme was initiated under the charge of a blind instructor. The purpose of this scheme was to train rural blind people in basic gardening and chicken-rearing.

In 1979, the idea of a sheltered workshop was revived. This time it was more organised, with a manager and a greater number of workers, heavier rattan work and carpentry. Goods produced by this workshop were sold and the workers were paid by piece rate.

In 1981, a low-vision centre was set up with the objective of providing proper eye care and creating awareness of the importance of early intervention to save remaining vision. Clients at this centre are referred to optometrists or ophthalmologists for proper examination and then provided with suitable magnifying glasses.

In 1984, the Ministry of Education decided that it was ready to assume full responsibility for the primary education of the blind and began laying plans for the transfer of the primary school at St. Nicholas Home to a site at Alma, Bukit Mertajam. Bearing this in mind, the Board of Management decided to start new services to the blind.

In 1986, a community-based rehabilitation project was started to help the blind in rural Kedah. Under this project, teachers from the Home are sent to various villages to train the blind there in daily living skills, orientation and mobility, and to provide other backup services. The idea of this project is to involve the local community as a whole in the rehabilitation of the blind in their midst instead of taking the blind out of their familiar home environment and bringing them to the unfamiliar environment of an urban institution.

In 1989, a multiple-handicapped unit was set up to help blind individuals with additional disabilities. In the same year, a computer training unit was set up. The purpose of this unit is to train blind people in computer skills. This is by far the most advanced training provided by the Home. Through this training, blind people are able to use Windows and the internet.

In 1995, a deaf-blind unit was set up with the objective of providing basic education and training for children both deaf and blind. So far, about 12 deaf-blind students have been through the training.

In 1997, the primary school for the blind eventually moved to Alma, Bukit Mertajam under the full charge of the Ministry of Education. Though St. Nicholas Home is now without its primary school, it still provides all the other services to the blind.

In the year 2001, St. Nicholas Home celebrated its 75th anniversary. Two major fund-raising projects were organised: The first was a one-day food-and-fun fair held in August, and the other was a dinner and dance held in November. A sum of approximately RM90,000 was raised. Money raised from these events will go into an endowment fund to provide financial assistance to needy blind individuals with regard to their education, health and employment. Today, St. Nicholas Home has 998 ex-trainees and current trainees on its records.

Part 2: Human Interest Stories
Some of the first few inmates of the Home are still alive today – amongst them are Mary Poon, Elizabeth Hoe, Agnes Lim and Anne Toh – and from them interesting stories can be gleaned. They have especially vivid memories of happenings during the Japanese occupation (1941-1945).

At the beginning of the war, whenever bombs or explosions were heard, Mrs. Stevens, the European lady still in charge of the Home told the children to repeat the Lord’s Prayer over and over.

According to one of them, there was a Japanese barber who used to come before the war to cut the hair of the male inmates. Unknown to them, he was, in fact, a Japanese spy. He would try to find out the views of the male inmates, especially on the Japanese occupation of China. Among those who had their hair cut by this barber was the Chinese Blind teacher who frequently sent money to aid the Chiang Khai-Shek Chinese government’s war efforts against the Japanese. During the war, this Japanese barber came back but this time round he was a Japanese army intelligence officer. He warned that those deemed guilty of being anti-Japanese would have their heads chopped off. In other words, he was no longer cutting hair but chopping off heads. The Chinese teacher escaped because when the war came to Malaya, he had prudently flushed all his receipts from China down the toilet.

The Japanese did not trust the Europeans. When the Japanese were fully in charge of Malaya, they told the Europeans, a Danish couple, still in charge of St. Nicholas Home to leave. The Rev’d Eric Scott, Vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church, who was staying at the Home, was at first left alone but later arrested and sent to prison. He was not officially in charge of St. Nicholas. The Bishop of Malaya and Singapore had asked a Chinese priest, Rev’d Huang Tung Shih from St. Paul’s Church to keep an eye on the Home but the Japanese appointed a Chinese Buddhist lady named Madam Saw Choo, a matron from Poh Leung Keok to take charge.

Generally, the inmates felt that the Japanese were kind to the blind. However, one Japanese man did come to remove the motorcar belonging to the Home. Though food was scarce, the inmates at the Home still had enough to eat because they had enough land to grow their own tapioca , beans and fruit trees. nevertheless, towards the end of the war, some of them did suffer from beri-beri and other effects of malnutrition. A cow was shared between St. Nicholas Home and a nearby Muslim orphanage to provide milk for the young children. Later a goat was also given to the Home. Afraid that someone might steal the goat, the male inmates locked it in their bathroom at night and that bathroom became known as the “goat bathroom”.

The Japanese stored sacks of salt, sugar and other provisions in one of the rooms which the inmates had been using as classrooms. The doors of these rooms had thick wire netting. When some of the sugar started melting and flowing out on to the floor, the sighted inmates used cloth on the end of long sticks which they poked through the wire netting to soak up the sugar. They then squeezed the sticky liquid into bowls, boiled and filtered it to purify it and kept it in jars to be used later.

One night some honeycombs broke off a very large beehive which the bees had been building in the verandah of the main building. The inmates had to close all the doors and windows to stop the bees from coming in. The next day they got someone to remove the damaged beehive but the honeycombs which had broken off earlier provided some free honey for the inmates.

After the war, the British returned and, as has been related, started a proper primary school. Because of the lack of staff, the children had to follow a rigid timetable. However, like all other active young boys, the blind boys were sometimes up to mischief when supervision was a little lax. One of the things they loved doing was climbing fruit trees to pluck fruit. The students of the fifties remember vividly a tragic accident which took place in 1956. One afternoon, a library period was cancelled and the students were free to do as they liked. A rather heavily-built boy named Chew Ah Sai who had only been in the Home a few years, decided to climb a jambu tree. He reached out on to a thin branch which couldn’t bear his weight and snapped. He fell face down on to a pile of bricks and died. His death caused panic among the staff who feared they could be charged with negligence. Fortunately, the corona’s inquest delivered a verdict of death through misadventure and the case was closed. From then on, climbing trees was strictly forbidden by the staff, and anyone attempting it was reminded of Ah Sai and the jambu tree.
Blindness or any form of handicap can sometimes lead to boredom as a result of inactivity and the lack of recreation. In the 1960s, there was a boy named Mark Ho Beng Huat who was a little deaf. According to the older boys, he could not study and was eventually sent home. He developed kidney trouble and died at home. The older boys spread the rumour that he died of boredom. From then on, any blind person who was bored with nothing to do would be considered by his fellow blind as being “Beng Huat”.

During the 1970s there was a boy named Yahya. He was regarded by his fellow students as being a little silly and rather greedy. One day, a staff member carelessly left a bottle of epilepsy pills in a dining-room cupboard. They were meant for another boy who had epilepsy. Yahya found the bottle and, thinking they were “smarties”, a kind of sugar coated chocolates, swallowed the whole lot of pills. He fell unconscious and was sent to the hospital. The staff member concerned was, naturally, very worried. Fortunately, Yahya regained consciousness after three days and nights, apparently none the worse for wear. After that, he was named by his fellow students “Yahya the smarties”.

In 1972, the Lions Club of Penang raised funds and built a swimming-pool for the Home. On a Sunday in 1977, in mid-August, members of the St. Paul’s Church came to have fellowship with the students of the Home. After lunch, we all went for a swim. Before going into the pool, I asked one of the St. Paul’s members to keep an eye on the blind. Ironically, it was he, Simon, who was later found drowned. He was the first victim of the pool.

In the 1980s, St. Nicholas was plagued by some rather negative publicity – two court cases. The first case was the swindling of a large sum of money by its accountant. In 1982, he swindled a large sum from the St. Nicholas bank account by forging two signatures. Apparently, he lost the whole lot in gambling. The ensuing court case lasted three years and he was found guilty. Surprisingly, he was sentenced to only one day’s imprisonment and fined RM15,000. Most of the missing sum was made up by the bank and the rest was paid up by a kind philanthropist.

The second was the sodomy case involving the husband of one of the housemothers. The case dragged on from 1983 to 1990. It was very embarrassing for the Home management as it involved the sodomizing of young blind boys in the home. The accused was found guilty and sentenced to 9 years imprisonment. He appealed and, as far as I know, has not had to serve his sentence.

Part 3: St. Nicholas Home at the National and International levels
In 1984, St. Nicholas Home, Penang, together with four other major organisations serving the blind in Malaysia, namely, The Society of the Blind in Malaysia (SBM), The Malayan (later Malaysian) Association for the Blind (MAB), The Sarawak Society for the Blind and the Sabah Society for the Blind, formed the National Council for the Blind, Malaysia (NCBM). This was the first time in the history of the services for the blind in Malaysia that these organisations were working together on a national council instead of competing with each other. The purpose of this council is to function as an umbrella organisation to co-ordinate services for the blind in the whole of Malaysia. St. Nicholas Home is currently holding the Presidency of the Council for a two-year period. St. Nicholas has two representatives serving the Council: one in the Malaysian Council for Rehabilitation and the other on the National Council of Welfare and Social Development, Malaysia.

At the international level, St. Nicholas Home was once a member of the World Blind Union (WBU) which was formed in 1984. However, St. Nicholas has since withdrawn its membership from the Union. The NCBM as the national umbrella organisation now represents all the organisations serving the blind in Malaysia in the WBU.

Historically, St. Nicholas Home was founded by the Anglican Diocese of Malaya and Singapore. Its historical link with the Church of England has contributed a great deal to its image as an international organisation serving the blind in this part of the world. St. Nicholas was the first organisation serving the blind to be set up in Southeast Asia. With an endowment fund of about RM4 million and fixed assets of about RM2 million, it is one of the most well established charitable organisations in this region. Yet, it still needs a lot more money to improve its services. A lot of its funds used to come from churches and well-wishers in England and the Commonwealth. Though Malaysia is now an independent country, St. Nicholas still receives funds from overseas organisations such as USPG, CBM, and UNESCO. More needs to be done to raise funds locally.

St Nicholas Home having celebrated 75 years of its history, we may well ask what the Home will be like in, say, another 25 years. One area in which I feel St. Nicholas is lagging behind in is R and D, partly because this is an expensive undertaking. I, for one, would like St. Nicholas to be involved in research into the artificial eye currently under development in Switzerland and America. Perhaps St. Nicholas could be the regional base for testing such an eye. Though there is still a very long way to go before anything concrete materialises in this area, it is perhaps the right time to start making contact with the researchers in the west.

Another area St. Nicholas could be involve in is that of computer software development and production. At present, all computer software used by the blind has to be imported. As such, the prices are way beyond the reach of most blind people in this part of the world.

Well, with your support and kind generosity I am sure St. Nicholas Home for the Blind in Penang will still be around for its 100th anniversary serving the blind in Penang and Malaysia in one capacity or another.


Ooi Hock Tiam

1. St. Nicholas Annual Report, 2000.
2. St. Nicholas 75th Anniversary Souvenir Programme.
3. Interviews with:
(a) Ms. Mary Poon, entered the Home 1927.
(b) Ms. Elizabeth Hoe, entered the Home 1927.
(c) Ms. Agnes Lim, entered the Home 1934.
(d) Mr. Peter Chin, entered the home 1945.
(e) Mr. Suresh Kumar Pandian, Executive Director of the Home.
(f) Ms. D. Jayah, Rehabilitation Officer at the Home.