They commissioned Anthony Abrahams to prepare a feasibility study. Discussions then took place with senior officials in the Ministry of Education and senior executives of 17 companies in Malaysia which, as debenture holders, would provide the initial loans for the construction of the buildings.
Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar was officially launched on 5th June 1989 with the signing of the agreement by the three Tunkus and the then Minister of Education, Anwar Ibrahim. On the 19th October Dennis Thatcher, the husband of the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, officiated at the Tree Planting Ceremony which marked the laying of the foundation for the school.
In February 1990, Laurance (Laurie) Rimmer came out to Malaysia to become the first Principal. He met Abdul Jalil bin Abdullah, the Administrative Manager who, though of Scottish descent, had lived for most of his life in Malaysia. A former planter, he organized the playing fields, brought trees from deep in the forest to provide a pleasant environment and, with the help of Mazlah binti Tumin the Accountant, took charge of financial matters. Azura binti Othman joined the team as secretary and in May Tony Finch was appointed as Adviser to the Principal (later Director of Studies). He assisted the Principal in recruiting staff and students, started the library, organized recognition as an examination centre for the Cambridge and London (later Edexcel) examinations, prepared syllabuses for the International Stream and a school timetable. A few months later Puan Khadijah was appointed Deputy Principal. She had been Principal of Sekolah Tun Fatimah in Johor and her contacts in the Ministry of Education proved to be extremely helpful. She took control of all matters concerning the Malaysian Stream and arranged for the Kolej to be a centre for the SRP and SPM examinations.
Between May and November we worked out of an office near the KL Stock Exchange while the buildings rapidly rose from nothing to completion: the main classroom and administration block, the Multi-Purpose (now Tunku Najihah) Hall, the Dining Hall and the Boarding House which is now the Arts Centre. Four science laboratories were fitted out, sports equipment and furniture arrived, water and electricity were connected and we were ready for the pioneer batch of students – 150 of them.
This pioneer group did not have an easy life: to begin with the boys and girls had to share the Boarding House which was provided with gates at various places to deter inadvertent nocturnal wandering, there were no kitchens so meals were brought in by KFC, there was no air conditioning in the classrooms, laboratories or the Hall and the playing fields were still a sea of mud. But this was an entirely new project for Malaysia and the students and staff were enthusiastic; Laurie Rimmer had a charismatic personality and provided just the kind of leadership necessary by encouraging everyone to bring their talents to the fore so that a wide range of activities and extra-curricular interests soon took hold.
It was the combination of Malaysian and International Streams which was a challenge. The fact that in one the medium of instruction was Malay and in the other English was no great problem as all the Malaysian teachers were perfectly competent to teach in both languages. The difficulty was that the Malaysian school year begins in January and the International year in August or September so organizing the school holidays was not easy. The students also joined the Sixth Form in two stages and this is a problem which is solved differently in the different departments to this day. It also meant that a different timetable was required twice a year.
Together with the Sixth Form there were effectively 12 year groups though at the very beginning students were only accepted into Forms 1, 2 and 4 in the Malaysian Stream and International Stream and the Lower Sixth. With 150 students in January 1991, classes were pleasantly small.
During 1991 three Boarding Houses, Naquiyuddin House, Imran House and Nadzaruddin House, were constructed for the boys so the girls took over the whole of the original Boarding House. The Principal’s house was completed but it was too late for Laurie Rimmer who lived in a flat near the Stock Exchange until he left in December, having prepared everything for his successor, Stuart Morris. The kitchens were completed so now the chef and his staff could provide a range of meals – both Asian and Western to cater for the student body which was now rapidly become a kind of miniature United Nations. There were now about 250 students from a wide range of countries and classroom space was at a premium. The original rooms were actually too large for convenience (room G1 is the only one to have survived in its original size) so most of them were divided in the ratio of two to one as many classes were still very small.
A sudden full-scale inspection by the Ministry of Education led to several changes, the most notable of which was the institution of committees so that the staff could input ideas from their own experience in determining the everyday policies of the Kolej. The Senior Management Committee has been instrumental in ensuring that the voice of the teaching body can be heard; it has, of course, been up to the Principal to decide whether or not to pay attention to it. House-master and -mistress meetings were arranged to discuss communal matters affecting the boarding houses and a Financial and General Purposes committee discussed future development of facilities.
Gradually, many of the rooms acquired different functions. Air conditioning units were provided in all the classrooms and a central unit was provided for the Hall. It was now possible for the students to concentrate more efficiently during afternoon classes and events could be staged in the Hall without the audience sweltering in the heat. The original music room became the computer room and the original computer room was taken over by the Registrar’s office. The Art Room, previously below the library, moved to the Arts Centre and the Drama Room was also opened there as soon as two Boarding Houses for the girls were completed by January 1994. The empty space under the Hall was converted to a set of Living Skills and Music Rooms. The Deputy Principal’s room became the Teachers Resource Room, new Physics and Chemistry laboratories were added as an extension to the main block. The library was extended, reducing the number of classrooms but this was more than compensated for by the construction of the second classroom block in July 1997 and the Sixth Form Centre two years later.
Abdul Jalil had become the first Bursar when we moved to the new site and, when he left in 1993, the post was taken by Tuan Haji Abdul Rahman Yeop who had previously been the Director of Education. He in turn left two years later and Puan Khadijah performed a double role as Deputy Principal and Bursar until she retired in 1999. Puan Suria Veloo then became the new Deputy Principal while Mr Philip Goh Teck Siang brought years of experience in the field of finance to reorganize the entire financial aspect of the Kolej which had become progressively more complex as it became ever larger.
Patrick Briggs took over the helm in January 1997 and, like Laurie Rimmer, encouraged the teachers to develop their potential and enthuse the students with their own wide range of interests, particularly in extracurricular activities. As the number of students steadily increased to over 400, Naquiah House was opened to accommodate the youngest boys and girls. In the following year a fourth Boarding House for the boys - Nadzimuddin House - was opened and later in the same year the Surau was completed. New playing fields were added in a part of the campus beyond the little stream which had so far seen no development.
2001 saw yet another change in the Bursar’s office. Lim Siew Chiang had originally come to the Kolej to interpret for some Chinese-speaking parents from Melaka but Laurie Rimmer had been so impressed that he had offered Lim a position as Maths teacher on the spot. Laurie certainly had an eye for talent and it was not long before Lim became a housemaster. Philip Goh had only agreed to come for a year and, when he left, Lim took over as Bursar and stayed in the post for seven years until he took his family to the UK and taught Maths in the same school at Framlingham in which Laurie Rimmer had been Headmaster years earlier. The circle was complete! Finally, Mr Benny Yeow Tze Tet took over the position in 2008.
Over a decade later, a third girls’ Boarding House, a Medical Centre and a superb Auditorium were added. Walter Jones had become the fourth Principal in August 2005 and by the time he left in 2011 the student population had reached over 600 and possibly there are now enough buildings for everyone.
But Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar is much more than its buildings, however impressive these may be. The aims of the founders were based on the development of the whole person and, in addition to the standard academic programmes prescribed by the Malaysian Ministry of Education and the Cambridge Examination Syndicate, emphasis would be placed on sporting, musical, artistic and other activities to help develop individual talents, corporate spirit and mental and physical fitness. Music appreciation, art and computer literacy classes were timetabled for all the students every week. In the early days, afternoon classes were the times when the staff could enthuse about their own particular interests. But the demands of the academic syllabuses gradually whittled away this concept and for many years Tony Finch’s General Knowledge classes to the Sixth Form in which the history, geography and current affairs of different countries were discussed were the only survivors of those early days.
He also organized the first student visits abroad. 1991 saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and for the first time in many decades it became possible to visit Russia freely. He made contact with an organization in Moscow and in the summer of 1991 a group of about two dozen students went to stay with families in Moscow and the surrounding area. In the following year these students’ families reciprocated by inviting Russian students to stay with them. As it happened, one of the Russian cosmonauts, Alexei Leonov, who was the first man to walk in space, was visiting Malaysia and our students were invited to meet him. These exchange visits with Russia continued for another two years and were the precursor to the student visits to many countries abroad organized by Puan Sharifah, Mr Krishnan, Madame Esmeralda and others which have proved to be so successful.
On the academic front there have been many changes. In 1991, the Kolej was essentially a Malaysian school with its Malaysian curriculum with an international section primarily for the children of expatriates working in Malaysia. The medium of instruction was English and the courses, as mentioned earlier, were designed for the Cambridge Examinations. It was not easy for a Malaysian child to attend the international stream; unless there were very special circumstances, he or she had to have lived abroad for at least two years. It followed that the international stream was originally quite small. Over the years the reputation of the Kolej spread abroad, particularly in Indonesia and South Korea and more and more students came from foreign countries. When, a few years ago, government policy was changed to allow Malaysian students to attend the international stream with no restrictions, numbers in the local stream steadily fell until it was decided to discontinue this altogether.
The Sixth Form was not subject to any restrictions and students from both streams entered the Lower Sixth although, as noted earlier, this has led to timetabling problems but we have learned to live with that. It was not long before major organizations in the country such as Petronas, Bank Negara and Sime Darby realized the potential of the Kolej and sent many scholarship holders for the Sixth Form courses.