Interesting Histories of International Schools in Malaysia

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International schools in Malaysia are becoming hot property. Foreigners can find a school to fit their specific curriculum and language requirements thanks to the huge range of schools that fall under the “international” category, while locals are clamouring to get their youngsters into the overseas system, recognising the value in exposing children to a whole range of nationalities from an early age.

But this was not how it all began. While the more than 50 international schools in Malaysia may have to jostle for attention in the education market, the very first international schools enjoyed an entirely different existence and indeed, only came into being out of necessity rather than competition.

The Malaysia these schools were born into was an wholly different place to the country of today. The year was 1945, and the Second World War was concluded upon the arrival of the Allied Forces, with the British Military Administration taking control of the country. Expat families lived in colonial houses surrounded by nature, men keeping tabs on the plantations and the tin mines or working for the military,while the children played in the sunshine and the ladies took tea on the veranda. Schooling for the youngsters was always an important consideration, and while many children were simply shipped back to their own country for their studies, there were a number of mothers who preferred to keep their little ones close.

In 1946, a young mother named Alice Smith decided to give her daughter Lindsey some lessons in their house on Eaton Road (Jalan Eaton now huddles in the shadow of the Twin Towers) during the languid, humid days when the two of them were alone. Word quickly spread about Alice’s lessons, and other expat mums persuaded her to take their children, too. Within three months, Alice had enough youngsters to accommodate two classes and Eaton Road School was registered with the authorities.

Word continued to spread, and as the student population swelled, the house was far too small to handle the rapidly expanding school, so Hugh Smith – the obliging husband – moved the family to a bigger house to allow space for teaching.

By 1949, there were 70 pupils under Alice’s tutelage, and when the Smith family left Malaya for Australia in 1952, the remaining families decided to club together and keep the school going, moving it to a building on Jalan Bellamy, where the primary school still sits today.

Just as Alice Smith’s gaggle of youngsters was gradually starting to grow, another expat mother and wife was homeschooling her own two boys in their home within the lush surroundings of the Lake Gardens. Sally Watkins, wife of then-Fire Brigade Chief Lt. Col. FFC Watkins, gave lessons to young Clive and Collin in her spare days at the house, and it wasn’t long before her pals were coming knocking.

By 1953, the earliest record held by the school, the newly christened Garden School – so named for its green and pleasant location – had 33 students and two British teachers. By 1955, numbers had swelled enough to warrant a new school building in Bukit Bintang, and the solid foundations of what was to become Garden International School – now educating more than 2,000 students on its campus in Mont Kiara – were laid.

Just as Garden School was opening its new school in downtown KL, education was top of the list of expat worries in Penang. As the threat of violence during the Malayan Emergency meant that life on the isolated plantations was no longer safe, the Incorporated Society of Planters – mainly expat gentlemen – were seeking somewhere safe to send their offspring to study. A little school named Uplands, earning its name from its location on Penang Hill, was selected as the best option – the cooler temperatures of the higher ground adding a bonus – but the influx of new students would see the bungalow space being insufficient. Ergo,

Uplands was moved into a new home in the old Crag Hotel situated on the summit and, in 1955, the newly enlarged Uplands welcomed 60 boarders. Uplands may have abandoned its hilltop perch in the 1970s, causing students to swap their chug up the hill in the Penang railway for a school bus, and it may have been rebranded as the “International School of Penang” to bring in the students, but it is still cherished and remembered as Uplands, the school on the hill.


Back in KL (and back to the 50s), Eaton Road School and Garden School were becoming popular with the British expat crowd, while American children tended to find a place at one of the many military schools set up for the troops’ families.

In 1963, however, the formation of Malaysia caused a steady stream of military personnel to return to their homelands and the military schools were closed, leaving American children without education. Garden and Eaton Road Schools were options for the younger students, but secondary education was not well catered for, as Brits tended to ship their children back home for secondary studies. Regardless of age restrictions, the sudden influx of American kids could not be accommodated at these new fledgling schools, so a group of concerned officials put their heads together to form a new school.

The Sultan of Selangor gamely offered one of his old palaces (in what is now Bukit Tunku) as premises, and an ex-Peace Corp volunteer stepped forward for the role of headmaster, and so, in 1965, what would eventually become the International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) opened its doors. It may not have acquired that name for a few more years, but it was international from the word go, with the 48 students representing more than a dozen nationalities. The school stayed in the palace until 1976 when the government decided that it wanted the land back, prompting a relocation to Ampang, where one campus still exists today.

The Alice Smith School;
Garden International School;
The International School of Penang (Uplands);
The International School of Kuala Lumpur;

Read more: International Schools Continue to Grow in Malaysia

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