REMEMBERing: Keith Wiltshire: “The light has gone out of our lives”

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It was extremely sad to receive news in Sarawak, that one man who had worked selflessly in Sibu from 1958 to 1969 breathed his last on 3rd January 2017. His devoted wife, Pauline of more than 60 years and eldest daughter,Grace,were by his side, at home in Bristol.

It was his wish to die at home according to his daughter, Grace.

His more than a decade of dedicated work in the education of youths in Sibu impacted so many amongst whom are ministers, retired top civil servants, community leaders and thousands of ordinary global citizens he helped molded. He also left behind thousands of students in the UK and Singapore to mourn his passing.
Keith V Wiltshire was the youngest Principal ever appointed by the Methodist School Management Board at age 27 years in 1961. He had first arrived as a missionary teacher in 1958 with his wife Pauline and two very young daughters just before the formation of Malaysia. They left Sibu in 1969.

While heading the school, he saw political upheavals impacting Sibu people in particular, the arrival of the Cobbold Commission (the meeting was in the school) which caused the school compound to be filled with “thousands of people” and the chaotic aftermath, curfews, communist insurgencies and many of his students “turning left”. It went without saying that there was even fear amongst the community that he would lose his life as an expatriate, but he and his family stayed on courageously and worked harder than anyone else.

As a Principal it was not easy for him in those difficult days. He had to fiercely and fairly steer the school into using English as a Medium of Instruction, phasing Chinese medium out. That caused quite a bit of heartaches amongst even those who supported the school financially! However he hanged on to the government policy and he went on to fight for the introduction of the first Sixth Form in the town. In 1965, together with Sacred Heart School management, Sixth Form was introduced and Sibu students did not have to go to Kuching or further afield to get higher education before they left for overseas.

During his tenure, he saw to it that very good teachers were employed from the United Kingdom especially. He brought in some of the best UK graduate teachers from Oxford (his own alma mater) and Cambridge to helm the Sixth Form besides American missionaries and American trained local graduates. He also recruited Indian, Burmese, Hong Kong, Indonesian and Taiwanese teachers to be part of the school staff. Indeed many former students, in retrospect, have over and over again stated that the Methodist School, Sibu was then already an International School of high standards. The Prefectorial Board of Students met and conducted proper meetings with minutes written. He allowed students to practice democratic principles especially freedom of speech. Few would ever forget his maxim, “Comments are free, facts are sacred, the truth will prevail.”

Judy Wong Liong Yung, the CEO of Pilley Methodist Institute was amongst one of his earliest students told the Sundaypost, “He and his staff ensured that the students in the school were trained to be global citizens and be ‘socially responsible’ ”. In a case study he did with Wong’s class, he asked who was responsible for a murder. All the students were ready to give their answers: the accused, the parents, the axe. But he said, “The Society or Community.” That answer had impacted most of the class according to Wong. Wong added,” He definitely impacted me not only in Christian faith but also my philosophy of life. His passing is indeed a great loss to all.”

Although trained to serve as a pastor, he found his calling in education. He eventually resigned from the Church. He was a very good speaker, from pulpits, school rostrums and political stages. Students were mesmerized by his speeches during school assemblies.

He was instrumental in introducing good extracurricular activities in the school like rugby, football, softball, hockey, and for school assemblies, he invited good speakers very enthusiastically to broaden students’ minds. He personally trained many of his students for both football and public speaking in particular. One of his pet activities was drama. Shakespeare was real when he taught English to his class. The school produced several musicals during his time. Besides, his history and Religious Education classes were never dull.

Datuk William Lau Kung Hui remembers him fondly and reminds the writer of a special bulletin board in the main office corridor which had a huge SLOGAN, “A school is not a FACTORY which produces good examination results”. Datuk Lau continues to say, “Mr. Wiltshire truly believed that the school should not be churning out robots but all rounded students, completed not only with knowledge but also with a strong foundation in faith, respect, ethics, and yes, social responsibility. “

As Head, Keith Wiltshire, would be early to work in the school and often by evening he was still seen in the school compound, with his office doors still open to last minute work of the day, and coaching football or rugby in the huge school field. Today the school field is still in existence. He was one of the “Green” nature lovers who believed that a school cannot be called a school if it did not have a football field. He had always wanted the grass of the school to be cut very short, whether by a scythe or a lawn mower. By sticking to the grass cutting schedule of his, he kept the school gardeners on their toes and there were many arguments about the long and tall of grass in the compound to the amusement of many teachers and students.

As a sports enthusiast, he also saw to it that the school had good tennis courts, badminton courts, and a well trimmed football field. Many tennis players would in particular remember him for his care and concern in the game. But football and rugby remained his best loves. He saw to it that many boys from the rural areas had football boots and socks, turning them out looking smart and really good, paying out of his own pockets.
The school under him was a smoke-less zone. Teachers were not even allowed to smoke in the school canteen. Students often had to run away to smoke in the rubber garden behind the school or behind the girls’ toilet. He himself led by example as he neither smoke and drink. All was part of the students’ upbringing in terms of personal discipline. There were many new amenities for both teachers and students like sick bay and Audio Aid Department. Text books on loan and the school libraries were very well run and headed by the best of teachers.

In a related story by Wong Meng Chuo, about five years ago,when he visited Mr. Wiltshire. Mr. Wiltshire confided in Wong that he made a big mistake by asking a father to witness the punishment of his son in the Principal’s office. The regret was a huge one because the father was his counterpart at Tulai Methodist School. Wong said that he was very touched by his confession and his sincerity. After he left Sibu, Keith Wiltshire taught in Singapore and later in Bristol, before he retired. Still on fire, like John Wesley, he fought for the Green Party and stood for an election. He never lost his passion for social justice and lived what he preached. He was an environmentalist even in the 1960’s and had inspired many of his former students, especially Wong Meng Chuo. Wong added that he is an environmentalist and a human rights activist today because of Mr. Wiltshire’s encouragement and inspiration over the years.
In fact he and Pauline allowed their backyard garden to host “both good animals and even pests” and worms. They made their compost in their home in Sibu and were probably the first in making of compost in Sarawak. As he did not believe in excesses, so he never owned a car in his life. Students would remember him riding his small motor cycle to school. But most of the time in Sibu, he walked!!

During his sunset years he was visited by his beloved students from Malaysia and Singapore. He and his wife, kept a corner of Sarawak in their home to remember their days in Sarawak and to welcome their former students so that they could feel at home. The Wiltshire home in Bristol was a Sarawak home indeed, full of Sarawak memorabilia and sweet memories.

He is survived by his beloved wife, Pauline, two daughters, two sons in law and two grandchildren. He would have been 85 on his birthday this year.

Keith Wiltshire was a man ahead of his time, a true educationist. He lived a simple life, so that others can simply live, methodical, systematic, and a true Wesleyan. He carried a spark from John Wesley which spreads to all corners of the world: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” ― John Wesley

Yes for as long as he could, he did it all for the good of mankind.
By Changyi
Grace Methodist Church, Miri

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