Building a Nation


Before Singapore attained self-government in 1959, schools were mainly founded and managed by different community groups. The British colonial government had, since Raffles' landing in 1819, set up schools with the intention of producing English-speaking public servants who could occupy entry level jobs in the local civil service. The Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian missionaries that followed the British out to the East established, along with their mission, more English medium schools and a few Chinese medium ones. The Malay community, often with the support of the colonial government, established Malay vernacular schools.

The immigrant Chinese counted on their clan ties, philanthropic organisations and generous pioneers to fund schools using either Mandarin or Chinese dialects as the medium of instruction. The comparatively smaller immigrant Indian community could turn to schools founded by Indian missions and which taught in Tamil, or the English medium schools run by Christian missions.

IN SHORT, THE FIRST SEEDS OF MASS EDUCATION WERE SOWN BY GROUPS AND MANY GENEROUS INDIVIDUALS WHO BEQUEATHED THEIR WEALTH TO SCHOOLS.

As can be imagined, the curriculum in school - secular or religious, culturally local or foreign, politically pro-empire, pro-nationalist or pro-communist - depended on which community established the school, and which sea changes were shaking the socio-political landscape off Singapore's shores. The staff running these schools – trained or not, qualified or not – varied in quality as there was no common system to recruit, remunerate, or develop principals and teachers. These schools did serve the purpose of providing individuals with an education, even meeting some economic needs and some community needs; but had one believed that schools moulded the future of a nation, one would not have found a less promising situation. Soon after the British returned to post-war Singapore, as early as August 1947, the colonial administration drew up and published a ten-year programme for education. Noting that the war had destroyed several schools, the ten-year programme aimed to provide free primary education. Until then, only the free Government schools - Malay vernacular schools and English schools — and a handful of non-Government Chinese and Indian vernacular schools received funding from the government. Now this Grant-in-Aid Scheme was to be extended to more Chinese and Indian vernacular schools to meet the goal of the ultimate abolition of fees. At the end of this ten-year programme, the ambitious aim of converting the majority of Chinese and Indian vernacular schools into Government schools was far from achieved. And so the 1959 fledgling government inherited this baggage of well-intentioned ambitions unmatched by success in reality. In the words of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, it was a situation ripe for trouble:

IF IN THE FOUR DIFFERENT LANGUAGES OF INSTRUCTION WE TEACH OUR CHILDREN FOUR DIFFERENT STANDARDS OF RIGHT AND WRONG, FOUR DIFFERENT IDEAL PATTERNS OF BEHAVIOUR, THEN WE WILL PRODUCE FOUR DIFFERENT GROUPS OF PEOPLE AND THERE WILL BE NO INTEGRATED COHERENT SOCIETY… WHAT IS IN THE BALANCE IS THE VERY BASIS, THE VERY FOUNDATIONS OF OUR SOCIETY. FOR IF WE ARE NOT TO PERISH IN CHAOS CAUSED BY ANTAGONISMS AND PREJUDICES BETWEEN WATER-TIGHT CULTURAL AND LINGUISTIC COMPARTMENTS, THEN YOU HAVE TO EDUCATE THE RIGHT RESPONSES AMONGST OUR YOUNG PEOPLE IN THE SCHOOLS.

For these "right responses" to be taught, the education system first needed to be fixed. The integration of the different and separate kinds of schools was set as a goal. One key strategy the government adopted was to offer to pay for all teachers in all schools, thus laying the foundation for a single system of remuneration, and therefore control over the quality of teaching staff. Not all the schools welcomed the move. The Chinese school committees, in particular, responded cautiously out of fear that they would have to surrender the autonomy they had enjoyed thus far in all aspects of running their schools.

The non-Government schools had their story to tell too. Many a Chinese school and its founding clan or religious association documented their difficulties on the road to becoming government-aided schools that accepted the carrot of much needed financial aid dangling before them. The ones with the least financial clout and yet did not want to accept the government's terms, eventually could not survive the challenge posed by the changing reality of declining enrolment. The ones left standing either converted to government-aided status as early as the 1950s, or even if they had struggled against such a move initially, walked down this road as parents grew more confident about an English medium education.

At the same time, the infant government embarked on a school-building frenzy. All through the early 1960s, government schools were furiously erected and teachers feverishly recruited, as the singular aim was to provide a place in school for every child of school-going age.

In cookie-cutter fashion, one school after another sprang up, mostly in the new satellite housing estates where many families were moving to. In a great hurry, one teacher after another was recruited, often right in the examination hall where a 16-year-old just sat for his or her last 'O' level examination paper. For the next three years of his life, a trainee teacher was subjected to the gruelling routine of teaching a full load in a school in the morning, before rushing to teacher training class at Cairnhill Road.

THE SCHOOL CURRICULUM THEN WAS UNAPOLOGETICALLY CONCERNED WITH MEETING THE NEEDS OF AN INFANT STATE STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE. THE GOVERNMENT HAD SPELT OUT THE AIMS OF TREATING EQUALLY THE FOUR STREAMS OF EDUCATION: MALAY, CHINESE, TAMIL AND ENGLISH. OBVIOUSLY THE DIFFERENT RACIAL GROUPS NEEDED TO UNDERSTAND THAT THEY WERE ALL EQUAL IN THE EYES OF THE GOVERNMENT. THE GOVERNMENT WAS KEEN FOR ALL TO LEARN ENGLISH IN SCHOOL, BUT IT ALSO BELIEVED THAT LEARNING ONE'S MOTHER TONGUE GAVE ONE THE NECESSARY "CULTURAL BALLAST".

So the bilingual education policy which dictated that all were to learn English and their mother tongue, became a cornerstone policy from this time on. In addition, as schools played a part in preparing students to be ready for work in an economy intent on industrialising, emphasis was placed on the study of Mathematics, Science and technical subjects. A Technical Education Department was set up to oversee technical education at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

FURTHERMORE, THEN PRIME MINISTER LEE'S WISH "TO EDUCATE THE RIGHT RESPONSES AMONGST OUR YOUNG PEOPLE IN SCHOOL" WAS ECHOED IN THE OFT REPEATED CLARION CALL TO SCHOOLS TO DEVELOP IN STUDENTS "DESIRABLE QUALITIES SUCH AS THOSE OF NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS, HONESTY, TOLERANCE, UNDERSTANDING, SELF RELIANCE, ADAPTABILITY AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY."

As Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, and waited nervously for the 1971 withdrawal of British troops stationed in Singapore while putting together its first infantry regiment for self-defence, the school curriculum responded accordingly. The daily ritual of flag-raising and lowering ceremony accompanied by the singing of the National Anthem and the recitation of the National Pledge, was instituted. Uniformed Youth Groups were established in secondary schools and students were actively encouraged to become members, to bring home the need to be rugged and disciplined. The status of physical education in the school curriculum was raised, and 1967 saw the first Combined Schools Sports Meet and the Singapore Youth Festival – all efforts to produce robust and healthy young people.

One new feature of the school system in this era was the establishment of the first junior college in Singapore, National Junior College, in 1969. In the belief that able students needed a more stimulating environment than an extended secondary school system, the lecture-tutorial mode of instruction was introduced, as it was deemed better at promoting intellectual discourse between tutor and students.

HAVING BUILT ENOUGH SCHOOLS TO MEET DEMAND, IT WAS WITH SOME MEASURE OF CONFIDENCE THAT IN DECEMBER 1966, THE GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCED THAT THE MINISTRY OF EDUCATION WOULD GET A NEW $1.5 MILLION HEADQUARTERS AT KAY SIANG ROAD, TO BE COMPLETED IN 1968. OTHER SIGNS OF THE GOVERNMENT MAKING GOOD PROGRESS IN EDUCATION WOULD SHOW OVER TIME. TEACHERS WERE ENTERING THE CLASSROOM TRAINED; THE ISSUE OF INFLATED SALARIES IN PREVIOUSLY NON-GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS WAS ADDRESSED; ENROLMENT IN SCHOOLS, ESPECIALLY IN THE ENGLISH STREAM, SHOT UP STEADILY.

While in 1959, the English and Chinese stream schools had equal share of the cohort registered for Primary 1 (47% and 46% respectively, with the remaining 7% registered in Malay or Tamil stream schools), by 1979, the lion's share of 91% of the Primary 1 cohort was registered in English stream schools, leaving the other language stream schools languishing in declining enrolment. This was to create new challenges for the government.


A Room That Stank

Little did she know that she would witness history in the making first-hand when she put on her uniform that September morning in 1964. If anything was going to prove challenging today, it would be the Biology practical for the school preliminary examination, but the able student she had always been felt confident. So there the class was, each to a fish, gingerly handling now the flesh, now the fins, now the gills in a room thick with the smell of the sea.

All of a sudden, Miss Norris, the principal, burst into the room and commanded all to stop work immediately and to leave. A moment of paralysis ensued, before the girls finally understood that the government had been forced to declare a curfew with immediate effect following yet another spate of riots.

The first to leave were the girls who usually walked to and from school. Next were the girls whose parents had turned up to take them home. Teachers pleaded with parents to help take as many girls as they could in their cars, and in such times of need, people instinctively obliged. So did the pa wong cheh (illegal taxi) drivers who went above quota and took as many children as they could. The scene reminded Chye Tin, Siok Cheng and Lily of another school day that year when news of a bomb hoax had forced the class to evacuate the building and Miss Norris even broke out in song to keep the girls' spirits up.

Days later, when a tentative calm was restored, the girls returned to the unceremoniously abandoned room only to find the whole room stank of decay. Even in their hurry to leave the premises that fateful day, none forgot their manners and all had obediently thrown the fish they were dissecting into the waste paper bin, which in the space of those few days, was the only item in the forsaken room that experienced signs of life.

September 1964 saw the "2nd outbreak of communal violence" (Lee, Kuan Yew. The Singapore Story, Times Editions Pte Ltd, Singapore, 1998), the first outbreak being on 21 July 1964 when communal riots erupted in Singapore on Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Since 1998, our schools have been commemorating Racial Harmony Day every 21 July.

TAN SIOK CHENG / Principal / Raffles Girls' Primary School //
LIM CHYE TIN / Principal / St. Andrew's Junior College //
LILY ONG / Principal / New Town Primary School //


His Principal had to bail him out


For the third day in a row, two eggs had appeared on his desk. Always, the children would leave the eggs before he even arrived in school. No small token of appreciation in an age of little, it always reminded him that in this rural farming community, this was the down-to-earth way people demonstrated gratitude, respect, even love.

The year was May 1965, and 18-year-old Ong Kian Hin, then living in a kampong in River Valley, had been posted to Joo Long Public School as an untrained teacher to teach English in the morning, and to attend pre-service training at Teachers’ Training College (TTC) in Cairnhill three afternoons a week. Every day, Ong would rely on the combined service of a Singapore Traction Company bus, a pa wong cheh and his pair of legs, to ferry him from home to school, and back.

In a room full of Hokkien-speaking, dark-skinned children of fruit and poultry farmers, Ong insisted on using only English. When the children could not understand him, Ong would draw on the blackboard to illustrate the vocabulary he wanted the class to learn. Ong found the children diligent and engaged. Most pleasing of all, he found no occasion to use the cane which his principal advocated.

In fact, he found many reasons to love the children - who used straw baskets for a school bag; who came to school with hair entangled with chicken dung; whose worn-out footwear exposed their ten toes to daylight. Even as he worried about what the future held for these children, Ong recognised that those were difficult times when even six-year-olds would have to help out on the farms before daybreak, when an entire family could live in a cubicle made of mud, and when the bucket system employed in the only toilet in school reduced staff and students to equals.

Equally unforgettable was the drama that awaited Ong every morning as soon as he reached Jurong. Clutching books in his hand as was his habit then, Ong was frequently mistaken as an undergraduate headed to Nantah (Nanyang University) in Jurong. In that tense period when Nantah student activists were fanning the flames of sedition, Ong fell into the routine of being detained and questioned by the police every morning until his principal arrived to bail him out.

In 1968, upon graduation from TTC, Ong felt the richer not only for the salary revision from $185 when he started, to the princely sum of $240, but also for the three years spent growing with the children of Joo Long Public School.

ONG KIAN HIN / Principal / Red Swastika School //


When Parker Pens were an investment



One day in late October 1954, Mother brought me on a surprise visit to Park Road Primary School, near where we were living in a Singapore Improvement Trust flat in Chinatown. A distant aunt I addressed as 'Gu-Ma' walked us into the school compound, past the Principal's office, to a wall with louvred windows on which she knocked gently. Mother pushed a pair of Parker pens wrapped in dirty paper through the louvres, and out came a piece of paper, promptly collected by Gu-Ma. We headed to Gu-Ma's house, where Mother pulled out yet another pair of Parker pens from her purse, this time for Gu- Ma's son who filled in the school admission form in English. Much later, I learnt that the grand total of four Parker pens cost my family more than $20 - a fortune at a time when a plate of char kway teow (fried noodles) cost ten cents. When I entered Primary 1 at Park Road Primary School in January 1955, Mother exhorted me to study hard.

LEE KAH CHUEN / Deputy Director / Humanities and Aesthetics /
Curriculum Planning and Development Division /
Ministry of Education //


Letter from Lee Bo Seng to Mrs Lim, after June 1942



When I left you on that memorable February morning, it was intended to be for a short time. My plan was to find a place in Sumatra where I could hide until it was safe for me to return. Little did I dream then that this parting has turned out to be eternal. How I escaped you will read in my diary. It is enough to say that I got over to Sumatra, and found my way to Padang on the western coast of the island. As fate would have it, there were several thousand Br., Indian, Australian troops in this port. They have escaped from S'pore and were waiting to be evacuated. I got in touch with the officer in charge and an arrangement was made by which I was to be evacuated with them. Soon after this several Australian warships arrived, and I together with several friends, we sailed across in a cruiser to Colombo. Eventually we arrived at C'king on the 12th April, 1942, exactly two months after we left S'pore...

You must not grieve for me. On the other hand you should take pride in my sacrifice and devote yourself to the upbringing of the children. Tell them what has happened to me and direct them along my footsteps. It is most important that they should divide their time between English & Chinese. I had made plans for their education. I had hoped to put them through some Chinese university and followed with post-graduate courses abroad. What a pity I could not live to realise my dreams. But I have no doubt you will do your best for them.


The Singapore Pledge



that is taken daily en masse across all schools even today, was created because it was thought that a loyalty pledge of two to three lines would be more appropriate for use in the classroom. Schools at that time faced space constraints in holding mass assembly for flag-raising and national anthem-singing. What in December 1965 began life following the spirit of the American Pledge of Allegiance, passed through the hands of officials at the Ministry of Education and cabinet ministers, namely Mr S. Rajaratnam (then Minister for Foreign Affairs), and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew himself, before it was cast in stone.

THE SINGLE SENTENCE THAT IT FINALLY IS SPEAKS EFFECTIVELY AND ELEGANTLY OF THE HOPES OF A NEWBORN NATION WELL AWARE OF THE ODDS IT FACES AND DETERMINED TO FIND ITS SIGNIFICANCE.
THE SINGAPORE PLEDGE

We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.