Old schools and their names worth preserving

I am 35, and soon to be a member of a Singaporean tribe whose members range from as young as eight to as old as the trees - people whose primary schools no longer exist.

My alma mater, Qiaonan Primary, had survived the Japanese Occupation, post-war deprivations and the phasing out of Chinese-medium schools when it moved from Paya Lebar to start afresh in Tampines in 1985.

But it has finally succumbed to falling birth rates and parents' desire to put their children in well-known schools. Last year, only 30 children registered to start Primary 1 this year.

Come January, Qiaonan's 81-year-old name will disappear when it merges with its neighbour, Griffiths Primary, to form the new Angsana Primary.

My experience is hardly unique. My brother, two years older, attended Bedok South Primary; my cousin, a year my junior, went to Bedok North Primary. Both schools are no more.

At least 29 of Singapore's 90 Members of Parliament went to primary schools that have closed or merged, including Mr Ang Hin Kee (Kwong Avenue Primary), Dr Maliki Osman (Duchess Primary) and Ms Tin Pei Ling (Mei Chin Primary).

The disappearance of schools has to be a uniquely Singapore phenomenon, especially post-Independence. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of primary schools fell from 413 to 388, and those that closed were mainly government-aided schools set up by local communities, clans or religious groups.

Then, between 1980 and 1990, the number of primary schools shrank from 313 to 200. One factor was the demise of vernacular schools, officially phased out by 1987. Schools like Seletar Chinese School and Pei Hwa Public School in Yio Chu Kang said their goodbyes during that period.

Many neighbourhood schools also closed as the areas they were in grew older and there was a sharp drop in the number of families with school-going children.

In Queenstown, for instance, schools such as Strathmore Primary, Birkhall Primary and Margaret Drive School vanished when they were merged from 1978 to 1986 with Queenstown Primary. In 2002, Tanglin and Mei Chin primary schools merged with Queenstown too.

Schools in Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio faced the same fate as the estates matured.

So in a way, the Qiaonan-Griffiths merger marks Tampines estate's coming of age, nearly 30 years after the first primary school welcomed children from the new estate named after ironwood trees called tempinis.

My family - my parents, my brother and my paternal grandmother - moved to our flat in Tampines Street 11 in 1985.

The following year, I started Primary 1 at Qiaonan, and there were eight classes in that level. How different from this year, when Qiaonan could barely fill one Primary 1 class.

I enjoyed my time there, but I went through primary school unaware that Qiaonan had beaten great odds to arrive in Tampines.

Like many Chinese-medium schools set up from 1920 to 1950 by local communities without government support, Qiaonan had humble beginnings when it was started in 1933 by clansmen from Wenzhou province.

Classes were held in a rented house with only about 20 pupils, two teachers and a principal in Lorong Koo Chye near Paya Lebar.

The school was funded by monthly contributions from well-wishers.

When it was short of funds in the 1950s, the staff took pay cuts to help the school.

My Chinese-language teacher, Mr Ho Kit Liang, who is as old as the school, remembers fondly how the whole school had banded together to raise money to build new premises in the early 1960s. "Everyone chipped in, including the school committee members and even friendly schools nearby," he told me recently.

Most Chinese newspaper articles about the school at the time described its fund-raising activities, including movie screenings and Chingay-style shows. A bak kut teh stall owner gave $3,000, a Mr Xie donated $4,000.

The school's first principal, Mr Wang Xiyuan, was killed during the Japanese Occupation. In 1959, Mr Ong Say Teck became principal and stayed 27 years, the school's longest-serving head.

I did not know about Qiaonan's history until I started checking recently.

When I was a pupil there, there was not much effort to tell us about its past. But its name told me it used to be a Chinese school.

When Qiaonan disappears and the new Angsana Primary opens next year, will future pupils have any inkling of my old school and its deep roots?

Will former pupils of Griffiths and Qiaonan feel for Angsana Primary? I don't think I will.

Sadly, the demise of schools like Qiaonan and Griffiths may strike some as nothing extraordinary in an ever-changing city where old makes way for new everywhere.

But must it be this way? Recent years have seen growing interest in heritage, saving and cherishing what we still have of the Singapore gone by.

Old schools, and old school names too, deserve to be treated with more care and respect.

With independent Singapore on the cusp of turning 50, it is a good time to think of ways to preserve the names of schools like Qiaonan and Griffiths which are, after all, older than the Republic.


This article was first published on Nov 23, 2014.
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