The teacher who touched many lives

PHOTO: The Straits Times

The first thing I remember about Keith Vivian Wiltshire was the way he bounced into the nondescript classroom at the old Raffles Junior College (RJC) in Ghim Moh, with his thick beard and shock of silvery bronze hair.

My classmates and I were seated in two, perhaps three, rows across the width of the room. He would have none of it. "Rearrange the chairs," he declaimed, or words to that effect. He wanted us ranged in a circle around him. Only thus, face to face with him and each other, in an egalitarian circle, would we be able to discuss literature, and debate and argue with one another, and in the process learn about life.

Not for him the hierarchy of the standard classroom, with the teacher in front, chalk in hand, lecturing or admonishing rows of silent students. Once we got over our initial shock and apprehension, tutorials were lively, rambunctious. We learnt to speak up.

I felt a sense of intellectual homecoming in his classes, where we would read mystery plays, parse Wilfred Owen, analyse Hamlet, and argue with him when he would criticise the Singapore system. He taught us how to think, how to reason and how to speak up.

He once taught us about trust, making all of us practise falling backward into a circle of our classmates' vigilant hands.

Keith was one of the first batches of tutors hired by the Ministry of Education to coach JC students keen to study the humanities at Oxbridge or Ivy League universities. They belonged to what was first called the Promsho programme (pre-university cum overseas undergraduate scholarship for the study of humanities at Oxbridge), later renamed the Humanities programme for short.

I was in the RJC humanities class of 1985/1986.

Even 30 years later, as news of his death broke, the WhatsApp group for my JC classmates exploded into chatter as we reminisced and remembered him fondly for the impact he had on our lives.

He died on Jan 3, aged 83, two years after a stroke that made him lose part of his mobility and slurred his speech. I saw him last around 2009, at his home in Bristol, and last spoke to him about two years ago, when he was hospitalised after the stroke.

Because he had taught in Singapore for decades, he touched many lives here. On Facebook, I read several touching tributes to him.

New York-based Singaporean poet Koh Jee Leong wrote: "Confronted by our intellectual lethargy and moral turpitude, he would strive to provoke us into thinking and acting. I still remember how he would constantly inveigh against the uselessness of mathematics as a subject of study, an opinion I was secretly pleased to endorse, until a classmate... stood up to him in (defence) of math, and then he broke into a smile and said, 'Finally, someone contradicted me!' He did not want our agreement, but our growth, in having the courage of our convictions."

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, now Manpower Minister, wrote: "If there ever was a teacher who made the greatest impact on me, it'd have been Mr Wiltshire... Always pushing us to question and challenge, nothing was sacrosanct in the pursuit of a richer and deeper understanding of what we believe in. He was a critic of the Government, he made classes fun and funny, he kicked me in the butt for asking silly questions."

My RJC classmate, Benjamin Pwee, who went on to enter opposition politics, wrote that Keith taught us to "love the humanities, to understand literature and poetry, to think for ourselves, to be polite and gentlemanly yet robust in our thinking and arguments. And just as he has trained some of us who joined the ruling political party, he also trained others of us like me who joined the Opposition camp. And also those of us who went on to become political journalists and diplomats, as well as lawyers and bankers. Mr Wiltshire, we all owe you a huge debt, and for showing us what 'just' being a high school teacher can do".

What Keith taught me was twofold. First, that a good teacher, mentor or leader shares not only his knowledge and insights, but also his life.

When he was our teacher, Mr Wiltshire invited us to his home - first an apartment in the Leedon area, and later, a house with a garden and rambutan tree in the Bukit Timah area. For heartland kids like myself, it was awesome visiting a house with a large garden.

He shared his political views with us - he was a Fabian socialist and a critic of Singapore's too-capitalist economy and too-competitive pressure-cooker education system and too-rigid political system .

Once we graduated from JC, he insisted we call him Keith, and he and his wife Pauline became friends. When he retired and went back to Britain, he wrote missives to his legion of ex-students, typed closely on A4-size paper. I enjoyed his diatribes - against polluting cars; against nuclear energy; and against the Singapore Government.

To try to disabuse him of his sour views on Singapore, I sent him a subscription to The Straits Times overseas weekly paper for years - until he told me to stop during one of my visits. This was after he became disheartened with Singapore, saying he had been refused entry at Changi Airport on one of his trips and had had to be put on a flight back to London, suffering deep vein thrombosis as a result of the back-to-back flights. I never quite knew why, whether his occasional meetings with dissident figures or his membership of Amnesty International had raised alarm.

But he did not let his run-ins with the Singapore authorities affect his friendships with his former students, some of whom had become senior government leaders. He was proud of his students' achievements and not embarrassed by what they had become. He collected works by students and friends on a bookshelf in his Bristol home - I was happy to add a couple to his collection.

His students were multi-faceted; and each of us took away diverse personal memories and lessons. One of my classmates remembers him most for his left-footed dribble in football: "I remember his love for football and his considerable skill in playing the game... how he ran us ragged on the football field in the annual teachers and student football matches."

From observing Keith, I also learnt that it was all right to change one's faith and ideology, and that one can remain passionate about wanting to change the world even when one changed one's mind as to the best way to go about it.

Born in Devizes, Wiltshire, in October 1933, he enlisted in the military at the age of 18 and served with distinction, leaving as a sergeant.

He went on to theology school and became a Methodist minister in the 1950s. He later left the church and became a teacher of the secular humanities. I once remarked that he was no longer a Christian; but he corrected me, saying he continued to believe in Jesus - not the divine Christ worshipped by Christians, but the Jesus whose teachings he admired. For a fundamentalist Christian such as I was then, that distinction was an eye-opener.

He was a socialist and a Labour Party supporter for many years. But in his later years, he was an avid Green Party supporter and even candidate. Wikipedia records that in his home constituency of Stoke Bishop in Bristol, where he retired, he came in fourth of four candidates, winning 409 or 6.84 per cent of the votes for the local city council elections in 2005. That, I know, would not have discouraged him, because it was an improvement on the 1999 result when he got 178 votes or 2.15 per cent.

Keith was at heart an activist - wanting first to change the world for God; and in his final years taking a stand for the Green Party, winning one hard vote at a time. He would have been over 70 when he campaigned in 2005.

The activist in him never stopped trying to make the world a better place. But it was as a teacher that he found and fulfilled his lifelong mission - changing the world one student at a time.


This article was first published on Jan 08, 2017.
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