Methodist Schools of Singapore: A Model
by Christie R. House
In 1925, the Methodist Mission in Singapore purchased from Madam Tan Teck Neo, widow of Mr. Lee Choon Guan, 10 acres of property at Barker Road for the use of Oldham Hall, a hostel associated with the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS). The property included Dunearn House, which was used to house missionaries and ACS students. It is unlikely any of the missionaries or students of that day could imagine what the Barker Road property would become.
On December 22, 2002, the Methodist Church in Singapore (MCS) moved into its new offices built on the land first acquired in 1925. The property now includes the Anglo-Chinese Primary and Barker Road schools, the Barker Road Methodist Church, the Barker Road Kindergarten, Oldham Hall, and the new six-story Methodist Center. The bishop’s office, the offices of all three annual conferences, and the offices of all the agencies of the MCS are located in the new facilities.
The Anglo-Chinese School at Barker Road was completely rebuilt in 2001. The new campus houses both primary and secondary schools. There are dorms for 500 students, a sports complex with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an arts center with an auditorium that is shared with the Barker Road Methodist Church, two libraries, and a transport center. The secondary school can accommodate 1500 students. It offers eight learning centers, four language rooms, and two computer laboratories in fully air-conditioned facilities. The primary school can accommodate 1600 students and includes eight learning centers and four language rooms, also fully air-conditioned. The Barker Road facility was redeveloped at a cost of $95 million.
The state-of-the-art facilities of the ACS schools are not a unique feature of the Methodist schools of Singapore, which number 13. All of them have been maintained, expanded, and improved over the last 100 years. Both the physical attributes of the schools and the quality of education that they offer have improved and kept pace with the times. Today, the schools excel in the highly competitive environment of Singapore’s public education. They cannot accommodate all the students who wish to attend the schools. Students must pass rigorous tests to enroll, and the waiting lists are long.
The oldest of the Methodist schools in Singapore is the Anglo-Chinese School founded by William Oldham in 1886. Today, the school has expanded and separated into five separate units: ACS Junior (Secondary), ACS Primary, ACS Barker Road, ACS Independent, and the ACS Junior College. In 1886, Singapore and Malaysia were one territory, a British Protectorate. Missionaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church, beginning with Bishop James M. Thoburn, believed that, in the Asian context, education was a prominent component of a successful mission. William Oldham arrived in Singapore as the first missionary. In 1887, Sophia Blackmore founded Methodist Girls’ School and, by 1888, Telok Ayer Girls’ School, which later became Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School.
The mission schools developed quickly into remarkable institutions of learning. ACS, for example, began with just 13 students in 1886. By the next year, the number had increased tenfold to 104. By 1896, 641 students were enrolled. The mission kept outgrowing its facilities and had to seek more space to expand. In a letter to the board of missions dated November 1886, William Oldham writes: “Nothing like it has ever been seen here and we find that our school work opens our way in every other direction. Merchants and officials are astonished to see how influential we are in the Chinese circles. The children of nearly all the leading [Chinese men] of this port are in our school....”
In the early years, many of the attending students paid tuition, but it was the practice to waive the tuition fees for the sons of widows and the poor, comprising about 10 percent of the student body. Daily chapel services and Bible lessons were required activities of all students. A number of students protested in 1896, and the policy changed to voluntary attendance.
Graduating students from ACS were well-versed in English and provided the British colonial government with excellent local workers. It wasn’t long before graduates of ACS returned as teachers. ACS and the other schools founded before World War II continued to grow and expand throughout the early decades of the 20th century. Growing unrest in Europe and Great Britain’s entrance into World War II greatly affected the Southeast Asian territories held by Britain.
Singapore Emerges from War
Japanese forces landed at Kota Bahru in Malaya and fought British forces for just nine weeks before Singapore and Malaya were surrendered to Japanese occupation. The Japanese forces interned the Chinese population, killing many young men before families were released. Most schools were closed during the occupation. Many properties were confiscated by the Japanese authorities.
With the defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific arena, Malaya and Singapore were returned to the British protectorate, but the British now sought ways to divest themselves of their colonial territories. Within a month after the British reoccupied Singapore, the ACS students began to return. A new era of building and expansion began in 1948, with most of the faculty and administrative staff of the schools now from Singapore rather than missionaries from the United States. The last missionary principal of ACS was the Rev. Dr. H. H. Peterson, who finished his term in 1952. Likewise, Bishop Robert F. Lundy was the last missionary bishop to serve the Methodist Church in Singapore, with his term ending in 1968.
Singapore became a self-governing territory of Britain in 1959 and a fully independent country in 1963. The entire educational system in Singapore underwent broad changes. The country saw its task as building a new nation out of what was essentially pockets of immigrant communities. The government made amendments to the curriculum, dropping Latin, putting more emphasis on science and mathematics, and phasing out the Bible and Religious Knowledge courses. Physical education, a military band, the National Cadet Corps, and the National Police Cadet Corps were introduced to the secondary school campus. The Singapore Ministry of Education asserted itself with more direct controls over curricula and other activities. Chapel services were held before classes commenced.
21st Century Directions
By the 1970s, the Methodist Church in Singapore reintroduced Religious Knowledge and Moral Education classes as part of the ACS curriculum. As Singapore society became more affluent, the school felt the need to introducean “anti-snobbery” campaign. “Material wealth without appropriate moral and spiritual values was seen as a potential hazard to the quality of life,” writes Earnest Lau, editor of The ACS Story. As early as the 1950s, however, the Methodist Church sought to revive the Christian emphasis of the school. As a result, Christian fellowship groups were instituted.
The Singapore Ministry of Education provided a major share of the funding (Sing. $80 million subvention) to rebuild the ACS facilities. Yet the Methodist Church in Singapore has retained ownership of the lands and the buildings and considers the schools part of its educational mission today. A majority of the institutions’ board of directors are Methodist Church members.
At the official opening of the new ACS Barker Road campus in July 2003, Dr. Tony Tan, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, paid tribute to the Methodist Church in Singapore. He honored the ACS for its commitment and respect for the traditions of its past as well as for excellence and innovation in ushering in the future. “Its strong ties with the Methodist Church and its Christian heritage have always sought to anchor its students in sound moral values and a strong sense of community,” noted Dr. Tan. “Those who gain most from the benefits of community must also bear the heaviest responsibilities and have the keenest sense of social and community obligations. This has been most clearly shown in the spirit of giving and service to school and community that has been the distinctive hallmark of the ACS alumni.” At the same occasion, Dr. Robert Solomon, Bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore, noted: “[G]enerations of ACSians (graduates) have thrived in the special environment of sound Christian and moral values, holistic education, and the ACS spirit of excellence, service, and loyalty.” (From The Methodist Message, Methodist Church in Singapore, September 2003.)
* Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook. Special thanks go to Earnest Lau, Archivist of the Methodist Church in Singapore, associate editor of the Methodist Message newsletter, and editor of the book, The ACS Story.
Date posted: Mar 11, 2004