Monday 24 November 2014

A school by another name isn't the same

Qiaonan and Griffiths hold plenty of history and memories for former staff and pupils
By Pearl Lee And Ho Ai Li, The Sunday Times, 23 Nov 2014

What's in a name?

Plenty of history and memories, say former staff and pupils of Griffiths Primary School and Qiaonan Primary.

They are upset that the two pioneer schools, which together have been around for 145 years, will be merged to form Angsana Primary School - a name with little connection to its predecessors.

"Why Angsana? Why not something like Griffiths-Qiaonan?" asked 86-year-old Eunice Tan Khe Tong, a retired principal, who was there for Griffiths Primary School at its start, and its end.

She was among Griffiths' first teachers when it opened in Towner Road in 1950, and was at its Tampines Street 22 location earlier this month for its closing ceremony. She has already written to the National Heritage Board to ask for the Griffiths name to be preserved.

"A name represents a school's history," said Mrs Tan, who "taught math, science, English, art, and even singing" in her eight years with the school.

A street away from Griffiths is Qiaonan, which was started in 1933 by the Wenzhou clan association. Its name is most likely a reference to Chinese migrants (qiao) who have moved south (nan).

Qiaonan Alumni Association president Lim Eng Kiong, 57, who first studied there in 1965, said the group, which has around 200 members, has also appealed to the Ministry of Education (MOE) and met its officials to try to save the school name.

"I have strong feelings for Qiaonan. If I can help keep its name, I will try my best," he said.

Singapore Taoist Federation chairman Tan Thiam Lye, 65, also a former pupil, added: "It's such a good name, why not keep it?"

The MOE said Singapore's birth rate has fallen sharply since 2000, leading to declining enrolment in some schools in mature estates.

This "does not allow them to offer a good range of educational programmes and co-curricular activities", explained a spokesman. In the past five years, two other primary schools were merged, while four secondary schools were combined into two.

A Schools Naming Committee decides on the new name, taking into account the previous schools' histories and whether it will resonate with the community.

Merged schools will usually also have a heritage space to display their past links.

On the new Angsana Primary School's website, it says it will build on the rich histories of Qiaonan and Griffiths.

But for some, this may not be enough. Mr Ahmad Salik Ahmad Ishak, 35, admitted being upset when he heard about the merger. He studied in Qiaonan. So did his four siblings and then his two sons.

"The classrooms my sons studied in were the same ones I used," said the allied educator. "I'd tell them how I was distracted as the classroom overlooked the field and I'd watch people playing. My sons told me they have the same problem."

As for the new name of the merged school, he said: "I'm sure MOE has its reasons for choosing Angsana."

Primary 6 pupil Lim Jiexin, who was Qiaonan's vice-head prefect this year, shook her head when asked what she thought of Angsana, which will occupy the Griffiths building. "Why do they have to use that? They should choose a better name."

Mr Chin Harn Tong, former senior parliamentary secretary (Home Affairs), who taught in Qiaonan from 1957 to 1961 - when it was known as Kiau Nam School - also said Angsana did not resonate with him.

The 76-year-old said: "Anything other than the Qiaonan name doesn't mean much to me."

Griffiths, first known as Towner Road School, was renamed after Welsh politician James Griffiths, the British secretary for the colonies at the time, formally opened the school in June 1950.

In 1982, it merged with Balestier Girls' to form Moulmein Primary. Six years later, when it moved to Tampines, it returned to being Griffiths. Mrs Tan believes the school's link to Singapore's British past is worth preserving. "This is an important part of our history," she said.

Teacher Eadelin Toh, 24, who graduated from Griffiths in 2002, said: "It is definitely sad. Next time when I tell people I'm from Griffiths Primary, nobody will know about it any more."

Architectural and urban historian Lai Chee Kien, whose alma mater Birkhill Primary was merged with Queenstown Primary and took the latter's name, said the loss of school names was a shame as "the name alone can engender pride and identity".

Names are also constant reminders of one's roots and identity, said Dr Yeo Kang Shua, honorary secretary of the Singapore Heritage Society. "Certain names also have historical referencing, as in the case of Qiaonan and Griffiths," he said.

He wondered if Angsana was "deliberately" chosen so as not to favour one side. "It is challenging and tricky to come up with a name which reflects the histories of both schools," he said.

Since news of the merger broke in February, former staff and pupils of both schools have found time to visit and take photographs.

Said Ms Toh, who went to Griffiths last Saturday with her ex-schoolmates: "We just want to have something to remember the school by."

Ex-Qiaonan pupil Dezmon Tan, 34, rounded up a few of his classmates to go back on Nov 1. They brought with them a time capsule they had made in their primary school days but never opened.

"We started the time capsule in the school, so we wanted to open it there," the interior designer said. Inside were his protractor, pencil and sharpener from 23 years ago.

"A lot of memories, definitely. They can erase the Qiaonan name from the school directory, but they cannot erase it from my memory."

List of shut schools is online hit
By Pearl Lee, The Sunday Times, 23 Nov 2014

Ms Fiona Seah's blog is better known for her reviews of beauty products. But it has now become a place to pay homage to schools which are no longer around.

The 24-year-old's interest was piqued when she read that several schools, including Qiaonan Primary and Griffiths Primary, were going to be merged.

She then found out that her parents' primary schools - Outram Primary and Alexandra Estate Primary - had also been closed. After almost three months of research, she published three long blog posts from July to October on more than 60 schools, complete with old photographs - from class pictures to report books.

They have become her best- read entries to date.

"I searched for the schools' alumni groups on Facebook and read old news articles on the NewspaperSG website," said the third-year communications student at the Nanyang Technological University.

Nuggets of information include how Membina Primary School in Tiong Bahru - it closed in 1996 after opening in 1975 - was the first to get a contemporary design under the Education Ministry's School Building Programme.

And how Pearl's Hill School, established in 1881, was once Singapore's tallest primary school when it moved to Chin Swee Road.

It was not easy digging up the history, said Ms Seah.

"Many of the schools cannot be found online any more, probably because they closed so long ago," she said. "There were no Facebook groups by former students."

For instance, she was unable to find out more about Whitley Primary School, which stood where the Whitley Detention Centre is now. Still, her posts at caused quite a stir of nostalgia online.

"Some ex-students will e-mail me to try and reconnect with their schoolmates, or provide me with more information about the closed schools," she said.

Ms Seah, who attended St Anthony's Primary and Hillgrove Secondary, both in Bukit Batok, said: "It is a pity that once schools close, they are gone forever. I hope to let people remember these schools through my blog."

Old schools and their names worth preserving
By Ho Ai Li, The Sunday Times, 23 Nov 2014

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.

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