Oldest varsity hall has new vision for future

Dr Lee Kooi Cheng (above) took over as King Edward VII hall master last month. At left are current hall resident Lee Qing Hui, with dad Lee Chien Earn and mum Lim Peck Seah, who are hall alumni.
Dr Lee Kooi Cheng took over as King Edward VII hall master last month. At left are current hall resident Lee Qing Hui, with dad Lee Chien Earn and mum Lim Peck Seah, who are hall alumni.PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Dr Lee Kooi Cheng (above) took over as King Edward VII hall master last month. At left are current hall resident Lee Qing Hui, with dad Lee Chien Earn and mum Lim Peck Seah, who are hall alumni.
Dr Lee Kooi Cheng (above) took over as King Edward VII hall master last month. At left are current hall resident Lee Qing Hui, with dad Lee Chien Earn and mum Lim Peck Seah, who are hall alumni.

Head of 100-year-old NUS hall eyeing more purposeful, structured learning for students

Students entering King Edward VII Hall at the National University of Singapore (NUS) may soon be able to go for mentorship schemes and leadership talks.

These are part of hall master Lee Kooi Cheng's plans to provide more "purposeful and structured learning" for the residents of Singapore's oldest university hall, which marked its 100th birthday this year.

The hall began life at Sepoy Lines, near Singapore General Hospital, in 1916, a time when Singapore was still a British colony. Sepoy Lines refers to the area near the junction of Outram Road and New Bridge Road, where Indian soldiers known as Sepoys were encamped.

In its early days, King Edward VII Hall took in only male students from the medical and dentistry faculties. It began admitting female students in 1960 and has seen generations of residents pass through its corridors.

Gastroenterologist Tan Chi Chiu, 56, who stayed at the hall from 1978 to 1983, recalled that its isolation led to a strong sense of solidarity among members. "There was only one hall at Sepoy Lines. All other halls were in Bukit Timah and Kent Ridge, and subsequently all were at Kent Ridge. We were one community, separated physically from the rest of NUS."

To celebrate the centenary, a carnival and 7km mass run were held in March. A 100 sq m Heritage Room was also opened in the hall's main lobby to showcase memorabilia such as old yearbooks and trophies. A gala dinner was held in April at Hilton Singapore.

Many freshmen were surprised to learn of the hall's rich history. "I didn't even know that it's the oldest hall," said statistics student Chong Jue Fun, 21, adding that its vibrant history could be publicised more during orientation.

Mr Chia Cherng Hann, 21, who studies computer engineering, said: "When people talk about King Edward VII Hall, they don't look at the history. People need to start knowing a hall as it is, rather than just its activities."

Dr Lee, 48, who took over as hall master last month, hopes to launch more programmes and raise funds for student activities and bursaries. She is a senior lecturer at NUS' Centre for English Language Communication. "I felt that to have much deeper engagement with students beyond the classroom, a hall setting would be a good place," she said.

She is considering a leadership series, in which hall alumni from various industries are invited to speak. Another idea is a mentorship programme where students can gain insights into various careers.

The 469-bed hall has produced some prominent alumni, including Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Minister of State for Health Lam Pin Min.

Dr Lam, guest of honour at the gala dinner in April, said he still holds many fond memories of his time at the hall, such as "the camaraderie, the deep friendship and also independence".

He added: "I have many classmates who eventually got married to each other. (The) hall has truly given generations of hostelites a meaningful and high-quality educational experience."

The hall has been taking in students from more diverse academic backgrounds since moving to Kent Ridge in 1988, such as those not from medicine or dentistry.

It was around then that Dr Lee Chien Earn, a hospital administrator, met his wife Lim Peck Seah at the hall, where they were staying.

Dr Lee, 48, had matriculated in 1988 to study medicine, while Madam Lim, 47, who studied pharmacy, entered the following year. The two crossed paths in various activities, such as the hall publication committee and table tennis.

Their daughter Lee Qing Hui, 21, a third-year student in social work, now stays at the hall and they help her move in and out each semester.

She described their support using a Singlish expression: "Usually, parents go, 'Don't take on so many activities, later cannot study properly.' But my parents will say, 'Just take part, it's part of the hall experience.'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2016, with the headline 'Oldest varsity hall has new vision for future'. Print Edition | Subscribe