Book launched to commemorate Singapore's two elite Malay-medium schools

The book documents the history of Sang Nila Utama Secondary School and Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School.
The book documents the history of Sang Nila Utama Secondary School and Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School.PHOTO: HELANG BOOKS

SINGAPORE - They were Singapore's premier Malay-medium schools, described by some as the Raffles Institution of Malay schools.

But these days, not many may know about Sang Nila Utama Secondary School (SNU) and Tun Seri Lanang Secondary School (TSL), which were closed some 40 years ago due to falling enrolment.

A book to document the history of the two institutions - Sang Nila Utama and Tun Seri Lanang: Singapore's Last Malay Schools - was launched on Saturday (June 19).

It was pieced together from 74 hours of interviews with 88 former students, teachers and staff living in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Former MP Wan Hussin Zoohri spearheaded the ground-up effort.

Speaking at the book launch, which was held online, Mr Wan Hussin said he hoped the book would be a meaningful contribution to the literature on the multi-lingual system of education that existed in Singapore from the 1960s to 1980s and also a record of the Malay education experience.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, who was the guest of honour at the virtual event, said while it is important to forge national unity and harmony among the different communities in Singapore, it is also important to acknowledge the experiences of each community, and celebrate them as integral parts of the country's shared heritage.

"As individual Singaporeans, we should also respect and appreciate our differences, and unite as one people," said Mr Tong, who is also Second Minister for Law.

Describing unity as "far from a finished product", he added: "And with each different generation, fresh identities, fresh alliances and fresh unities and bonds need to be built.

"Racial and religious harmony is, and must continue to be, among the foremost objectives and aspirations of Singaporean society."

The establishment of the two schools - SNU in 1961 in Upper Aljunied Road, and TSL in 1963 in Mountbatten Road - was a significant milestone in the development of Malay education, which had made little progress under British colonial rule.

SNU, named after the founder of Singapore in the 13th century, was Singapore's first Malay secondary school, with lessons taught in Malay, and English and Chinese taught as second languages.

TSL named after Tun Seri Lanang, the author of Sejarah Melayu, or the Malay Annals, was opened in response to the growing demand for Malay-medium classes after the People's Action Party promised to accord equal treatment to all four language streams in schools.

When the schools first started out, there were few Malay secondary-level textbooks, and the teachers at the two schools had to help translate subject content from English to Malay, referring to the Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu for scientific terms.


The Sang Nila Utama Secondary School, which was one of the nation's premier Malay-medium schools from the 1960s to 1980s. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

During its time, the co-ed schools were considered progressive symbols of educational excellence, and attracted students from Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Alumni of the schools include former Senior Parliamentary Secretary Yatiman Yusof, former Singapore football captain Razali Saad and poet Kamaria Buang.

Both schools closed by the late 1980s after enrolment declined.

Mr Shadon Suid, a former SNU student, who hosted the book launch, said the team had run into enormous challenges writing the book, such as having to get clearance from government agencies to mention sensitive topics.

Another difficulty was the lack of information. Mr Wan Hussin, who had been vice-principal of SNU and principal of TSL, said he found that there was a lack of official records about the schools.

Author Hidayah Amin, who wore the TSL uniform during the event though she did not attend the school, said she had been moved by the camaraderie and strong school spirit of the alumni she met in the course of writing the book.

With her voice breaking, she said she felt a heavy responsibility to come up with a book that would represent those she spoke to, and added that she hoped the book will help ensure that future generations will learn about the two elite Malay schools.

Meanwhile, Mr Muhammad Jaafar, the last principal of SNU, recounted that the last day of school in 1987 was a sad day for the 13 staff members who were around.

"We had to put up a false front by smiling and joking with each other, but inside us we were a sad bunch who had to bid goodbye to the school we loved," he said overcome with emotion.

He added that it was meaningful that the memories of the schools were recounted in the book.

The SNU building was demolished to make way for the new Bidadari estate, while the TSL campus has been renamed Goodman Arts Centre and now houses the National Arts Council.

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat had announced in 2019 that the road in the upcoming Bidadari estate, located next to the site of the former SNU, will be named Sang Nila Utama Road.

A part of the new Heritage Walk within the Bidadari estate will also be named Sang Nila Utama Boulevard.

Currently, Tun Seri Lanang is remembered through the prestigious Tun Seri Lanang Award, one of the highest awards for Malay literature in Singapore.

Mr Wan Hussin on Saturday called for the Malay Language Centre in Bishan to be renamed the Tun Seri Lanang Malay Language Centre, to preserve the Malay author's legacy.