Closed but not forgotten: Alumni celebrate Tuan Mong High School's 115th anniversary

Former Tuan Mong High School teachers Mr Lim Poon Heok and Mr Chang Kwang Wee (left to right, holding books) and students Ms Leong Sau Hiong, Mr Seng Han Thong, Mr Simon Goh and Mr Lee Kok Leong. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Although Tuan Mong High School has been closed for more than 25 years, its alumni still gather to sing its anthem and commemorate the anniversary of its founding almost every year.

This year was no different. On Saturday (Oct 2), former students and teachers celebrated the school's 115th anniversary at the Teochew Building in Tank Road, which had been the school's home since 1918.

Founded in 1906, the school began with a small enrolment of 68 primary school pupils. As a Teochew school that catered mainly to the sons and daughters of Chinese immigrants, lessons were conducted in the dialect, and the curriculum mirrored the nine-year Chinese education system's then.

Classes were taught in Mandarin from 1918, with the medium of instruction for most subjects switching to English in 1969.

The school expanded over the years, and between 1958 and 1980 offered primary to pre-university education.

Falling student enrolment as residents moved out of the area as it underwent urban renewal, coupled with administrative challenges, led the school to close in 1994.

Compared with the grand gala dinners of past years that would draw hundreds of alumni and teachers, Saturday's event was a small-scale affair attended by about a dozen alumni, former teachers and guests, owing to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Others joined in virtually.

Nevertheless, the day held the same significance, said the school's alumni association president Simon Goh.

"What has attracted hundreds of alumni back for our yearly gala dinners has been the desire to pay tribute to our teachers, and this year was no different," said the 56-year-old.

To that end, a 196-page commemorative publication that features Tuan Mong's former teachers was launched on Saturday.

About 1,600 copies of the book were printed, mainly for alumni members. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

The book - titled Cultivating Values, Nurturing Generations in English - was Mr Goh's brainchild, as he felt it was necessary to honour Tuan Mong's teachers, who are ageing.

"Over the years, we've lost some of them, and I thought it would be a good initiative to pay tribute to our mentors, many of whom have made an indelible mark on our lives," said Mr Goh.

He added: "Seeing the book published, I can say I have no regrets in this life."

About 1,600 copies of the book were printed, mainly for alumni members, but copies will be donated to the National Library Board and institutes of higher learning.

Mr Lee Kok Leong, an alumni member who was part of the book's editorial committee, said he and a team of about 30 others spent two years on research, interviews and writing.

While they had some knowledge about the school's history, more discoveries were made along the way.

For instance, the 60-year-old heard from former teachers that founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had cast his vote in Tuan Mong during the 1959 election, but had no evidence of this until his research led him to a photo by American magazine Life.

The image, captured outside the school, shows the late Mr Lee and his wife Kwa Geok Choo queueing to enter. The school in Tank Road was in the vicinity of their Oxley Road residence - a 10-minute walk away along today's roads.

A picture of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo queueing outside Tuan Mong High School to cast their vote during the 1959 general election, included in the commemorative book. ST PHOTO: NG KENG GENE

The People's Action Party won the election, and Mr Lee subsequently served as Singapore's first prime minister from 1959 to 1990.

Tracking down former students and staff of the school also led Tuan Mong's Mr Goh to get in touch with Saturday's special guests: the family of Tuan Mong's security guard of four decades, the late Mr Mohamed Hussain.

Upon receiving a copy of the commemorative book from Mr Goh at Saturday's event, Mr Hussain's daughter Madam Zeinamboucany Mohamed Hussain was moved to tears.

She said: "To be remembered by the students and see my old home was very special."

The 56-year-old had grown up in the school compound, where Mr Hussain and his family were housed after he began his employment in 1953. He died in 1993, aged 70. The family moved out after the school closed down.

Tuan Mong High School security guard of four decades, Mr Mohamed Hussain, and his wife Madam Catoon Beevi in the 1970s. PHOTO: MOHAMED HUSSAIN'S FAMILY

Madam Zeinam was accompanied by her daughters, Ms Julaiha Nachiyar Nazir Mohamed, 39, and Ms Fathima Begum Nazir Mohamed, 29, and her nine-year-old grandson Muhammad Ayaan Ariffin Peer Mohamed.

Ms Julaiha said returning to the school compound was like returning home.

"It's been more than two decades since we left, so to step into the building again, it brings back a lot of memories.

"To our family, the school represents our grandfather. He took pride in his work and he wanted it to be his first and last job. In the end, it really was."

Ms Fathima and her sister had kept Saturday's event as a surprise for their mother, who she said always looks back fondly on the family's days in Tuan Mong.

"Until we got out of the taxi, my mum had no idea that we were coming here this morning; she did not know that the alumni association existed and so many students still remember our grandfather - it's a very pleasant surprise," said Ms Fathima.

Former Tuan Mong High School teacher Er Puay Kee looks at old photos with the family of the school's late security guard, Mr Mohamed Hussain. PHOTO: MICHAEL TOH

Tuan Mong's alumni also spoke of the impact that the school had on their lives.

Ms Leong Sau Hiong, whose father died in the second week after she had begun Secondary 1, said it was Tuan Mong's teachers who kept her from dropping out of school amid the turmoil of his death.

"When my dad passed away, my life changed. It was very emotionally challenging. I started to become rebellious and difficult, but they were patient with me and kept me on the right track," said the 60-year-old, who also contributed to the commemorative publication.

Former member of parliament Seng Han Thong, who also went to Tuan Mong, said its students were exposed to the area's rich cultural offerings.

Across the road were the National Theatre and Van Kleef Aquarium, side by side at the foot of Fort Canning Hill, where physical education lessons were conducted.

Students could also visit radio broadcast station Rediffusion next door, while the National Museum and former National Library were a stone's throw away, in Stamford Road.

"The environment we grew up in as students, it shaped our minds," said the 71-year-old.

Mr Lee quipped: "At the aquarium watching seahorses - that's when I learnt males can give birth."

Tuan Mong High School alumnus Leong Sau Hiong (third from left) with schoolmates at the old National Theatre in the 1970s. PHOTO: MS LEONG SAU HIONG

Tuan Mong's long-serving teachers Mr Lim Poon Heok, 78, and Mr Chang Kwang Wee, 85, said the school community was like a family.

Mr Chang, who taught art and calligraphy, said: "Back then, teachers rarely left the school, and over time everyone grew very familiar with one another. If not for the school closing, I would have retired here."

Mr Lim, who had been a Tuan Mong student himself, returned as a physics teacher after graduating from university.

He said: "We may not have been a famous school, but it did not stop our students from loving the school, and doing our best to give it a good name."

Mr Chang remains a well-known calligraphy practitioner and instructor.

It was under his tutelage that Tuan Mong's calligraphy standards were raised, with students winning countless awards at national competitions, said Mr Goh.

Ms Leong said: "When friends find out you're from Tuan Mong, the next thing they will say is, 'Show me your calligraphy skills.'"

Asked how he felt about leading an association which would eventually run out of successors, Mr Goh said it is not at the top of his mind right now.

He said: "Our priority is to attract the Tuan Mong's youngest alumni to join us, they should be in their 40s, and will be able to carry on the school's legacy for a good three decades."

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