Golden jubilee countdown: 5 days to National Day

As old as Singapore and educating new generations

As Singapore was finding its feet after being thrust into independence in 1965, three schools were set up to cater to different age groups. With the country celebrating its 50th birthday this year, Pearl Lee digs into their histories and looks at how far they have come.

Only the brave enrolled in business school

Professor Bernard Yeung (left), the current dean of NUS Business School, with Dr Lee Soo Ann, 76, who served as the business school's head from 1979 to 1985. Every head of the school has had an Asian connection.
Professor Bernard Yeung (left), the current dean of NUS Business School, with Dr Lee Soo Ann, 76, who served as the business school's head from 1979 to 1985. Every head of the school has had an Asian connection. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Unlike the popularity it enjoys today, the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School had difficulty attracting students when it first started in 1965.

Until then, business administration was just a subject in the economics department of the University of Singapore, NUS' predecessor.

It was so tough attracting students that its first leader, the late Dr Andrew Zecha, had to personally persuade undergraduates to sign up. Eventually, 21 students did, and they were dubbed the "21 brave souls" in the school's commemorative book , First To Market.

Among them was Mr Peter Seah, then an undergraduate in the university's arts programme.

The 68-year-old, now the chairman of DBS Group Holdings and DBS Bank, said: "Those of us who signed up were people with a sense of adventure, people who had the courage to try something different."

The small cohort size also meant the everyone knew each other well, said Mr Seah. "Besides studies, we had a lot of socials and we interacted a lot with our professors and lecturers. We were close knit."

Dr Lee Soo Ann, 76, who started out as an economics lecturer in the university in the 1960s and rose to head the accountancy and business school in 1979, said: "Every head brought in to lead the school had an Asian connection. We actively looked out for them because business is about people and how you connect with them." It was thus important for the teaching to be grounded in the Asian context.

This is something that has remained till now, even though much of the business school has changed.

The school merged with Singapore Polytechnic's accountancy programme in 1969. In 1987, the accountancy programme moved to Nanyang Technological Institute, the predecessor of Nanyang Technological University.

Today, students from the business school regularly participate in international case competitions. It has also built up strong postgraduate and executive programmes, boasting partnerships with universities such as Stanford and Hautes Etudes Commerciales.

Professor Bernard Yeung, 61, who became the dean seven years ago, said the NUS Business School today has "the intellectual content, is relevant, innovative, and has a community that works together".

He added that it emphasises and advocates Asian content, which gives it the competitive edge.

"We have matured to the point that we can call the shots on what a leading business school is."

Big cohort, but more time to know students

Former student Philip Wu benefited from his school teachers, including Mr Lau Cheong Wong. He now gives back and opens his firm to his juniors for holiday internships. (From left) Mr Wu, student Ong Qing Zhe, Mr Lau, student Vincent Liew, principal W
Former student Philip Wu (left) benefited from his school teachers, including Mr Lau Cheong Wong (third from left). He now gives back and opens his firm to his juniors for holiday internships. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

If there was one name that struck fear in generations of New Town Secondary School students, it was that of teacher "Tiger Lau".

Mr Lau Cheong Wong - who was given the affectionate nickname by students - joined in 1968, and stayed until 2005.

He was known as a strict, no-nonsense disciplinarian.

"It was just his presence," said former New Town student Philip Wu, 47. "You knew not to go near him if you saw him. But after a while, we realised that he had a caring side too."

When the school first started in 1965, it had an intake of more than 1,800 students in 45 classes, across Secondary 1 to 4.

But even with the large cohort, teaching was a "wonderful" job then, 68-year-old Mr Lau recalls.

Teachers had fewer administrative duties and spent more time getting to know their charges.

"On weekends, we would plan hiking trips with the students and other teachers," he said. "Back then, we had better relationships with the students."

Mr Lau taught maths and science until the 1990s, when schools started jumping on the IT bandwagon.

"Some teachers who had trouble adapting to IT left the job," he said.

But he picked up Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint quickly, and taught computer applications, a subject offered to Normal (Technical) students.

Mr Lau, who faced the challenges of students who are less academically inclined, said: "Those in the Normal Tech stream needed a fierce teacher to discipline them. But, once you won them over, they would do anything for you."

He recalled one tough student who offered to help him "settle problems" if he ever ran into any.

Mr Wu, who studied at the school from 1981 to 1984 and served as a prefect, describes New Town as a microcosm of society with students from all walks of life.

He now actively contributes to his old school and has opened his firm, media company Grid Synergy, to allow his juniors to do internships during school holidays.

The school's current principal, Ms Wong Yu Yuh, said: "We are looking for ways for our alumni to contribute to and collaborate with the school.

"On top of ensuring that students do academically well, we also hope to support our students' interests as much as we can."

Community spirit still strong at school


Yio Chu Kang Secondary's principal Janice Heng (centre) with maths teacher Annie Matthews (left), who joined the school in 1984, and contract teacher Mak Pak Lum, who joined in 1975. PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

When Yio Chu Kang Secondary was set up in 1965, it was the only school that stood among the kampungs in the area.

Mr Albert Lai, 53, attended from 1975 to 1978 and recalls plucking rambutans, swamp fishing and watching crocodiles fight near the Seletar Reservoir.

"Yio Chu Kang Secondary was a village school then," said the banking consultant. "A lot of the students lived in the kampungs and we would play there too."

Back in the sixties, Yio Chu Kang residents - many of whom were kampung dwellers - had asked then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew for a secondary school to take in the children from the area.

The school offered both English and Chinese lessons, and Mr Lai, who attended the now defunct Sembawang Hill Estate Primary School in Thomson, was in one of two English classes. "A lot of my primary school friends went on to Yio Chu Kang Secondary as well. Because of this, we were a closely knit group," he said.

Even now, Mr Lai still meets his secondary school friends about once a month for social gatherings, where they reminisce about their childhood days.

Teacher Mak Pak Lum, who joined the school in 1975, remembers when she used to conduct lessons using an overhead projector.

DEEPER TIES

Through the years, the staff, students, and school leaders have forged strong relationships...

I hope to build on this strong foundation to develop our students more.

MADAM JANICE HENG, principal of Yio Chu Kang Secondary

"Information technology (IT) has come in and changed a lot of things," said Mrs Mak, 67, now a contract teacher with the school. The birth of IT also meant that students face different challenges now, such as issues related to computer games addiction.

Madam Annie Matthews, who joined the school in 1984 and still teaches mathematics there, added: "In the past, it was more chalk and talk."

"Now, the kids are more informed. You have to engage them in different ways and understand their background and their emotional needs," said the teacher, who is in her fifties.

But one thing that has remained unchanged is the school's strong community spirit. For instance, students and other people still drop off second-hand textbooks there which are then passed on to lower-income families in a partnership with FairPrice.

This community spirit is also one that the school's current principal, Madam Janice Heng, hopes to preserve.

"Through the years, the staff, students, and school leaders have forged strong relationships," said Madam Heng, who took over as head in January last year. "I hope to build on this strong foundation to develop our students more."

This year, she initiated a student development team led by four teachers to look into how the school can better connect with students.

"Every cohort has its unique needs. In Secondary 1, it is about helping students transit to secondary school life. As they get older, we have to help them think about their future," she said.

"I hope to form more contact points with the students."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2015, with the headline ''. Print Edition | Subscribe