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Tributes pour in for long-serving pastor Ernest Poulson who counselled death-row inmates

Three people were killed and 33 others injured in the MacDonald House bombing on March 10, 1965. One of the bombers was counselled by Dr Poulson, whose wife and daughter had been in the building that day. They had just left when the bombing occurred.
Reverend Dr Ernest Poulson was dean of Singapore Bible College for 30 years. He and his wife, along with two daughters, came to Singapore in 1953 and have stayed here since.
Reverend Dr Ernest Poulson was dean of Singapore Bible College for 30 years. He and his wife, along with two daughters, came to Singapore in 1953 and have stayed here since. Below: Mrs Verda Poulson, 91, with her (from left) god-daughter Koh Siang Ki
Reverend Dr Ernest Poulson was dean of Singapore Bible College for 30 years. He and his wife, along with two daughters, came to Singapore in 1953 and have stayed here since. PHOTO: THE FAMILY OF ERNEST POULSON
Reverend Dr Ernest Poulson was dean of Singapore Bible College for 30 years. He and his wife, along with two daughters, came to Singapore in 1953 and have stayed here since. Below: Mrs Verda Poulson, 91, with her (from left) god-daughter Koh Siang Ki
Mrs Verda Poulson, 91, with her (from left) god-daughter Koh Siang Kiang, 63, daughter Sharon Woodland, 69, and granddaughter Esther Rovin, 47, at her home.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Reverend Dr Ernest Poulson was dean of Singapore Bible College for 30 years. He and his wife, along with two daughters, came to Singapore in 1953 and have stayed here since. Below: Mrs Verda Poulson, 91, with her (from left) god-daughter Koh Siang Ki
Three people were killed and 33 others injured in the MacDonald House bombing on March 10, 1965. One of the bombers was counselled by Dr Poulson, whose wife and daughter had been in the building that day. They had just left when the bombing occurred. The bomber was later hanged for his role in the attack. SPH FILE PHOTO

Ernest Poulson, who died earlier this month, counselled death-row inmates and mentored the young

A young American couple came to Singapore with two daughters in 1953, thinking they would stay for a year. Instead, they stayed for 64.

Christian missionary and pastor, Reverend Dr Ernest Poulson, died in Singapore on Oct 13, after a life of service here. He was 91.

Tributes poured in from those who remembered his work with churches and with death-row inmates, and his mentoring of many young people, including students at the Singapore Bible College (SBC), where he was dean for 30 years.

Among the inmates he counselled was one of the MacDonald House bombers, Harun Said, who was hanged in 1968 for his role in the terror attack that killed three and injured 33.

Dr Poulson's wife and 13-year-old daughter were in the building in Orchard Road on the day of the bombing in 1965, to see a dentist. They had left for home in a car, stopping at a nearby traffic light in front of the Istana, when they heard a loud blast.

"We were just moments away from it," said Mrs Verda Poulson, now 91, noting that her daughter escaped harm only because she took a shorter route than usual that day when picking her up from the building, after getting the car. The girl standing beside her daughter just before they left lost an eye, she added.

Later, on a visit to Changi Prison, Dr Poulson was taken to Harun because he was the only counsellor who spoke Malay. He told Harun of his daughter's close shave.

"The man went white. Blood drained out of his face. He thought he would get revenge. But (my husband) said, 'It's all right. I have forgiven you,' " said Mrs Poulson.

Dr Poulson counselled many others on death row, including Sunny Ang, the notorious murderer who killed his girlfriend at sea.

"He would give them messages of encouragement and uphold them," said Mrs Poulson, who occasionally accompanied him to the prison.

Born in 1926 in Florida, Dr Poulson was the son of a small-time businessman and a housewife. He served in the US Navy during World War II. After the war, he decided to become a missionary and studied at Biola University to prepare himself.

He was set on going to Indonesia with his wife and daughters, when an opportunity came up to help at SBC, a new Singapore seminary.

They decided to apply for an Indonesian visa while teaching there, but the visa was never approved.

Dr Poulson taught at SBC for 36 years and was founding dean of its English section. Students said the door to his campus home was always open to anyone who needed advice. A tribute on SBC's website said he had left "a profound imprint in the lives of many".

Stories of lives touched by Dr Poulson were told as news of his death spread. For example, he and his SBC students worked with drug addicts to help them kick the habit and build new lives.

Another story is of a gambler rejected by his family in the 1960s, whom Dr Poulson helped to start a food and drinks stall. Later, Dr Poulson moved him into a home for the elderly, and visited him weekly until the man died in the 1980s.

After he stepped down at SBC, the Poulsons moved into a house in Jalan Keria. Their friends from SBC and various churches had bought it for them as a gift. The house quickly became a regular gathering place for the young people they mentored, including many from Grace Baptist Church, where Dr Poulson served as senior pastor after retiring from SBC.

At a memorial service, PSA International chairman Fock Siew Wah, 77, described Dr Poulson as a trusted friend and a man of faith who was humble and sincere. As a teenager, Mr Fock had been mentored by Dr Poulson.

He joked that Dr Poulson had become "more local" than many locals, eating at roadside stalls and enjoying delicacies such as durian and porridge with innards. Noting Dr Poulson's work here and how he had given the better part of his life to Singapore, Mr Fock said: "In his heart, he was truly Singaporean."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Tributes pour in for long-serving pastor'. Print Edition | Subscribe