Singapore’s Education History on Display

The building housing Singapore's Ministry of Education Heritage Centre

Singapore’s Ministry of Education Heritage Centre

On the second day I was in Singapore I left the bus and became lost. My phone was low on batteries and my GPS was not working properly. I trudged off in the direction I thought I should be going and found myself walking through a large HDB housing complex.

Getting lost on foot in a new place is a good thing. My family is not convinced about this, but that is their loss. Losing one’s way in a new place is a wonderful way to discover things that you may not ordinarily encounter.

Behind the HDB (public housing) complex I discovered Singapore’s education museum – the Ministry of Education Heritage Centre. This museum does not make the lists of museums that tourists are urged to visit so if I hadn’t become lost I may have missed it. Not many people would be excited by this but I have a background in education history so I made a mental note to visit it once I knew a bit more of Singapore’s general history.

Last week I visited the Heritage Centre with a friend of mine, Betty Wee, who is a retired Singaporean primary school teacher. The first section starts with the point where most accounts of Singaporean history start, Sir Stamford Raffles and the early nineteenth century. The first thing that visitors are informed about is Raffles’ vision for a Malayan college in Singapore which he was unable to establish before he left the island in 1824. The college was opened as a primary school in 1837.

However, the exhibition then notes that formal Malay education started well before Europeans arrived in the region. The visitor is told that this was mostly of a religious nature but aside from this there was very little detail. Perhaps the historical records have disappeared?

The nineteenth century education history of Singapore is depicted through a series of small paintings with accompanying labels. The paintings looked like they were recent representations of the history presented. Through these paintings the establishment of different schools for Malays, Tamils, Chinese, boys and girls were noted. Moral education was a special focus in girls’ schools such as the Raffles Girls school which opened in the 1840s. As was often the case throughout the British Empire, missionaries were important for the establishment of schools. Benjamin Peach Keasberry started a Malay boys’ school. His wife, who is not named in the exhibition, established a girls school for Malays in 1858. Catholics set up Chinese schools in the 1850s. The Australian missionary, Sophia Blackmore established the Methodist Tamil school for girls in 1887. Chinese schools such as the Chui Eng Free School initiated by Tan Kim Seng commenced classes in 1857.

This room is essentially a list of the establishment of various schools during the nineteenth century but aside from this there is no particular theme for the room. The role of the British authorities became stronger in 1872 when the Department of education was established and the first inspector of schools, Allan Macleay Skinner was appointed. However, the visitor does not learn from the plaques what the role of the Department or Inspector was and how influential they were in education during this period. The only artifacts from the period are a few school textbooks in a glass cabinet.

The exhibition comes to life in the next section where the schools from the early twentieth century are portrayed. Photos are used.  More context is included to explain the development of formal education during this period. We learned that there were not many Chinese women and children in Singapore for much of the nineteenth century which explains why there were so few Chinese schools then. After 1900 more of the Chinese immigrants settled with their families in Singapore.

Little technology is used in the nineteenth century exhibits aside from the audio that visitors can receive through QR codes accessed through their mobile phones. We listened to a couple of commentaries early in the exhibition but stopped using it as we were happy to read the information and discuss it ourselves without the intervening commentary. Then we stepped into the early twentieth century room and found a large touch screen containing a sample of the text books used in the Singaporean schools during this period.

I have spent a lot of time in Australian education archives researching school readers for young children so this was a highlight for me. I could have spent a long time reading textbooks such as The Royal crown Reader: Book 2 from 1923 or Nelson’s First Reader for Schools in the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements with the large British flag on the inside facing page. As with the Australian readers of the period the publisher, probably at the behest of the education authorities of the region, had included topics of local interest. The Nelson reader included a series of stories titled, ‘A Chinese Temple’, ‘A Malay Mosque’, ‘An English Church’. The ethnicity of the person was neatly linked to the place of worship. The neat, colonial categorisation was at work.

The touch screen had to be used with care. It simulated the action of turning a page in a physical book but unless the visitor does this action very slowly the page does not want to turn.

A large space was dedicated to the Second World War. Singaporeans suffered terribly during this period and in its aftermath. The school history during this period provides valuable context for understanding their experiences. In the late 1930s there was a lot of fund-raising among the Chinese in Singapore to support those in mainland China as they faced the Japanese. In 1938 students participated in two large anti-Japanese demonstrations in Singapore. The Japanese army was unpopular long before it set foot on the island.

Visitors are told that when the Japanese took over in 1942 they used some schools as torture and interrogation centres. The most prominent example of this was the use of Raffles Girls school as the headquarters of the feared Kempeitai, the Japanese Military Police. Imagine the trauma of young students who had their school transformed into a fearful place where too many Singaporeans were tortured and died. How would they feel returning to school buildings which so recently had been the site of horrendous crimes? This reminded me of the current campaign to stop the targeting of schools during armed conflict. Unfortunately the campaign has had to place a lot of focus on dealing with limiting the damage from attacks which keep coming. Sad.

The invaders implemented an education policy for the ‘Japanisation’ of Singapore, or Syonan-to as they renamed it.  Schools had eighteen months to switch their language of instruction to Japanese. Teachers had to learn the language fast. If they were slow or refused they lost their jobs. Promising students were sent to Japan for further training. I wonder what happened to them?

Food was scarce in Singapore during the war years so school gardens were important. The young children who were in school during those years are in their eighties now. I see elderly people in the streets and think about the horrendous conditions they grew up in.

Both Betty and I had been absorbed in the Second World War exhibit leaving little time to view the post-war sections which are on the floor above. This aspect of Singapore’s education history is fascinating as well. If I get the chance I will try and visit again to view this properly. Betty and I decided to do a quick walk-through of the upper floor so we could gain an appreciation for the broad themes represented.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the exhibition with retired primary school teacher, Betty Wee.

I was fortunate to be able to visit the exhibition with retired primary school teacher, Betty Wee.

Betty started teaching in the mid sixties. She explained how this era of massive industrialisation in Singapore had a significant impact on teachers. “As a teacher every three or four years I was learning new things”, she commented as we walked through the exhibition. Curricular were constantly changing as were the methods of teaching in classrooms.

The exhibition noted that in the sixties there was an emphasis on technical education to meet the needs of the economy. Another important aspect of education policy was ‘social cohesion and harmony’. Serious race riots occurred in the late fifties and the early sixties so it was an important priority of schools to foster better relations between different groups. I reflect back to my upbringing in the seventies. This was during the era when multiculturalism was introduced. Both government policy and my family created an expectation that I make an effort to make friends with students from other cultures. Harmony doesn’t accidentally happen. It has to be actively encouraged.

In Australia the introduction of free, compulsory and secular schooling is always noted as a significant historical development. I didn’t see any exhibit that explained when compulsory education was introduced or discuss the issue of free education. It is possible that this may have been in the section we skimmed through quickly.

If you wish to visit this Centre I suggest that you move quickly through the nineteenth century section and spend most of your time on the early twentieth century, the war years and the post-war years.

The Ministry of Education Heritage Centre is easily accessible from the Commonwealth MRT (train station). If you want to visit it make sure you check their website first for their opening times as during term time it is only open to the public on Fridays. Entry is free.

12 thoughts on “Singapore’s Education History on Display

  1. It sounds fascinating, I wish we had something similar here in Melbourne.
    Re the comment about Malay education predating Raffles: many years ago I had a ‘teacher’s diary’ which had snippets of information on each page. On Jan 26th (Australia Day) it noted that while no provision had been made for the education of the convict children of the First Fleet and that it took some considerable time for schools to be set up for the privileged few – indigenous children had been educated so that they could participate in their society for millennia. Nothing was documented of course, because it didn’t need to be. A chastening thought…


    • There are school museums around Australia but I’m not aware of a museum dedicated to education history more generally. Deakin University in Geelong has a fantastic school textbook collection. Perhaps Geelong could start an education museum?

      You are right about the need to recognise that Aboriginal cultures had a systematic method of educating their children for generations before the Europeans came. I thought that Craig Campbell and Helen Proctor did an excellent job of including Aborigines in A History of Australian Schooling which I reviewed last year. As they note, there is still much work to be done on Aboriginal participation in post-contact schooling.


      • I’ve come across what you might call ‘living museums’ – buildings at places like Sovereign Hill and Flagstaff Hill that are kitted out like pioneer schools and have school artefacts such as inkstands and chalkboards etc. But isn’t it interesting to contrast Asian attitudes to education – as expressed in the existence of the museum – with Australian attitudes. I noticed this in Vietnam too, where there is a Temple of Literature built to honour scholars


      • I agree re Asian attitudes to education. This is why I would have liked to spend longer in the post-colonial section of this museum. The nineteenth century and early twentieth century reflected the British colonial attitudes towards education which were similar throughout the Empire. I would have liked to explore how they incorporated attitudes to harmony in the schools more. The museum is only two train stops from us so maybe I should pop in tomorrow.


      • What’s been so interesting for me about these ‘museums’ posts of yours is to see which museums are promoted as ‘attractions’ and which are not. I’ve been to both Asian civilizations museums twice because I didn’t know where else to go. Not that I’m complaining, they’re the sort of museums you can visit endlessly, but you just wonder about the mindset of the tourist authorities…


      • It is important to keep in mind that the tourism authorities here have to cater for tourists from every culture on the planet. It is very difficult to please everyone with information to suit all tastes. I’ve taken to using Trip Advisor (and posting little reviews there) and the Lonely Planet websites to find attractions in this region that interest me.


      • I haven’t heard about that either. It doesn’t seem to have its own website. I wonder if it is new?

        I also checked out what is happening at the Treasury Building as I saw an exhibition there a couple of years ago. You wouldn’t believe it, the Treasury Building is going to host an exhibition on the history of schooling in Victoria until 1918! It will include Aboriginal education, education of girls etc. It opens in March.


  2. Great to hear what you’re up to, Yvonne. I’m writing a school history at the moment so was interested to read your review.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.