They don’t build schools like they used to

18 06 2010

I just love old school buildings in Singapore. There are many built by the various missions which still survive in some form like the magnificent building that was my alma mater, now the Singapore Art Museum, and there are the many more that were built at various periods in  Singapore’s history, reflected in the architectural style (or absence of), each with a charm and character of its own. I particularly love the single storey schools, which I suppose were liked by both teachers and students: teachers as there would not be the need to trudge up and down the stairs with the heavy pile of books before and after each class, and students, as it allowed a quick dash to the expansive playing field that were usually found by the clusters of classrooms, or to the tuck shop. One such school was Anthony Road Girls’ School which my mother taught at in the 1960s. She did mention that this was her favourite school for the very reasons that I mention, and for the airy widely spaced classrooms housed in rows of single storey buildings spaced relatively widely apart, providing the classrooms with very generous ventilation.

Anthony Road Girls' School in the 1960s.

During her posting there, I had a few opportunities to accompany her, mostly on the Saturdays when classes were conducted (classes were conducted every other Saturday at one time in Singapore), when I would wait for her in the airy staff room while classes were going on. Walking around the school with her, I always caught the smell of exercise books that somehow always accompanied visits to the schools. What I remember the most was the wonderful field which ran along Clemenceau Avenue where sports days would be conducted.

The dressed up buildings that were once Anthony Road Girls' School.

It’s nice to see that the buildings are still there – although they have been disfigured somewhat for use by the Ascott Group, for what appears to be a training centre. It had previously housed the Chao Yang Special School for special needs pupils, and was before that, the temporary home for St. Margaret’s Primary School while the premises at Mount Sophia were being rebuilt soon after the Girls’ School closed its doors. It would however, really be nice to see it as it was, plain and unassuming, built as a functional and practical solution to solve a growing problem in post war Singapore.

The field and the cluster of single storey buildings gave the old school a certain charm.

The school was one of the first four “emergency” schools that were built in 1950, under the supplementary education scheme launched to provide schools to absorb the growing population of school going age children, who had had no schools to go to. Many had ended up working as juvenile hawkers which was creating a potential social problem and with the realisation of this, the then colonial government put forward the scheme which involved building “emergency” schools and also the training of more teachers to cope with the tens of thousands of school children that the schools were being built to house. The other of these first four schools were Monk’s Hill Boys’ School, and schools at Duchess Road and McNair Road. These days, schools are no longer what they used to be like, simple in form and in execution. It would be good to see some of the old schools such as this one at Anthony Road, kept as they were built to be, as a reminder of how it once was in Singapore.

Roof structures that have been added that overdress the old school buildings. It would be nice to see the buildings in their original form.


The “bright” lights of Prince Edward Road and the Polytechnic by the sea

16 05 2010

There was a time when my parents used to take us, my sister and me, to Mount Faber on quite a regular basis. The excursions were almost always, done in the evenings when it was a lot more pleasant, and would more often than not, culminate in a drive down Keppel Road for  dinner. Then, there were plenty of choices of street food, that seemed to taste a lot better then than it somehow does in the food centres of today. For reasons that have escaped me, my parents avoided going to nearby Chinatown, and Keppel Road seemed an obvious choice, as it was well known for the two dimly lit car parks which would came to life each evening, illuminated by the relatively bright lights of hawker stalls, the bustle of a hungry crowd and the metallic sounds of noodles being violently tossed in the wok. One of these was the car park in front of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, one that we didn’t frequent as much as the one down by the east end of Keppel Road, at the large car park on Prince Edward Road.

Looking down Shenton Way and the former Quays towards Prince Edward Road in the early 1960s. The Singapore Polytechnic buildings can be seen at the top of the photograph (Source:

The car park that hosted the hawker stalls of the early 1970s?

I only have vague memories of where it was exactly, unable perhaps to make very much of the visual picture presented, beyond the distraction provided by the mess of hawker stalls, tables and chairs, seen in the half light that was filtered by the greasy smoke that filled the air with its pungent lard laden aroma. The car park I suppose would be the one opposite the old Singapore Polytechnic campus that we see today, or perhaps not, but what I did remember were the rows of lighted pushcarts from which there would have been a choice of everything the Singaporean hawkers were known to conjure up. There was the tomato ketchup stained mee goreng that I so loved, the starch laden oyster omelette that was a favourite of my father, and the spicy piping hot sup kambing that was my favourite. That was a place that perhaps I took for granted, never for once imagining that it would disappear one day. It did eventually, I don’t quite remember when, and in going the way of the many other street food places, flavour somehow gets lost in the relocation to the sanitised premises of the new food centres which were built to get the hawkers off the streets. Perhaps it was with the sanitary conditions that made the difference, where dish washing would have been done in basins of water next to opened drains into which flowed not just the washing water, but the contents of that were on the plates and bowls on which the drain’s residents would have thought of as a feast.

The Singapore Polytechnic operated at its former premises on Prince Edward Road from 1958 to the mid 1970s (photo courtesy of Mr Ma Yoke Long).

Prince Edward Road then, was also home to the premises of Singapore’s first Polytechnic, the unimaginatively named Singapore Polytechnic. The Polytechnic was established in 1954 with the passing of the Singapore Polytechnic Ordinance and classes began with an initial enrollment of 2800 students when the building was completed in late 1958 (it was officially opened in early 1959). The Polytechnic initially offered 58 different courses to train a pool of technicians for the developing economy of the island and remained at Prince Edward Road until the mid 1970s when it moved in stages to its present campus at Dover Road. The building that housed the Polytechnic still stands today as the Bestway Building, offering us a glimpse of an architectural style that is very typical of the era during which it was built. It was designed by Swan and MacLaren, which has had a hand in designing much of Singapore’s magnificent colonial buildings and civil infrastructure, and remains somewhat forgotten in a little pocket of land that time seems to have forgotten, at odds with the skyscraper infested financial centre that has sprouted up next to it. Whether it and the area around it would stand the test of time that many of the older buildings in the area have yielded to, perhaps only time will tell.

The original Singapore Polytechnic building has a new lease of life as the Bestway Building.

Another view of the building that was once the Singapore Polytechnic.

The premises of the former Singapore Polytechnic is still used as an education centre.

The basketball court of the former premises of the Singapore Polytechnic.

A view of one of the buildings that housed the Singapore Polytechnic.

Another view of the façade.

Saying hello to an old acquaintance

20 04 2010

A grey granite block balanced on a red brick plinth stands on the grounds of the former Anglo Chinese School (ACS) at Coleman Street. Hidden from view even on its perch, the stone and its significance seems to have been well forgotten.

The stone had once occupied a position of greater prominence and one fitting of its intended purpose. Placed along the seaside promenade by Fullerton Road, the stone was unveiled by the late President Yusof Ishak in 1970 as the foundation for a monument to Singapore’s early founders. With its foundation stone laid in the 12 month period during which the 150th anniversary of Raffles’ landing was being commemorated, the monument was to honour the many immigrants whose names and faces we know little of, but whose toil and endeavour contributed as much to the Singapore of modern times.

The foundation stone for a monument intended to honour the early immigrants who contributed much to the development of modern Singapore at its current location outside the lobby of the National Archives.

It was through the numerous walks I made as a child along the same promenade that I became acquainted with the stone. Although I was guilty of ignoring it or passing no more than a cursory glance at it on most occasions, there were times when I would stop to trace the inscriptions on its faces with my fingers, wondering if the promise the words spoke of would ever be fulfilled. The walks became less frequent with the passing of my childhood and with strolls around the area made much less enjoyable with its development, they stopped altogether and forgotten with time was the stone – until I was reminded of its existence quite recently.


I found my old acquaintance just outside the entrance to what is today the National Archives of Singapore – a temporary home since the turn of the century. Sitting in the shadows of the plants it now finds company in, it seems to hide from a Singapore that just like me, has chosen to forget it.  Although it does look none the worse for wear, it looked worn and tired and wears little of the promise with which it was laid – a promise that after forty years remains unfulfilled.

Inscription in Chinese.

When the idea for the monument was mooted by the Alumni International Singapore, it seemed that it would only be a matter of time before $200,000 required to build it would be raised. A temporary site was selected for its forerunner, the foundation stone. Its position at the end of the seafront along which many immigrants would have come ashore was one of significance. However, attempts at finding a suitable design through a competition and to raise the necessary funds, proved unsuccessful. Neither a suitable design was arrived at nor were sufficient funds raised and in time. The Alumni International would make an about turn on the monument and the funds raised were channelled instead into other areas in 1985.

View from the street through the fence of the National Archives.

That the monument was never built and that the foundation stone now lies in relative obscurity, is perhaps a reflection of who we have become as Singaporeans; lacking in the sense of who we really are and also of how we have got to where we are. We now embrace the new, the modern adornments we have decorated our city with, and have discarded much of what connected us with our humble past.

Not all of course has been lost. In what we have held on too we find a glimmer of hope, as the case for the stone may be. What would certainly be good to see is the monument built in time perhaps for the bicentennial in 2019 of modern Singapore’s founding – a milestone that is certainly an opportune time to remember those who came from far and wide to make Singapore what it is today.

Another view of the early founders’ stone from the inside of the National Archives compound.

The stone is located somewhat hidden from view in front of the lobby of the National Archives.

Update (July 2010):

The Foundation Stone was returned to the Collyer Quay area in July 2010, placed outside the Singapore River end of the Fullerton Building.


Its new position as of July 2010, by the Fullerton Building.