Monday, January 14, 2008

School days in 1960s Singapore – one teenage Brit’s experience (Brian Mitchell)

It has been a while since I wrote anything about my days in Singapore as a young UK teenager at RAF Changi in early 1960. I have not written about my experiences at school – partly because John Harper has already dealt with his schooling experiences in more detail that I can remember. But I also can’t recall seeing anything much on Good Morning Yesterday about the school day experiences of Singaporeans of my generation – so perhaps this blog will encourage something more from Spore readers.

I arrived in Singapore from a cold grey London which suffered from dreadful smoky fog - which sometimes led to us being sent home early from school. My London school had been a new state of the art comprehensive (ie non selective) school. I could walk to the school which was only a mile away from my home wearing the traditional school blazer, shirt, tie, v-neck pullover and long flannel trouser uniform.

There could not have been a greater contrast with Changi Grammar School in Singapore. I found myself dressed in a uniform of khaki shorts and white shirt, I was suffering not from smog but from the steamy heat and I was sat not in a modern multi-story building but in an attap hut with chicken wire windows!

I don’t have a picture of the huts with my class but here is a picture of a primary school class in the same row of huts at Changi.

1966 Photo of Changi Junior School by Andrew Barnes Courtesy of Memories of Singapore

And here I am in my school uniform – with the regulation long shorts turned up inside to make them shorter and more fashionable!

Getting to school was the first challenge to me. I had suffered from travel sickness in buses and now I had to travel from the Orchard Estate (my first home) in one of the Gharries – service buses which brought kids to the three schools (Grammar, Secondary Modern and Primary) that occupied a central location in the then RAF base. I remember telling myself on the first day that I would no longer be travel sick – and I never was!

The gharries arrived from the various places in the Changi area occupied by service personnel, dropped us in the central playground – to which they returned at the end of the school day to pick us up. There was one advantage to being in the gharry that arrived first – a quick exit and a run up to the coke machine in the ground floor corridor of the barrack block would get you one of the first cokes of the day. This would often be frozen – and for some reason this was considered as a big treat.

The school day was relatively short – an early morning start and finish at lunchtime Monday to Saturday, although there were sport and other activities on two afternoons each week. We followed the UK curriculum of course – most of us were there for only two and a half years and had to fit back into the UK exam system on our return. Our teachers were, I think, in post for a longer period of at least five years. So by the time you left the school to return to the UK virtually everyone in your class would have arrived after you!

Although I found myself based first in the attap hut, most of the school occupied a couple of barrack blocks, three storey buildings with a corridor around the outside of the building onto which the classrooms opened – windowless and without air conditioning of course. So after a couple of terms in the attap hut I moved into the barrack blocks.

The barrack blocks are still there in Changi, now occupied (and no doubt much updated) for use by the SAF. John Harper took a photo on his recent trip – although the blocks now look much changed but there was evidence of other old school buildings.

Did I enjoy the Changi school experience? To be honest I don’t recall benefiting very much from the education! Being in Singapore was an overwhelming experience, there were too many distractions and too much to see and do as soon as school was over – things I have written about in other blog pieces.

Reading Chun See’s blog and visiting sites like Memories of Singapore has made me acutely aware of one thing – I knew nothing about other British Schools let alone schools for Singapore’s own population. What sort of school day did you Singaporeans experience? I recall hearing about schools operating a shift system to accommodate the growing numbers of school-children, was that true? And what sort of buildings did you have – and was there air conditioning in schools, then or now?

Brian Mitchell
Both my elder brother Chun Chew (Zen) and myself have written about our school days. You can read our stories here.


Lam Chun See said...

Brian. Thank you very much for sharing this information with us. This is something very few Singaporeans, even of the older generation, know about.

JollyGreenP said...

Brian, I remember the attap classrooms well. They were built to house the post war baby boom kids. When I first arrived in Changi I was in the primary school year before the one for the 11+ exam and we were housed in the barrack block building in the photo. Our classroom was on the first floor (or the second level for Sinagporeans)at the right hand end of the building as you view the photo. Whilst we were in there the attap buildings were being constructed and we duly moved into them at the start of the following school year which was the year we took our 11+ eaxams. Our form teacher was Mr Kent who drove us hard with homework and daily tests to get us ready for the eaxm. Before we moved into the classrooms my own feeling was that we were being treated as second calss members of the school but that opinion soon faded as we began to enjoy being a little different and marching up past the CE Church after assembly each morning to our open airy classrooms. Heavy rain was not a problem as it ran off the attap easily and did not come through and wet everything as we had been expecting. The problem was that there was sometimes a fine spray would drift in through the window openings when it rained heavily.

Before leaving England I had been marked down as a no-hoper for the 11+ because were service people in a civilian school. Thanks to the hard driving and coaching from Mr Kent I passed the 11+ exam. We also took the Scottish equivalent as well, The Moray House exam and I passed that as well.

Happy memories.

Anonymous said...

Long shorts for the school uniform. My question:

1. Was it mandatory to wear almost to the knee type of shorts?

2. Was that imposed by the school regulations or your father?

3. Did u permanently sew it inside?

Lam Chun See said...

Brian. In answer to your question about what schools in Spore were like, I recommend you this article which has lots of photos of one school in the sixties. If you read my article about the Mattar East Primary School that my sister taught in, that was one of the new generation schools built in the sixties. Today, some of these schools buildings are still around, but they are often given over to welfare homes. An example is the one at Princess Elizabeth Estate which Chuck blogged about. I think Victor has also blogged about his primary school here.

But in the rural areas, some schools were private (Chinese) schools which were very tiny - just like a big house perhaps. In fact, along Braddell Road, I have seen a wayang stage double as a school. You can see a b/w photo here.

Anonymous said...

As always thanks Chun See and others for comments and also for pointing out the other articles - they prove what I feared that everyone else can remember a lot more about their school than I can! I put this down to lack of attention!

On those shorts - I am sure there was some sort of regulation length but it was probably not laid down in rules simply established by the manufacturers. Every day I left home with my shorts in 'regulation' length and my first task as I walked to the shops near Upper Changi Road to catch the school gharry was to turn up my shorts inside - so no they were not sewn up and were no doubt turned back down before I got home!

Next to the school was (and still is) an open green area which we used for sports - it also was used for golf practice by a very famous Singaporean. I will tell you the answer later but any guesses?

katherine said...

I remember while walking home from school I would often see a school bus with caucasian kids (very rowdy) and some of them whom were at the rear would throw stuff at me. I got mad and would arm myself with stones ready to throw back. I lived in Changi area in Jalan Chempaka Kuning and the year was either 1972 or 1973.

I now live in California and always remember the good old days then.

Anonymous said...


I guess it was your father's regulations that your shorts reached the knee and you had to turn it inside. I thot I was the only one but at least I am not alone. On reason the old folks gave was the school material would easily shrink after washing; so therefore it was prudent to purchase somehting long enough before they shrink.

Lee Kuan Yew was the one who hroned his golfing skills at the Changi Golf Club. I recetnly read in the newspapers that Lee said it was certainly not an effective way to lose weight. He suggested brisk walking and running.

Katherine - You live in Jalan Chempaka Kuning? The old place is still the same like in the 70s except the playground has been upugraded. A lot of ang-mos lived ion that place from the RAF Chnagi. Would you like to get in touch with me? Send your email to Chun See.

I just wonder why they didnt allow bermudas for the late 50s/early 60s school uniform. Today wearing bermudas around is so cool.

chuck said...

Hi Brian,
I am really suprised to read that your classrooms are made of attap. Frankly, I have never been or seen one. Are there many mosquitoes or bed bugs hidden in your school? Bed bugs are common in my primary school - Princess Elizabeth. They hid under the chip board chairs and had a great time sucking blood form our thighs. We get back at them by banging the chairs and you can see full bloodied bed bugs scrambling around...

Anonymous said...

Well done Peter - yes of course it was Lee Kuan Yew who I saw a couple of times whilst out on the sports field. I think he had a house on the north coast of the island in Changi (maybe there is an official residence?) as when I stayed for some weeks with our family friends the Taskers I was told he was the neighbour!

Chuck - I recall no bed bugs, in fact the only time I ever saw or suffered from them was in 1967 in my second year at University in Sheffield here in the UK. Spore had plenty of other creepy crawlies (Cockroaches being my least favourite) but those attap huts were OK from that point of view.


Lam Chun See said...

Brian. I think the biggest danger of staying in attap huts are not crockcroaches. Although I never lived in an attap house before, many of my neighbours from my kampong did. Th biggest danger I think is centipedes. They like damp, dark places and decaying vegetation.

Zen said...

Brian -
Thanks for your story elaborating on yourbearly school days in Singapore which is very refreshing for us from a very different perspective, though many years have gone by. I find it quite amusing to see an attap hut in the midst of concert school buildings, but on second thought it is only natural. Remembering that Singapore is a tropic island situated one degree north of the equator, an attap hut was quite a natural choice to beat the shearing heat, only with a distinct disadvantage of having centipedes as recalled by Chun See. My mother was once bitten by one and I can say that it was a very painful and awful experience. She was treated by a doctor in a remote private clinic situated at least ten miles away. All in all, I find your story very enlightening.

Anonymous said...


thankyou. Whilst I missed out spotting the centepides in the attap hut my time in Spore was enlivened by insects, snakes, lizards etc. I well recall sitting in bed reading one night and eventually brushing my hand over my head (which had curly springy hair on it then) and finding a very large preying mantis had been sitting on top of my head for who knows how long!

Lam Chun See said...

I have heard of 'bookworms' before, but this is the first time I read of a book-reading preying mantis.

Anonymous said...

I remember in the early seventies while visiting my mother-in-law in a kampong at Plantation Avenue I heard a commotion at her neighbour house. On investigating further we found out that a huge python was all this while residing in her neighbour's store-room piled with an assortment of rubbish. Living in a kampong good house-keeping was of utmost importance, otherwise the house would turn into a mini zoo.

Anonymous said...

How come in the 60's there are still attap schools in Singapore ?

Anonymous said...

I believe that in rural singapore, there were many vernacular schools such as Chinese and Malay schools. So being in the village the school got to blend in with the prevailing landscape.

Tom said...

Tom said...
Jollygreenp you said you passed the Muray house exsam, there use to be a school called the Muray house school in Edinburgh may be thats were the exsam came from?, you had to pass an exsam to to get into that school.

Lam Chun See said...

I think the reason why there were attap schools and 'wayang stage' schools in the early sixties is very simple. Spore still very poor then. These 'poor schools' were very likely private schools not funded by govt. Probably built pre-independence days.

As to why the British military used attap buildings, that is a mystery to me; maybe for the novelty of it. As we know, they were comparatively rich. In fact, the British forces provided a lot of employment and business to Spore in those days. That's why, when the Heath govt (??) decided to pull out their forces, it caused a great deal of concern to our new govt. I think all that is in the history bookds.

Lam Chun See said...

If you look at the 'new generation' schools built post-indepence, like the Mattar East school which I blogged about earlier, they were very simple affairs. Very much like our 1st generation HDB flats. You can still see some of them around; but mostly serving as temporary holding schools whilst new schools are being built. A good example is the one at the junction of Queenway and Commonwealth Ave (facing Margaret Drive)

Anonymous said...

Chun See is correct to point out that in early sixties, the ruling party had just took over the internal government and was rather austere in spending, particularly for building schools, with defence and foreign policy still being administered by the colonial government. In fact there was a time when the government implemented a salary cut on the civil service staff causing a hue and cry and it was eventually restored much to the satisfaction all round.

JollyGreenP said...

The reasons the British Military built the attap classrooms rather than something more permanent were :-
1. The post war baby bulge was a temporary phenomenen and the birth rate dipped after the initial bulge.

2. Only temporary accomodation was needed to accomodate the bulge.

3. Britain was heavily in debt to the USA after WWII (that debt was only finally paid off last year!).

These factors led to a cheap and cheerful solution that was known would not be permanent and lasting.

The build quality was of course done to a high standard and lessons in the attap huts were a pleasure. I am not sure whether that helped me towards passing my 11+ or not but it certainly didn't have any deleterious effects.

Anonymous said...


Can u provide more information about Britain's debt to the US which was finally paid off last year? Where can I read more about it?

I also understand that the island of Diego Garcia (it had a different name then) was formerly a British naval station in the Indian Ocean and was leased to the Americans in the 1970s for 99 years because Britain faced a major financial crisis.

Anonymous said...

JollyP rightfully pointed out that the British Govt was heavily in debt especially to the US during the post war period. My father who worked in the British Naval Base related to me that even repainting of warships in the docks were curtailed for lack of available fund.

JollyGreenP said...

try this link on the BBC News site for details of WWII
debt to US and Canada



Anonymous said...

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, PM Churchill was practically 'jumping with joy', in contrast Adm.Yamamoto lamented that: "Japan has waken the sleeping tiger."
This is why UK and Europe are indebted to the US up to this very day. Wonder why Britain support US in the present Iraq war?

Anonymous said...

Hi Brian, thanks for your interesting recollections. I too was in Singapore - I attended Changi Junior School 1965-1967 and then Changi Grammar from 1967-1968.

However, it might be age but I'm extremely confused! The Changi Grammar you describe is nothing like the one I attended. We didn't have attap huts and we certainly didn't describe the buildings as 'barrack blocks'.

Also, the photo you put up is nothing like my Changi Grammar.

I can only suppose that between 1960, when you attended, and 1967 the school changed premises.

This is a link to a great website (sadly no longer updated) which includes photos:

You can see that the buildings are very different.

Here is a link to the exact location of the school which is still there and unchanged to this day:

As you'll see, the site is owned by CPG Consultants and not the SAF.

The buildings in your photo remind me of those which surrounded Changi Junior School, so perhaps the Grammar School was alongside the Junior School when you were there? We certainly had attap huts at the Junior School.

To Lam Chun See and Peter Chan: sorry to have lost contact with you both last year. I'm now back and determined to put my 'memoirs' online for you this year! I'll be in touch by email.

Best regards, Tony Boyle

Anonymous said...

POint of clarification.

Changi Grammar (or what was the old school of the 1950s) is now a part of the SAF Changi Air Base East. The Changi School which Tom described as owned by CPG was a building built for the mid-60s after the original buildings were turned over to the RAF. So we are talking of different eras.

Even after the RAF left in 1971, the buildings "changed hands" many times, sometimes and some parts belonged to different units of the SAF (army and air force). And within the army different arms.

Anonymous said...

Points of clarification.

Changi Grammar (or what was the old school of the 1950s) is now a part of the SAF Changi Air Base East. The Changi School which Tom described as owned by CPG was a building built during the mid-60s after the original buildings were turned over to the RAF (almost during the era of the Indonesian Confrontation when more elements of the RAF from the UK were flown into Singapore). So we are talking of different eras.

Even after the RAF left in 1971, the buildings "changed hands" many times, sometimes and some parts belonged to different units of the SAF (army and air force). And within the army different arms.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for the clarification! I didn't realise when I attended Changi Grammar in 1967 that the buildings were so new.

Lam Chun See said...

Hi Tony. Nice to hear from you again. Looking forward to your stories about the old Spore that you knew. Did you say, you remember the Katong area. You may like to check up some stories by my friend Laokokok.

I will post some pictures of the two places you guys are discussing shortly in a new post.

Anonymous said...

I took a second look at the attap hut in Brian's photo and found that the construction was of quite a high standard compared to the ordinary attap houses in the kampong which were normally built in a disorderly way and quite dark inside. The edge was well trimmed and the roof top was lined with steel sheeting. Do not under-rate this humble dwelling. I do not think the construction cost was cheap.

Anonymous said...

My mistake:

It should be Changi Air Base West (not Changi Air Base East)where Brian studied. Changi Air Base East is at the new military air strips that runs parallel to Runway 02C

Anonymous said...

I had missed a few days and all these useful comments. Yes of course the then Changi RAF camp was to the west of the village and the new base and new runways are all land reclamation which has extended the original island by quite a bit. I noted in the background of the photo of myself that the building is indeed an attap hut but of rather superior quality and looks quite new so they were indeed used quite a lot it seems.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, mine names Paul Burgess, from England, and I just found this site while surfing for Changi Junior School. My father was in the RAF, and like so many others we arrived from a cold, grey wet English winter to a burning hot amazingly different Singapore of 1967.
First place we stayed was a hotel on the Bedok Road, forget the name, but we soon moved to a house on the East Coast Road.
That was where I started attending Changi Junior school.

After a few months we moved to the place we were to stay for the next two years: 44 Jalan Limau Bali, which is nearby Tanah mera MRT station now.

I then started at Changi primary school, in Atap huts, schooled by a Miss Hurst, if I remember correctly. I also recall the fleets of gharries we used to get to school. And a school play, where I danced to 'Lord of the Dance' on the stage in front of a million people.

It was a magical time for a young kid, and my three sisters and me had a great time tromping through the jungles, making friends with the local kids in the kampung, playing in the huge quarry that was a short way from our house.

In 1970 we were posted back to the cold and grey UK, and things were never quite the same again. I didn't like it, I didn't fit in, the other kids seemed so dead end and lifeless, interested only in football and fighting, and it depressed me, even though I was still just a kid.

Some 20 years later I made the trek back to Singapore, on a backpacking trip round the world. I was gob smacked how much it had changed! Instead of dusty roads and jungle, it was all concrete and high rise flats, a totally different world from that remembered by the seven year old boy I had been. I soon moved on to other countries, but a year later I was back in Singapore looking for work, as my money had run out. I spent two years working in a sailing boat yard in Loyang Offshore Supply base, and I lived in a house in Toh Avenue, and eventually found some of the Singapore I'd left behind 20 years before, old colonial housing and some roads and remnants of buildings around the Changi Village area.

For the next ten years I passed through Singapore on a fairly regular basis as I had found a job in the oil and gas industry, but I haven't been back now for some six years. I still remember the Singapore of my childhood though.

I hope this might be of interest to somebody who remembers Singapore in the Sixties.
Cheers, Paul

Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul! Very interesting.

I was at Changi Junior from 1965-67, so I just missed you. I moved on to Changi Grammar before returning home in autumn 1968. I too remember the depressing feeling of being back in the UK and not fitting in. Nobody understood the huge adventure I, and others like me, had been on so it was difficult to find common ground. Plus the fact that it was absolutely freezing weather!

I'm glad you found work back in Singapore as an adult. I haven't been back since 1968 so my culture shock when I return will be enormous! I hope to return within the next two years and I'm very much looking forward to it.

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks Paul, Tony for sharing your memories.

Tony. I think 'shock' could be an understatement for you. Even for us locals, sometimes, when we have not been to a place for one or two years, we get a shock at the change.

Anonymous said...

would u like to send your email addrr to Lam Chun See? Like to follow up with you. The hotel you mentioned on Bedok Road was more like a hostel. Did it face the sea then or the road and the sea beyond the road? There are 2 places that fit your description.

Jalan Limau Bali, just near where I live. will see the place for changes.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm here again, my e mail is pburgess68 'at' if anybody wants to drop me a line or if anybody remembers me from 40 years ago. Good grief, is it really that long??

The hotel on Bedok road, well, long time ago, but I recall you could see what looked like a swimming pool, separated from the sea, but I'm pretty vague on that front.

About the only names I remember from those days were of Geoffrey and Andrew Cowell (SP?) two brothers, who lived opposite us in Jalan Limau Bali. And another guy called Shaun who lived down the road.

There was a store we called 'the little mans shop' on the opposite corner of the road. Even at the age of seven or eight we'd go there and buy fireworks and matches and go play in the big quarry.

While we were living there they built a huge temple on the main road, (was it the old East Coast Road?) where we turned off it, and up the hill to get to our place. It only seemed to take a few weeks and it was finished, all vivid greens, reds and blues, paintings and ornaments. It was still there in 1990 when I walked down that way, taking pictures of our old house. 44 was still there, looking very nice, but now had a couple of additions, some air-con etc. I also noticed the road looked a lot narrower than it did when I was a young boy.

The jungle has largely gone, replaced with housing, and the huge quarry that we explored so many times, taking day-long treks to the other side, has been built all over.

And Brian, I too remember the Coke machine in Changi primary school, small bottle of ice cold Coke for a mere 20c coin.

And I recall the card games we played, flicking cards to knock down little rows of other cards leaned against the walls, to win them. And there was a craze for marbles too, while I was at the school. Marbles were available in 3 sizes too.

I recall school finished at lunchtime on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, but Monday and Tuesday was a full day.

Happy memories indeed. I'll have to search out some photos my parents took when were over there. I'm working offshore in the Gulf of Mexico at the moment, so no chance to look them up for a few more weeks yet.

Cheers, Paul

perry gamsby said...

I was at Changi Infants in 1968 from June on, then to the Primary school. I recall the colour of the the girls checked dresses went from pink to blue as they moved from infants to primary. I was in the attap classrooms, I recall one teacher was a Miss Vaughan and a classmate, Penelope Duff-Dixon.
We lived in Telok Kurau Rd near Bedok Corner, then moved to Katong. The Gharries took us past Changi Gaol everyday and the Grammar school (new, not barrack blocks).

Who remembers swimming at the China Sea CLub or the Britannia Club in town near Raffles? Like Pau, I returned to the UK in November of 1970 and found hte kids only interested in football or fighting. I never saw a single fight at Changi, just kids wandering around arm in arm and playing with the 'shy ladies' plants, watching the mynah birds, getting ice creams from the motorbike vendor and those ice cold cokes.I was in the Cub Scouts, Dayak Pack and played King Herrod in the Christmas Play one year, my crown fell off in front of those same millions of people. My sister and I used to go to the cinema most saturdays for the matinee. Eating out at the maccan stalls and having satays... great times. I have lived elsewhere in SE Asia for some years since then, mostly Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines. I would like to return to Singapore but.... Some things might be best left as memories. One more thing, who remembers those bamboo pipe bombs with the red flags the RAF Police warned us not to pick up? Cheers Perry Gamsby
Son of Cpl George Gamsby FEAF Band.

Unknown said...

I lived in Singapore in the early 50's and we left to go back to the UK in 1958. I was just curious if there were any photo's floating around from those days. I remember practically every day that I was there during that time. I learn't quite a lot from Koa a Cho who was our servant. 73 Medway Drive Serengoon Park this is where we lived. If I find any photo's is this the place to put them? I was three years old when we arrived in Singapore.

Unknown said...

My father was 'Acting C.P.O. on board HMS Amethyst and first to be wounded as he was at the helm when it was attacked by the P.L.A. April 1949. It was called The Yangtse Incident. I put together a small yahoo group called the friends of the four ships.

Brian and Tess said...

Steven, there are many photos from the 50s and 60s on the Memories of Singapore site - there is a link under the list of Fellow Nostalgia/Heritage bloggers on the right hand side of this blog. You could upload any photos there.

Unknown said...

Greetings sir!

I really like your blog as it teaches me about the past and your vivid language really captures my attention. Hope you would continue inspiring minds!!! But in the meanwhile, I hope you would like to share more about your school days! Ah weren't those your happiest days of your life?

How long was your school hours?
Right now I am in my school for at least 7 hours each day! Was school that long in the past too? Or was it longer?


radicalj said...

Hello Brian
My family (Masters) knew your family well. Your Mum and my Mum were great friends and I still have a picture of them together standing on the beach by the Officers Club. Carol and I were great friends too. I remember when your Mum had to return to England for cancer treatment and when she sadly died. My Mum, too died from breast cancer. I recognised your picture straight away!

Jill Armstead (Masters)

Anonymous said...

Anyone remember Rev Philip Schofield and his ventriloquist dummy Jimmie

Anonymous said...

hi my name is yvonne wright(rooney) i was born in singapore spent most of my young life have many happy mamory chitchats playing in th monsoon me and my brothet steven were at changi infants and juniors in early 70s we wer in the atap huts do you remember headmaster mr willis im going back to singapore soon

kevin paul newman said...

wonder if anyone on here can help me .my name is kevin paul newman I was in Singapore for three years but lost my school reports I know I was in three schools last one being changhi school I was born in 63 went out 67 came back to uk 71 I still have my signed shirt from changhi school but don't know if anyone from my class will remember me I currently live in Portsmouth and now a few people in my town who were also in Singapore at that time but trying to find out the year I was at changhi school so I can check lists on the other site of classes