We arrived in Singapore at the start of May 1961. My brother and I were having such a good time that we scarcely noticed that we had missed an entire term of school. It wasn’t until September of that year that we restarted our education. At St. Andrews School, off Woodsville Circus.
I don’t know why St. Andrews was chosen, but I know that it had a good reputation, so I guess it must have been recommended to my parents. I vaguely remember an appointment that we attended, with our parents and a senior person from the school, possibly the headmaster. We were lectured in the ethos of hard work and discipline, and the meaning of the Tennis Racket symbol … Up and On.
The school was quite a long way from Woodlands, and we had the benefit of being transported in a Metal Box vehicle. Sometimes it was a Morris Traveller, but on a good day it would be one of the Bedford vans. I loved riding in these vans, with the doors wide open (no Air Con) and no seat belts. Feeling the wind from an open door was the perfect antidote to the incessant heat. We got to know the Metal Box drivers. Tan Wah Tin and Tan Jun Tek are the two that I remember (there were plenty of Tans in Singapore). There was also a Malay driver, whose name I have forgotten. One day he was asked to keep us occupied for a couple of hours, as my Mother was busy with something. He took us across the causeway to his home in Johore Bahru. It was wonderful; a wooden house on stilts, in a rural village with chickens running about. It was another world. His wife served us Frazer and Neave orange juice, and their children came in and gawked at us.
St. Andrews was an Anglo-Chinese school. In my class I was the only white boy. There were one or two Indians and Malays, but most of the boys were Chinese. I was an ethnic minority, before I had even heard the expression. I was occasionally picked on by an older boy, on account of my race, but the boys in my class were fine. We made friends the way children do at school. My theory is that children are children, the world over, and they are attracted to each other regardless of race.
My recollection of the school in 1961 is that it was a large building set in a semi-rural location. The playing fields were extensive, and the Kallang river formed one boundary. We were warned to stay away of the river, on account of the aggressive crocodiles, which had been known to attack humans. I never went near the river.
There was a canteen where we could buy food at break time for a very modest sum. I think a bowl of noodles was just a few cents. I had other plans for my money. I would make do with a bag of prawn crackers, and I spent everything on tiny plastic soldiers. By the end of term I had enough to recreate the Battle of the Somme in my bedroom. A drink was essential, and I learned to appreciate the delights of 7-Up and F&N out of the fridge. Back in England, refrigeration was still a luxury for the wealthy. And unnecessary most of the time.
We were on the morning shift. In the afternoon, a different set of boys attended. In England we were used to staying at school until mid-afternoon, but there was no school on Saturday. So I guess it balanced out.
The first few minutes of school were intense peer-bonding session. Stamp-collecting was very popular, so we would barter stamps, or other trinkets. We had a young Chinese lady teacher, who took us for all classes except Chinese. I don’t remember much about her. She was both strict and nice, if that is possible.
There was one major understanding, on account of my Yorkshire English being misinterpreted. During a stamp-trading session I got into an argument with a boy who I believed had stolen my 1953 Singapore $1 Coronation stamp. The teacher came to intervene and ask what the problem was. “He pinched me stamp.” I tried to say. But I only got as far as “He pinched me …”. The teacher pinched the other boy on his arm and said “That will teach you to pinch Timothy!”. If I hadn’t been so shocked I would have tried to explain that in Yorkshire “pinch” means steal, whereas “nip” means pinch. Oh well. He was in tears and I never got my stamp back.
The non-Chinese boys were excused Chinese lessons. I think we went to a different room where we were allowed to read.
The big bonus was learning Malay. I’ve forgotten it now, but it was fun. It was taught with picture books, and was not especially difficult. I would have liked to learn some Chinese, but I think that would have been a totally different proposition. Anyway, the Chinese boys had been speaking it all their lives.
As for the rest of the lessons, there was a big problem. We were doing things that I had learned two years earlier in England, and I was scoring 10/10 in every assignment. It seems that children in Singapore started school at a later age than in England. Whatever the explanation, my parents realised that there would have to be a change. There were two choices. Elevation to a higher age-group would have given us more a challenging and suitable level of studies, but we would have been with boys who were two years older. The other option was to put us in a British Services school. And that’s what happened. From January 1962 we attended the Royal Naval School, in the naval base at Sembawang.
I was sorry to leave my new friends at St. Andrews after such a short time, but the naval base was another adventure.
I only have a couple of photos from St. Andrews, showing a rope bridge that was made by the Boy Scouts on the occasion of a fund-raising day. From Google earth, it looks like the main school building still exists, although the field where we played football at break time is now underneath the Pan-Island Expressway. It would be fun to see some pictures of the old place, either from then or now.
This 1967 photo of the big field in St Andrew's is from the National Archives' Picas website.
Related post: Showdown at Woodsville.
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