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Mar 13, 2013

The Birth of the Singapore Polytechnic


"The 'POLY' to serve Malaysia"


ALEX JOSEYdescribes the new work being done in technical education in Singapore and outlines the plans for expanding the number of courses and for introducing some post-graduate work.

Technician students of the Department of Engineering carrying out an experiment in electronics.
Destined now to become the technical education centre for Malaysia, later, most likely an Institute of Advanced Technology, Singapore's Polytechnic, conceived in 1951, opened on February 24, 1959, was, in the beginning, an institution planned to prepare students for examinations overseas.

In June that year, the People's Action Party won the general election, and within two months the new Government changed this policy.  Course on general education and stenography were discontinued.  Plans by the previous administration to teach millinery and cooking were scrapped.  Arrangements were made to lay emphasis in future upon technical education.  Local exminations would be set, although no restrictions would be placed upon students taking external examinations.

All this was in accordance with the mandate the new Government received from the people to start upon the task of setting up an industrial base.  This called for technicians, craftsmen, scientists, engineers.  With enthusiasm, the new Board of Governors, under the chairmanship of the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Toh Chin Chye, began to convert the Polytechnic into an institution of technology capable of producing trained and qualified Malayan workers of skill and knowledge.

The Government is also considering schemes to expand the Polytechnic, which will cost the State about $2.6 million in 1963.  Consisting of four Departments (Engineering, Architecture and Building, Accountancy, and Nautical), the Polytechnic has about 2,200 full-time and part-time students.

They are between the ages of 17 and 21, on the average, and they include some 50 Malays and Chinese taking seamanship courses.  It is a matter of surprise to Polytechnic officials that, notwithstanding the constant sight of sea and ships, comparatively few youngsters in Malaya seem to be interested in the sea as a serious career.  Excellent facilities are available at the Polytechnic for those who are.

In all, the Polytechnic employs about 65 full-time academic staff and about 100 part-time lecturers.

Dr. Toh has stressed on several occasions that a large number of technicians and skilled craftsmen will be needed in Singapore if the industrialization programme is to succeed.  At the same time,  the Polytechnic must endeavour to maintain a high academic standard if the diplomas awarded to graduates are to come to be recognized as being worth an honours university degree.

To achiveve a high standard, students must have a good general education to start with.  There are more candidates than places in three of the four Departments, and new applicants are selected on merit.  For the 1963-64 session there were 3,900 applicants, of whom less than one-third were accepted.

In the Engineering Department, which is large and well equipped, a considerable number of courses are held which cover many of the aspects of engineering required for the development of Singapore's industries.  In the professional and technical courses a student is given a good training in the basic theory and practice which is common to all branches of engineering, before being allowed to specialize in electrical power, mechanical, civil or telecommunications engineering.  In the craft courses, enough theory to ensure understanding is given.

Students are given the choice, subject to entrance qualifications, of entering courses in which the emphasis is on either the theoretical or the practical aspect of engineering.  For this purpose, the courses are classified into three groups:  profesional, technician, and craft course.  Only the professional and technician courses are now held at the Polytechnic, the craft courses are now held at the Polytechnic, the craft courses having been transferred to Balestier Road, in another part of the city, now forming the nucleus of a vocational institute.

The professional engineering courses are intended to provide a broad training in the principles in each branch so as to produce graduates destined for the creative, planning, development and eventually managerial positions in engineering industry.

An engineering student doing practical training in precision tool-cutter and grinding machine.
On the other hand, the technician courses are for training operating engineers capable in the solution of the interesting problems of production, maintenance and plant engineering.  Craft courses teach the actual manual skills required for working in the varied processes of engineering practice.

In 1963, some 20 percent of the students in the Department of Accountancy are girls.  The purpose of this department is to help meet Singapore's and Malaysia's need for qualified accountants without whom industrial and commercial development is impossible.

Accountants are required for private practice, for auditing accounts of public companies, and performing other necessary services; and they are also by Government departments and by commercial and industrial concerns to maintain accounting records and prepare financial statements.

Three broad groups of subjects are taught in relation to Singapore and Malaysian conditions.  As in all professional courses at the Polytechnic, final examinations are set and marked in collaboration with external examiners  and successful students are awarded the Professional Diploma in Accountancy, a diploma acknowledged as a hall-mark anywhere.  No longer is it necessary to go abroad to become a qualified accountant.

Student at the Department of Architecture
The aim of the Department of Architecture and Building is to make available courses for students wishing to become professional architects or builders, or technicians in these fields.  Pupil architects are taught all aspects of architectural practice by a staff of practising architects assisted by specialists in building science, structural engineering, soil mechanics, and other related subjects.

The course comprises practical studio work, lectures and demonstrations, including visits to buildings in course of construction.

The building course is designed to give a sound general education in building at an advanced level for those aiming to occupy higher technical and administrative positions in the building industry.  Special emphasis is placed on building-construction, quantity surveying, estimating, building organization and supervision.

Before students can get their Professional Diploma in Architecture or Building, they must have had 12 months practical experience.

The Nautical Department, headed by Captain A.M. Milne, has two main functions: to prepare deck officers for their certificate of competency, and to train marine wireless operators.  Before men can obtain their certificates as Master or Mate they must have had the necessary sea time.

The certificates are of two main types:  Foreign-Going, which can be used for vessels of any size sailing any distance, and Home Trade, which can be used for vessels of any size sailing within certain Home Trade Limits based on Singapore.  The Polytechnic has already turned out a Master and several First Mates.  Courses for Marine sea-going engineers are also conducted.


The radio operators' course is over two years and students are prepared for International Certificates in Wireless Telegraphy.  Short courses are also held when required to train operators for addition, a visual signally section offers instruction nightly, and short courses are also held periodically for deck officers to qualify as radar observers.

The Nautical Department also operates a night school for the benefit of men already employed as seamen.  These students are trained for the Helmsmen Certificate (required for persons manning harbour craft within Singapore's Port Limits), and the Masters and Mates Certificates, for the Local Trade Limits.  These are smaller in extent than those of the Home Trade, but holders can officer vessels up to a thousand tons.  This course is, at present, the only one conducted in Malay at the Polytechnic.

To encourage youngsters, the Nautical Department runs a Junior Section designed to prepare local boys for a career as deck officers in the Merchant Service.  Candidates have to undergo a medical examination and sight test before entry.  At least 50 percent of applicants are rejected because of faulty eyesignt.

Professor A. Robert Edis, formerly a member of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, is the new Principal of the Polytechnic.  He assumed his post in May, 1963,

Dr. Toh Chin Chye, as Chairman of the Board of Governors, believes that the success of the Polytechnic, as a college of advanced technology, will depend a great deal upon the speed with which the institution can co-ordinate Singapore's technical education with the State's industrialization plans.

It is hoped that by 1964 the necessary legislation will be put through to enable the Polytechnic to award its own degress in future.  Meanwhile plans are now being studied to expand the number of courses and to introduce post-graduates work.
 Source:  The Straits Times Annual, 1964

This blog is reproduced from an article written by Alex Josey in The Straits Times Annual for 1964 about the birth of the Singapore Polytechnic.

Singapore Polytechnic was the first polytechnic in Singapore.  Established in 1954, it has provided education and training for about 150,000 skilled personnel to spearhead and man the wide-ranging industries and businesses in Singapore and beyond.

In 1958, completion of Singapore Polytechnic at Prince Edward Road campus with an enrolment of 2,800 students registered for 58 courses to prepare them for external examinations

The Singapore Polytechnic timeline here , and the old building quiz from "Good Morning Yesterday" here .

There is a Chinese saying: "If Heaven made him - earth can find some use for him". “天生我才必有用”。

In the same way, a British gentleman, Stamford Raffles with his foresight and vision, he founded a small island known as Singapore (originally "Singapura") in 1819.  He discovered the strategic geographical location of Singapore to be best suitable for shipping for entrepot trade and business with merchants all over the world.

However, the world became smaller and rapid changes with advanced science and technology over a century later.

Singapore became a global city for industrialisation, tourist attraction, hotels and hospitality industry, an Asian financial hub with international banking for investments via online telecommunication and Internet.

This article written by Alex Josey almost 4 decades ago and the worldview of Sir Stamford Raffles over a century ago is a very different brave new world and generations of Singaporeans today.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jed said...

My Dad, Capt D.C. Mitter was in the Nautical Dept. 1967 - I remember he would bring home hundreds of papers for corrections and would work late into the night. My Mom would tell him to take a break but he wanted to get the papers done so that those students who passed could look for employment quickly.

March 13, 2013 at 6:20 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Thank you for sharing your blog comments, Jed.

Your Dad, Capt D.C. Mitter, your Mom and the lecturers and everyone at Singapore Polytechnic for their dedications and contributions to train the students in the early days. The Technical Poly certificates today, at anytime, is a gateway to employment. With gratitude to them.

March 14, 2013 at 11:01 AM  

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