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Jun 21, 2019

Outram and 30 years after

Outram Secondary School's class of '62 had its first reunion.  YEO TOON JOO, member of that class, looks back on its peculiar situation then.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 10 September 1992]

'The students were caught in the transition from one government to another, when new education policies were still in gestation, and no provision had been made for their continuing education'
- Mr Boon Oon San, a former Outram teacher

One became a fighter pilot, another a World Bank consultant; others became a top civil servant, a newspaper editor, school principals, financial controllers, bankers and successful entrepreneurs.  Two did very well in their GCE A levels and became President's Scholars.

But all were not deemed qualified to enrol for pre-university studies - including those with seven or eight distinctions in their final examinations in Secondary 4.

"I suppose it was because we were guinea pigs in a new education concept," said one of them, now a communications consultant.

The 1962 batch of Outramians had opted to join Outram Secondary School, the Ministry of Education's first commercial secondary school which prepared students for the London Chamber of Commerce Intermediate School Certificate, in 1959.

While their LCCI school certificate was considered good enough for them to teach commercial subjects in the ministry's secondary schools, they were not allowed to sign up for the Senior Cambridge School Certificate (O Level now) without first passing a qualifying test, or repeating Secondary 4 in a grammar school or in the Adult Education Board's night classes.

Said Mr Boon Oon San, an ex-Outram School senior teacher, who later become a sports officer in the Ministry of Social Affairs: "From our understanding, Outram was set up as a commercial school in the mid-50s to feed the business world with people trained in bookkeeping, typewriting, shorthand, commerce and other commercial skills.

"Unfortunately for those students then, the concept was launched by a previous administration during its short term.  Singapore received self-government and a new administration in 1959.

"The students were caught in the transition from one government to another, when new education policies were still in gestation, and no provision had been made for their continuing education.  Many students who had wanted a higher education were left in the lurch."

That was 30 years ago, when those students found themselves at the end of their school career with a school certificate that opened many doors to the commercial world, but proved worthless for higher studies.

The 1962 batch of Outramians will meet for their first reunion next Saturday (12 September 1992) to catch up on the lost years, some spent in the wilderness of finding their true calling, including going back to school to unlearn their commercial studies and find a new tack in the academic field.

One alumnus, Mr Tan Ah Ung, after securing his LCCI school certificate, decided to be a pilot.  He was rejected despite obtaining good passes in the Cambridge and Higher School Certificate examinations, and holding a private pilot licence.

"I was told I had to have at least one science subject, even if it was just General Science," said Mr Tan.

So he went back to night classes again and ended up with a second HSC, in Science.

And he joined the Singapore Air Force as a fighter pilot, a long way from a commercial career envisaged by Outram.  Mr Tan now flies for Singapore Airlines.

Two others - Mr Frankie Tan Leng Cheo, a financial consultant, and Mr Koh Cher Siang, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development - excelled in their Cambridge and A levels, and went on to become President's Scholars.

They pursued tertiary education in totally unrelated fields.  But Mr Tan switched to accountancy after his BA (humanities).

Mr Tan, who obtained his post-graduate diploma in business law at the age of 45, said:  "We were the underdogs.  But though we were not given a foundation in academic subjects, many of us were resilient enough to handle all sorts of subjects - and do well."

Outram is Singapore's second oldest school.  Set up as a primary school in 1906, it was the feeder school for Raffles Institution, Singapore's oldest school.

In the mid-'50s, it introduced Secondary 1 classes, initially in the academic stream and then in commercial studies.

Mr P.T. Hong, principal in an international accounting firm who specialises in corporate restructuring and insolvency, said:  "Like many of my classmates, I signed up for Outram even though I had no clue as to what bookkeeping was.  We had three streams to choose from:  technical, grammer or commercial.

"I had no interest in the first two.  Commerce seemed the best bet as it offered the promise of finding employment more easily with an LCC, and that was important in Singapore then as jobs were scarce."

Human resource consultant and headhunter Lee Siong Kee, who was head prefect, said:  "Because of the training at Outram, we were able to fit into clerical and accounting jobs on day one of employment.

"Outram students established such a good reputation and were so much oin demand that emloyers were contacting the school to 'reserve' its graduates."

School principal A. Rahman Ibrahim, who started working life as a secretary and advance in education through private study and a scholarship, said:  "I have no regrets over having been one of the pioneers.  At that time, there was scope in the commercial sector."

The commercial background came in useful for another alumnus, Mr Safdar A. Husein, when he was studying business administration in London.

"Because I could type, I was paid double the rate of other temping students in summer holiday jobs.  Knowledge of bookkeeping, commerce and typing is very useful in my vocation as a businessman.  But, on hindsight, I would really have liked to be a doctor."

Outram produced a number of other interesting graduates, including former banker Fock Siew Wah, the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation chairman, who belonged to one of the earlier batches of commercially-trained Outramians; Mr Wong Kan Seng, the Minister for Foreign Affairs (1963 batch), and the former MP for Paya Lebar, Mr Philip Tan Tee Yong (1963).

Those who went into accountancy were able to pursue tertiary education abroiad, soe going to Australia where they needed only a year to matriculate.  Most had to repeat Secondary 4 in order to go on to A levels and the then University of Singapore.

At the turn of the '60s, the experiment with LCC was dropped, and the school offered O and A levels, while maintaining its commercial bias.

Today, Outram offers science, arts and commerce for O levels but commerce for A levels.

Fellow Outramian friends to remember

Any fellow Outramians who remember Peter Yeo Toon Joo in this photo taken during his youth? I sought his consent to post his schooldays photo to our Facebook group and I wrote: "Hi Peter, your grandkids in the latest FB profile photo show them taking after good-looking grandfather. Grandchildren resemble grandfather, the best blessing. Peter replied: "Hi James. By all means. Pity though I had lost most of my photos of my youth. This one was actually sent to me my niece." Thank you for sharing your fond memories, Peter. God Bless.

Tan Ah Ung was 2 years my senior in the Junior Red Cross Cadet Unit No. 10.  He is a friendly guy with a witty sense of humour ... fond, unforgettable schooldays memories of our friends of Outram Secondary School at the old school building at Outram Road.



Blogger Yeo Toon Joo, Peter said...

Hi James, thanks for this article. I had forgotten all about it despite authoring and submitting it to the Straits Times. It brings back fond memories. We were a forgotten and underprivileged school and students, neglected by the Ministry of Education. But we are thankful we had many very good teachers such as Mr Boon Oon San, Mrs KS Quah, Mr Poon Tsui Yong, the late Mr Chan Sing Chun, Mr Leong (bookkeeping), and others. Most of us got a job immediately after sitting for our LCCI; We were even headhunted!

June 22, 2019 at 12:12 AM  
Blogger Ung said...

Sorry, I cannot recall your name looking at the photograph of the handsome young man in your blog. However, I squinted and surmise that you must be on the left top back row of the Red Cross group photograph 57 years ago?!

Thank you for your kind words in recalling me in your blog. I wish you and your family well.

June 23, 2019 at 10:36 AM  

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