Happenings, News

Saga of Anglo-Chinese College project

The Rev Nagle (left) and Mr Lee Choon Guan, two men who dreamed of turning ACS into Anglo-Chinese College. – Methodist Church Archives picture, courtesy of Ms Alice Nagle, the Rev Nagle’s daughter.

Why forerunner of ACJC did not take off

A LITTLE-KNOWN, but significant aspect of Singapore Methodist history is the saga of the million-dollar Anglo-Chinese College Project. It was a pioneer educational effort which, unfortunately, did not finally come to pass – a forerunner of the Anglo-Chinese Junior College.

Sparse documentation indicates that Bishop James Thoburn first mooted it in a lecture in 1889. It was echoed by two local Chinese businessmen, Messrs Tan Jiak Kim and Lee Cheng Yan, who hoped that Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) would some day blossom “into a College” at a farewell to the Rev William Oldham in November 1889.

However, it was not until the Rev Oldham was Bishop of this area from 1904-1912 that the vision gradually took form which he shared with the Governor. Back in New York as Executive Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions, he helped raise the first $50,000 and was probably instrumental in appointing the Rev J. S. Nagle as Principal of ACS in 1914, to see the project through. A highly motivated person, the Rev Nagle got to work almost immediately, forming the Post-Cambridge Class in 1914 to prepare students for the 1915 London Matriculation Examination as a nucleus of the College.

The project marked time with World War I being fought, but as a last-minute decision, the Malaysia Annual Conference of 1917 appointed a Project Committee to examine its feasibility, while the Rev Nagle’s contacts resulted in Mr Lee Choon Guan promising $50,000, and soon after, Mr Tan Kah Kee the sum of $100,000.
Following this, a deputation by the Bishop and included the Revs W. T. Cherry, W. E. Horley, G. F. Pykett and Nagle, met the Colonial Secretary and the Director of Education on Aug 29, 1917 to seek the Government’s approval. The eventual reply was somewhat ominous – although Government had no objections to opening a College in Singapore, it could not support the project or sanction its granting of degrees since it intended to “inaugurate a system of higher education”.

However, candidates from the Anglo-Chinese College would enjoy equal facilities with all others to qualify for any public degrees that might be instituted and equal opportunities for competing for any public awards.

With this assurance, two other Chinese businessmen, Mr Chan Kang Swi of Malacca pledged $20,000 and 100,000 sq.ft. of land in the “heart of Singapore”, and Mr Tan Wi Yan of Singapore who subscribed $100,000 towards a Chair of Education. This was capped by a generous contribution of 26½ acres adjoining the purchased land at Keppel Harbour.

A new committee appointed by the Conference in February 1918 sought temporary organisation as a society under the Societies Ordinance, and adopted a constitution soon after. It appointed the Rev Nagle as Executive Secretary of the Council and first Principal of the College, and decided to locate the College on one of the hilltops at Keppel Harbour.

At this point the project seemed to lose momentum partly because of a delay in granting it exemption from registration, and partly because the Rev Nagle was heavily involved with the churches as Superintendent of the Mission as well as being Principal of ACS and Editor of the Malaysia Message. Added to this, the economic slump after the war made it difficult to collect the instalments on the pledges, although a gift of $60,000 from a Chinese towkay to purchase a large brick house adjoining the College property was a welcome addition, making a total area of 3½ million sq.ft.

The Mission’s architect of choice, Mr Fritchley, was invited to come to Singapore and drafted preliminary plans of the College in July 1920.

However, Mrs Nagle’s illness required the Rev Nagle to accompany her home, where he stayed a little over two weeks before returning to Singapore. On his return, the fourth meeting of the College Council decided to establish the Faculty of Theology at 10 Pender Road, and to invite the Jean Hamilton Training School to transfer to the College grounds. It was also decided to open the Faculties of Arts and Commerce as soon as funds were available, and to proceed with the levelling of the hilltop.

The prolonged trade depression of the 1920s forced the project “to mark time” as supporters were unable to meet their obligations. Then too, the Rev Nagle returned to America in 1922 on medical grounds.

After being in abeyance for about three years, and with Government’s decision to start Raffles College, the Mission decided to discontinue the project as the donors did not believe there was room for two colleges in Singapore. As a consequence, with the exception of a number of donors who were prepared to transfer their gifts to the new ACS building at Cairnhill, most of the donations totalling about half a million dollars were returned. Thus ended the dreams of a few gallant men who longed to build Anglo-Chinese College.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.