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Standing on the shoulders of giants

SUNDAY, July 23, 2006 was set aside as Methodist Schools Sunday, a day commemorating the work and contribution of schools with a Methodist tradition in Singapore.

Today, 14 schools on our island fly the banner of The Methodist Church in Singapore, each of which can trace its heritage to the pioneering work of many remarkable individuals, among whom are the Rev William Oldham and Miss Sophia Blackmore.

William Oldham was the founder of the first Methodist school in this region, and associated particularly with the establishment of Anglo-Chinese School, Singapore, in 1886. A year later in 1887 Sophia Blackmore, a dedicated and enthusiastic missionary from Australia, started planting the seeds of what were to germinate into the Methodist Girls’ and Fairfield Schools, later expanded to include Paya Lebar and Geylang Methodist Schools. These extraordinary pioneers laboured under strenuous conditions to surmount the barriers of language and culture.

From the very start the Methodist schools, established by our founding giants, sought to distinguish themselves as providers of a well-rounded education. The schools adopted a distinct four-fold mission of developing their students intellectually, morally, physically and spiritually. Whilst stressing the importance of all four aspects of growth, the schools gave pre-eminent emphasis to the religious development of their boys and girls. The Rev (later Bishop) T. R. Doraisamy averred that “… the church should teach the three Rs only in order to have an opportunity to teach the fourth R – religion or the Christian Faith”. Methodist schools in Singapore today have clearly continued in the tradition of focusing on the intellectual, moral, physical and spiritual development of their students. However, the question that confronts us in current times is this: Given the increasingly competitive and challenging educational environment, does Christian education still receive the same degree of emphasis as it did in the early years?

It is easy to argue away the importance of religion in the face of pressing academic demands made on students. Additionally, there are a range of attractive and “relevant” value-added options, such as speech and drama classes or entrepreneurial skills courses. Nevertheless, one should continue to ask, what and where is the place of Christian education within this new educational ethos?

A reason that is sometimes cited for adopting a reticent approach to Christian education is the need to be respectful and considerate of other faiths, a strong and creditable argument, considering that we live in a multiracial society.

However, if we remember, our pioneering leaders also had to contend with the sensitivities of a multi-faith environment. While fervent about their faith, they never forced religious compliance on others and always provided students of other religious persuasions to opt out of attending the weekly chapel services.

I believe it is possible to be unapologetic about our faith and yet be respectful of the religious traditions and choices of students of other faiths.


‘Methodist schools in Singapore today have clearly continued in the tradition of focusing on the intellectual, moral, physical and spiritual development of their students.’

— Mr Benny Bong

What about the push for academic development in Methodist schools? While this is an area that is unlikely to suffer from lack in the Singapore context, it is also a topic that attracts controversy.

What is interesting is that there exists a long and strong tradition in the Methodist schools to be all-inclusive and non-discriminatory in its admission of students.

For example, no child was turned away because of differences in ethnicity, religious background or social status. In fact some of the Methodist schools of yesteryears even reached out to those of lesser academic abilities as attested by an advertisement in 1891 that promised that “special attention [would be] given to dull and backward boys”.

Another shared strength among most of the Methodist schools is a strong belief in the potential of their students. While many old boys or girls may still shudder when they recall how strict some of their teachers were, most would agree that their teachers often appeared severe because they had high expectations of them.

One encounter that holds special significance for me happened when I was in Secondary 4.

On that momentous day, we were asked by a senior teacher of the school if we knew what the purpose of the GCE “O” Level examination was. Since we were from “the afternoon half of the school” we assumed that this was another exercise to separate the sheep from the goats. To our surprise, this teacher in his characteristic sonorous tone filled with Shakespearean veracity, proclaimed: “It is not to see whether you pass or fail …” at which point, we held our breath, “… it is to see how well you pass”.

To appreciate the sheer audacity of this statement, one must understand that my class might be compared to today’s equivalent of the Normal Technical stream. Very few of us felt we stood a chance in this major examination, yet this teacher in his one pronouncement made us believe otherwise.

Finally, another laudable tradition of our Methodist schools lies in its continued conviction that their students must be inspired to reach greater heights. Among the various school mottos, we have “The Best is Yet To Be”, “To Master, Grow and Serve”, “Look Up! Lift Up!”, “Pure and Honest”, “Live Worthily”, “Character, Country, Christ” – the integrity of each of these axiomatic sayings is inevitably etched in the shared consciousness of the students during their 10 years of education, and each motto serves to inspire and motivate them to achieve their fullest potential.

Indeed we desire the kind of passion and imagination anticipated by the great Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, who believed that “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire”.

In remembering Methodist Schools Sunday let us recall the rich legacies that have been handed down to us by our founding fathers. Let us continue the work of the giants of old in order that we may build a good and godly future for our young. – This article is based on a sermon preached at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

Benny Bong, a trained Family and Marital Therapist, is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.