To sing the cause of ACS forever

Photo credit: Benjamin Lee/ Eyeconic Studios

Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) is expanding into a new mission field.

On 9 Feb, ACS, together with MOE, made a spectacular announcement that it will start a special education (SPED) school. It will be the 5th SPED school in Singapore. No less earth-shaking to the ACS community were the other announcements made alongside: in 2030 ACS (Primary) will move to Tengah, a new heartlands precinct from its current Barker Road campus, and enrol girls as well. ACS (Junior), currently operating at Winstedt Road, will eventually move into the Barker Road site.

Expected or not, reactions from alumni and parents were fast and furious. Petitions were started against the move, and opinions aired included the complaint that stakeholders (alumni, parents, students) had not been consulted. At a 22 Feb townhall with the ACS Board of Governors (BOG) and ACS Old Boys’ Association (ACSOBA), the mood of the 250 or so attendees was reportedly somewhat contentious.1 The Straits Times said in an opinion piece on 25 Feb, “…the resulting unhappiness within the ACS community was left to dominate headlines and social media feeds, deflecting public attention from the pride the move should have generated.”

Undoubtedly, an established and well-loved school moving from its central location to a HDB new town is a huge deal by any reckoning. But policy changes for admission to Primary 1 (P1) have been implemented in recent years by the Ministry of Education (MOE) with the intent to level the playing field for non-alumni. More places are now government-mandated for children whose parents have no affiliation to the school. Going a step further, this year, MOE consolidated the registration phases to a single registration phase for alumni members.2 Hence, the chance of securing a place for a child of an alumni member has diminished, while the same chance has increased for those who live closer to the school. It is also notable that as the current ACS primary schools are located in wealthier enclaves without public housing nearby, it is those non-alumni who can afford to live in these areas who will have an advantage in P1 admissions for their children, compared to other non-alumni.

The move to Tengah will therefore, more likely than not, radically change the profile of ACS students, not to mention the fact that girls will be accepted into what has always been an all-boys primary school. Forgetting that ACS has had girls before and even now, some are concerned that the school’s strong male traditions and culture will be lost with the move. They will not be lost, only altered, for history remains forever. It is true that the familiar feels safe, that growth entails pain, and change is difficult to embrace. But it is too speculative to conclude that a reborn ACS (Primary) will be for the worse.

Adrian Tan, a litigator and ACS old boy, is among those who agreed that the Tengah move is a good idea. He writes on his LinkedIn page, “ACS (Primary) is an outstanding school. It transforms lives. I know because it transformed me… The day I entered its gates, I walked into a world I wouldn’t otherwise have glimpsed from my flat in Commonwealth Close. I was nourished by its wonderful teachers. I formed lifelong friendships with my classmates, and, in absorbing its values, I became a better man. The ACS spirit moved me.”

The gist of his message is that, with the “ACS spirit”, a plebeian can become a king. Many loyal alumni will agree that this intangible spirit cannot be so easily broken, come what may. Aside from the friendships made and values imbibed, the school has fostered in them the notion of giving back to it. Generations of ACS boys have benefitted from the generosity of their predecessors.

However, the school Oldham planted was never meant to be a closed-off, insular community, but one to be nourished, grown, and shared. In Oldham’s own words, it is “For God and Humanity”. Is selflessness not the essence of Christianity?

Trajectory of events: A decade of closed doors

It is important to understand the decisions that have been made in the context of the trajectory of events that has spanned a decade.

It was not for fear of a pushback that stakeholders (alumni, parents and current students) were not consulted beforehand. A select group of the school’s leadership and The Methodist Church in Singapore were in the know, but they were “constrained” to keep the matter confidential as it was market-sensitive. “We wanted to ensure we had views from a cross-section of our stakeholders and so, at an appropriate time that we were afforded, we sought the views of the entire set of our Board of Governors and Old Boys’ Association Management Committee, which is not a small group and is elected to represent the views of the larger ACS family,” Mr Richard Seow, chairperson of the ACS Board of Governors (BOG), said.

For many years, ACS had wanted to start another school. “If you allow us, we would open more schools,” Mr Seow added, detailing at the 22 Feb townhall the repeated rejections by the authorities over the years to allow new ACS schools to be set up.3

Consequently, the BOG decided to focus on starting a SPED school. In 2014, ACS first spoke publicly of its intention to do so. Mr Seow said to The Straits Times then that a special needs pilot programme within the existing ACS schools was in the works, subject to the approval of the Government.4 The plan was to build a “school within a school” so that there would be opportunities to interact daily.

But the road to starting the SPED school was not a smooth one. MOE did not accept ACS’ SPED school proposals three times.

At the same time, the BOG had to consider the future of ACS (Junior) because the URA lease of its site at Winstedt Rd will expire in 2039. Where will it go?

It was during the pandemic that the doors unexpectedly opened. ACS was first offered to move one of its primary schools to a site in Tengah, situated next to a SPED school—but not one that ACS would be managing. As talks progressed, ACS was subsequently invited to run this SPED school in partnership with Methodist Welfare Services. The parcel of land offered at Tengah would enable ACS to house both its primary school and the SPED school. A decade-long prayer was answered at last. MOE’s criteria was that the school must be co-educational in order to support Tengah’s young families. The fact that ACS (Primary) runs the Gifted Education Programme (GEP) sweetened the deal.

“I wish I could tell you how clever we had been to plan all of these moves. But we were not. This is God’s timing and his work,” Mr Seow said at the townhall.

The best is yet to be

The new campus at Tengah will have the hallmarks of Methodist schools, for example, daily devotions and weekly chapel. Having a Methodist church is also on the cards, replicating the model of a Methodist church located at or associated with each Methodist school.

The ACS community should feel proud about this forward-thinking move. It should remember that first and foremost, Bishop Oldham was an educator-missionary who founded the mission school in an old shophouse which is now ACS across six campuses in Singapore alone. Its 137 years of history is a legacy that will remain cherished and dear. We are simply carrying on his work in a new mission field, where more amazing years of history will be written by us and future generations. We imagine Bishop Oldham, dauntless hero to the ACS community, would be proud of what ACS is, and will become. As he wrote in his retirement letter to the Education Department of the Malayan Government, “…may God prosper the Anglo-Chinese Schools and may the future be brighter than the past has been.”5

5 Malaya Tribune, 10 Jan 1935, pg 11.

Lianne Ong is the editor of Methodist Message. She is an alumnus of Methodist Girls’ School and Anglo-Chinese Junior College.