Vernacular education

In Singapore, vernacular education refers to education conducted in the native languages of the main resident communities, namely Malay, Chinese and Tamil. From the early 19thto the mid-20th centuries, formal vernacular education was started by philanthropists, clan associations and missionary groups with limited assistance from the British colonial government. After Singapore gained independence in 1965, enrolment in vernacular schools began to dwindle as more parents chose to send their children to English-medium schools. Tamil schools had disappeared by the 1970s, followed by Malay and Chinese schools in the 1980s. By 1987, all Singapore schools taught English as a first language, although mother tongue languages are still included in the curriculum as part of the government’s bilingual policy.

Colonial period
In the early 19th century, education in Singapore was limited to Koran classes and Chinese writing schools.1 Children were also taught by way of apprenticeship to their parents or others who could teach them various arts and craft.2

In 1823, Stamford Raffles planned for the establishment of an institution in Singapore “for the cultivation of the languages of China, Siam and the Malayan Archipelago and the improvement of the moral and intellectual condition of the inhabitants of those countries”.3 The school was to include studies in English, Chinese, Malay and Siamese to educate, firstly, local leaders and public servants, and then all the people of Singapore.4 Although funds were raised and land was set aside for its establishment, the institution, as conceived by Raffles, did not materialise.5
The first formal school to be established on the island was the Singapore Free School, which was founded in 1834 by Reverend R. J. Darrah. This school was to consist of a central English school and elementary-level vernacular schools.6 Although the school ran vernacular departments in Malay, Chinese and Tamil, these classes were short-lived.7 The Free School subsequently became known as the Singapore Institution Free School and later, Raffles Institution.8

For most of the 19th century, the colonial government showed a general lack of interest in promoting education. Its limited involvement came in the form of financial support for Malay schools and giving small grants to English schools.9 Other than the English schools, funding was provided only for Malay education as the British regarded the Malay language as the vernacular of Singapore.10

Malay schools
The first formal Malay class was started in August 1834 at the Singapore Free School with an initial cohort of 12 Malay boys. The school’s Malay department eventually closed down in 1842 due to a lack of interest and some prejudice among the Malays towards foreign teachers. Following the department’s closure, little was done by the colonial authorities to promote Malay education until 1856 when two Malay day schools were established at Telok Blangah and Kampong Glam.11 Although both schools lacked books, school equipment and qualified teachers, the school in Telok Blangah produced better results due to the patronage of the sultan of Johor.12

In 1872, A. M. Skinner was made Inspector of Schools of the Straits Settlements (which Singapore was then a part of, along with Malacca and Penang). Although Skinner considered Malay schools as subsidiaries of English schools, he nevertheless saw the need to expand Malay education.13 Skinner established the Malay High School at Telok Blangah in 1876. However, the high school project did not last long because the colonial government subsequently converted the school into the Malay Teachers’ College in 1878 to meet the growing demand for Malay teachers. This college produced the first formally trained Malay teachers in Singapore and Malaya.14

In 1893, the Isemonger Committee, led by then colonial treasurer E. E. Isemonger, was formed to examine the system of Malay schools in the Straits Settlements. The committee’s report noted that the number of Malay schools had increased from 16 in 1872 to 189 in 1892.15 Despite the growth in numbers, 22 Malay schools and the Malay Teachers’ College closed down in 1895 due to low student enrolment.16

When R. O. Winstedt became the assistant director of education of the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States in 1916, he made substantial changes to the Malay school curriculum. Under the new curriculum, arts and craft were given more prominence. Accordingly, subjects such as gardening, sewing and basketry were introduced to cater to the needs of the rural communities in the Malay states.17 In 1919, the government allowed Malay boys in Singapore who had passed Standard III (Primary Three) to transfer to English schools.18

Chinese schools
Chinese schools were reported to have been in existence in Singapore from as early as the 1820s.19 Established by wealthy Chinese businessmen, clan associations and Christian missionaries, most of these schools adopted a classical Chinese curriculum similar to what was taught in China. Students were also taught letter-writing skills and the use of the abacus. The exception was the missionary schools, where the focus was on teaching the Christian doctrine and gaining student converts.20

When China adopted a modern system of education modelled along Japanese lines at the turn of the 20th century, schools based on such a system emerged in Singapore.21 Between 1900 and 1919, the number of modern Chinese schools in Singapore grew rapidly. Tuan Mong, Tao Nan and Ai Tong schools were all established during this period. In 1919, the first Chinese-medium high school – The Chinese High School (now part of Hwa Chong Institution) – was established.22

In these modern schools, Mandarin replaced Chinese dialects as the medium of instruction.23 They followed the curriculum taught in China and included subjects such as arithmetic, science, history and geography. Most teachers in these schools were also from China. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese schools became hotbeds of patriotism and Chinese nationalism.24

In 1919, the politicised Chinese students and teachers participated in anti-Japanese activities. In response, the colonial government sought to increase control over the Chinese schools through the Education Ordinance introduced in 1920. The ordinance was a law that required the registration of all private schools, their managers and teachers. The ordinance also gave the government power to make and enforce regulations relating to the conduct of school staff and students and to declare a school unlawful if it was found to be engaged in revolutionary activities. In 1923, the government began giving grants-in-aid to Chinese schools as an additional means of exerting control over these schools.25 Despite these efforts, the Chinese schools continued to be politically active and were strongly influenced by events occurring in China.26

Tamil schools
Formal Tamil education for children in Singapore began at the Singapore Free School with a class of 18 pupils in 1834. The class did not survive long due to various reasons, including lack of teachers and the apathy of parents and students towards Tamil education. The class permanently closed down in 1838.27

Subsequently, the colonial government and Christian missions also attempted to start Tamil schools. These schools struggled to survive due to various challenges such as the small Tamil-speaking population as well as a lack of suitable teachers and premises. In 1920, the only Tamil school registered in Singapore was the Missions Estate School established by the Methodist Mission in 1913. By 1941, there were, however, 18 registered Tamil schools with an enrolment of nearly 1,000 students.28

Just before the outbreak of World War II, there were 5,800 students enrolled in Malay schools, 38,000 in Chinese schools, and 1,000 in Tamil schools.29

Japanese Occupation (1942–45)
Most Malay and Tamil schools continued to operate during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, though with lower enrolment numbers compared to just before the war.30 Some Chinese schools remained open, but attendance at these schools was drastically lower than before. In 1943, there were 4,572 students attending Malay schools, 787 attending Indian or Tamil schools, and approximately 3,000 attending Chinese schools.31

Postwar developments
Reforming vernacular education

In 1946, the government introduced a 10-year plan for education in the colony that aimed to provide six years of free primary education in a language medium of the parents’ choice – English, Malay, Chinese or Tamil.32 The plan also pledged financial support for vernacular schools.33 However, the plan had not borne fruit by 1955 and vernacular schools demanded changes to the education system.34

In response to unrest among Chinese students, an all-party committee of the Legislative Assembly was formed in May 1955 to investigate and make recommendations regarding Chinese education in Singapore.35 The committee recommended equal treatment of all schools (English and vernacular), and called for vernacular schools to be eventually integrated into the general education system, which would ideally feature bilingualism at the primary level and trilingualism at the secondary level.36 These recommendations were incorporated into the Education Ordinance that was passed in 1957.37

In 1958, the first Chinese-medium tertiary institution outside China – Nanyang University – was officially opened. The university aimed to provide higher education for Chinese-stream high school graduates as well as train high school teachers.38

Emphasis on Malay language
When the People’s Action Party (PAP) formed the government in 1959, Malay was declared the national language and the government increased opportunities for students and adults to learn the language. This policy was adopted mainly to increase the chances of merger with Malaya.39 When Singapore left the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, there was a diminished interest in the Malay language and English was accepted as the de facto working language of the country.40

Another policy thrust of the government was integration through the creation of integrated schools where students from two or more language streams would study in the same school under one principal. The aim of this policy was to foster better understanding between students of the different language streams through sports and extra-curricular activities.41

The integration scheme began in 1960 with two schools, Bukit Panjang High School and Serangoon Garden High School, each enrolling 1,200 students – half from the Chinese stream and half from the English stream. By 1970, there were 106 integrated schools out of 526 schools in Singapore. These 106 schools had a combined enrolment of 166,000 out of a student population of 514,000.42

While bilingualism was encouraged in schools, learning a second language was at the time still regarded as optional due to emphasis being placed on other examinable subjects in the curriculum. In 1960, the government made the study of a second language compulsory for all primary schools,43 and this was rolled out at the secondary level in 1966.44 Subsequently, efforts were made to increase student exposure to a second language by using the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in selected subjects. For example, in 1974, the government announced that a new primary school subject, Education for Living, would be taught in the mother tongue.45

End of vernacular schools
Tamil schools

Tamil education underwent a short period of rejuvenation in the 1960s when Tamil schools became fully aided by the government. Enrolment increased and the first government-aided Tamil secondary school, Umar Pulavar Tamil Secondary School, was opened. Believed to have started in 1946, the school received government aid for its new building completed in 1960.46 But by 1971, there were reports of Tamil schools suffering from inadequate facilities and teachers, resulting in rapidly falling enrolment.47 By 1975, there were no Primary One registrants for the Tamil stream.48

Malay schools
A similar decline in enrolment was experienced in Malay schools. In 1966, over 5,000 pupils were enrolled in Malay schools. This dropped to about 2,000 pupils by 1969.49 By 1982, there were no new students enrolling in Malay schools.50

Chinese schools
Enrolment in Chinese-medium schools also began to fall during the postwar period. In 1959, 45.9 percent of the student population was in Chinese-medium schools, but this figure had fallen to 11.2 percent by 1978. The shift to English schools came about due to better job prospects for those with an English education.51 In 1980, Nanyang University merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore, which offered English-medium tertiary education.52

Given the falling enrolment in Chinese schools, the government introduced the Special Assistance Plan (SAP) in 1979. The plan initially aimed to develop nine Chinese secondary schools into effectively bilingual schools that had the values and traditions of a Chinese school.53

In December 1983, the Ministry of Education announced that all pupils in Singapore would be taught English as a first language in a new national stream by 1987. This policy signalled the end of Chinese-medium schools, the last of the vernacular schools.54 This new policy, however, did not mean the end of vernacular education as the Singapore education system would be based on a bilingual national stream with English as the first language and the student’s mother tongue as the second language.55

Mother tongue
Currently all Singapore students are required to study their mother tongue, which is usually either Chinese, Malay or Tamil. It is an examinable subject for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), as well as the General Certificate of Education (GCE) N-, O- and A-Level examinations.56

Stephanie Ho

1. T. R. Doraisamy, ed., 150 Years of Education in Singapore (Singapore: Teachers’ Training College, 1969), 6. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 TEA)
2. David D. Chelliah, A History of the Educational Policy of the Straits Settlements with Recommendations for a New System Based on Vernaculars (Kuala Lumpur: The Government Press, 1948), 35. (Call no. RCLOS 370.9595 CHE)
3. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 38.
4. J. B. Neilson, Annual Report of the Department of Education for the Year 1947 (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1948), 1.
5. Neilson, Annual Report of the Department of Education for the Year 1947, 1.
6. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 40.
7. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 43–44.
8. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 431–2 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Singapore Institution Free School, Report (Singapore Institution Free School), 1834–62 (Singapore: Mission Press, 1840), 3. (From BookSG)
9. H. E. Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore: Educational Policies and Social Change 1819–1972 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1978), 24. (Call no. RSING 379.5957 WIL)
10. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 23.
11. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 104–5.
12. “Report of the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the System of Vernacular Education in the Colony (the Isemonger Report), 1894,” in Official Reports on Education: Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States 1870–1939, ed. Francis H.K. Wong and Gwee Yee Hean (Singapore: Pan Pacific Book Distributors, 1980), 20. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 WON)
13. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 105; Tan Yap Kwang, Chow Hong Kheng and Christine Goh, Examinations in Singapore: Change and Continuity, 1891–2007 (Singapore: World Scientific, 2008), 7, 20. (Call no. RSING 371.26095957 TAN)
14. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 105; Topics of the Day,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 12 August 1879, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Report of the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the System,” 18–20.
16. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 107.
17. Chelliah, History of the Educational Policy, 71.
18. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 107.
19. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 82.
20. Lee Ting Hui, Chinese Schools in British Malaya: Policies and Politics (Singapore: South Seas Society, 2006), 1–4. (Call no. RSING 371.82995105951 LEE); Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 83.
21. Lee, Chinese Schools in British Malaya, 8–9.
22. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 85–86;History,” Hwa Chong Institution, 2016.
23. Lee, Chinese Schools in British Malaya, 21.
24. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 85–86.
25. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 86–88; Education Ordinance, 1920,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 29 May 1920, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Lee, Chinese Schools in British Malaya, 158–9.
27. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 116.
28. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 117–8.
29. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 38.
30. Neilson, Annual Report of the Department of Education for the Year 1947, 18–19; Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore, 96–97.
31. Wilson, Social Engineering in Singapore, 98–99.
32. Neilson, Annual Report of the Department of Education for the Year 1947, 1.
33. Saravanan Gopinathan, Towards a National System of Education in Singapore, 1945–1973 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1974), 8. (Call no. RSING 379.5957 GOP)
34. Gopinathan, National System of Education, 16–17.
35. “Drastic Measures Are Dropped,” Straits Times, 22 May 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Chew Swee Kee, Report of the All-Party Committee of the Singapore Legislative Assembly on Chinese Education (Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1956), 39 (Call no. RCLOS 371.9795105957 SIN); P. M. Raman, “School Plan to Help End Communal Barriers,” Singapore Free Press, 8 February 1956, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “That Bill Passed,” Straits Times, 19 November 1957, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Ji Baokun and Cui Guiqiang 纪宝坤 and 崔贵强, Nanyang da xue li shi tu pian ji  南洋大学历史图片集 [A pictorial history of Nantah] (Singapore: Times Media for Chinese Heritage Centre, 2000), 23–25. (Call no. Chinese RSING 378.5957 JBK)
39. Gopinathan, National System of Education, 33–34.
40. Bibi Jan Mohd Ayyub, “Language Issues in the Malay Community,” in Language, Society and Education in Singapore: Issues and Trends, ed. Saravanan Gopinathan, et al (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1994), 209–10. (Call no. RSING 306.4495957 LAN)
41. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 64; Gopinathan, National System of Education, 35.
42. Yap Cheng Tong, “The Paradox of Integration,” Straits Times, 19 April 1970, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Ang Wai Hoong, “Singapore’s Textbook Experience 1965–97: Meeting the Needs of Curriculum Change,” in Toward a Better Future: Education and Training for Economic Development in Singapore since 1965, ed. Lee Sing Kong, et al (Singapore: National Institute of Education, 2008), 75. (Call no. RSING 370.9595709045 TOW)
44. Gopinathan, National System of Education, 43.
45. Gopinathan, National System of Education, 45; Judith Holmberg, New Subject only in 3 Languages,” New Nation, 13 October 1973, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
46. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore, 121–2; The school is also referred to as Umar Pulavar Tamil High School. See A. P. Raman, “Poet’s Name Lives On,” Straits Times, 24 May 1985, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Patrick de Souza, “Tamil Schools Crisis,” New Nation, 12 March 1971, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Sunny Wee, “English School Choice of 86 pc Parents,” New Nation, 25 February 1977, 1; “The Swing to English,” Straits Times, 26 February 1977, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
49. K. Ismail, “Need for Change in Malay Education System,” New Nation, 29 April 1971, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
50. Hedwig Alfred, “Chinese Stream Enrolment at All-Time Low,” Straits Times, 20 December 1983, 1; “A Matter of Parental Choice,” Singapore Monitor, 20 December 1983, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
51. John Yip Soon Kwong, Eng Soo Peck and Jay Yap Ye Chin, “25 Years of Educational Reform,” in Evolution of Educational Excellence: 25 Years of Education in the Republic of Singapore, ed. John Yip Soon Kwong and Sim Wong Kooi (Singapore: Longman Singapore, 1990), 11. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 EVO)
52. “It’s NUS from This Year, Says Lee,” Straits Times, 13 April 1980, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
53. Leslie Fong, Koh Yan Poh and June Tan, “Plan for Nine Top Schools,” Straits Times, 1 December 1978, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
54. Hedwig Alfred and June Tan, “It’s English for All By 1987,” Straits Times, 22 December 1983, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
55. “Language Policy Accepted: Dr Tay,” Straits Times, 10 December 1984, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
56. “Mother Tongue Language,” Ministry of Education, accessed 19 August 2016.

The information in this article is valid as of 29 September 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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