Singapore Polytechnic



Established on 27 October 1954, Singapore Polytechnic (SP) was Singapore’s first polytechnic. Initially concerned with producing skilled technicians to support the nation’s move toward industrialisation, SP has since evolved to meet changing manpower needs as Singapore’s economy came to focus on high-technology and knowledge-based industries, rather than low-cost labour-intensive manufacturing.

Background

Technical education gained importance in Singapore following the end of the Second World War when the economy moved away from entrepot trade towards industrialisation. At that time, the shortage of skilled workers was a major concern, prompting calls from both private and public sectors, as well as individuals, for the expansion of technical education.  


The idea of a polytechnic in Singapore was mooted in August 1951 at a meeting convened by the Singapore branch of the Technical Association of Malaya, which had invited all interested parties to discuss the provision of training for craftsmen, technicians and engineers.1 This became the basis of an ad-hoc committee, chaired by educationist Thio Chan Bee, that petitioned the government in 1952 for the urgent need to set up a fully-equipped and staffed polytechnic.2 This suggestion was accepted.

In January 1953, Governor Sir John F. Nicoll appointed a committee to investigate the necessity of a polytechnic, and prepare a scheme covering subjects that should be taught, the cost and equipment involved, as well as how the institution would fit within the existing education system.3 

Report of the Committee on a Polytechnic Institute for Singapore
A report was prepared by the appointed committee. This 13-man committee was chaired by Professor E. H. G. Dobby from the University of Malaya, and included representatives from established companies such as Singapore Motors, Fraser & Neave, Lee Wah Bank, Lee Rubber Company, Alliance Engineering, and General Electric Company.4 On 17 September 1953, the committee submitted its Report of the Committee on a Polytechnic Institute for Singapore, also known as the Dobby Report, to the government.5 

In this report, the committee defined a polytechnic as “an institute teaching many branches of technical and professional knowledge and primarily intended to provide part-time instruction for employed people who seek additional skill in and more advanced knowledge of their occupations, and certification of their standards and attainments; the facilities of a Polytechnic can be extended to full-time technical students if and as required.”6

The report also laid out the pros and cons of having a polytechnic. Arguments supporting the need for a polytechnic included the need to equip local workers with the skills and knowledge to keep up with new technologies as the economy modernised, as well as to prepare them for managerial and supervisory roles. A polytechnic would also provide a well-defined system of training and qualification that was otherwise lacking. Moreover, compared to individual firms running their own training schemes, a central polytechnic would be more efficient at building a large pool of skilled workers to meet local demands.7 Conversely, a polytechnic could prove to be uneconomical given the heavy costs of such a complex institution and the wide range of skills needed, coupled with Singapore’s small population size, especially with the cheaper alternative of sending selected staff overseas for training.8  

Nevertheless, the committee was convinced that a polytechnic was necessary. In the report, it declared that “if it advised against establishing a Polytechnic and later events proved it unwise, then the Committee would, by conceding to nervousness, or short term economy, be open to the charge of jeopardizing the continuity of this Colony by endangering the livelihood and well-being of Singapore people for several generations.”9  

The committee conducted two surveys to gauge training requirements. Businesses and professional associations were first asked what training was needed. Then a questionnaire was given to over 230 firms and departments to identify the types of industries present in Singapore. Findings from both surveys were used to determine the courses to be prioritised in the proposed polytechnic.10 

Taking into account the immediate needs of those already employed in skilled trades and the projected demand, the committee recommended that a polytechnic for at least 2,000 part-time students be set up, with an annual additional capacity for 500 full-time students.11 It suggested that the polytechnic should have five departments: Commerce; Engineering; Management; Architecture and the Applied Arts; and Vocation Training in Language and Science.12 English would be the medium of instruction as it was the official language as well as the language used in most schools and technical books.13 

Singapore Polytechnic Report

In 1954, the government invited A. W. Gibson, principal of Dudley and Staffordshire Technical College in England, to prepare a detailed plan for the polytechnic based on the recommendations of the Dobby Report.14 The Singapore Polytechnic Report, also known as the Gibson Report, was presented on 10 May 1954.

The report proposed that seven departments be established, with top priority going to these five: General Education; Commerce; Management Studies; Engineering; and Architecture and Building. Second priority would go to the Applied Arts, and the Women’s Department that taught domestic science. Gibson recommended that the polytechnic’s first task was the training of craftsmen and technicians; it was only when sufficient workers were trained that the institution could embark on more advanced subjects.15 

Gibson also felt that accessibility was crucial to the success of the polytechnic. Thus, he recommended it be located at Shenton Circus.16 

Establishment and early years
The Singapore Polytechnic Act was passed on 27 October 1954. In January 1955, the first Board of Governors was appointed with industrialist L. Cresson as its chairman.17 The first principal, D. J. Williams, former principal of Lancaster and Morecambe College of Further Education, was appointed in January 1956.18

A five-acre site (later extended to 10-acres) at Prince Edward Road, off Shenton Way, was allocated for the institution. The site was cleared by December 1956 and piling began in January 1957. Construction of the buildings started in April 1957.19 In the meantime, classes commenced at Tanjong Katong Technical School, Belvedere School, and Connell House at Anson Road.20 


Designed by established architecture firm Swan & Maclaren, the polytechnic’s Prince Edward campus was completed by 1958. It comprised three connected blocks, which housed administrative offices, a main lecture theatre, a library, classrooms, studios, laboratories and workshops. Functional in design, the most distinctive feature of the complex was the striking mosaic pattern on the rectangular foyer façade.21 

The campus was officially opened by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on 24 February 1959.22 

By that time, SP had 2,800 students enrolled across 58 courses in five departments: Engineering; Building and Architecture; Science and Technology (including the Nautical Section); General Education; and Commerce.23 

Changes
With Singapore’s attainment of full internal self-governance in May 1959, SP’s ability to produce sufficient skilled manpower for industrialisation became a matter of national survival.24 In August 1959, the appointment of a new Board of Governors chaired by then Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye brought about significant changes that aligned the polytechnic curricula to the government’s industrialisation policy.25 

According to Toh, SP was “in danger of ending up in confusion”26 owing to a lack of direction as evidenced by the range of non-technical subjects offered, such as English literature, history, geography and embroidery work.27 To distinguish SP as a technical institution of high standing, courses in secretarial skills and general education were discontinued.28 The number of departments was reduced to four: Engineering; Building and Construction; Accountancy; and Nautical Studies. Courses were grouped into three distinct levels: craft, technician and professional.29 

Another major step was that SP ceased to prepare students for examinations set by overseas institutions. Instead, it would set its own internal examinations and award its own diplomas.30 This meant that the polytechnic could design its syllabus and admission requirements to meet local needs while eliminating the confusing variety of overseas standards and certificates.31 The first graduation ceremony for professional diploma students was held on 26 August 1961.32  

A college of advanced technology
In 1962, the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Vocational and Technical Education envisioned a new identity for SP as a college of advanced technology. As a first step towards this, craft courses were transferred to the new Singapore Vocational Institute in 1963. With this, the polytechnic could concentrate on upgrading and expanding its professional and technician courses.33 

Collaborating with the university
Meanwhile, the government and the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) jointly appointed a committee to look into the feasibility of setting up a Faculty of Technology, and to study how polytechnic students could go on to degree courses at the University of Singapore.34 The committee recommended that a closer relationship between the university and polytechnic be established, so that university degrees could be awarded to suitably qualified polytechnic graduates.35 

In 1964, C. A. Hart (Dr) led a team of experts under the Colombo Plan to study how the polytechnic could be raised to university status. The Hart Report recommended an immediate collaboration between the university and polytechnic through the Schools of Engineering, Architecture and Building, and Accountancy. It also proposed an interim arrangement for conferring University of Singapore degrees on qualified polytechnic graduates in professional engineering, architecture and accountancy courses.36 Degree courses were introduced from 1965. The first batch of degree holders came from Accountancy in 1967, followed by Engineering in 1968.37 

However, by then, it was felt that there would not be sufficient students to justify the creation of another tertiary institution.38 As such, the plan to convert the polytechnic into a technical university was shelved, and in May 1969, the degree components at the polytechnic were transferred to the University of Singapore, forming the Faculty of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, and the School of Accountancy and Business Administration.39 

Restructuring
Focused on the training of technicians, SP was restructured into the School of Industrial Technology and School of Nautical Studies.40 To meet an urgent need for technical manpower in local industries, a two-year Industrial Technician Certificate (ITC) programme – pitched at a level between craft courses and technician diplomas – was introduced.41 The ITC courses were later transferred to the Industrial Training Board (ITB) in 1975 so that SP could expand its intake for diploma programmes.42 

Expansion
1970s

The growing student population prompted SP to set up two additional campus sites, first at Ayer Rajah Road, and then the former Princess Mary Barracks in Dover Road.43 In September 1971, the Board of Governors decided to acquire an 81-acre site north of Dover Road, which included the Princess Mary campus, to build SP’s permanent home.44 

Construction of SP’s Dover Road campus commenced in 1974. On 12 April 1975, the foundation stone was laid by Toh Chin Chye, then Minister for Science and Technology.45 The Dover Road campus was completed in 1978, and the start of the new term on 29 May marked the first time in nearly a decade that the polytechnic operated from a single location.46 By then, SP had been restructured into seven academic departments and divisions, namely: the Departments of Civil Engineering and Building; Electrical Engineering; Electronics and Communication Engineering; Mechanical and Production Engineering; and Nautical Studies, along with the Divisions of Chemical Process Technology; and Marine Engineering and Shipbuilding.

Built at a cost of about $53 million, SP’s new campus formed part of the educational belt that stretched across the south-western part of the island from the then Nanyang University at Upper Jurong Road to the University of Singapore (now National University of Singapore) at Kent Ridge, and Ngee Ann Technical College (now Ngee Ann Polytechnic) in Clementi.47 The campus comprised an administrative building, library, 10 teaching blocks, nine workshops, five lecture theatres, three canteens and a centre for recreational and social activities.48  

The Dover Road campus was officially opened by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 7 July 1979.49 In his speech, Lee laid out the role of SP in the restructuring of Singapore’s economy, particularly the importance of anticipating the manpower needs of emerging industries, and providing opportunities for the population to pursue technical training and skills upgrading.50 

During and after the 1980s
SP’s mission to ensure an adequate supply of engineering technologists for Singapore was given a boost in 1982 with the commencement of a five-year plan to expand and upgrade polytechnic courses, staff, buildings and equipment to accommodate a projected 15,000 students by 1986.51 SP reviewed and improved its courses, placing greater emphasis on the practical aspects of training.52  

The $185.6 million expansion included the construction of new teaching blocks, lecture theatres, a library extension, a sports complex, as well as the renovation and relocation of laboratories.53 High-tech equipment, such as computer-controlled industrial machinery and navigational simulators, were also acquired for teaching purposes.54 Advanced Diploma courses were introduced for polytechnic graduates to continue building their skills in specialised areas and keep up with technological changes.55 

Student enrolment grew from 9,805 in 1982 to 12,933 in 1986 – an increase of over 30 percent since the start of the expansion plan.56 In addition, marking a new phase in educational direction, a new academic department – the Department of Business Administration – was set up in response to the rising importance of commerce and service sectors in the Singapore economy.57  

SP continued to upgrade its campus with new buildings and state-of-the-art facilities with three more expansion phases – from 1988 to 1992, 1992 to 1993 and 1997 to 2003.58 Older buildings and facilities were simultaneously revamped to create an overall coordinated aesthetic, and to enhance conduciveness of the campus environment.59

World-class, all-rounded education
Working with local industries

Cooperation with industries became even more important in the 1990s as SP moved towards a Swiss-German model of technical education.60 In addition to its primary mission of training and educating technologists, SP adopted a second mission in 1990 – to assist small- and medium-sized enterprises in Singapore. To that end, it set up the Technology Transfer Centre to share SP’s resources and expertise with local industries.61 SP also ran courses and seminars to meet the training needs of various industry sectors and government institutions.

To allow students to gain realistic work experiences, a more structured industrial training programme was implemented, and the academic calendar was adjusted to facilitate a longer 16-week attachment.62 Subsequently, the Product and Process Development (PPD) Work scheme was introduced in 1992 to give students the chance to work on developmental projects with companies.63 One example was the creation of a new lemon-lime flavoured drink, Lemonsi Delight (later renamed Lemon and Kalamansi) by students of the Chemical Process and Biotechnology Department for drinks manufacturer, Pokka Corporation (Singapore) Ltd.64 

Preparing students for work and life
From the mid-1990s onwards, new emphasis was given to character education. SP aimed to produce graduates who were not only innovative, competent and versatile, but also had sound values and a commitment to life-long learning.65 Among the measures taken were the introduction of a compulsory character education module for all students, as well as the launch of an online Virtual College to promote remote learning.66 The use of technology became a crucial part of learning and teaching in SP so as to keep up with changing business and industry needs.

In 2000, SP’s academic departments were renamed “schools” to reflect their roles in preparing students for work and life. They were named School of Business; School of Chemical and Life Sciences; School of the Built Environment and Design; School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering; School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering; and School of Info-Communications Technology.67 

In 2003, SP embarked on a new Education Model of the Future, which aimed to provide a broad-based, multi-disciplinary education that promoted creativity, innovation and enterprise. A key initiative was the Innovation, Design and Enterprise in Action (IDEA) Centre that encouraged experiential learning and collaborative work.68 

SP has continued to evolve and adapt to meet the demands of a competitive market and challenging global environment. As of 2018, SP has 10 schools: Architecture and the Built Environment; Business; Chemical and Life Sciences; Communication, Arts and Social Sciences; Design; Digital Media and Infocomm Technology; Electrical and Electronic Engineering; Mathematics and Science; Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering; and the Singapore Maritime Academy. It has produced 200,913 graduates since its establishment.69

School motto and crest
SP’s motto is Berkhidmatan Dengan Keahlian, meaning “to serve with skill” in Malay. This motto, which expresses the polytechnic’s educational mission, was proposed by Toh Chin Chye and adopted at a Board of Governors’ meeting on 7 January 1960.


The translation was updated in 2014. It became “to serve with mastery”, which reflects SP’s aspirations for its students to achieve mastery in their chosen fields, and to apply their capabilities to the service and betterment of society.70

SP’s crest comprises a red-and-yellow shield – colours chosen to represent Singapore’s tropical environment. The upper portion of the crest features a lion, which symbolises Singapore, against a red background. The colour red is associated with the Singapore flag. The lower portion of the shield is yellow. It features a compass atop a splinted wheel, which represents precision and engineering technology respectively.71



Author
Janice Loo



References
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67. Singapore Polytechnic. (2001). Singapore Polytechnic Annual Report 2000–2001. Singapore: The Polytechnic, p. 17. (Call no.: RCLOS 378.5957 SPAR-[AR])
68. Singapore Polytechnic. (2005). Opening minds, shaping lives: The journey of Singapore’s first polytechnic. Singapore: Singapore Polytechnic, pp. 107, 110. (Call no.: RSING q378.5957 SIN)
69. Singapore Polytechnic. (2018, July 6). At a glance. Retrieved 2018, July 27, from Singapore Polytechnic website: https://www.sp.edu.sg/sp/about-sp/at-a-glance
70. Singapore Polytechnic. (2018, June 29). SP traditions. Retrieved 2018, July 24, from Singapore Polytechnic website: https://www.sp.edu.sg/sp/about-sp/the-sp-story/sp-traditions
71. Singapore Polytechnic. (2018, June 29). SP traditions. Retrieved 2018, July 24, from Singapore Polytechnic website:https://www.sp.edu.sg/sp/about-sp/the-sp-story/sp-traditions

The information in this article is valid as at July 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Singapore Polytechnic
Singapore. Committee on a Polytechnic Institute for Singapore
Technical institutes--Singapore--History
Educational organisations
Politics and Government>>Education