Umar Pulavar Tamil School

The Umar Pulavar Tamil School (UPTS) was founded by the Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League (SKML) in 1946.1 It became known as the Umar Pulavar Tamil High School (UPTHS) in 1960, and was the first and only Tamil-medium high school in Singapore.2 

The school operated for 36 years before closing in 1982 due to declining student enrolment.3 Following its closure, the school’s management committee set up the Umar Pulavar Scholarship Trust Fund to provide financial assistance for needy students.4 During its active years, the school undertook efforts to alleviate the educational, cultural, social and economic status of the local Tamil community.5

UPTS had functioned under the management of SKML, which was led by A.N. Maideen.6 SKML comprised Tamil Muslims from Kadayanallur, a town in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, India.7 The Kadayanallur Tamil Muslims were already present in  Singapore before 1920 and the majority of them lived and worked in the Tanjong Pagar area.8 A group of Kadayanallur Tamil Muslims established the Muslim Improvement Club in 1926 and undertook efforts to provide education for members of their community.9 In 1941, the club became known as the Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League (SKML), which eventually established UPTS in March 1946.10 

The school was named after Umar Pulavar, a renowned 17th century Tamil-Muslim poet from the Tirunelveli district who was recognised for his literary contributions to the Tamil community.11 The initial aim of the school was to provide Tamil and English language education to children in the Tanjong Pagar area.12 SKML members also felt that Tamil education was imperative for the preservation of their cultural values.13 

Early days at Tanjong Pagar

UPTS began with only one primary level class in a small room at the top floor of a shophouse located at 72 Tanjong Pagar Road.14 Free Tamil lessons were conducted between 7 and 9 pm by two volunteer teachers, K. N. Suleiman and Abdul Hamid.15 Within the first week of the school’s opening, enrolment increased sharply, with 54 students joining UPTS.16 Due to space constraints, the school had to utilise the entire top floor of the shophouse.17 While students initially had to sit on the floor, league members subsequently provided furniture to create a more conducive learning environment.18 In May 1946, two qualified teachers, N. Subramaniam and S. Fernando, were employed to teach Tamil and English respectively. School fees for students were also implemented.19 Subramaniam conducted Tamil language classes during the day and Fernando taught English at night to adult members of SKML.20 In 1948, a management committee was formed to supervise matters concerning the school.21 As student numbers continued to climb, the existing premises became unsuitable for the purposes of a school and the management committee looked into the construction of a proper school building.22 

Relocation to Maxwell Road

In 1949, the committee secured a piece of crown land at Maxwell Road for $16,000.23 They held campaigns and activities, and appealed for public donations to raise funds for the construction of the new school building.24 With $10,000 from public donations and a government grant of $6,000, a single-storey building with two classrooms was completed at Maxwell Road by March 1950.25 

The new building was officially opened by then Director of Education A. W. Frisby on 17 March 1950.26 The president of the Tamil Education Society, G. Sarangapany, gave a welcome speech at the tea party organised by the committee.27 At the new building, the management committee provided students with stationery, textbooks, uniforms and food.28 More teachers were subsequently hired to teach English and Tamil.29 Although classes were initially held only in the morning, by 1954, as enrolment rapidly increased, classes were also held in the afternoon.30 The committee decided to expand the school to accommodate increasing student numbers and provide Tamil-medium secondary education.31 

Expansion into a high school

Despite plans to expand the school, the committee lacked the funds to purchase a government lease for the construction of the new building.32 Backed by recommendations from the school’s patron, Lim Yew Hock, who was also Singapore’s chief minister at the time, the government supported the school’s extension and granted them a 60-year lease at Maxwell Road.33 The cost of the new building was projected at $160,000.34 The committee launched the Building Fund Raising Project to appeal for donations for the construction of the building.35 The school received generous donations from different organisations such as the Lee Foundation, Shaw Foundation, and the Chettiar Chamber of Commerce as well as individuals like Loke Wan Tho.36 The government also provided approximately $200,000.37

During the construction of the new building, classes were temporarily held at Gan Eng Seng Secondary School.38 On 9 April 1959, former Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock laid the foundation stone of the new school building.39 On 30 March 1960, the completed three-storey building was officially opened by former Minister for Education Yong Nyuk Lin. The school became known as the Umar Pulavar Tamil High School (UPTHS), the first Tamil-medium secondary school in Singapore.40 In 1961, the school also opened a library with approximately 1,700 books in both English and Tamil to support the educational needs of its students.41 

Secondary level classes were introduced, and upon completion of their secondary education, Tamil students would sit for the School Certificate (Tamil) Examination. Introduced by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in 1963, the certification was the equivalent of the Cambridge School Certificate Examination.42 

In the early 1960s, the students and staff of UPTHS began to experience disciplinary difficulties and low morale. There was also a shortage of qualified teachers and proper facilities.43 In September 1963, a group of students organised a strike against the principal, as they were dissatisfied with her lack of professionalism and the overall quality of instruction in the school.44 A government appointed Committee of Inquiry investigated the dispute and general administration of the school, and identified ways MOE could contribute to boost the standard of Tamil secondary education in Singapore.45 Some recommendations were: to form an advisory committee, recruit qualified staff and acquire suitable textbooks.46 The School Advisory Committee was formed in November 1965 with members from relevant educational and administrative backgrounds to assist the management committee.47 Conditions in the school stabilised and the school later introduced extra-curricular activities, organised cultural shows, and participated in the National Day Parade between 1965 and 1969.48

Decline and closure of school
Tamil-medium education began to decline from the mid-1960s as increasing emphasis was placed on the English language. Although enrolment in UPTHS reached its peak in 1973, enrolment for primary one classes was dwindling.49 On the other hand, enrolment in English-medium schools was on the rise.50 Hence, the school’s management committee decided to convert UPTHS into an English-medium school offering Tamil as a second language in the long run.51 In 1976, UPTHS became an integrated school that offered bilingual education in English and Tamil.52 However, the school failed to gain popularity among teachers and students, particularly those in English-medium classes.53 It also faced challenges such as outdated facilities, noise pollution from heavy traffic along Maxwell Road and pressure from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to relocate due to redevelopment plans for their premises.54 

In 1979, MOE and URA provided the school with alternative site suggestions, which were declined by the management committee due to insufficient funds to support the cost of a new building.55 Existing problems, coupled with an alarming decline in enrolment in the 1980s, led the school to shut down in 1982.56

Preserving the school’s name

After its closure, the government compensated the school for its Maxwell Road land.57 The management committee used the compensation and remaining school funds to set up the Umar Pulavar Trust Fund, a scholarship fund that provides financial aid to needy students, particularly those who have excelled academically.58 The school’s name was preserved with the renaming of St George’s Road Tamil Language Centre to Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre in 1983.59 Currently located at the premises of the former Beatty Secondary School, Umar Pulavar Tamil Language Centre serves as an important academic institution for the proliferation and development of the Tamil language in Singapore.60

Liviniyah P.

1. A. P. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On,” Straits Times, 24 May 1985, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Said Abdullah, “Tanjong Pagar – A Kampong Revisited,” Business Times, 5 March 1988, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Abdullah, “Tanjong Pagar.” 
4. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”
5. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”
6. “Peons Plan a School,” Straits Times, 9 April 1949, 7 (From NewspaperSG); “SKML History,” Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League, accessed 25 April 2019.
7. Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League, “SKML History.”
8. Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League, “SKML History.”
9. K. Palanisamy, A History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 1946–1982 (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 1983), 20. (Call no. RSING 373.241095957 PAL)
10. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 21; Umar Pulavar Tamil School: An Appeal for Funds,” Indian Daily Mail, 13 March 1949, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”
12. “Umar Pulavar Tamil School.”
13. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 21.
14. History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 21.
15. Umar̲up Pulavar Tamil̲ uyarnilaip paḷḷi veḷḷi vil̲ā malar, 1946­–1971 உமறுப் புலவர் தமிழ் உயர்நிலைப் பள்ளி வெள்ளி விழா மலர், 1946–1971 [25th anniversary celebration souvenir of Umar Pulavar Tamil High School] (Singapore: n.p., 1971), 21. (Call no. Tamil RSING 373.238 UMA)
16. Umar̲up Pulavar Tamil̲ uyarnilaip paḷḷi veḷḷi vil̲ā malar, 21.
17. Umar̲up Pulavar Tamil̲ uyarnilaip paḷḷi veḷḷi vil̲ā malar, 21.
18. Umar̲up Pulavar Tamil̲ uyarnilaip paḷḷi veḷḷi vil̲ā malar, 21.
19. Umar̲up Pulavar Tamil̲ uyarnilaip paḷḷi veḷḷi vil̲ā malar, 21.
20. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 23.
21. Umar̲up Pulavar Tamil̲ uyarnilaip paḷḷi veḷḷi vil̲ā malar, 22.
22. Umar Pulavar Tamil School.”
23. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 25; Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”
24. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 25.
25. “Tamil Education Handicapped By Lack of Finance,” Indian Daily Mail, 20 March 1950, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Mr A. W. Frisby, Director of Education, Yesterday Declared Open the Umar Pulavar Tamil School at Maxwell Road. Singapore. A Tea-Party Was Later Held by the President and Members of the Committee Management of the School,” Malaya Tribune, 18 March 1950, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Tamil Education Handicapped By Lack of Finance.”
28. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 28.
29. “The Peons’ School Is Now Expanded,” Singapore Free Press, 10 April 1959, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 28.
31. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 35.
32. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 36.
33. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 38.
34. “School Appeals for Public Help,” Singapore Standard, 20 April 1959, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
35. “School Appeals for Public Help.”
36. Umar̲up Pulavar Tamil̲ uyarnilaip paḷḷi veḷḷi vil̲ā malar, 25.
37. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”
38. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 40.
39. “Foundation Stone Laid By Tun Lim,” Singapore Standard, 10 April 1959, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
40. “Yong to Open Tamil School,” Straits Times, 29 March 1960, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Umar Pulavar Tamil High School, Umar̲uppulavar tamil̲ uyarnilaip paḷḷi nūl nilaiyat tir̲appu vil̲ā cir̲appu malar உமறுப்புலவர் தமிழ் உயர்நிலைப் பள்ளி நூல் நிலையத் திறப்பு விழா சிறப்பு மலர் [Umar Pulavar Tamil High School Library opening ceremony souvenir, 8-1-1961] (Singapore: Umar Pulavar Tamil High School, 1961), 5. (From PublicationSG)
42 T. R. Doraisamy, 150 Years of Education in Singapore (Singapore: TTC Publications Board, Teachers Training College, 1969), 122. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 TEA)
43. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 47.
44. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 44–51.
45. “School Probe: Call for Public Help,” Straits Times, 18 November 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “Tamil Education Proposals,” Straits Times, 15 May 1964, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 52.
48. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 54.
49. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 56.
50. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 17.
51. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 60.
52. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 61.
53. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 61.
54. “Plan to Expand Tamil School,” Straits Times, 24 January 1980, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 60–65.
55. Palanisamy, History of Umar Pulavar Tamil School, 67.
56. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”
57. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”
58. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”
59. “Tamil Centre Renamed,” Straits Times, 31 August 1983, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
60. Raman, “Poet's Name Lives On.”

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 of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Tamil language-- Study and teaching (Secondary)--Singapore
Secondary schools
Umar Pulavar Tamil School