Ruth Wong

Ruth Wong Hie King (b. 10 June 1918, Singapore–d. 1 February 1982, Singapore) is widely regarded as a pioneer educator who transformed teacher training in Singapore. Wong was the first female principal of the Teachers’ Training College (TTC) and the founding director of the Institute of Education (present-day National Institute of Education).  

Early life and education
Wong was born in Singapore to Wong Kai Seng and Lau Hee Duang on 10 June 1918. Her parents were originally from Fuzhou, China. Wong’s father ran a tailoring business and was deeply involved in church work.1

The eldest in a family of 10 children, Wong attended the English-medium Methodist Girls’ School (MGS) from 1924 to 1934. Although she did not come from an English-speaking background, Wong worked hard to master the language and eventually performed well academically. She passed her Senior Cambridge examinations with honours and was offered a scholarship to attend a preparatory class at Raffles Institution in the hope that she might be selected for the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship to study in England.2

As a teenager, Wong had dreams of pursuing medicine and becoming a missionary doctor. However, her father’s business was affected by the Great Depression in the 1930s, and Wong gave up the opportunity for overseas studies in order to work and support her family. While teaching part-time at a private school, Wong enrolled in an arts course at Raffles College, which led to a teacher training programme, and she eventually obtained a Diploma in Education in 1938.3

Wong taught at various schools before receiving a scholarship in 1951 to study at Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with honours in 1954. Wong was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 1960 to be a Testing Associate at the Educational Testing Service of Princeton. She completed her Masters and Doctorate in Education at Harvard University in 1962.4

After obtaining her Diploma in Education in 1938, Wong taught for over a decade at various schools: her alma mater, MGS (1939–42; 1946–50); Paya Lebar Primary School (1942–44); St Joseph’s Primary School (1944–45); and Anglo-Chinese School (1954–55). Her former students remember Wong as a teacher who helped nurture their self-confidence and motivation to excel.5

Returning from her overseas undergraduate studies, Wong was appointed head of TTC’s Mathematics Department from 1955 to 1957. She was subsequently seconded to the School of Education as a lecturer and later became a senior lecturer at the then University of Malaya in Singapore until 1962.6

In 1963, she gained professorship and was appointed as head of the newly established School of Education at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.7 One of her significant contributions to the school was in building manpower capabilities. Efforts were made to recruit staff with extensive teaching experience, and support was obtained from the Ford Foundation to sponsor staff for overseas doctorate studies. Wong also visited schools in various parts of Malaysia to get firsthand insights on the local situation, and advocated research and experimentation to improve educational programmes.8 In July 1965, Wong was made dean of the faculty. However, due to changes in Malaysia’s language medium policy, Wong left the university in 1968.9

Wong returned to Singapore and joined the Ministry of Education (MOE) in June 1969 as the director of research. She oversaw the Research Unit, which was responsible for carrying out surveys and studies on problems in education that were topical and practical.10 Her wealth of experience in education, teacher training, and research helped establish continuity between these areas. In 1971, Wong became the first female principal of the TTC.11 In 1973, the college merged with the School of Education, University of Singapore, and the MOE Research Unit to form the Institute of Education (IE). Wong became the founding director of the new institution, a position she held until 1976 when she retired due to health reasons.12

Wong continued to be involved in research projects even after retirement. For example, she worked with the People’s Association (PA) to conduct research on pre-primary education and with MOE on special projects. Concerned about student welfare, Wong became a part-time student counsellor at the University of Singapore, and served as resident fellow of Kent Ridge Hall.13 She was also active in voluntary organisations, and was president of The Girls’ Brigade Singapore from 1976 to 1982.14

Wong succumbed to cancer on 1 February 1982.15

Contributions to teacher education in Singapore
Revamping teacher education
By the late 1960s, there was greater emphasis on the quality of education and teacher training. One of the first things Wong did as principal of the TTC was to spearhead the review and restructuring of the training curriculum.16

Advocating a more holistic approach, Wong saw teacher education as a socialisation process in which student-teachers were inducted into desirable practices rooted in well-defined principles and objectives. It was important for student-teachers to not only acquire the required pedagogical skills, but also develop a sense of inquiry, sensitivity to societal needs, as well as awareness of national and global issues.17 A teacher who was a problem-solver and inquirer was more likely to foster critical thinking and creativity in his or her students. This approach resulted in a new training curriculum that better addressed the teacher’s professional competence and the student’s personal growth in an integrated manner.18

Coursework assessment was diversified with the introduction of individual project work, which not only improved assessment validity, but also gave student-teachers some experience with research and reduced their end-of-year examination stress.19

Under Wong’s leadership, teacher education was more closely tied to the higher-education system, which helped raise its professional and academic standing. For instance, in order to improve the quality of teachers, IE would only admit holders of the Higher School Certificate (equivalent of today’s General Certificate of Education A-Level) into its Certificate in Education programme, and university graduates into its Diploma in Education programme.20 At the same time, staff with higher degrees were recruited to ensure qualified manpower.21

Wong also helped educators bridge theory and practice through the establishment of experimental or demonstration schools, where new pedagogical ideas and practices could be tested in classroom conditions.22 The initiative was implemented in 1974 and participating schools were referred to as IE-associated schools.23 It was hoped that each of those schools would develop into a resource centre for a certain subject, and then share its experience and materials with other schools.24 Workshops and seminars were organised, where representatives from participating schools could meet IE lecturers to discuss teaching methods and issues.25 A total of 21 primary and secondary schools participated in the scheme before it was phased out in 1981. The idea lives on today in the “centres of excellence” scheme in different fields for selected schools.26

To encourage teachers to continually upgrade themselves, Wong initiated in-service courses on educational evaluation for all primary school teachers in April 1975.27 A two-year Advanced Certificate in Education course was introduced in July 1975 as an avenue for non-graduate teachers to pursue further professional development beyond the pre-service level.28

Recognising the significance of good quality early childhood education, Wong worked with the PA to start an in-service training course for teachers and supervisors from PA kindergartens. The 360-hour programme spanned more than a year from July 1975 to May 1976, and involved IE staff across departments and schools as trainers. This paved the way for the subsequent establishment of a pre-school unit within the institute in 1978.29

Inclusion of counselling in schools
Wong believed in the holistic development of each student beyond academic results.30 She pioneered the inclusion of guidance and counselling in schools to meet the students’ emotional and social needs.31 A Guidance Clinic and a Remedial Reading Clinic were established on IE's campus in 1974, and a 15-month project was carried out to pilot counselling in four institute-associated schools.32 Staff from the Guidance Clinic regularly visited the schools to receive referrals, conduct counselling sessions, and facilitate case conferences with teachers and parents. From 1976, teachers received in-service training in basic counselling. Although the Guidance Clinic and Remedial Reading Clinic both closed in the early 1980s, these early efforts to introduce guidance and counselling set the stage for the implementation of pastoral care and career guidance in all Singapore schools in 1988.33

Janice Loo

1. Wong Hee-Ong, Ruth Wong: Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire (Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2013), 3–4. (Call no. RSING 370.92 WON)
2. Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 3, 9, 15–17, 67.
3. Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 17–18.
4. Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 18, 67–68.
5. Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 24–26, 67,
6. Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 18.
7. “Woman to Head New School at Varsity,” Straits Times, 27 April 1963, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 33–35.
9. “Prof. Ruth Resigns from the Varsity,” Straits Times, 14 October 1968, 5 (From NewspaperSG); Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 38.
10. Y. H. Gwee and A. Chang, “Training of University Graduate Teachers before 1972,” in Transforming Teaching, Inspiring Learning: 60 Years of Teacher Education in Singapore, 1950–2010, ed. Chen Ai Yen and Koay Siew Luan (Singapore: National Institute of Education, 2010), 35. (Call no. RSING 370.71095957 TRA)
11. “Teachers’ Training College Gets Its First Woman Head,” Straits Times, 15 June 1971, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Dr Wong Calls It a Day after 40 Years,” Straits Times, 7 September 1976, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 48; “Varsity Job for Ruth,” New Nation, 7 October 1977, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Wong, Educationist and Teacher Extraordinaire, 69.
15. “Former Director of IE Dies at 63,” Straits Times, 2 February 1982, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Masie Kwee, “Teacher Training at TTC to Be Reviewed,” Straits Times, 16 June 1971, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
17. W. K. Ho and Ruth Wong, “Transforming Teacher Training in the Early 1970s,” in Transforming Teaching, Inspiring Learning: 60 Years of Teacher Education in Singapore, 1950–2010, ed. Chen Ai Yen and Koay Siew Luan (Singapore: National Institute of Education, 2010), 41–43. (Call no. RSING 370.71095957 TRA)
18. Ruth Wong, Educational Innovation in Singapore (Paris: Unesco Press, 1974), 64–65. (Call no. RCLOS 370.95957 WON)
19. Ho and Wong, “Transforming Teacher Training,” 45.
20. Chen Ai Yen, “Quality Teacher Education,” in Transforming Teaching, Inspiring Learning: 60 Years of Teacher Education in Singapore, 1950–2010, ed. Chen Ai Yen and Koay Siew Luan (Singapore: National Institute of Education, 2010), 63 (Call no. RSING 370.71095957 TRA); “Teaching Now only Open to HSC Students and Grads,” Straits Times, 10 April 1973, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Chen, “Quality Teacher Education,” 64.
22. Bailyne Sung, “School Where They Put Fun in the Lessons,” Straits Times, 4 November 1974, 6; Judith Holmberg, “19 Guinea-Pig Schools Show the Way,’ New Nation, 30 August 1974, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Chen, “Quality Teacher Education,” 62; Institute of Education (Singapore), Annual Report Nov. 1973–Oct. 1974 (Singapore: Institute of Education, 1974), 2. (Call no. RCLOS 370.73095957 IESAR-[AR])
24. “‘Parents Keen on New School Methods’,” Straits Times, 20 January 1975, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Thomas Wee, “The ‘Experimental’ Schools,” Straits Times, 27 April 1979, 18. (From NewspapeSG)
26. Chen, “Quality Teacher Education,” 62.
27. Institute of Education (Singapore), Annual Report July 1974–July 1975 (Singapore: Institute of Education, 1975), 2 (Call no. RCLOS 370.73095957 IESAR); E. Tan, “Professional Development for Teachers and School Leaders,” in Transforming Teaching, Inspiring Learning: 60 Years of Teacher Education in Singapore, 1950–2010, ed. Chen Ai Yen and Koay Siew Luan (Singapore: National Institute of Education, 2010), 87–88. (Call no. RSING 370.71095957 TRA)
28. Institute of Education (Singapore), Annual Report July 1974–July 1975, 1–2.
29. Tan,Professional Development for Teachers and School Leaders,” 88.
30. Ruth Wong, “The Role of Education in Developing the Community We Want,” in Ruth Wong’s Unto Each Child the Best, ed., Lee Kok Cheong (Singapore: PG Publishing, 1990), 61–63. (Call no. RSING 370.95957 WON)
31. Tan,Professional Development for Teachers and School Leaders,” 89.
32. Institute of Education (Singapore),  Annual Report Nov. 1973–Oct. 1974, 3; Tan,Professional Development for Teachers and School Leaders,” 89.
33. Tan,Professional Development for Teachers and School Leaders,” 90.

The information in this article is valid as at March 2020 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.

Wong, Ruth H. K.
Teachers--Training of--Singapore

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