What’s in a name?
Plenty of history and memories, say former staff and pupils of Griffiths Primary School and Qiaonan Primary.
They are upset that the two pioneer schools, which together have been around for 145 years, will be merged to form Angsana Primary School – a name with little connection to its predecessors.
“Why Angsana? Why not something like Griffiths-Qiaonan?” asked 86-year-old Eunice Tan Khe Tong, a retired principal, who was there for Griffiths Primary School at its start, and its end.
She was among Griffiths’ first teachers when it opened in Towner Road in 1950, and was at its Tampines Street 22 location earlier this month for its closing ceremony. She has already written to the National Heritage Board to ask for the Griffiths name to be preserved.
“A name represents a school’s history,” said Mrs Tan, who “taught math, science, English, art, and even singing” in her eight years with the school.
A street away from Griffiths is Qiaonan, which was started in 1933 by the Wenzhou clan association. Its name is most likely a reference to Chinese migrants (qiao) who have moved south (nan).
Qiaonan Alumni Association president Lim Eng Kiong, 57, who first studied there in 1965, said the group, which has around 200 members, has also appealed to the Ministry of Education (MOE) and met its officials to try to save the school name.
“I have strong feelings for Qiaonan. If I can help keep its name, I will try my best,” he said.
Singapore Taoist Federation chairman Tan Thiam Lye, 65, also a former pupil, added: “It’s such a good name, why not keep it?”
The MOE said Singapore’s birth rate has fallen sharply since 2000, leading to declining enrolment in some schools in mature estates.
This “does not allow them to offer a good range of educational programmes and co-curricular activities”, explained a spokesman. In the past five years, two other primary schools were merged, while four secondary schools were combined into two.
A Schools Naming Committee decides on the new name, taking into account the previous schools’ histories and whether it will resonate with the community.
Merged schools will usually also have a heritage space to display their past links.
On the new Angsana Primary School’s website, it says it will build on the rich histories of Qiaonan and Griffiths.
But for some, this may not be enough. Mr Ahmad Salik Ahmad Ishak, 35, admitted being upset when he heard about the merger. He studied in Qiaonan. So did his four siblings and then his two sons.
“The classrooms my sons studied in were the same ones I used,” said the allied educator. “I’d tell them how I was distracted as the classroom overlooked the field and I’d watch people playing. My sons told me they have the same problem.”
As for the new name of the merged school, he said: “I’m sure MOE has its reasons for choosing Angsana.”
Primary 6 pupil Lim Jiexin, who was Qiaonan’s vice-head prefect this year, shook her head when asked what she thought of Angsana, which will occupy the Griffiths building. “Why do they have to use that? They should choose a better name.”
Mr Chin Harn Tong, former senior parliamentary secretary (Home Affairs), who taught in Qiaonan from 1957 to 1961 – when it was known as Kiau Nam School – also said Angsana did not resonate with him.
The 76-year-old said: “Anything other than the Qiaonan name doesn’t mean much to me.”
Griffiths, first known as Towner Road School, was renamed after Welsh politician James Griffiths, the British secretary for the colonies at the time, formally opened the school in June 1950.
In 1982, it merged with Balestier Girls’ to form Moulmein Primary. Six years later, when it moved to Tampines, it returned to being Griffiths. Mrs Tan believes the school’s link to Singapore’s British past is worth preserving. “This is an important part of our history,” she said.
Teacher Eadelin Toh, 24, who graduated from Griffiths in 2002, said: “It is definitely sad. Next time when I tell people I’m from Griffiths Primary, nobody will know about it any more.”
Architectural and urban historian Lai Chee Kien, whose alma mater Birkhill Primary was merged with Queenstown Primary and took the latter’s name, said the loss of school names was a shame as “the name alone can engender pride and identity”.
Names are also constant reminders of one’s roots and identity, said Dr Yeo Kang Shua, honorary secretary of the Singapore Heritage Society. “Certain names also have historical referencing, as in the case of Qiaonan and Griffiths,” he said.
He wondered if Angsana was “deliberately” chosen so as not to favour one side. “It is challenging and tricky to come up with a name which reflects the histories of both schools,” he said.
Since news of the merger broke in February, former staff and pupils of both schools have found time to visit and take photographs.
Said Ms Toh, who went to Griffiths last Saturday with her ex-schoolmates: “We just want to have something to remember the school by.”
Ex-Qiaonan pupil Dezmon Tan, 34, rounded up a few of his classmates to go back on Nov 1. They brought with them a time capsule they had made in their primary school days but never opened.
“We started the time capsule in the school, so we wanted to open it there,” the interior designer said. Inside were his protractor, pencil and sharpener from 23 years ago.
“A lot of memories, definitely. They can erase the Qiaonan name from the school directory, but they cannot erase it from my memory.”
List of shut schools is online hit
Ms Fiona Seah’s blog is better known for her reviews of beauty products. But it has now become a place to pay homage to schools which are no longer around.
The 24-year-old’s interest was piqued when she read that several schools, including Qiaonan Primary and Griffiths Primary, were going to be merged.
She then found out that her parents’ primary schools – Outram Primary and Alexandra Estate Primary – had also been closed. After almost three months of research, she published three long blog posts from July to October on more than 60 schools, complete with old photographs – from class pictures to report books.
They have become her best- read entries to date.
“I searched for the schools’ alumni groups on Facebook and read old news articles on the NewspaperSG website,” said the third-year communications student at the Nanyang Technological University.
Nuggets of information include how Membina Primary School in Tiong Bahru – it closed in 1996 after opening in 1975 – was the first to get a contemporary design under the Education Ministry’s School Building Programme.
And how Pearl’s Hill School, established in 1881, was once Singapore’s tallest primary school when it moved to Chin Swee Road.
It was not easy digging up the history, said Ms Seah.
“Many of the schools cannot be found online any more, probably because they closed so long ago,” she said. “There were no Facebook groups by former students.”
For instance, she was unable to find out more about Whitley Primary School, which stood where the Whitley Detention Centre is now. Still, her posts at fionaseah.com caused quite a stir of nostalgia online.
“Some ex-students will e-mail me to try and reconnect with their schoolmates, or provide me with more information about the closed schools,” she said.
Ms Seah, who attended St Anthony’s Primary and Hillgrove Secondary, both in Bukit Batok, said: “It is a pity that once schools close, they are gone forever. I hope to let people remember these schools through my blog.”