By Chua Jun Yan (13A01A)
I remember my Form Teacher handing me a mammoth tome in Year 1. The title of the 500-page hardback was The Eagle Breeds a Gryphon. On the cover was the name EUGENE WIJEYSINGHA—the Headmaster credited with leading RI to independence. He featured prominently in our History classes, when we learnt about the past of the school.
For many years, Mr Wijeysingha was a mythical figure. Then on 4 December 2013, twenty of us got to meet the man himself at his Seletar Hills home. We were an eclectic group, comprising representatives from Year 1 to 6. Some of us entered RI after primary school, while others joined RI at the junior college level after taking the O-level examinations. All of us were there simply because we were interested to hear from the legendary individual. We were chaperoned by Mrs Cheryl Yap (Head, RI Archives & Museum), and accompanied by several members of staff as well as an alumnus from the Class of 1965.
For over two hours, Mr Wijeysingha engaged us in a full and frank discussion about a range of issues. He shared stories from the past, as well as his insights about the education landscape in contemporary Singapore. What struck me was the dexterity of Mr Wijeysingha’s mind, as well as the depth of his knowledge about RI’s history. He adopted a Socratic approach, posing thought-provoking questions and challenging our assumptions. Ever the gentleman, he indulged us with his hospitality.
Below are snippets of the conversation which transpired:
On the Value of History and the Up-coming Museum
Mr Wijeysingha argued forcefully that RI would be no different from any other school if it did not cherish its history. When asked for his thoughts on the upcoming RI Archive and Museum, which is currently under construction, he expressed his view that the whole of the campus should be a living museum. He felt that every wall and every corner should tell a story.
On Developing Character
Mr Wijeysingha commented that charity begins at home. He felt that Rafflesians needed to start by helping under-privileged students within the school, before moving out to the local community. He also shared that character was the product of many factors, including the home environment, and could not be attributed solely to schools alone.
On Inclusivity and Elitism
Mr Wijeysingha believed that the individual Rafflesian must be the agent of change in bolstering the public perception of RI. He affirmed the importance of simple, humble, ordinary acts in creating a culture of inclusivity. He articulated his conviction that Rafflesians must be able to empathise with the wider community, especially since some of them would eventually pursue policy-making as a career.
Mr Wijeysingha recalled that in the 1960s, a group of teachers had voluntarily gotten together to create an informal fund to help needy students. Every teacher would contribute $1 from their monthly salary. The fund would go towards covering expenditures like students’ Cambridge examination fees, or the costs of their new uniforms. While Mr Wijeysingha conceded that RI has become less socio-economically diverse over time, he felt this was a symptom of a broader issue with Singaporean society as a whole.
On Stories from the Past
Mr Wijeysingha shared several interesting anecdotes. For example, when he was a History teacher in 1963, the whole school (then at Bras Basah) was evacuated after a bomb threat was received. This was at the height of Konfrontasi between Indonesia and Malaysia. After the students were accounted for, it turned out that two boys were missing—they were the perpetrators of the hoax and were watching the pandemonium from the Capitol!
Another time, during the 1964 riots, Mr Wijeysingha and his colleagues had to drive stranded students home, after schools were told to dismiss everyone. Following the episode, a committee was formed to maintain a supply of biscuits and water in school, in case students were unable to leave the campus during periods of unrest. Thankfully, the biscuits never had to be eaten and they eventually went stale.
Mr Wijeysingha mentioned that the rugby team was much engrained in the school culture during his time. Alumni would visit him in his office and lobby him for more support. He recalled that the rugby boys would have their own table in the canteen at Grange Road. Three decades on, some of us could only smile and think: The more things change, the more things stay the same.