School Days in Singapore

Dec 07, 2009

A walk down memory lane – or, more specifically, the Bras Basah Road, Waterloo Street and Stamford Road of the late 1970s

The fun and carefree times of one’s school days are mixed with the fear of bringing one’s report card home once a month. Going to an all boys’ school in Singapore provided me with both unique and universal experiences.


old school

The school as it used to be

singapore art museum

What used to be the school I went to, now the Singapore Art Museum

anderson building

What used to be the Anderson building, which housed most of the Secondary 2 and 4 classes


The journey to my school at Bras Basah Road, from my home in Ang Mo Kio, sometimes took the better part of an hour. The No. 166 bus passed Sungei Road, along which flowed the then not-so-pleasant-smelling Rochor Canal, where we often caught a glimpse of people perched on the stepped embankment, doing their laundry.

The journey back in the evenings was more interesting. We would catch the semi-express No. 138 at Waterloo Street, near where the row of sarabat stalls used to be. Standing in the packed bus, one of the games we played would involve trying to keep our balance while not holding on to anything. Once, the bus driver braked especially hard and our friend Spider fell head over heels into the stairwell of the exit door, over the lap of an unsuspecting seated lady.

School itself had many unique experiences, including some from the canteen. At one end of the canteen was the snack vendor, Ah Kow, who referred to everyone as “my father’s son”. From him, I bought my daily dose of Chickadees – supposedly chicken-flavoured crisps. The mee siam seller had a pushcart, which he parked on the footpath, against the outside wall of the canteen that ran along Queen Street. After recess, he would transfer his pot of hot gravy and basket of noodles into the pushcart to continue his trade down Waterloo Street.

Sports-related activities were carried out on the school field across Bras Basah Road, which stretched to Stamford Canal near the old National Library. Once, we had to assemble at the field during an evacuation, following a phone call to the school that warned of a bomb. This turned out to be a hoax, probably by one of the schoolboys; the bomb disposal squad found a parcel filled with dusters. We also used Fort Canning Park behind the library for our preparations for cross-country running, while swimming lessons – few and far between – were at the former SAF NCO club on Beach Road or the River Valley Swimming pool.


river valley swimming pool

The disused River Valley swimming pool today

stairs at fort canning hill

Stairway to the top of Fort Canning hill. There was a paved roller skating rink at the top of the stairs which was used by my schoolmates to practice on their skateboards.


Being in the afternoon session in the lower secondary, a few of us would arrive early, spending time at the MPH bookstore along Stamford Road, as well as what was then the National Museum and the National Library. The National Museum was a good place to escape to in those days, as admission was free and we could find a very quiet place to literally chill out – the rarely-visited art gallery. I remember a huge, spooky portrait (I remember it as Sir Stamford Raffles) that stared at us at the end of one hall.

Other hangouts included Bras Basah Road itself, with the many bookshops and some music cassette vendors, the Red House cafe that was popular for its very reasonable set lunches, the sarabat stalls along Waterloo Street, the Shanghai Bookstore along Victoria Street, and sometimes the A&W restaurant at the corner of Dhoby Ghaut, near the Cathay cinema. These places also provided the opportunity for some to meet the girls from Saint Anthony’s Convent and the Infant Jesus Convent nearby.



Secondary 4 timetable

My Secondary 4 timetable


A&W was a popular hangout for some, not just because Tuesdays were Coney Days, or because of the frothy Root Beers in mugs that were chilled in a freezer, but more so because the straws could be used for something other than drinking. With a handful of straws from A&W we managed to terrorise pedestrians along the roads from our bus, with drive-by hits from our mouthfuls of green beans; the diameter of the straws made them excellent pea-shooters.


MPH bookstore

The building that housed the MPH bookstore


Besides the straws, one of my friends introduced the staple shooter. He discovered that by putting a staple balanced between the top and bottom teeth and lightly putting pressure on the staple, the staple could be launched accurately over a distance … I’ll spare the details of the irritation we caused with the staples, but the victims never knew what hit them.


Jerome Lim also blogs at The Long and Winding Road. He spent his secondary school days at St. Joseph’s Institution, in a building which was gazetted for conservation in 1987 and is now the Singapore Art Museum.