Singapore Diary (II): Raffles, the Institution

The name “Raffles” is ubiquitous in Singapore. Tourists will tend to think of the Raffles Hotel, founded and named by some enterprising Armenians in the 1880’s and home to the “Singapore Sling” (for the curious, on our recent trip my contingent stayed in respectable but less-storied quarters on Orchard Rd, and no, I did not drink one!). Other “Raffles” manifestations include a shopping centre, a city square and a station on the underground railway (MRT).

Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) was effectively the founder of modern Singapore – the city, that is, rather than the nation. Governor of the area for a couple of relatively brief periods , he established British interests securely in the Malay Peninsula and provided a relatively enlightened legal and social framework for what was fast to become an economic hub.

There are certainly places in Singapore where continuing use of the name “Raffles” indicates an older and more direct link to the name’s famous bearer than some of these can claim. Raffles’ coat of arms features in the central panel of the East window (behind the High Altar) of St Andrew’s Cathedral, where I attended a Sunday liturgy that combined elements of a very traditional Mattins with traces of revival-meeting evangelicalism. This artistic acknowledgement in stained glass reflects Raffles’ choice of the site of St Andrew’s, adjacent to what is now called the Padang, a kind of “common” reserved for public and civic use.

The same coat of arms is used by one of the leading schools of the nation and the region, the Raffles Institution. This – originally the Singapore Institution - was founded by Stamford Raffles himself in 1823 – almost fifty years before Trinity began. Its alumni include two Prime Ministers and three Presidents of Singapore (that’s half or more of the total of each so far). During our tour of Malaysia and Singapore in July, Director of Music Michael Leighton-Jones and the Choir of Trinity College were able to conduct a workshop there. Speaking to the audience to acknowledge their welcome, I had to acknowledge that it was fairly rare to find Trinity conceding seniority in age and tradition to another educational institution in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Trinity Choir and our hosts’ own Raffles Voices each performed for an audience of students (members of choirs from different local schools), and then sang two pieces together, finishing with the beautiful “Shaker Allegro” (“Tis the Gift to be Simple”). The Raffles students were impressive and enthusiastic in their own repertoire of western and local pieces.

Stamford Raffles’ legacy persists in various ways – and each of these reflects in some way the interesting and vigorously hybrid character of Singaporean society. As at Trinity, traditions of educational breadth and excellence are certainly important among them. So too the capacity of Anglicanism to take root and take shape in different settings is evident in Singapore.


Singapore Diary (I): With the Academy of Principals

On July 5th I addressed a gathering of the Academy of Principals of Singapore, a peak body and professional development organization covering all Singapore schools. What follows is a precis of my remarks.

There are many differences between school and University education, and not all are to do with curriculum or level of achievement. Regimentation must give way to a kind of freedom or space, a benign “educational vacuum” as it were, which can draw out the potential of students to fill it.

Yet it is not sufficient to provide that absence of imposed order. Students must also be given a rich set of resources, experiences and choices, the wherewithal to construct their own set of skills, interests and values. Autonomy and capacity for critical thinking are only as useful or as adequate as the context in which they are formed.

Remarkably, while there are some University programs where great emphasis is placed on an aesthetically-rich physical environment, the provision of cultural activities, sporting and social opportunities and more besides, others have none of these. The role of a University in inculcating values and pursuing a particular ethical mission is also entirely variable.

Perhaps this variation is an unavoidable element of the Higher Education reality, but there is a real tension between some versions of it, and what a group like this might actually assume education is – not just the inculcation of knowledge or even of skills, but the formation of creative, capable individuals, through a variety of processes and experiences.

My sense is that educators in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia are quite conscious of the challenge of fostering critical thinking and creativity among their students.

However there is still, both in Australia and in countries like Singapore, a sort of supposed “common sense” which sees the purpose of University education as to equip the student for success in a particular vocation or career, and hence holds that it should focus strongly on a specific set of professional skills.

Yet in a rapidly changing economic world, students need to acquire generic or “soft” skills – those of creative and critical thinking, and of effective communication. Specific vocational training may meanwhile quickly become redundant.

When we think of great Universities, we know we are not simply talking about outstanding lecturers and libraries. These are communities characterized by excellence and diversity, where there is considerable scope and responsibility given to students, but also personal attention and mentoring; where there are inspiring elements of environment as well as of curriculum, and where profound conversations take place in dining halls, as well as or perhaps even more than in lecture halls.

Leadership for that educational world means giving attention to curriculum, but also to more. In the increasingly competitive and differentiated Australian educational environment, the question of whether tertiary education is understood to include the development of the whole person, and preparation for leadership in society, will be one of the crucial tests of a genuinely outstanding educational experience.


Malaysian Diary (II): Nasi Lemak

Some will be aware of my interest – scholarly as well as personal – in food and meals. Naturally, interesting food is one of the benefits of being in a place like Kuala Lumpur, where Malay culture and different varieties of Indian and Chinese influence mingle creatively at table. Those of us travelling here have had remarkable meals both in 5-star restaurants and in a local kedai kopi (coffee house).

Our hotel offered breakfast in various forms, and I tended to choose the local Malay specialty, Nasi Lemak – rich or fatty rice, literally. Nasi Lemak consists of steamed rice prepared with coconut, served with a number of accompaniments: cucumber slices, peanuts, fried ikan bilis (tiny fish, like whitebait or anchovies) and some form of sambal seem to be essential, but there are other options and infinite variations. While Malaysians will often buy their morning Nasi Lemak in paper or leaf packages from vendors, I was curious about how best to balance the tastes at a breakfast buffet table. I asked one local host for advice, and he assured me that it was a matter of individual taste – you construct it as you will.

If this sounds already like a culinary metaphor waiting to happen, well yes – but I was beaten to it by one articulate young Malaysian. Trinity sponsors a public speaking contest annually along with a leading local school, Sri Kuala Lumpur, in Subang Jaya (not far from KL). There, fifteen talented high school students spoke on topics chosen from a list, one of which was “The Sugar and Spice of Life”, and one young woman picked up the Nasi Lemak concept – the combination of contrasting tastes and textures, assembled in just the right way for the particular eater – as a Malaysian contextual version of the topic.

She didn’t win, but the metaphor holds, as does the fact of that speaking competition itself, to illustrate how Trinity is contributing to students from Malaysia and other countries in the region. We often find that they have well-developed skills in quantitative disciplines, but have not had the same opportunities to foster communication, critical thinking and creativity that will be necessary for success in the Australian University system and beyond. I have been struck by how often our hosts have focussed on the importance of what are sometimes also referred to as “soft skills”, and how well they recognize Trinity’s Foundation Studies program as a means to developing them. The TCFS experience amounts to the addition of new flavours or elements to the local Nasi Lemak, complementing the existing ones and making the whole even better.


Malaysian Diary (I): The Legend of P. Ramlee

Even a week in Malaysia is a rich and varied experience. Along with members of the Choir of Trinity College and a number of staff, I have just spent the last few days in and around Kuala Lumpur, where we met with alumni, parents and friends, shared experiences with educators and leaders, and generally soaked up the experience of a vibrant mix of cultures. As Malaysia celebrates 50 years of independence (“Merdeka”) this is an important time for the nation to reflect on its identity.

Trinity has had students from Malaysia since before that time, and in recent years has had many in its Foundation Studies program in particular; but this is the most significant effort the College has made to engage alumni, friends, parents and others connected with us.

The Choir performed two concerts at the new Kuala Lumpur Cultural Centre, and seem to have come close to rock star status with enthused audiences. After singing arrangements of Shakespeare by Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and versions of hits from the Beatles and Burt Bacharach, they presented their own cultural mix of folk songs of various origin, to warm applause. The audiences were quite surprised and thoroughly delighted however, when these two dozen young Australians broke into a jazz-tinged version of Malay folk song “Jong Jong Inai”. Still louder cheers met a medley of popular music from the opus of Malaysian actor, director and composer P. Ramlee. One comic segment in this finale depicted (so I am assured – my Malay is mostly limited to food) three “dowdy bachelors”; three rather younger and more eligible Trinity choristers stepped forward for the roles, to wild acclaim.

P. Ramlee seems always to have the epithet “legendary” when Malaysians mention him. As a kind of mid-twentieth century renaissance man of Malay popular culture, he has elements of what Australians attribute to Barry Humphries, Peter Weir and Slim Dusty, rolled into one. One of Kuala Lumpur’s major streets was renamed after his untimely death, and one half of the huge shopping centre at the base of the massive Petronas Twin Towers next to it is accordingly the “Ramlee Mall”. In at least one store inside, I heard some of the same Ramlee music piped in to accompany the consumer pursuits of a very different Malaysia from the one in which he first became popular. The legacy and legend of P. Ramlee are one complex image of contemporary Malaysia; his music and following link the emerging post-colonial nation of 1957 to the gleaming achievements and aspirations of 2007.