“Model student” TV: The Inter-school Debates and the Politics of Education by Clarissa Oon

Clarissa Oon

As a pimply, bespectacled adolescent in the second half of the 1980s, one of my favourite TV shows was — not Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas dancing with guns, flamingoes and bikini babes in Miami Vice — but watching other pimply, bespectacled Singaporean teens engage in verbal jousting on the inter-school English-language debates. Aside from looming large in the kind of squeaky-clean popular culture promoted by local TV in the 1970s and 1980s, the school debates were significant in marking the possibilities and limits of critical thinking in the education system at that time.

The debate competition was one of homegrown television’s longest-running series ever, inaugurated in 1969 — six years after Singapore got its own TV station with formation of the government-owned Radio Television Singapore (RTS) — and ending in 1991, by which time RTS had become the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), a semi-government statutory board. The school debate series, with its signature brassy, staccato opening tune and star speakers who went on to become major public figures, was very popular for its time, inspiring regular press coverage and forum page letters from fans and detractors alike. It was under the bright lights of the SBC studios, in their school uniforms, that audiences first glimpsed the elocutionary firepower of PAP Ministers and MPs past and present like Vivian Balakrishnan and Ho Peng Kee, noted legal eagles like Edmond Pereira, Eleanor Wong and Walter Woon, and deejay and ventriloquist Victor Khoo. During that period, once every two years, SBC would bring together junior colleges, pre-universities and secondary schools for an English-language inter-school debate competition. This would alternate with a biennial English debate for universities and tertiary institutions. SBC also televised inter-school debates in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

For the growing number of English-speaking viewers, the English-language debates made for good entertainment in the days before the genesis of homegrown drama serials and sitcoms in English. There was something about watching two opposing teams stake out different intellectual positions and lobbing attacks and counter-attacks at each other — both premeditated as well as spontaneous, by turns fumbling and brilliant — that made for compelling watching in the pre-reality TV days. But entertainment alone does not explain why the debates had such traction during the 1970s and 1980s, and why the state broadcaster and schools bothered to invest significant resources in them — in 1981, for example, prizes for the inter-school debates totalled $16,500, a princely sum at the time, and included desktop computers. By the 1980s, the competition had become such a big deal among schools that there were reports of participating students being allowed to skip classes to prepare for each debating session, and of other students being roped in to help them in their research.

In my view, the school debates were part of a attempt by the establishment to create controlled platforms that could stimulate bright students and breed a future political, intellectual and cultural elite. In a depoliticised education environment where student activism had been steadily weeded out, the TV debates were also a rare release valve for the young to speak publicly on controversial topics. Remember that this was the 1970s and 1980s, when the Government was steadily tightening its grip on print and broadcast media, and way before the Internet opened the floodgates to more muscular political expression. As then-journalist and now media academic Cherian George noted in 1992: “At times, (the debate series) was the most politically daring programme on TV, with speakers broadcasting opinions that would normally be kept within four walls, if voiced at all.”[1] In a 2010 Straits Times obituary piece paying tribute to the late broadcasting veteran S. Chandramohan — SBC’s director of news and current affairs who started the debates — former broadcast journalist and diplomat Chan Heng Wing wrote that the final of one school debate in the 1970s “featured the motion: ‘That Singapore is not a democracy because there is only one party in Parliament.’ This was 40 years ago and considered very risque at that time”.[2]

Right from the outset, the People’s Action Party (PAP) envisioned a school system that was not simply about education for education’s sake, but based on the needs of the nation, as its party manifesto of 1959 made clear. Its early years in power saw the government moving to eradicate illiteracy by promoting universal primary education and expanding secondary education, including technical education that could provide the workers needed for the economy’s rapid industrialisation. But the government in the 1960s also faced numerous challenges trying to assert its authority over all schools — the most resistant to control by the Ministry of Education (MOE) were the government-aided Chinese-medium schools that had its own school committees comprising prominent businessmen and intellectuals in the Chinese community. The influence of communism and the pro-labour leftist movement coursing through these schools and the Chinese-medium Nanyang University (Nantah) led to periodic arrests of allegedly communist teachers and students, who were detained without trial under sweeping powers given to the Government by the Internal Security Act. The government maintained that the militant activist climate of the time demanded the enactment of such powers; then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew noted ruefully the “parlous position” of the ministry in the 1950s and 1960s when “students suspected of being government informers were assassinated. Hapless school principals who valiantly tried to assert their authority were beaten up. It was in the late 1960s before our authority was established”.[3]

In the process, the government also had to address issues of academic freedom and whether it was infringing on the autonomy of educational institutions; these were questions raised not just in the Chinese schools but also by English-educated intellectuals. Lee addressed these issues in a wide-ranging, hard-hitting 1966 speech to University of Singapore (SU) students, at a time when some university leaders and students were protesting the introduction of the “suitability certificate”, which all students had to obtain from the Internal Security Department before they could enrol in either SU or Nantah, right up till 1978 when this requirement was abolished. Slamming the SU staff and students’ “purist attitude” which he said was tantamount to “the University giving cover to Communist activities under the banner of academic freedom”, Lee stated categorically his government’s view that academic freedom did not mean that an educational institution was above the state. He said: “I am quite sure, whether it is in Harvard, or Yale…or Moscow or Peking, that if you want the human mind to flourish, to seek the truth, then you must establish certain conditions in which you do not pre-determine what is to be the result of a person’s research (sic.). .. Now, what does it, in fact, imply? Does it imply that your University is above the State?” His answer was that the value of a university “is determined by your usefulness (to society)… It is not academic freedom in vacuo”. He went on to add, guns blazing:

“I do not want my bright people believing that they are citizens of the world and we, having educated them at an enormous expense, they then go out believing that they belong to a world fraternity (and) go grass-hopping from university to university… Is that what I want? I say, if that is the purpose of this whole exercise, let us close down the university. Or call it just the Teachers’ TrainingCollege. Then there will be no trouble about academic freedom, autonomy and so on. What do I want? I want administrators.”[4]

Essentially, the job of the schools was to nurture technocrats and workers to power a developing economy, not trouble-makers puffed up by ideological notions and intellectual principles that Lee believed had no place in Singapore’s context as a developing nation. In March 1968, PAP Old Guard leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye was concurrently appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore and Minister of Science and Technology (a newly-created ministry at the time, which no longer exists). The then University of Singapore Students Union (USSU) criticised his appointment as “incompatible with a thriving and independent academic community”, adding that “with the new administration, the already faint line between the University and the Government becomes a blurred one”.[5] Dr Toh held those two positions until 1975, a tenure marked by a crackdown on an increasingly activist USSU leadership demonstrating on behalf of blue-collar workers and against the eviction of squatters. This culminated in the deportation of six foreign students for organising demonstrations and the arrest of USSU president Tan Wah Piow on a rioting charge at the end of 1974; released after a year to do his National Service in the army, Tan fled to Britain[6] where he has been in exile ever since. From the 1980s onwards, campus activism would become a relic of the past.

The crackdown on dissent led to the pendulum swinging to the other extreme: of schools and universities, teachers and students in danger of becoming faceless, timorous and apathetic, intent only on the pursuit of academic results. Lee also had strong views about this, deploring their lack of interest in and understanding of the problems facing Singapore society. Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that in the 1960s, many schools were built at great haste to educate a youthful population and keep them off the streets. In a 1966 speech, Lee bemoaned what he called the “mass-production” of schools and teachers, which he compared unfavourably to his colonial-era schooldays at the elite Raffles Institution: “When I went to school, the school meant something to me. It had a name. It had a history. It had a roll of illustrious products. It had great teachers. It had principals who were proud of the school and grew up with the school…. But this is not so now. The school is a convenience.” The result, he said, was a “literate but not educated population”, which can “answer all the quiz questions but which has no social feel or civic sense”.[7]

From the late 1960s onwards, the next phase of education policy involved creating more institutions of academic distinction as well as special programmes tailored for the best and brightest students. The purpose was to stretch them intellectually, make them cognizant of the particular challenges facing the nation and impart to them values such as civic consciousness. In 1969, junior colleges began to be rolled out to cater for students with good “O” level results and to prepare them for the “A” level examination. Unlike pre-university classes housed in secondary schools – the norm before junior colleges – these were specialist, purpose-built colleges with better teachers and facilities like lecture theatres, libraries, audio-visual aids rooms and sports fields. To ensure all-rounded and not just academic progress, students were required to also participate in extra-curricular activities and community work[8] To keep them engaged in current affairs, an annual Pre-university Seminar was started in 1970, in which several-hundred, specially-selected students from all the junior colleges and pre-tertiary institutions were hothoused at one of the local universities for several days and exposed to daily talks by ministers, academics and NGO and private sector leaders, as well as taken on field trips to government agencies. The first seminar was organised entirely by the MOE, but in recent years, different junior colleges, polytechnics and other schools have taken turns to help organise it. It is now so much a fixture of the pre-tertiary landscape that it is known simply as the Pre-U Seminar.

The TV school debates were conceptualised in a similar vein. Unlike school and university debates in the West where the motion may be purely philosophical or even tongue-in-cheek, the motions of the SBC debates tended to revolve around issues or tensions confronting Singapore politics and society. They could even be a very specific scrutiny of the pros and cons of national policy such as Medisave, the compulsory medical savings scheme, which meant that teenagers would have to get into the nuts and bolts of such technocratic policies. A sample of various years’ motions for the English-language inter-school debate finals will give you an idea of what I mean:

1981: “That cultural differences will not prevent Singapore from adopting the Japanese approach to productivity.”

1983: “That Medisave is a necessary scheme to meet the health needs of all Singaporeans.”

1985: “That the yuppies in Singapore are alienated from the Government because they prefer softer options.”

1989: “It is possible for Singaporeans to be both cosmopolitan and nationalistic.”

1991: “Singapore is becoming more a hotel than a home.”

It would appear that the topics chosen for the debates became more conservative as the 1970s shaded into the 1980s. In 1969, for example, one debate saw Raffles Girls School squaring off against St Patrick’s School on whether film censorship here was too severe, with the girls arguing that the censors were “over-cautious in their attitude and playing the role of baby-sitters to the public”. To show that censorship was not too severe and reflected the views and values of society, their opponents claimed that cinema halls were also packed, to the extent that black-market tickets were being sold, showing the public concurred to some extent with the censors.[9] The topic in question gave the two teams leeway for genuine and vigorous debate. But by 1988, some former school debaters were arguing that the debates had become a bore. One of them — then law graduate and now Senior Counsel Francis Xavier — blamed the “highbrow topics” chosen by SBC which “tend to be dry and dour” and “stifling”, leading young debaters to be overly-reliant on research rather than their own ideas and producing a “regurgitation of other people’s ideas and newspaper cuttings”.[10]

By the late 1980s, the once-feisty school debates were running out of steam, even as the last two years of its run, 1989 and 1991, were remembered for how underdogs Yishun Junior College skewered opponents from ostensibly more “elite” schools through eloquence and wit. Another former debater, top lawyer Edmond Pereira, was quoted observing that “the dynamism, the thrust and parry of the old days, they’re not there anymore”. He said: “I think our debaters today are a product of their society — they’re cautious. That makes it boring for both judges and viewers. They should be merciless, get straight into the heart. People want to see blood spilled.”[11]

After the inter-school debates were canned, SBC televised occasional regional debates between Asia-Pacific tertiary institutions. In 2007, MediaCorp – the privatised, multi-media conglomerate that SBC had evolved into – brought the inter-school debates into the new millennia with The Arena, a debating series that saw secondary school speakers sparring on a snazzy, arena-style set. But none of these programmes ever matched the popularity and influence of the 1970s and 1980s school debates. Indeed, it could be argued that local current affairs television programming never regained the stature it had in the 1980s, when long-running programmes like Friday Background and Feedback were helmed by authoritative hosts like Kenneth Liang and Viswa Sadasivan. This could be attributed to MediaCorp’s failure to keep up with the demands of a better-educated and more discerning viewership, which has turned to other media for political and current affairs discourse. The demise of the school debates raises other questions of the tangled relationship between education and politics in Singapore. While policy-makers have tried to engineer a responsible, active society through the education system, is it ever possible to do so without creating a state of groupthink? How does one impose conditions on freedom of expression and dissent in academic institutions without throwing out the baby with the bathwater? The inter-school debates may no longer hold sway, but the tensions they symbolised remain with us.

Clarissa Oon is a full-time writer and mother who has written about the arts, politics and social issues.

[1] The Sunday Times, 26 July 1992

[2] The Straits Times, 6 September 2010

[3] Report on the Ministry of Education 1978, (Singapore: Ministry of Education, 1979), p. iii

[4] Speech by Mr Lee Kuan Yew on “Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility” at the Historical Society, University of Singapore, 26 November 1966

[5] The Straits Times, 16 March 1968

[6] The Straits Times, 12 December 1974 and 20 October 1976

[7] Speech by the Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, at the opening of the Third Asian Teachers’ Seminar at the Singapore Conference Hall, 20 November 1966

[8] The Straits Times, 16 January 1968 and18 December 1968

[9] The Straits Times, 2 February 1969

[10] The Straits Times, 23 October 1988

[11] Ibid.