Film / Book Reviews

A chronicle of serendipity

Mar 2008    

But, as The ACS Story reaffirms, it’s much more than happy happenstance

The ACS Story
Editors: Earnest Lau and Peter Teo
Publisher: ACS Board of Governors
408 pages. $20
Available from Times The Bookshop outlets

SERENDIPITY – or what?

The veritable treasure chest of a book entitled The ACS Story first wowed the
Anglo-Chinese School family in 2003. It contained so much information, much of it well known, a lot of it true revelations, that – five years on – some of us may still be delving into it to savour more fully the jewels of our alma mater’s origins and the ACSian soul.

Then the irrepressible Chairman of the ACS Board of Governors, Mr Tan Wah Thong, asked for an update of the book.

So work on the second edition got underway. The book is now a softcover, though, not hardback like its predecessor. But, with 408 pages, it has 58 more sheets. It rolled off the presses towards the end of 2007.

And then, on Jan 8, 2008, The Straits Times reported on its front page: “ACS (I) among the world’s best in IB exams”! A sub-heading said: “Students’ average score,
overall pass rate are tops”.

The ST report said: “Nine obtained the perfect score of 45, making up almost half of only 20 candidates worldwide with that score. About 5,500 took the examinations around the world last November. ACS (I) is the first Singapore school to offer IB (the International Baccalaureate) in place of the A-levels.”

Even our Governors’ Chairman Tan Wah Thong could not have foreseen that level of accomplishment! But he had felt that it was time for an update of the ACS story. As he says in the Foreword of the new edition: “There have been many changes and additions to the ACS Landscape since the publication of the first edition … Two private schools, ACS (International) Singapore and ACS (International) Jakarta, have been established … The total student population of the ACS schools has increased from 7,500 to more than 10,000 … ”

Now, isn’t that sheer serendipity, the timing of the book’s second edition and that of the pioneering IB achievements?

A chronicle of serendipity But, as The ACS Story reaffirms, it’s much more than happy happenstance Happy happenstances have been coming our way even before the founding of the first Anglo-Chinese School in 1886.

Twenty-eight years earlier, a 22-yearold teacher in America saw a Methodist Church advertisement for “six young men urgently needed in India”, The ACS Story reveals. Thus James M. Thoburn, who was to become the first Bishop of the Methodist Church in Singapore in 1888, went as a missionary to India. He built up a reputation as perhaps the best-known evangelist in that country. When his renown reached Singapore, he was invited “to expand Methodist work further East”. That he did.

The next happy happenstance of note took place in Poona, India. Another young teacher working for the church, William F. Oldham, went into an evangelistic meeting and came out wanting to become a missionary. After completing his training in America, he was re-assigned to Singapore instead of Bangalore. That change came about after a church elder – maybe uncharacteristically – gave his superior an ultimatum: “Bishop, if you do not appoint W. F. Oldham and wife to Singapore, I don’t want to have anything to do with the case.” And so ACS’ founder came to us!

Such gems enrich the book in terms of content and decorate it in the literary sense. The sense of history that they so engagingly instil in the empathetic reader is the book’s true worth. The ACS Story takes us through the ACSian family’s triumphs and tensions that were and are very much a signifi cant part of the social and political development of Singapore.

In some respects, including its physical size, the book is a weighty tome. It is meant to be a serious history of the ACS family of seven schools and a passionately loyal and supportive Old Boys’ Association. But it is not all heavy going. It is a book well worth spending time with. Take it not in one sitting as at a banquet, but savour the nourishing dishes and piquant delicacies as at a conveyor-belt buffet, choosing what you want to partake, taking your time, leaving it and coming back to it as and when.

Feel free to taste the best dishes more than once. As you chew on the words, imbibe the moods and moments captured in photographs old and new. You will not feel overfed, I assure you.

The original editor Earnest Lau (who needs no introduction among ACSians) was joined by co-editor Peter Teo (who edits Methodist Message) in refi ning text, broadening research and writing fresh passages. Editor Lau says of his latest
undertaking: “… it has not been easy to put together a coherent account, nor has it been possible to deal with all the issues which the School faced in its history”.

Thus the “snobbery” issue of the not-too-distant past that gave ACS much unwanted infamy gets only passing mentions. A pity, I think, for that episode was a traumatic test of the ACS character.

Did we pass the test? Editor Lau says that “it will be for future historians to amend, expand and improve” the book. I am no historian. I just know that more than a few teacher friends, including those from so-called rival schools, have no hesitation in noting the confidence, the social graces and a certain charm among ACS boys.

Among ACS girls, too, I hope.

“There was no ‘master plan’,” Editor Lau says, “unless giving an education to as many who could benefit from it qualifies as one, and the School developed as a private Christian institution in response to the educational requirements of Singapore society … ACS is the fruit of the labour of missionaries, teachers, administrators and Old Boys, whose story is marvellous to record.”

So, you see, we have been blessed with serendipity, but we have also tried our best. Our motto remains The Best Is Yet To Be. But ACS and ACSians have achieved much of the best. That is the continuing ACS story, folks!

Peter Lim Heng Loong, an ACSian from the Year of 1956, is a former Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times.


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