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The Old Rafflesians' Association (ORA)


It was principal Bishop who spearheaded the formation of the Association. From then on, very prominent and high profile Rafflesains guided its growth. Records are not available for long stretches to establish what the Association did to foster camaraderie among the alumni or the contributions it made to the development of RI, though we do know that the Hullett Memorial Library and the Hullett Scholarship were of its doing.


The ORA, though not particularly active, lingered on in the shadows, sustained by some committed individuals.There were times, in the sixties for example, when it could hardly summon a quorum to proceed with the annual general meeting. Dr. C.J. Poh, as a result, was forced to stay on as president year after year. Management committee meetings were held at his home, between him, the principal and a member of the teaching staff who was made to function as secretary, though not a Rafflesian.


The ORA continued in existence but it was not a force to be reckoned with. The authorities did not give any attention to its views. It was not founded on a sizeable membership base on which would normally depend the credibility of a similar organisation.


Perhaps there were reasons for this. The ORA did not possess any marketable products. It did not have a permanent office until 1986. Old Rafflesians did not enjoy any special privileges vis-à-vis RI. Their sons did not have priority in admission.There was, hence, neither advantage nor urgency in identifying with it. There were no rallying points in the way of an alumni house, a newsletter or regular events, which brought former Rafflesian together. Constant staff renewal did not encourage them to re-visit their alma mater. RI was a fully-funded government school, which did not call for alumni support. There was no urgency to build firm bonds. As Mr. Lee Kuan Yew said, "A government school is like a hotel. Students come and go. They do not become owners with a lasting interest in the future of the school."


Quite often it was claimed that ORA came to life only when the annual dinner was around the corner but even then it was a small scale affair attracting a small number of diehards who made up less than ten tables. It then settled into a prolonged slumber until it was time to organize the next dinner.


It would be fallacious, however, to presume that Old Rafflesians were an indifferent lot, emptied of all feelings for their alma mater and resistant to any appeal to identify with it or its fortunes. Reunion dinners were a common feature. The class of '48 raised and donated $100,000 during the sixties for the welfare of deserving pupils. Both the ORA and individual Rafflesians never turned away from appeals to support sports groups. The Raffles Advisory Committee, formed in 1969, wholeheartedly supported Philip Liau in the development of the Grange Road premises. ORA, unknown to many, did its bit whenever the school approached it for help.


The tide began to change in the seventies. Whatever the prompting, there appeared on the scene a group of younger Old Rafflesians who got themselves organized and took over the management of the ORA. Among them were Tan Huck Chye, Chan Peng Mun, Chan Shelt Tsong, Roney Tan, Dileep Nair and Tan Jui Meng, to name just a few. This group, eventually to be headed by Chan Peng Mun, set about the task of putting the Association on a firm footing. Rightfully, they focused their initial attention on building up the membership base. A variety of strategies was employed chief among which was to whip up interest and draw attention to the existence of an alumni body. This thrust was maintained into the eighties and the nineties, with some new Rafflesians coming on board, people like Jenny Lim. Peng Mun was to remain president right down to 1994, when he passed the baton to Professor Tan Ser Kiat.


In 1979, Chan Shelt Tsong conceived and implemented the idea of inviting Rafflesians to trace, as far back as possible, ancestors who were themselves Rafflesians. It took the form of a contest, with prizes for those who could establish the largest number of relatives, generation after generation, who had been schooled in either RI or RGS. What in effect he was seeking to achieve was to ignite a Rafflesian passion. The winner was Mrs Lim Kok Ann. She came up with four generations of 45 Rafflesians spanning more than 120 years. Runner-up was Kenneth Koh Tee Hock who claimed Rafflesian roots over 70 years, beginning with his grand-uncle Song Ong Siang.


As the Rafflesian family of schools grew with RJC coming on board and to keep the three united, the ORA constitution was amended to provide for three chapters. The RI, RGS and RJC chapters. Each chapters was entitled to organise its own activities peculiar to itself. In 1999, for example, the RGS chapter organised a grand farewell for retiring principal Carmee Lim. Conscious of the feeling that ORA was biases towards the boys' school, the 1991 annual dinner highlighted RGS. The March 2001 issue of the ORA newsletter carried a footnote from the editor, Sylvia Tay, which read "Except for a minority, who did their Pre-U in RI or are married to RI boys. RGS girls have always complained that they do not feel that they are part of ORA. Many do not see the advantages of joining ORA." An article in the same issue claimed that in an attempt to woo the girls into the Rafflesian community, it extended a gesture of goodwill by having the first RGS Old Girl, Justice Judith Prakash, as the Guest-of-Honour for the 77th ORA annual dinner. She is also the chairperson of the RGS Board of Governors and has been since 1996.


While at Grange Road, space was provided within the building for ORA to operate an administrative centre. After the move to Bishan, a more permanent place was made available, which the Association renovated and furnished to serve as a respectable alumni office. This was the practice with the independent schools visited in UK in 1986, when Dr. Tony Tan Keng Yam led a delegation of principals to study how good independent schools conducted themselves. It was observed that the alumni office was located within the school building and a solemn ceremony was observed as the senior boys graduated and were welcomed by the alumni. With the RI going independent in 1990, it became evident that identification with the alumni was going to prove crucial.


Chan Shelt Tsong worked on the production of a regular ORA newsletter, ably supported by Dr Wong Wee Nam. To circulate this as widely as possibly among the Rafflesians, a database had to be installed. From this emerged the compilation of the Rafflesian Directory, a product of the painstaking labours of Jenny Lim and George Abraham. It provided a means for Old Rafflesians to establish contact with long lost schoolmates. It served as a rallying point and helped to generate interest. Attractively packaged, it was launched in 1993, with a complimentary copy presented to Dr. Wee Kim Wee, then President of the Republic of Singapore.


Chan Shelt Tsong's association with ORA went back to 1977. He is the type who works silently, diligently, passionately and unobtrusively but effectively and purposefully. One would be well advised to steer clear of him when the stakes are stacked against RI or RJC. He figured among the few who took on the responsibility of organising the annual dinner, and together with Bernard Chan and Tay Boon Seng, managed to inject something novel and creative each year right down to 1991. They transformed the event from a 20-odd-table affair into a 100-table gala event. This was achieved in 1977 and thereafter it was held at a top-rated hotel. The editor of the last issue of the newsletter wrote on behalf of the then ORA management committee commending him for his selfless devotion and support, above the call of duty, to ORA all the years. He continues to serve on the RJC Advisory Committee.


In 1988, the Standard Chartered/ORA Affinity Card was introduced. This was the very first of such cards issued to any private organisation and was to be emulated by other banks and organisations. It not only identified the holder as a Rafflesian but also generated a sense of belonging to the Rafflesian tradition and heritage.


To add further stature and prestige to the ORA, the practice of conferring Honorary Life Membership on prominent Rafflesians was initiated in I 993.Among those so honoured were Dr. Wee Kim Wee, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minster Goh Chok Tong and Ambassador Tommy Koh. During Professor Tan Ser Kiat's term as president, a further prestigious event, the Raffles Series of Lectures, was launched in 1999. Professor Tommy Koh delivered the inaugural lecture.


The Past-versus-Present games, which used to be held periodically in the past, became a regular feature and developed into the Rafflesian Games and Family Day in 1997. Former Headmaster E. Wijeysingha prompted the idea. Professor Tan Ser Kiat invited Dr. K.K. Chow, the convenor of the Past-versus-Present Games, to explore the idea. He did just that and it has remained a regular annual feature. The event brings together Old Rafflesians and their families, parents, teachers and pupils of the three schools who share in a day of fun, activities and sporting encounters. The Raffles Parents' Association has played a major role in organising family activities and a food fair, with Sharyn Mah taking on a leading role. This provides yet another platform upon which to build cohesion between past and present and to bond.


The ORA has, since the late seventies, provided RI, in particular, and the other two schools, in general with moral and material support. From the sidelines it has watched and risen in support when circumstances demanded. When RI advanced the cause of independence, even when there were doubts as to the wisdom of the move, the ORA stood by it. When it was decided to first build a substantial financial base and then consider independence, the ORA took the lead in raising funds. It may have registered its regret when the pre-university classes were withdrawn from RI but once the decision was made it threw its weight behind RJC.


The then Headmaster realised that in the long term that alumni support was going to be crucial. He did not think then in terms of funds or of using the ORA to tap the pockets of Old Rafflesians. Rather, as RI embarked on a new and somewhat uncertain course into the future, he envisioned it drawing its moral strength and spirit from the close affinity between his pupils and their predecessors. With RGS already independent and RJC about to follow suit, the relevance of ORA cannot be over-emphasised.


ORA had chosen to hold its 1990 annual dinner, themed "The Dawn of a New Era" in RI's new premises at Bishan. This was hardly a matter of convenience, as the stuffy non-ventilated hall could not have made the evening comfortable. One suspects that the underlying motive was to endorse the new status of RI and to showcase the many and varied facilities, as if to say that the decision to go independent had brought advantages. Guest-of-Honour, Professor S Jayakumar, in his message stated that the gathering in the new premises was significant in that it demonstrated the collective interest in the continued well-being of their alma mater, especially when it was on the threshold of yet another important milestone in its long history. The future of Raffles Institution in Singapore, he said, would depend not only on the headmaster, teachers and pupils but also on the support and encouragement it received from its former students.


The ORA has been a major fund-raiser for the three schools. In 1992, it mounted "Project Heartstrings". It called upon Old Rafflesians to rally to the call of their old schools. They went on to donate a total of $2.4 million to RI's Development Fund. At the 1987 annual dinner, Rafflesians pledged and donated close to $1 million. Each year, from as far back as the eighties, it organised a jogathon for the three schools, which enabled each to raise substantial sums. These do not include donations of varying denominations made privately by Old Rafflesians each time the headmaster went out with hat in hand. When Jenny Lim ran a donation draw, it was not one ticket that they picked up but booklets of tickets by the dozens. True to the Rafflesian tradition, ORA was not wanting in raising funds for the larger community. A golf tournament in 1992 raked in $17,000, all of which went to the Bishan Home for the Intellectually Disabled.


Dr. Chan Peng Mun held the fort as President right down to 1994 and then passed the baton to Professor Tan Ser Kiat. For 15 years, Dr. Chan guided the ORA, and when he stepped down, it had been laid on a very firm foundation. He was Rafflesian to the core. More often than not, he dipped into his own pocket and closed his clinic and surgery to officiate as doctor in attendance at the school's sports meets.


Long before Professor Tan Ser Kiat took over the presidency, he was actively involved in the life of the school, finding ways to enlarge its resources and preserve its image. A school publication of 1994 described him as "energetic, affable and definitely committed". Active during his days in RI, he continued his involvement by serving his profession and the larger community in a number of ways. He found the time to lead the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled (MINDS) and made quite an impact on the local and international medical scene. As President of ORA, he was automatically an ex-officio member of the RI Board of Governors. In 1999, he became Chairman of the Board and passed the leadership of ORA to Lim Soon Hock. It was during the latter's time that ORA launched, in 2000, into the technological age by creating a portal of its own. This replaced the newsletter. It widened the scope for Rafflesians aIl over the world to tap into the activities of ORA.


It was Professor Tan Ser Kiat who founded the Leong Chee Whye Scholarship out of deference to a respected schoolmate, businessman and community leader. It was intended for any RI boys who was in need of financial assistance. Besides, a number of others, either Rafflesian or in some way related to Rafflesians, came forward to establish scholarships. The father of Professor Jayakumar set up the Mrs. Shanmugam Scholarship. In 1988, the family of teacher Ms Goh Hoon Meng, provided the capital sum to establish a scholarship in her memory. The family of Philip Liau chose to mount a scholarship in his name, to which quite a number of Rafflesians during his principalship donated generously. In I 987, Tan Geok Ser, created a scholarship to be awarded to a deserving prefect. The Loo Ting Swee Scholarship for a top judoka was added to the list in 1993. Besides these, there were already nine other scholarships for academic achievement carrying the names of previous principals and Old Rafflesians, some of which were instituted as early as 1900.

The ORA has been a strong pillar of support for the entire Rafflesian community. Each time there was a crisis, it closed ranks. When funds were needed, it did not retreat. It may have remained dormant and practically inactive for decades but when the Rafflesian schools, particularly RI and RJC encountered problems, a core of Rafflesians took command and converted the Association into a strong and credible body.


The ORA has been a strong pillar of support for the entire Rafflesian community. Each time there was a crisis, it closed ranks. When funds were needed, it did not retreat. It may have remained dormant and practically inactive for decades but when the Rafflesian schools, particularly RI and RJC encountered problems, a core of Rafflesians took command and converted the Association into a strong and credible body.


As RI and RJC forge ahead and set out to tackle what lies in their paths, they must look back and draw on what sustained them and converted them into powerhouses, not only in rugby but also in all areas. They continue to receive the top brains among the young of the nation. They will continue to sit at the top of the academic ladder. The future will demand much more from them and they will have to measure up.


RI and RJC have made an impact. They retain scope of continuing to do so. The nation is engaged in a process of re-making Singapore and hopes to thrive on innovation and creativity. This is more likely to come from those who display the ability and capacity. It would make sense for RI and RJC to ask what they can do to contribute to the process. The Raffles Programme holds out promise. Given the brightest of students, the scope that independence offers, sophisticated resources, RI and RJC must rise to a level where they nurture innovators and researchers and not just scholars who count distinctions in examination grades. Very naturally, their students will rise to high positions in society where they will hold sway over the mass of others. The inclination to improve the lot of others must accompany them. It is upon this basis that RI and RJC will be judged in the future and not on its past grandeur and academic scoreboard. The gryphon will show the way, just as it has always done.


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