St Joseph’s Institution at Bras Basah Road, (now Singapore Art Museum), has a story to tell. It tells of the De La Salle Brothers who hailed from France in 1852, to set up a school in Singapore; but more than that, it is a story of love, compassion and grace filtered into the souls of Josephians who entered its portal to receive an education, once upon a time.
We are at The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Suntec City Mall and not at W Eye Clinic where the interview was supposed to have taken place. His rationale for not having the interview at his clinic was because the air-condition comes on only in the late morning and the place may not be easy for me to locate. He called to inform me he would be late and he apologised when we met up. That is Dr Gerard Nah for you, the unassuming and considerate gentleman.
Love, gratitude, and compassion have been the core values that rooted and compassed Dr Gerard Nah’s years in SJI and beyond. These set of beliefs and qualities define and manifest him in his roles as husband, father, doctor and servant leader of SJI Old Boys’ Association (OBA).
Part 1: Family members who were first and second generation Josephians.
Like most migrants, Dr Nah’s grandfather, Nah Yong Muah, from a village in Swatow, China, migrated to Singapore for economic reasons. Although there was no attempt to trace his genealogy beyond his grandfather’s generation, the family does have an ancestral home which attest to their middle class status.
His great – grand – father was cognizant of the value of education and saw it as an avenue to a better life. “My grandfather was told: you must do well in school or we’ll send you back to China,” he laughs.
His grandfather was schooled in SJI in 1907. But why SJI? I ask.
“SJI is a mission school founded by Rev Father Jean – Marie Beurel, an early Catholic missionary from France who came to Singapore to teach the poor. The school was set up to educate the last, the lost and the least,” he says. And so the order of Christian Brothers who themselves were founded by St John Baptist De La Salle, crystallized.
SJI being a Catholic school was not an area of concern for his great – grand – father as his focus was on education. “Being traditional Chinese he would not want his children to convert as that would threaten their ancestral heritage,” he recalls.
There were few schools in Singapore in those days and many were vernacular schools. His grandfather saw the value of an English education offered by SJI with the mind –set of educating his son in the English language but imbibe him with traditional values of culture and heritage from home.
Dr Nah’s grandfather passed on before he was born. The little he knew was gleaned from his late father. He worked in the civil service as a clerk, had one wife, fathered fourteen children, and dabbled as a Teochew Opera Performer. To save money, he would often skip lunch and drink only water.
As a second generation Josephian, his father started his education in SJI in 1932 and sat for his Cambridge School Leaving Certificate in 1941, at the age of 16. That was a time of intense apprehension over the impending attack on Singapore by the Japanese forces. The day after completing his last paper in December 1941, the Japanese started dropping bombs on Singapore. His father’s cohort was worried that their exam papers may never reach Cambridge as it was rumored that the ship carrying the papers had been torpedoed by a U-boat along the way. They were quite resigned to the fate of having to retake the exam but was relieved to be told later that the papers did arrive safely.
Armed with the Cambridge Certificate, his father went on to become a health inspector after the war. As for the impact of SJI on his father, Dr Nah has this to say: “Being a monolingual school, the lessons were taught only in English. The Brothers who taught them were men who took on the vow of celibacy so that they could give their all to the mission in which they pledged. They were recruited from Ireland and as Irish Brothers, they taught the boys the way they would have been taught in Ireland – with iron discipline.”
His grandfather would say to his father, “When you are naughty you get caning in school and when you come home you get caning again.” So what was discipline like in those days? I ask.
“The Irish Brothers were physically big with brute strength so they whack the boys hard,” he laughs. “Back then, discipline was harsh so it’s not unusual. Harsh discipline was nonetheless tempered with love and dedication,” he adds.
His father excelled in SJI. He valued the teachings the Brothers imbued in him. He even accepted the Catholic religion and would attend mass daily. Being the eldest son in the family he felt responsible for carrying the family tradition and so did not publicize his faith nor formally became a Catholic till much later in life. Through diligence and perseverance his father was promoted to Senior Health Inspector. He passed on during the SARS epidemic.
SJI was also a big part of his father, Nah Whee Tuan’s life. As a young boy, the elder Nah would regale his son with stories of his school life and introduce him to the food stalls around the school like the Indian Rojak and Mee Siam stalls along Waterloo Street.
His father lived an exemplary life for his son, Dr Nah, to emulate. Family values and SJI shaped him for what he was – a good man, imbued with integrity, responsibility and honesty, which he in turn translated these values to his son.
Part 2 Dr Nah’s personal anecdotes as a third generation Josephian.
In 1975, Dr Nah started school in St Michael’s School, the primary sector of SJI. By his time, most of the teachers were no longer the Irish Brothers. Nonetheless he remembers with fondness his Principal, Mr Ho, and his Chinese teacher, Mr Leo. He has happy memories of the school but what impacted him most was the Faith in which he has this to say: “We are always reminded that God is present in our lives – that there is a higher being, something bigger than you.” Prayers and thanksgiving were part of the culture of the school.
By the time he moved on to SJI he had already been grounded in the Faith. So who were the teachers who made a profound impact on him? I ask. He named a few who embodied the love of God.
“Brother Kevin Byrne, the Principal, took me into SJI although I didn’t score well enough. He exemplified God’s love. He would give a second chance to boys who deserved expulsion. Brother Henry O’Brien was another, a real disciplinarian in that fatherly loving way. These were men who imbued values. They really wanted us to do well.” So how did he show it? I ask.
“Whenever the boys are irresponsible or do something silly, he would tell them: ‘Don’t forget, one day you will be a father.’ This must have been the message my father received when he was in school,” he muses.
It was Isaac Newton who once said, If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. Successful men are known to have been mentored and shaped by predecessors who took an interest in them and Dr Gerard Nah is no exception. He attributes his success today to his teachers. Dr Nah feels indebted to SJI for the compassion shown to him at a time when he needed it most.
“I went into SJI on appeal. I didn’t meet the cut – off point because my Chinese result was not good enough. 1980 was also a landmark year because streaming came into being. I was a border – line case and given a choice of normal or express. I chose express as SJI had few normal stream classes. It was Brother Kevin who took me in. I am who I am today, I receive the kind of education to become a doctor because SJI gave me that second chance,” he says.
From the second lowest class he worked his way to one of the top classes which was the pure science. In 1984 he graduated from SJI.
The teachers in SJI also gave him a lasting impression. Mr. Michael Broughton, who is now a Christian Brother, and one of his English teachers, was charismatic. Once, he shocked his students by delving into the etymology of words including vulgar ones! To date Dr Nah and Brother Broughton remain old friends. Mr. Tang Wing Kee who taught Mathematics and Physical Education is another stalwart of SJI who exuded a fatherly kind of love. Mr. Tang went on to become a poster boy for active ageing in Singapore and even taught Roller Blading post-retirement. To date, he remains an active ambassador of the OBA.
Dr Nah recalls many memorial moments in SJI, the friendships forged and the camaraderie with fellow classmates and students. “The friendships I made were most important. To this day we call ourselves the Josephian brothers,” he muses.
He recalls with fondness, significant times in SJI. He joined a society called Legion of Mary. “The word legion comes from the Roman army … every week we had to report to our group the good work we have done. It is living out our faith; it can be counselling a friend, praying with someone or offering physical or emotional help,” he says.
Through his involvement in the Legion of Mary, his faith was strengthened, and like his father before him, he accepted Christ and was baptized in the school’s chapel when he was in secondary two.
Significant parts of the building are also meaningful to him. The chapel is a special place for the students. “Students would flood the chapel to pray for help when exams approach, even students of other faiths would pray there,” he says with a grin.
In addition, the school would hold an annual overnight camp known as a Lenten Vigil during which programs such as prayer sessions, talks and movies would be held for the students. Issues like puberty, sexuality and how to deal with them from a spiritual angle, in short, what it means to be an upright man, would be addressed. “Lent is about fasting and getting closer to God, but it is also done in a fun way. The camaraderie was amazing because of the friendships forged,” he adds.
As for cultivating a sense of pride and love for the school he has this to say: “Having come from a traditional school of over 160 years, you do feel a sense of attachment. Today, the old boys are teaching in the school. The school building is now in Malcom Road, but that sense of belonging remains,” he says.
Today, SJI has left an indelible imprint in the life of Dr Nah. His years in SJI were the best and most formative.
Part 3 The macro view of the school and its link to the community and nation building.
The SJI OBA plays a pivotal role in upholding the values and spirit of SJI. As President of SJI Old Boys Association, Dr Nah’s role is to manifest this legacy to Josephians.
“The objectives are to uphold the values of the school and the spirit of SJI in our daily lives as we become men; to form a network of good men and a safe spiritual home for old boys and now girls too. People do go wrong or may encounter failure in life. We want to make our alumni association a safe place for people to come back to,” he says emphatically.
This is translated by offering help to the helpless and creating meaningful experiences. “It’s more than class reunion. We not only raise funds, organize reunions, golf games, but also offer help to those in need. We rally around those who need support. We do mission work as well. In the same spirit of how the Brothers came to help us, we also reach out to the less developed countries like Cambodia where we offer medical and educational help. We also return to the school once a year to give career talks and share with the secondary one cohort ‘what it means to be a Josephian’,” he says. To the members of the OBA which is 9,000 strong, it is paying forward.
When asked about the challenges in keeping his school’s tradition alive, he has this to say: “There is always room for improvement. We try to bring back those practices in the past. Not many men want to take the vows of celibacy, obedience or poverty today. Nonetheless our teachers who are teaching there are trained in the values and heritage of the school regardless of their religion. The spiritual awareness is so strong in the school that even the non- Catholics in the school will join in the prayer sessions although they pray in their respective faiths. The school creates this spiritual realm and engenders religious harmony.
What about the millennials (those born in the 1990s), who have this entitlement mentality and want instant gratification. Do they pose a challenge if they join your association? I ask.
“Dealing with the millennials is not a problem. Millennials are more concerned with getting on with life. Generally, people start giving back only in their forties when life is more stable. There are only about 9,000 or so members in OBA. The challenge is to make it relevant for them,” he says.
The challenge has to do with the school policy meted by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and its impact on the new intake of students at secondary one level.
“The unfortunate by-product of absolute meritocracy is that it lacks compassion and if everyone feels that they ‘deserved’ to get into their school of choice purely on their own efforts, then these people will grow up feeling even more entitled without any sense of gratefulness. This may also exacerbate the ‘millennial’ mentality,” he says.
“At the school level and Singapore society at large, we need stories of grace and generosity. Stories of individuals who were shown compassion, given a second chance, succeeded and are grateful for it. My son and I are two examples of people who would not have been part of the SJI family if not for being given a second chance. Both father and son came in on appeal. I became a doctor and my son, rose from the bottom percentile of SJI to graduate well within the middle band of his cohort. SJI really value-added to this boy with learning difficulties,” he adds.
St Joseph’s Institution in Bras Basah Road is today The Singapore Art Museum. As home to numerous Josehpians, the monument stands as an embodiment of great significance and its contribution to students who passed through its portal remain unchallenged with the passage of time.
Today, a Josephian can look at the monument and say with pride, I WAS THERE. And Dr Gerard Nah is one of them.
This interview was conducted by Ms Rosie Wee for the Singapore Bicentennial Office.