Interview with Dr. Hon Chiew Weng
Dr. Hon Chiew Weng is the Principal of Hwa Chong Institution (HCI). As a member of the first batch of graduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS), he obtained a Master of Education in 1991, and then earned a Doctor in Education from the University of Western Australia in 2008.
Dr. Hon became an educator in 1982, when he joined the Chinese High School - now the High School section of HCI - as a physics teacher. Subsequently, he headed the Science Department and assumed the post of the Dean of Administration in the late 80s. Five years after the merger of the Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College, Dr. Hon became the Principal of HCI in 2009.
In this interview, Dr. Hon shares with us some of the milestones in HCI’s history, where he and his colleagues tided the school through significant transformations, as well as his contributions to the school.
Singapore’s education system is the envy of many nations in the world. For years, students who come from this system have consistently achieved commendable results in western-centric examinations and clinched countless championship titles in international competitions. More importantly, they have become the driving force behind this first-world nation’s economic development. Especially in the past few decades, Singapore’s education system can be seen as the epitome of innovations as groundbreaking teaching techniques, assessment modes and curricula are continuously introduced and experimented with. Perhaps a few of the most notable innovations are the Special Assistance Schools (SAP) scheme, the Independent School system, and the Integrated Programme (IP). A number of top local schools went through such transformations, and as the leading institution in Singapore, Hwa Chong Institution - formerly the Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College before the merger of the two - experienced all of them. Dr. Hon Chiew Weng, the current Principal of HCI, witnessed all of these milestones in the school’s exciting history.
Dr. Hon joined the Chinese High School in 1982 as a physics teacher, three years after the school became part of Ministry of Education’s SAP scheme. When Dr. Hon took office, the school was already immensely popular, and it might have been a bit hard to conceive the idea that only three years ago, the Chinese High School was at her ‘low point’. ‘In the 70s, many of the parents preferred to send their kids to English schools. The reasons were very simple - those people who went to English schools could eventually go to universities, and their career prospect was better.’ As a result, the impacts of such phenomena were painfully felt by Chinese schools nationwide and as a matter of fact, many of Chinese schools were closing down. At such a critical moment, MOE decided a number of Chinese schools should be kept so that ‘their values would be preserved’. Eventually, nine schools were selected to become Special Assistance Schools where all subjects except Higher Chinese would be taught in English and both Chinese and English would be offered at the first-language level. The SAP scheme can indeed be metaphorized as the sunbeam that broke through the heavy clouds in the then outcast sky of those nine schools, including the Chinese High. The game was turned over for the new SAP schools– their popularity soared overnight as parents realized their children would have ‘the best of both worlds’ in the effectively bilingual environment of these schools. However, it was absolutely not an easy task for the originally Chinese-speaking students to continue most of their studies in English, and it was equally hard for those with a higher proficiency in English than in Chinese to learn the latter language at a much tougher level than before. ‘[Those good at English] had to work very hard in the afternoon [to study Chinese]. Those who come from Chinese primary schools would have to work very hard to improve their English - [the school] made a provision for them to have immersion in some of the English schools in the afternoon.’ Needless to say, the transition in the primary teaching language was challenging to the originally Chinese-speaking staff. Although Dr. Hon did not encounter any trouble teaching in English as he himself was educated in the language, he ‘could sense the difficulties of changing language from Chinese to English’ among his colleagues. ‘Many of my colleagues who used to teach mathematics and sciences in Chinese had to switch the language to English, which was not an easy thing because they were all educated in Chinese schools before…it was a one big problem faced by them.’ Nonetheless, such a transition helped the nine SAP schools to survive by enabling them to cope with the shifting demands of society, where there was an increasingly strong focus on English, the lingua franca in the global financial playground. ‘All the other Chinese schools had to disappear because they couldn't change with times.’
After the Chinese High School crossed one of the greatest hurdles in her history, she began to embrace more significant changes as she rode the tide of evolvement in Singapore’s educational landscape. The first one was the acquisition of the Independent School status in 1988. ‘[The then Minister of Education], Dr. Tony Tan, felt that Singapore’s education was too uniform. So he brought a group of principals to some of the top independent schools in the UK and the USA to see how they functioned, why they were so special and why there were so many successful students from these schools.’ After the group returned to Singapore, the concept of local secondary schools turning independent was brought up. MOE visualized the Independent Schools to enjoy both financial help from the government and conditional autonomy. There were only 3 conditions – ‘Students must take…public exam, must have bilingual education, must have moral education which includes national education’. Back in the 80s, Dr. Hon was the Head of Science and then the Dean of Administration, and was involved in the entire process of the Chinese High School obtaining autonomy. ‘My Principal at that time was Mr. Tooh Fee San, and he was very excited by this idea. To him, if we want the Chinese High to go very, very far and very, very fast, we need all this autonomy.’ The prospect of turning independent was undoubtedly stirring, yet Dr. Hon and his colleagues must overcome numerous hardships along the way. One of such hardships was the shortage of staff. ‘When we decided to turn independent, 1/3 of our teachers decided to leave the school because they did not believe in the “Independent School” concept.’ According to Dr. Hon, these teachers had a ‘misconception’ - they associated MOE’s Independent Schools with the Duzhong in Malaysia, which ‘were not supported by the government at all’. Understandably, these teachers worried about losing their sources of income together with their positions as civil servants in the ministry. To tackle the shortage problem, Dr. Hon traveled overseas to recruit around 30 teachers. Malaysia was the biggest supplier – ‘At that time [the teaching language was] changing from English to Malay in Malaysia’, and quite a number of English-speaking teachers were willing to work at the Chinese High where English was the primary language.
Indubitably, the Chinese High School was fortunate to have a group of dedicated educators to tide her over hard times, and as the saying goes ‘no pain, no gain’, the early difficulties faced by the school were succeeded by the great benefits reaped from her autonomy. After the school turned independent, Dr. Hon witnessed and facilitated the fanning out of prospects for the school - ‘Its interesting, very exciting, a normal teacher in a normal school would not be able to do that kind of thing.’ One of the most memorable projects Dr. Hon and his colleagues launched would be the introduction of computer studies – ‘The first thing we did was look beyond the standard curriculum, do away with technical studies, [and] bring in computing studies.’ Even though the school did not enjoy advanced machines as she does now and could only rely on Apple II Computers for such a subject area, teachers and students still managed to optimize what they had, and their efforts paid off. ‘Student started learning programming as young as 13 years old and this group of people are very, very successful now. They are about 40 over years old, and they are doing very, very important jobs all over the world.’
Unquestionably, as both a bilingual SAP institution and an innovative Independent School, the Chinese High is a school of choice for top students all over the island. By 2004, Dr. Hon and his colleagues were well aware of their incoming students’ all-round excellence, and began to ponder whether a move should be made – that is, to set up a Pre-U sector for the school so that their students would not have to spend 6 months revising for the O-Levels but could use the time for enrichment activities such as research projects, overseas immersion programmes, and meaningful community work. ‘[There is] nothing to lose. After all our students are so good, and we don't need the O-Levels to tell them they are good.’ Simultaneously, Hwa Chong Junior College, which had the same board as the Chinese High School, had two different proposals: a ‘Sec 3 – JC 2’ programme and a merger with the Chinese High to offer a 6-year Integrated Programme. After a series of discussions, it was decided that the Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College would merge. ‘It makes sense to merge because Hwa Chong Junior College is a top JC and the Chinese High School is a top secondary school. With the two school merging, I think naturally we will do well.’ Dr. Hon recalls that, during the process of merger, the greatest challenge actually came from the naming of the newly formed institution. In early stages, it was brought up that the name would be Hwa Chong Institution in English and Huaqiao Zhongxue in Chinese (which is the Chinese version of ‘the Chinese High School’). However, this meant that the College section would have to give up the title of ‘Junior College’ and adopt ‘Institution’ instead to match the Chinese name. Meanwhile, the English name ‘Chinese High School’ of the High School section and the Chinese name Huachu of the College section would cease to be used. Conceivably, these changes were not particularly welcomed by quite a number of alumni from both schools. But with the future benefits of their alma maters in mind, both parties recognized the necessity of a compromise and the decision of naming the combined schools as ‘Hwa Chong Institution’ was agreed upon in a referendum. ‘Sub-names are gone, but the Hwa Chong spirit is still there.’ Dr. Hon would also like to attribute the success of the ‘Hwa Chong merger’ to Mr. Ang Wee Hiong, the first Chief Executive Officer and Principal of Hwa Chong Institution. When the decision of merger was made, Mr. Ang was the Principal of Hwa Chong Junior College, and Dr. Hon the Principal of the Chinese High School. Dr. Hon believed that both men should ‘stay on’ to help the new institution progress, and suggested that Mr. Ang become the Chief Executive Officer of Hwa Chong Institution. ‘I offerred to step down as a Principal and assisted him as the Deputy CEO and the Principal of the High School section. Both of us worked very well together and I am grateful to have a chance to learn from Mr. Ang.’
On the other hand, also in the 2004~2005 period, Dr. Hon and his colleagues began to steer Hwa Chong Institution towards the international educational scene more sure-handedly than ever before, stepping up [Hwa Chong’s] global education. Dr. Hon believes that a better-rounded worldview will help students tremendously as they enter the exponentially globalized working world and cooperate with people from different cultural backgrounds. ‘In the past 20 years after independence, we made many, many friends…We are very open, and we learn from one another.’ Hwa Chong Institution is the first local independent school to set up satellite campus in Beijing, the rationale behind which is to enable students to not only learn about Chinese language and culture, but also familiarize themselves with ‘the way of life’ in China so as to better respond to such a strong economic power. Meanwhile, the school offers full support for students to participate in international contests, boosting their confidence as they shine on the world stage. ‘Today there are so many world championship titles. Our students can lift up their heads and say, “I am not only the best in Singapore. If I want, I can compete with the best of the world.”’
Dr. Hon has truly been an active member and visionary leader of the school, be his position a physics teacher, Head of Science, Dean of Administration, Deputy Principal or Principal. Precisely thanks to educators like Dr. Hon, Hwa Chong Institution was able to persevere during tough times and become one of the top independent and integrated institutions in Singapore and the world. The school provides students with a rigorous curriculum, a wide spectrum of co-curricular activities, sufficient opportunities to undertake service-learning projects and leadership positions, and numerous other programmes for students to develop capabilities. There is a particularly popular programme in the High School section, which almost all the old boys who have experienced it wish for it to be kept by the school. This programme is the Project Competition, where students are required to complete a research paper. Dr. Hon was the leader of the team that implemented such a programme in the High School. ‘As educators, we have to consider two points. One, we must make sure that we prepare our students well for A-Levels so that they can go on to next level in university. We also know that for students to do well in life, the A-Level certificate alone is not enough. Our students need to be able to think creatively and they must be able to think critically in order to solve future problems. So how to prepare students for that kind of future? Project is one of the very, very useful platforms.’ When Dr. Hon first joined the school in the 80s, there were already project works in the Chinese High School, though they were in primitive forms such as models and posters. Dr. Hon saw the potential of such works in shaping students’ thinking and research skills, and decided to kickstart a research culture in the school by making research projects, which typically take up eight to nine months to complete, part of the curriculum. Dr. Hon explains that when it comes to research, the focus should not be how difficult it is but how it can help students to learn to solve problems as they identify the problems, define them, form hypotheses, do literature reviews and find new solutions to them. ‘Not many people can do it, but those people who faithfully do it learn a lot. In the future, they would know how to solve [problems] systematically.’ To guide students through such an enriching process, a group of qualified staff is definitely crucial since ‘if the teachers themselves don't know how to do research, [one] cannot expect them to guide students.’ Bearing this in mind, Dr. Hon has been encouraging his teachers to pursue their Master’s and Doctorates in the past 10 years, and has made Hwa Chong the local integrated school that has the highest percentage of teachers with Master’s degrees and PhDs. Slowly, spanning across two decades, the cutting edge of the Project Competition was clearly seen by more and more teachers, and the school decided to build a campus-based research centre and hire fill-time scientists in early 2000. Nowadays, HwaChongians no longer have to borrow labs at local universities to conduct science researches – they can do so at home.
In the past thirty-two years, Dr. Hon has been at the helm during numerous significant transformations in Hwa Chong’s history as the school gradually secures a top spot in not only the local, but also the global educational landscape. A prominent but humble educator, Dr. Hon does not boast of the contributions he has made for both his school and Singapore’s education system so far. Perhaps he simply enjoys educating the youths of Singapore - ‘As educators, we get a lot of satisfaction when we see our students grow. It is intangible - you can’t see it, but you can feel it.’ And there is one more intangible but certain thing - Hwa Chong will embrace even more successes and glories, with Dr. Hon leading her forward into the future.
(Interviewed and written by Heyi Jiang of Hwa Chong Institution)