Three Interviews with Mr. Ganga Singh

Ganga Singh

Mr. Ganga Singh was an Old Boy of the school and the last of the band of stalwarts who were recruited by Mr. B. E. Shaw from the best scholars to join the staff of the old Victoria Institution. During his career in the V.I. he distinguished himself as a brilliant scholar, winning the Nugent Walsh scholarship in 1919, and the Rodger Medal for the best scholar of the year when he passed the School Certificate with Honours. He joined the V.I. staff in 1920 and was awarded a Book Prize and a bonus of $200 for securing first place in the Senior Normal Examination in 1921.

When Ganga Singh retired in 1958, after 38 years of faithful service to the teaching profession, he was awarded the Selangor Meritorious Service Medal by His Highness, the Sultan of Selangor. After a short break, he resumed teaching at the V.I. as a re-employed pensioner and finally retired for good in 1962. He passed away in Singapore in 1988.

Thousands of his pupils will recall with gratitude the years they spent under Ganga Singh’s tutelage. Quite a few promising pupils owed their continued schooling to his unostentatious charity. He was a strict disciplinarian, with rigid insistence on punctuality and form, but behind that heavy hand lay a gentle, caring soul. He liked to address his pupils collectively as "gentlemen". On occasion some wayward "gentleman" might have had to stand on his chair for some transgression in Ganga Singh’s eyes and, at worse, he might receive a heavy thump on his posterior from Ganga Singh’s huge right hand, this being administered only after the culprit had been told, in no uncertain Gangetic boom, to "Bend Down!" It was all done with no malice and the culprit graciously received his comeuppance amidst loud guffaws from his watching peers.

Etched permanently in his pupils’ memories would surely be Ganga Singh’s peerless command of the English language, both spoken and written. The deep, clipped tones with which he enunciated his favourite poems, could pass him off as an Englishman sight unseen, while his handwriting – boldly stroked with perfect well-formed, even-proportioned letters with nary a comma, period nor serif out of place - could easily win honours in any handwriting competition.

Mr. Ganga Singh's extra-mural activities in the V.I. were many and varied. He was connected with The Victorian since its inception and in 1956 steered the fledgling Seladang into its most prolific era. He was House Master of Yap Kwan Seng House and, needless to say, in his inimitable no-nonsense style, Ganga Singh spurred his House boys to great sporting honours. He was for many years Supervisor of Physical Training and ran the V. I. Debating Society and the pre-war Play-Reading Circle for many years. He played a prominent part in collecting donations for the Sir Henry Gurney Memorial Fund in the early fifties and was appointed Honorary Secretary and a Trustee of the Board thereof. Ganga Singh, as Sports Secretary of the V.I. in 1956 under Dr. G. E. D. Lewis, completely reorganized the athletics Qualifying Rounds and introduced the very spectacular March Past and Opening Ceremony.

Not only was Ganga Singh active in school but also in the community at large. He was a very active social worker and a leader of the Sikh community where his philanthropy was a by-word. In 1939-41, Ganga Singh was chief editor of The Malayan Trader. He often served as President of the Selangor and then of the Malayan Sikh Union and of school and temple managements. In the wider communities, he served, at various times, as Assistant State Commissioner of the Scout Movement, as Executive Committee Member of the Selangor Social Welfare Society, St. John's Ambulance Association, the Selangor A.A.A., the Selangor Hockey Association, the Malayan Teachers' Federation, the Selangor Government Servants' Co-operative Thrift and Loan Society and the World Brotherhood of Religions (Malayan Branch). His services in the Co-operatives include many years as chairman of the K.L. Co-operative Stores Society Ltd., as auditor of Malayan Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd., as editor of the Selangor Co-operator and chairman of arbitration disputes between societies and their members.

During his V.I. career, Ganga Singh was interviewed three times by The Victorian and The Seladang. The three interviews are reproduced here, in chronological order, with some slight editing.

(1) An Interview with Mr. Ganga Singh

The Victorian, 1953

anga Singh – the name is synonymous with V.I., a home that brings back memories to many and many a V.I. boy – memories of a grand old man, hearty and cheerful, memories of strict discipline, of an iron hand that struck on the lazy and the undisciplined – memories of a great teacher, a friend and a brilliant conversationalist, and memories of a beard of no ordinary dimensions.

Yes, that is Mr Ganga Singh, a worthy son of the V.I., a man who considers the V.I. to be "his first love, his best friend and his very own" and one whose connection with it had not been broken for forty-one years. Even now, though he has been transferred to take charge of the Lower and Middle Sections of the Kajang High School, he visits the V.I. at least once a week and takes a keen interest in everything that goes on in and around the school.

Mr. Ganga Singh came to Malaya in 1903 when he was only six months old. In 1912 he joined the old V.I. and in 1914 was promoted to Std. IV. He gained three double promotions in the Lower School and was awarded the Nugent Walsh Scholarship and won the Rodger Medal when he passed his School Certificate Examination with Honours in 1919.

It is rather surprising to those who know him as a teacher to learn that the ambition of Mr. Ganga Singh before he left school was to become a doctor. Family circumstances, however, prevented his joining the Singapore College of Medicine. So when the Headmaster, Mr Bennett E. Shaw, invited him to join the V.I. Staff as a teacher, he accepted the post readily, drawing the princely salary of $30/- a month on his appointment. Asked why with his command of English and knowledge of Literature he did not take an arts degree, he said that the thought had never struck him then as there were no facilities for study at that time and there was no incentive at all in those days. However, he rather regretted it now.

One fact that was recognised throughout Malaya when he was at school, Mr. Ganga Singh said, was that the V.I. was the school. As could be expected there was great rivalry with the M.B.S. and St. John’s. Whenever boys of rival schools met, there used to be a scrap. Once he was involved in one of these spirited encounters and he could remember wallowing in the mud and having his turban knocked right off into the drain.

Mr. Ganga Singh could also remember that there used to be frequent floods in the meandering Sungai Klang and the old V.I. used to be waist-deep in water. These inundations were welcomed with open arms for they brought holidays. After the loop was removed from the course of the Klang River and the V.I. moved to its present site, Mr. Ganga Singh said, there were plans to make the Institution an Arts College for the F.M.S., but this scheme did not materialise.

Mr. Ganga Singh was quick to affirm that the English of the average student when he was at school was of a higher standard than it is now. He attributed this decline to the many distractions that abound at the present day and the Americanisms which the boys so readily absorb from films and from cheap fiction and comics. The best way to improve the standard of English was, in his opinion, to return to the old system of prohibiting the use of vernacular in the school and giving the pupils lots of verb drills and exercises in fundamental rules. In the days of the old V.I. any boy caught speaking in the vernacular in the school compound used to receive three strokes of the cane.

It was early on in his career that Mr Ganga Singh gained the reputation for which he is so well known. His name struck awe into the heart of every boy who came to the V.I. He had occasion early in his career to pick on the biggest and heftiest boy in a class for such a dose that he was forever labelled as a stern disciplinarian who would not stand any nonsense. A man of firm character, Mr Ganga Singh is much loved by all who know him. And this is not surprising either, for he has cultivated a love for children, an essential if one is to be a good teacher. He regards teaching as a medium through which he can pass on his knowledge to those who seek it.

Ganga - YKS Throughout his teaching career in the V.I. he has done excellent work in almost all fields. Yap Kwan Seng House boys will remember Mr. Ganga Singh as their House Master and the way in which he prodded them on to repeated successes in the field of sports by their team spirit. Mr. Ganga Singh has also for many years been the Master-in-Charge of the School Literary and Debating Society and was also School Volleyball and Basketball Master. He was also the man behind the installation of loud speakers in the classrooms and Honorary Secretary of the Gurney Memorial Trust Fund.

One aspect of Mr. Ganga Singh’s abilities is little known. He is a very good judge of boys and their abilities. He has a natural knack of weighing up boys, giving them a mental aptitude test and suggesting careers most suitable for their abilities. No one has ever regretted going to Mr. Ganga Singh for advice.

Besides being a schoolmaster, Mr. Ganga Singh also serves in various co-operative, welfare, sports and charitable organisations. He is still chairman of three Associations and he can proudly claim that there are no many associations in which he has not had a hand. His philosophy of life is Service – Service to one and all. True happiness, he says, lies in acts of kindness and charity.

Asked what he thought of teaching as a career, Mr. Ganga Singh said that teaching was a very satisfying and interesting profession. But a teacher must have lots of patience and perseverance and he must have a real love for children. He would not, however, recommend teaching to anyone whose object was to get rich quickly. But money, he quickly added, was not everything. A teacher always had his reward, and it lay in seeing his charges grow in mind and stature and in being instrumental in moulding their characters and destinies. Mr. Ganga Singh was happy to recall how many of his pupils and their parents had come to him for advice and guidance on their most intimate problems.

Asked what advice he would give to teachers and pupils at the V.I., Mr. Ganga Singh said, "You at the Victoria Institution have the privilege of being members of one of the best schools in the country and you have the duty of proving yourselves worthy of the honour. You have a noble heritage and a great tradition and I hope you will do your best to maintain the fair name of our Alma Mater. You have such opportunities as none of your predecessors ever dreamt of. Make the best use of whatever the school has to offer you and work hard. Success, whether in your studies or in the field of sport or in life later on, will depend on the amount of effort you put into it. Hard work and honest endeavour are the only sure road to achievement. I ask you to always bear in mind the indirect advice contained in H. W. Longfellow’s famous lines:

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not obtained by sudden flight
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

"I would like to thank my old boys and my colleagues for the many pleasant memories they have given me and for the many acts of affection and respect they have shown me throughout my connection with the School."

Since The Victorian first appeared in 1923 until last year, Mr. Ganga has had a hand in every edition of it and he has done the Editorial Board a great honour in allowing himself to be featured in this issue. We can only say, "Thank you, sir."

(2) Education and Mr. Ganga Singh

The Seladang, No. 3, May 1961

fter a brilliant scholastic career in the Victoria Institution, studded with the Nugent Walsh and Rodger Awards, a Victorian was offered a chance to enroll at the King Edward VII College of Medicine in Singapore, but force of circumstance compelled him to refuse in favour of teaching. That was in 1920, and this year, Mr. Ganga Singh looks forward to celebrating his Golden Jubilee of teaching in the V.I. Benign, smiling and patriarch-looking, Mr. Ganga Singh is about the most experienced teacher in the V.I. at present, and he has had the pleasure of bearing witness to the changes that have taken place in the school since he enrolled in 1912 as a pupil.

"The great reward in teaching as a profession," Mr Ganga Singh explained, "is not monetary gain – it is the satisfaction of one’s feelings. I will not, in fact, advise any person to take up teaching as a profession if he or she intends to make money."" Mr. Ganga Singh said that watching one’s pupils grow to manhood ("The child is father of the man," he wistfully quoted Wordsworth) and seeing that they have not forgotten a "decrepit old man" was itself enough reward for all the pains in teaching.

Ganga - staff 1924

"Mr. B. E. Shaw’s gift to me was the appreciation and love of poetry," Mr. Ganga Singh remarked. Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard is my favourite." He then proceeded to recite a verse from it.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness in the desert air.

To appreciate poetry, one must feel, Mr. Ganga Singh said, and coming from a person who has taught English Literature for nearly forty years, it should be taken as more than mere opinion. Mr. Ganga Singh has a characteristic method of teaching Shakespeare. "The first term is usually devoted to a running through of the Shakespearean text; the second term is expended in dealing with the technicalities of the language and explanation; the third term to general revision," he explained in effect. Literature is meant to be enjoyed, Mr. Ganga Singh said, for literature embodies all that is noble and worth knowing. If one is able to convey to the examiner the understanding and enjoyment of literary works, one is assured of passing with merit.

Mr. Ganga Singh, with an air of pride, maintained that "academic standards of the V.I. have always been high, as our pupils are a select group." In his days, he admitted, pupils were more hard-working and had fewer distractions to worry them. " But," Mr Ganga Singh continued, "our present day Victorians, despite a barrage of extra-curricular activities and the bright lights of town, manage to keep up the high academic standards expected of them. Quite an achievement!"

What exactly are Mr. Ganga Singh’s opinions on school children indulging in politics? "Students are at liberty to study politics and they should, in fact, be encouraged to discuss politics; but, participating in politics – never!" he said. "Students should know politics but should not dabble in it."

Before returning to teach in the V.I. after a brief retirement, Mr. Ganga Singh visited India and there suffered "an accident of a most unusual nature," tripping over a rail and breaking a leg. At this juncture and while being treated for a fracture, one Old Boy of the V.I. and ex-pupil of this Grand Old Man, rendered help, thus upholding the best traditions of the school. Before the occurrence of this unfortunate episode, Mr Ganga Singh toured India and visited Delhi, Hyderabad and Mysore. "India is making tremendous progress in all fields," he said. " Compared to British India, present conditions are better and the standard of living is higher."

Returning to Malaya, Mr. Ganga Singh spent a considerable period in the Singapore General Hospital recuperating and confessed that his physician got on well enough with him to address him as "Santa Claus." His leg is about almost fully recovered now.

In the early years of Mr. Ganga Singh’s teaching life, the teachers were hand-picked and naturally good. "The basic qualities of a good teacher," Mr. Ganga Singh declared, "are patience, love of children and the ability to put forward what he or she intends to impart." With a gleeful laugh he added, "Sometimes, I am not patient at all!"

With a kindly look of hope mixed with a fierce but almost imperceptible determination, Mr. Ganga Singh pronounced solemnly, "Victorians should always maintain the proud traditions of their school and remember their Alma Mater. If they remember that they are the products of the Victoria Institution, all else follows – all that is high."

(3) Our Grand Old Man

The Seladang, No. 4, June/July 1962

he venerable old man of the V.I. stood patiently in the corridor - one of the last times he would do so as a teacher of the school - waiting, waiting patiently for the House Meetings to be over and for the three reporters from the Seladang who would convey his farewell to the school. Soon the three enthusiastic boys arrived and after the preliminary courtesies, they retired into a vacant classroom where Mr. Ganga Singh made his "farewell speech".

Leaving the school for good on Friday, 15th June, after a period of 50 years from 1912 to 1962, first as a student and then as a teacher, without break except for a brief period of 18 months at the Kajang Primary School, Mr. Ganga Singh plans to visit India before finally settling down in Singapore where he still has a surviving child. When pressed for the reason why he would not settle down in Kuala Lumpur and thus be nearer to the V.I., he lowered his head and, quaking with emotion, implored, "Please, you are making it worse for me to leave the V.I., but I realise that breaks have to come sooner or later, and though I may be away, my heart will always be here and I will continue to take an active interest in the school." When settled in Singapore he plans to visit Hong Kong and Japan. Despite his age, he finds travelling a pleasure - he has made several trips to India and Australia.

Talking excitedly about his former schooldays, he disclosed that competition was very stiff. In fact, besides him, there were four exceptionally brilliant students, of whom only one is alive today. Sadly, he mentioned the loss of one of his most treasured possessions, a photograph of his four competitors.

Reminiscing about the old days, he made various comparisons between the past and the present. The subjects he learned were English Language, English Literature, History, Art, Geography, Religious Knowledge, Physical Geography and Mathematics. By comparison, the Mathematics syllabus then was very much wider; what is covered today in Additional Maths, for example, the binomial theorem, surds etc., was then done in Maths. "When you look back on the ‘good old days’, it sounds good but actually they are not," he stated. He enviously said that the present boys have "far, far more facilities, better equipment and conditions in practically every way."

He recalled with a slight shudder the strict discipline in his days. Things were simply drilled into the pupils; they had to repeat things over and over again till they were absorbed; in Standard II (now Std. IV) they had to learn the 12 times and 20 times tables and if one could not give the answer to a table question straight away, the teacher would be around with the cane; also, vernacular language was strictly verboten and anyone caught speaking in any but the English Language would be given three of the best." He admires the present boys who, with all the distractions of the modern age, are still able to do so well in their studies. During his schooldays, there was only the silent film to which the students went only once in a blue moon. There were certainly no girls around "to divert one's attention."

Ganga - Std 8A 1949

One of the regrettable trends in educational progress is the breaking down of the old teacher-pupil relationship; the pupils used to consult the teachers about their problems and difficulties. Mr. Ganga Singh said that during the past ten years, no one ever came forward and said, "Say, Sir, I can't pay my fees," nor had anyone consulted him on any problem. There is not the intimacy in the schools now where people feel free to discuss their personal problems. He attributed this regrettable breakdown of friendship to the fact that pupils are growing materialistic and that the classes are larger.

He spoke of the tremendous improvements that have transformed the town. Where Kuala Lumpur was once a village, it is now a city; where there were attap houses, there are now skyscrapers. He then spoke about the changes in the school itself. During his time there were few school societies and facilities for education were then not as good. But there is one thing in which the old V.I. is better off than the present one - facilities for physical education were better: there was a large gymnasium fully equipped with all these necessities whereas now we don't even have a gymnasium. Though he thought there are far too many societies as some of them can be amalgamated to form one, he considered that they "can and do play an important part in developing character and training for later life."

The reason for his return to the teaching profession after his retirement in 1958 was that he loved teaching. To him it is a blessing when one can help the young. One of the "greatest joys" as a teacher is the recognition of the Old Pupils. He gave instances where as soon as he entered an office, one of his old pupils would jump up and greet him.

When the interview was over, the reporters took their leave. One, speaking on his own, but no doubt reflecting the thought of the whole school said, "I am speaking as an ordinary pupil, but no doubt everyone will join me if I thank you for all your service; the school will never be able to repay you for your devotion and service."

With a trace of a tear in his eye, he acknowledged this and said, "The fact that I have done something will be a reward enough for me." He rose, wished the reporters a good afternoon and walked away down the corridor - the venerable figure of a man, a link between past and present, the person to whom the school owes much.

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