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50 Years United

Graham Silverthorne, Author, UWCSEA 50th anniversary book
10 August 2021

Dedication of the New Sc. Complex by Lord Romsey

More years ago than I care to remember, I sat in a lecture theatre and listened to a very famous historian addressing the topic of historiography. As the Fenland flies droned amongst the ceiling fans, I admit that it was a challenging discourse for this young man to hold on to.

The distinguished lecturer was named G.R. Elton and on this particular afternoon he was getting stuck into E.H. Carr’s seminal work, What is History?. Very little of what he said stayed with me longer than it took to cross the street and unlock my bicycle but one thing did. Elton referenced the work of another luminary, Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had criticised Carr for dismissing history’s ‘might have beens’ as an irrelevance. As I cycled home, thinking about ‘might have beens’ was a pleasantly fulfilling diversion and the habit embedded itself.

If Lord Mountbatten had got his way, UWCSEA ‘might have been’ founded at the Royal Airforce base in Changi. Mountbatten and the founding Head of Atlantic College in Wales, Desmond Hoare, had set their hearts on replicating the British sea school experience in an Asian setting. After establishing the first United World College in Wales in 1962 (a name not actually adopted until 1967 when Mountbatten became involved with the nascent movement), Hoare resigned his post in 1969 and set out for South East Asia to establish new National Committees and scout possible locations for a second UWC. Discussions were already advancing with Lester Pearson in Canada; the family was growing.

The push for Changi was met with a firm rebuff by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who had other plans for growing the infrastructure needed to support a young economy. Dover Road and the soon-to-be vacated St. John’s British Army School was the final destination. As they say, the rest is history—but what if? What if the UWC pioneers had been met with a ‘yes’, rather than a ‘firm shake of the head’ from the Prime Minister? A two-year Changi UWC serving 250 scholars? A Singaporean Li Po Chun? No Dover; no East; no K-12. Where would that have left a history of 50 years of UWCSEA?

One answer to that question is that it would have been a lot less complicated to write! When I was appointed as the author of the College’s 50th anniversary book, a number of conflicting emotions passed through me. I was approaching the end of my time as Head of East Campus and the pain of imminent separation was growing. UWCSEA is not an easy place to leave. I was excited and flattered to be considered for the task of compiling a record of 50 years but those emotions came and went, to be replaced with an awareness of the enormity of the task. Seriously, where do you begin to capture an appropriate, an accurate, a balanced reflection of everything that has happened since that September day in 1971 when the gates to the newly renamed Singapore International School swung open for the first time?

UWCSEA Community

Our story is the story of all of the people who have inspired us, guided us, at times rescued us, challenged us, supported us and eventually defined who we are as a College in 2021. The complexity of capturing that proposition was immense. For each contributor that I spoke to, ‘who we are’ was not the same thing. People’s lives shaped and in turn were shaped by the College. As the British Chamber of Commerce desperately sought a school for their children in the face of the imminent and rapid British withdrawal, it was people like Robert Lutton who helped to forge a new future for the Dover Road campus, his actions indelibly imprinting the lives of his own family in the process. As our inconveniently urbanised setting threatened to impact on the Hahnian vision of engagement with nature, it was people like Brian Green who set off with the blind optimism of an Indiana Jones to find a site that became our fabled Beluntu Outdoor Centre across the straits in Johor, Malaysia. As Singapore grappled with the financial crisis of 2008 and the College was caught mid-project in the planning of a second campus, it was people like Charles Ormiston and Kishore Mahbubani who lent their hands to the tiller and helped to steer us through the storm.

Our College is what it is because of these people and so many, many more. All of those changemakers who founded and developed our College commitment to service, which has come to characterise us; the Maths teacher who irritated Anthony Skillicorn into establishing the Initiative for Peace; ‘John the Pirate’ who taught topper sailing off a Tioman beach; a determined group of cyclists setting off from Dover Road, heading for Thailand to raise relief funds for the victims of the tsunami disaster in 2004.

It was daunting to try to do justice to all of the people who have made us. I have been a part of UWCSEA long enough to know that the audience is not always forgiving when a line is crossed. There have been times when I have imagined the disapproving faces and shaking heads of those who will see mistakes or wonder why about some glaring omissions. Times, too, when I have regretted not being able to write the alternative history of UWCSEA featuring all of the stories that people told me with the caveat ‘don’t put this in the book, but …’ So the fascinating tales of our haunted Dover Campus, a few loveable miscreants and the occasional close miss that we scraped away from will not be found in our official record of 50 years.

It has been an enormous privilege and pleasure to interview so many distinguished actors from our story. I have treasured those connections and been enormously grateful for the warmth and engagement from every single person I have spoken to. What links every one of them together is a sense that UWCSEA is more than a school, more than a job, more than a chapter in a life story. The College means something to each of them and I hope that I have been able to capture that meaning in what I have written.

History written becomes historiography for those who follow.

The ‘what if’ of history might also one day include: what if someone different had written the 50th book …

Stay tuned for the publishing date of the UWCSEA 50th book here and find out how you can pre-order!