Education

WWII Japanese soldier bursts
in... to teach history

History teacher:
History teacher Malcolm Tan capturing his students' attention by playing the role of a Japanese soldier during a lesson at Chung Cheng High School. (ANN/The Straits Times/Lau Fook Kong)

Like a time-machine traveler, the World War II Japanese soldier burst into the classroom. That dramatic entrance gave goosebumps to some of the 40 seated Secondary 2 students, even though they knew the sword-wielding Japanese sergeant was their history teacher, Mr Malcolm Tan.

No sir, it was not going to be another typical history lesson about the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945.

'Today, you will learn about our way of life,' Mr Tan intoned, as his spiel began.

A laptop's speakers blared out the Japanese national anthem, Kimigayo, and the students had to bow and shout 'Banzai!' (the equivalent of 'Long live the Emperor!').

For the next 50 minutes, Mr Tan was not just a history teacher at Chung Cheng High School (Main). He was role-playing a Japanese sergeant in 1942.

A history buff, Mr Tan, 35, has been using his interactive method to engage his students since 2001, first at Bendemeer Secondary, and now at his present school.

'My aim is to open the doors of the mind - to make history not boring, but alive and relevant,' said Mr Tan, who has been teaching at the school for close to two years.

He has such interactive lessons up to six times a year.

His other 'personas' include a Japanese general, a British soldier, a 1950s riot policeman, British Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, and even Adolf Hitler.

And where did he get those immaculate costumes? They are mostly replicas or original items bought from online stores and eBay. He spends an average of $50 on each item.

Until two years ago, he merely dressed the part for each special history class.

But a visit to Hampton Court in England in 2009 - where he saw a re-enactment of King Henry VIII's life during the Tudor Age - inspired him to tweak his lessons. He now 'becomes' the person he dresses up in.

'It was so real, so alive and amazing. From then on, in my lessons, I took on the role of the people I play,' he said.

To prepare for these special lessons, he researches his characters beforehand, and tells his students personal details - such as of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong's four wives.

He also gets his students to 'develop empathy' by getting them to re-enact historical events.

For his lesson on the 1956 Chinese Middle School riots - coincidentally, Chung Cheng was among the schools involved - his students staged mock protests, marched around the school bearing posters, and gave rousing speeches.

He said: 'When my students try to find out more on their own - develop an inquiring mind - that's when I feel I have done my job.'

History is a passion carried over from his childhood days when he visited the wax museum at Sentosa with his parents, and listened to his grandmother's account of the war.

Even though history lessons - while he was studying at Victoria School - were all about 'reading and highlighting the textbook', he remained keen on the subject.

In 2008, the National Institute of Education-trained graduate did his master's in history at the National University of Singapore.

The principal of Chung Cheng High School (Main), Mr Pang Choon How, supports the interactive teaching style of Mr Tan, who won the 'Most Engaging Teacher Award' that the school gave last year.

One of Mr Tan's students, 14-year-old Jonathan Chan, said the lessons have inspired him to read up more.

'I'd go online to search for more than the information from the textbook, and find out more about, say, the Japanese.'

Fifteen-year-old Tng Shu Hui failed history in Secondary 1, but got a B in Secondary 2 last year after she was taught by Mr Tan.

She said: 'I never had a history teacher like him before; he gave us confidence to study history and we were encouraged to learn more.'

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