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)
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.
it was not going to be another typical history lesson about the Japanese
Occupation from 1942 to 1945.
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
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