Mr Harry Tan, fellow Saint, RIP

Heavy heart this evening. My buddy Chien forwarded me Mr Yee Teck Peng’s SaintsDYK newsletter which announced that Mr Harry Tan, our principal and Additional Mathematics teacher from St. Andrew’s Secondary passed away this afternoon (Harry Tan Ho Swee, 1941 – 2008).

A boy’s school is a tough setting to teach in with most of us boisterous. The school had many big-hearted teachers who also knew to wield the strong arm of discipline. The important backbone of that discipline was wielded by ol’ Harry. Even the scent of his distant approach would quieten a rowdy class!

His sermons were as fiery as his speeches and I enjoyed them all. I also loved his exhortatory Founder’s Day reports. So much so I came back while in the army to listen to him speak and to soak in the ambience of the school’s quadrangle. The unappreciative boys would only simply groan in embarrassment at part of the talk – like his pet statement that e were the “best swimming school amongst schools without swimming pools!”

The school achievements were highlighted in such occasions – and held up with great significance were things like service to the community. Events from the past like the help offered to Potong Pasir residents during the flood were still recalled, decades after it happened. Fiercely proud of our traditions, he also reflected a strong, independent spirit – probably why he always mentioned JBJ amongst the luminaries amongst our old boys!

Imagine the impact such a strong figure had on a cohort of boys – his reminders of the the significance of the school, its spirit and history certainly got to us. It did great things for our esteem, producing a bunch of confident boys aware of the need of service to the community. And will last us a life time.

One afternoon, I saw him holding fort at school entrance. In response to a query from a passing staff member, he said he was waiting to greet his Dunman High students. They were spending time in St. Andrew’s under the immersion programme, and were leaving early that day as it was Chinese New Year’s eve.

The school had a wide diversity of academic ability and Harry and his teaching staff were yanking up ‘O’ level passes dramatically from the doldrums in the late 70’s and early 80’s – while each percentage point was a dramatic victory, somehow we never felt any unpleasantness but only to be as good as we possibly could. “My university classmates and I played snooker the night before our exams and still aced them,” he’d roar in an anecdote about preparedness. I recalled his boast years later when I too prepared for my exams. I still needed the nights before the exams for study but consoled myself by ensuring my walk into the exam hall was calm and dignified!

We were blesssed with many extraordinary teachers in St. Andrew’s and Harry ranked amongst them. We had little direct contact with our principal, the dreaded Harry Tan until Additional Mathematics in Secondary 4. We greeted that class with great trepidation of course, but when the session began, we realised that he was a very good maths teacher! I can see scenes of him poised at the head of the class, lit by the morning light streaming in through the large open windows of the old school building. He’d attack the problem vigorously, delighting in the short cuts that were exposed and finally striking the board with a triumphant air. He’d scribble QED with a flourish at the end and he’d announce “Quite Easily Done,” with a vengeance, often breaking the chalk in the process! Heady stuff for us boys.

His strong-headededness got him into trouble, I believe, more than once. Long after we left, news trickled down that he had left too. So I was glad to see him in May 2003 at the cutting of the Stamford Fig. For the boys of my time at least, the memory of St. Andrew’s is well entwined with that of ol’Harry.

RIP Mr Tan!

See also (with updates):

29 May 2003 – Mr Harry Tan (grey shirt) at the ceremony to make
a cutting of one of the Stamford Figs to plant in the new school campus,
as had been done after the shift to Woodsville in 1940.
Canon Wong (white shirt, collar) is on his left.

The Saints Alumni webpage posts:



I am sad to announce that

our fellow SAINT,


former student and Principal


St. Andrew’s School,

passed away peacefully today,

Wednesday 6 August 2008

in the early afternoon.

Our deepest sympathy to his family,


and his 2 sons.

The wake will be held at Mt Vernon Funeral Parlour 1. Services will held on Thursday & Friday at 8:00 pm

Funeral Service on Saturday at 11:00 am.
The Cremation at 1pm , Mandai Hall 1.

I went down to his wake today (Thu 7th August 2008) with Chien and Shahiran in the afternoon, talked to Mrs Tan and several of our secondary school teachers.


6 thoughts on “Mr Harry Tan, fellow Saint, RIP

  1. Good photos and write up of Harry Tan, Siva. My Dad and Mr Tan were classmates together in the then Teachers Training College (TTC), which is now the NIE.

    Many years back when we were still studying in St Andrew’s, my brother I were at a Supermarket (I think it was the NTUC in Serangoon Gardens) with our Dad. Harry Tan was checking out his shopping at the counter and we were also checking out at another counter. Both Leong and I greeted him and he was glad and proud that we did. My Dad subsequently had a short chat with him and he was proud that both sons were Saints, and greeted him! That was when I knew both gentlemen were classmates in TTC. He did comment to Dad about us in St Andrew’s, which I think he said we were good boys. This short episode is still vivid in my mind after all these years and shows the impression I have of him.

    I will post this in Nullisecundus.

    May he rest in peace.


  2. Yes Jon, I also remember your Dad well. I still remember him driving us out from Andrew George Tay’s place in Sunset Ave after the post prelims “function” in his van. He was visibly unhappy that you were at the function and the short ride out to the main road seem eternal with defening silence 🙂

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