The Baharuddin Vocational Institute (BVI) was established in 1969 with the aim of developing skilled local designers and craftsmen. Located in Queenstown, it was the first local tertiary institution to focus on the manual and applied arts. Nancy Wee, an alumnus of BVI who is now a design lecturer herself, shares the influence the institute had on her life and career.
Nancy Wee, 62, has taught design for almost her entire adult life. One of the longest-serving staff members at Temasek Polytechnic (TP), she spent 15 years as a lecturer in Communications Design before shifting gears to teach cross-disciplinary design. In 2012, she moved to her current position teaching Foundation Studies in the School of Design.
Nancy’s own learning journey began many years earlier, however, when she enrolled at the Baharuddin Vocational Institute (BVI) for a two-year Industrial Technician Certificate in Commercial Art in 1974.
Like most young people, she was unsure about what to do after finishing secondary school. “After I finished Secondary 4, I didn’t know what I should do next,” she said. “Go to work? But would ‘O’ levels be enough? I was so ignorant because we didn’t have career guidance in schools back then, no career seminars or anything.”
She did, however, know that she was interested in and had enjoyed studying art, a subject she had taken for her ‘O’ levels. With this in mind, she decided to apply to study Commercial Art, a field she believed would have more practical relevance in the future.
BVI’s focus on the manual and applied arts was unique. The only other art school in Singapore at the time was the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, which specialised in fine art. Besides commercial art (later known as graphic design), BVI also offered courses in fashion, printmaking, pottery, and woodwork.
The old BVI campus at Stirling Road, Queenstown, in 1970. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Nancy’s application, however, was unsuccessful. “It was really tough. We all had to go for interviews and I didn’t get in on my first try. There were many applicants who were much better than me,” she admitted. She decided to wait a year and re-apply, using the extra time to attend art classes in the hope of boosting her chances.
Her second attempt turned out much better. “When I went for the interview, I met the same lecturer who had assessed me the first time, so I said, ‘I’m here again!’ He must have felt that this girl was really interested,” she said with a laugh.
Despite Nancy’s eagerness to be accepted into BVI, the institution was not well regarded by the public at the time.
“It wasn’t considered prestigious. Back then, the thinking was that if you went to a vocational school, it was because you were not good at studying. There was this perception that vocational institutes were for dropouts.”
The reality was quite different. While the majority of pre-university institutes at the time only considered applicants’ academic results, BVI’s application requirements for the Commercial Art course were comparatively demanding – applicants had to undergo interviews and showcase a portfolio of their work. This meant that candidates who had successfully applied to BVI truly wanted to be there, and many had probably defied their parents’ wishes in applying.
During her two years at BVI, Nancy attended a range of classes, from figure drawing to packaging design. Although the latter was her least favourite, she got down to work without complaint. “We just did all the subjects. At that time, our attitude was like, now that you’re here, you should do the work.”
Although BVI was a relatively young institution at the time, it had a proper curriculum which had been designed by the then-Vocational Industrial Training Board, now known as the Institute of Technical Education. Lecturers had to adhere to set syllabi and standards. “It had a properly written curriculum,” said Nancy. “Not ‘today I want to teach this, tomorrow I want to teach another thing.’”
According to Nancy, lecturers at BVI were known as “training officers”, most of whom had degrees in design and art and had worked as teachers previously. In support of Singapore’s post-independence push for industrialisation, the government encouraged education in the technical arts, and some teachers were sent for for additional training, although not all were practising artists. Among BVI’s more notable faculty at the time was Iskandar Jalil, a master potter and the 1988 Cultural Medallion recipient, who taught at the institute for over 20 years.
Nancy was inspired by her lecturers to work hard and keep practising her craft. She fondly reminisced about taking classes under artist Loh Khee Yew, whom she recalled as being well-known for figure drawing but was also skilled at graphic design.
“I can still remember one exercise that he guided and helped me through…I can still visualise that piece of work,” she said. “After that I was like, wah, you mean I can do this? I felt so impressed and inspired that I felt I must continue to do better.”
Nancy (back row, third from right) at a class camp with her BVI schoolmates circa 1973, with lecturer Loh Khee Yew (front row, third from left). Photo courtesy of Nancy Wee
Like any other student, Nancy had classes that she did not enjoy as much, as well as lecturers whom she found demanding and difficult to please at the time. Now, as a design educator herself, she understands their insistence on high standards.
“As a student, of course you hate that teacher who comes after you and makes you redo, redo, redo, redo until your work is perfect. But now, many years later, you realise they were trying to push you to be better. And that’s just the way some skills are – you can’t expect to do it just once and have it come out perfect. Design is quite skill-based, so you have to do lots of it.”
After Nancy graduated from BVI, she went on to attain a degree in Graphic Design from the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. Upon her return to Singapore, she briefly worked in publishing before being recruited by one of her old lecturers to teach at BVI in 1982.
“My ex-lecturer called me and said, ‘Nancy, I would like you to come back and teach here.’ What?! Teach? I’d just graduated and wanted to do something else, to explore what else [there was] outside in the world,” she said.
Despite her initial protests, she eventually conceded, intending to teach for just a year or two. She ended up staying for 36 (and counting): eight at BVI and another 28 at TP, which BVI’s graphic design school was subsumed under in 1990.
Looking back at BVI’s alumni over the years, she is proud at how they overcame public prejudice to succeed. “I suppose we all turned out quite well!” she remarked, grinning cheekily.
“Many veterans from the design industry studied [at BVI], and they’ve influenced the design scene in Singapore over the years. Some of my contemporaries and seniors are running their own agencies, or have had careers in big companies. Our [BVI] students did make it.” she said with visible pride.
She is glad that local interest and support for design education have grown over the years, something she attributes to BVI’s impact. According to Nancy, most parents back then would have disapproved of their children studying art, and were ignorant about design as a career.
“But now we have the National Arts Council, the DesignSingapore Council, lots of ventures [that] the government supports. And that’s why design courses have expanded to the other polytechnics as well. In the 1990s, [TP] was the only one.”
Nancy (front row, first from left) with BVI’s staff (both teaching and non-teaching) circa the late 1980s, a few years before the school was subsumed into Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Design. Photo courtesy of Nancy Wee
On her part, Nancy feels she has been incredibly fortunate in how her career has turned out, particularly in terms of her changing relationship with her former teachers. “It’s amazing. I knew my lecturers [at BVI] as a student, and when I came back as a lecturer, I came to know and work with them as colleagues. And we became very close, we went for holidays together…they were my mentors. I don’t think many students get that kind of opportunity, to go from students to colleagues to friends and mentors.”
She also credits her time at BVI as being instrumental to her understanding of design, and, by extension, her passion for it. “Even if you aren’t passionate about something at first, you can learn to be. I didn’t know anything about design when I first got to BVI, only a bit about drawing, colours and painting. But when I understood what design was, I came to love it.”
This philosophy – that diligence breeds passion – is something she tries to nurture in her students today. “Of course I really like it when there are students with innate talent. But they have to work hard. When they live, eat, breathe and sleep design, they can make it. We do get students who didn’t do art in school [before embarking on diplomas in design] and it can be very tough for them at first. But sometimes, they do very well in the end, because they want to be here.”
“For design, you must do it with joy, with passion – you must love it. It’s just like tea. If you don’t like to drink tea, then how? It must be your cup of tea.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin