In conversation with Jim Baker, author of American Association of Singapore's centennial coffee table book, The American Journey in Singapore.
Born in California, Jim moved to Singapore with his family in 1950 at the age of two. Jim’s father was a missionary, as was his grandfather. With two older brothers and a younger sister (born in Singapore), Jim grew up immersed in the local culture, also learning Malay. He joined Singapore American School (SAS) as a second grader on the day it opened in 1956 and attended until he graduated in 1966. After completing college in the US with a degree in history in 1970, Jim found his way back to Singapore with his wife, Junia, and taught high school history at SAS from 1971-74. Junia and Jim had a son, Randy, in Singapore in 1974, who also graduated from SAS. After a few years teaching in other American schools internationally, Jim returned to Singapore in 1982 and taught history and economics at SAS until he retired in 2014. Jim and Junia now live in Penang, where Jim continues to write.
How was life in a missionary family?
My dad’s life was totally involved in Singapore as opposed to with expatriates, so my life was a little different than a lot of other staff kids. We lived in parts of town where there were all local people, so as kids growing up we all learned Malay. We lived in this non-American world and we desperately craved being American. For us, school was a way to be American.
What was SAS like back then?
A huge old colonial house. Next to the classroom, there was a bathroom with a big old tub! The first day there were 108 kids in the school, from Kindergarten to 10th grade. SAS graduates more kids in a year than that now, while the first graduating class had just one graduate. I graduated with a class of 28 kids. The school felt like a family, the principal knew everyone and everything about them.
AAS was essentially a men’s business club back then, but it was really the mothers that created the school. They didn’t want to send their children home to boarding schools, so they were really the driving force behind the school. Not only did they create the school, they taught the classes, ran the after-school activities, etc.
Did you get back to the US often?
This was just the beginning of the jet age, so people did not go back to the States as often. My dad did five-year stints before he would go back. Before jet travel, you came over by ship, taking a month to make the journey.
How different was life in Singapore at that time?
Singapore was much more Asian. So, the contrast between America and Singapore was much greater than today. A kid in Singapore today doesn’t miss an awful lot of youth culture, etc., from their own country, with the exception of the car culture. There was a lot more culture shock for kids in my day, as Singapore has become much more Western.
What drew you back to teach at SAS (twice)?
Following my first stint at SAS, I was offered a job back in Washington DC. I went to look around the school and meet the kids but realized that these weren’t my kids. The kids I should be teaching were Third Culture Kids (TCK), the kinds of kids I could really relate to. Between my two stints I taught at SAS for 35 years.
Why did you want to get involved with The American Journey in Singapore?
I believe that Singapore has a special relationship with the US. And the American Association and its progeny are a really important part of that. I would argue that the special relationship has been nurtured by American community organizations. There’s been times when the relationship hasn’t been very good, but the constant was that the resident community kept on truckin’ and came out the other side. If you look at US military, economic ties, people ties, etc., it’s difficult to find many other places in the world that have the depth of relationship that America and Singapore have.
Read all about the American Association from 1917 to present day in The American Journey in Singapore, available from the American Association of Singapore.