Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA)
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The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Singapore is located at 1 Orchard Road. Founded on the same Christian principles as the parent YMCA in Britain, the organisation was established in Singapore in 1903. In its early years, the organisation was instrumental in providing members with access to self-enrichment programmes and sports facilities. Today, the YMCA caters to members of all religions and ethnicities through educational and social interaction activities.
Background of YMCA movement
The YMCA was originally started by Sir George Williams in London in 1844, during the industrial period. Poor working conditions were the norm then and there was little opportunity for social and spiritual development. The pioneer members met regularly to socialise and study the Bible. At that time, the group was known as a self-help and spiritual group for young industrial workers and later called itself the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The concept soon gained a following as other industrial companies and factories started their own groups. Over time, the YMCA eventually grew into a worldwide movement with associations set up across the world.
Establishment of YMCA in Singapore
The idea of setting up the YMCA in Singapore was first promoted through an appeal signed by numerous officials and missionaries and sent to the English National Council in 1900. Separately, businessman G. W. Lovell also wrote a letter to the National Council in 1901 asking for help to set up a YMCA in Singapore. Lovell wanted to give British youth in Singapore an alternative to unsavoury temptations and vices such as gambling and prostitution. Robert Pringle, who was instrumental in starting the YMCA in Bombay (India) and Colombo (Sri Lanka), was subsequently sent to Singapore. With his expertise, the YMCA of Singapore was successfully founded in 1902 at Nos. 1 & 2 Armenian Street.
As an organisation built on Christian principles, the YMCA sought to reach out to all youth in Singapore and to promote healthy development, in keeping with the Christian ideals of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. Volunteerism and community work were promoted through camps and programmes to aid the less fortunate in Singapore.
As the YMCA grew in terms of membership and the range of programmes available, it was relocated in 1904 from Nos. 1 & 2 Armenian Street to another building on the same street called Zetland House, which had formerly housed the American Embassy.
After a number of years, further expansion was required. In 1909, the government granted the YMCA a 999-year lease for an Orchard Road site in the Dhoby Ghaut area. The YMCA officially moved to the Orchard Road premises in 1911.
The YMCA promoted sports for healthy living and development. It was instrumental in introducing many sports to youths in Singapore by providing access to proper sports facilities. These facilities included tennis courts, grounds for football, hockey, cricket as well as Singapore’s first swimming pool.
The YMCA was also the first institution to provide technical and commercial education programmes for youths to further their studies and learn new skills. Technical education sessions began in 1913 and shorthand and book-keeping courses were offered in 1919. Classes in typewriting and accountancy followed soon after. There were also classes to aid preparation for the London Chamber of Commerce examinations.
The war years
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, all British YMCA administrators and staff were interned at Changi Prison. The YMCA building at Orchard Road was seized and turned into the interrogation and torture headquarters of the Japanese Kempeitai or secret military police. The Japanese installed five jail cells within the building and employed cruel methods of torture such as electric shock, water torture, violent beatings and starvation. War heroine Elizabeth Choy, a YMCA member accused of relaying messages to British internees, was imprisoned for a total of 193 days and tortured by electric shock, beatings and starvation. The YMCA building came to be regarded with fear due to the wartime activities of the Kempeitai.
After the war ended, there were different views regarding the fate of the YMCA building. The British wanted to demolish it and designate the open space as a memorial to those who had suffered under the Japanese. However, it was later used as a Forces Centre for a Salvation Army Services Welfare team from India. It was after numerous discussions that the YMCA finally managed to reclaim the building. After much hard work, fundraising and refurbishment, the YMCA finally resumed operations at the Orchard Road building in December 1946.
Plans for rebuilding the Orchard Road premises began in 1969. However, the committee overseeing the rebuilding had problems gaining approval from the authorities and had to revise their proposal numerous times. Approval was finally granted in 1979 for the construction of a nine-storey building at Orchard Road. Subsequently, two donation draws were held in 1981 and 1982 to raise funds for the rebuilding effort. Reopened on 24 November 1984, the building at 1 Orchard Road is the acting headquarters of the YMCA.
As the original YMCA was started with British youth in mind, some local personalities, such as philanthropist and social reformer Dr Chen Su Lan, wanted a second YMCA in Singapore to serve the interests of the Chinese majority. Attempts to start a Chinese YMCA began as early as 1924. The idea was strongly opposed by the British authorities and the original YMCA of Singapore. However, Dr Chen persevered and the Chinese YMCA was finally set up after World War II in 1947. In March 1974, the Chinese YMCA of Singapore renamed itself the Metropolitan YMCA (MYMCA) of Singapore to reflect its desire to serve people of all ethnicities. Although both the MYMCA and the YMCA belong to the world YMCA movement and have similar aims, they remain separate organisations.
Apart from the MYMCA and the YMCA, there is also a Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), which was established in Singapore in 1875 by educator and missionary, Sophia Cooke. The YWCA is a sister organisation of the YMCA and caters to the interests and needs of women in Singapore.
In more recent years, the YMCA has worked hard to establish itself as a charity. It has many volunteers and hosts a wide variety of activities for reaching out to the needy and less fortunate in Singapore. The organisation also has international exchange programmes allowing students to make a difference to the less fortunate overseas.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Young Men's Christian associations--Singapore
Social work with youth--Singapore
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Philosophy, psychology and religion>>Religion>>Christianity