In Primary 1, a teacher’s kindness made him feel welcome. On his last day in Sec 4, another changed this head prefect’s world forever
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by Gemma Koh // September 11, 2023, 4:41 pm
"Their prayers and efforts were not in vain," said Rev Dr Joshua Sudharman (then known as Shaam; seated second from right) on the influence teachers and friends had in his primary and secondary school years. They include his rugby mistress Mrs Priscilla Krempl (centre). Joshua, too, became a teacher and, later, a pastor. All photos courtesy of Rev Dr Joshua Sudharman unless otherwise stated.
As a Primary 1 boy in a brand new environment, Joshua Sudharman (then known as Shaam) felt at home right away at St Andrew’s Junior School, thanks to his form teacher, Mrs Mary Yee, who was “motherly, kind and caring”.
“Looking back, it was quite something to make a kid feel comfortable, safe and at home,” said Joshua, now 53.
Mrs Mary Yee taught the boys all subjects except for Chinese.
Joshua recalled sitting cross-legged on the floor at the front of his classroom, enthralled by the stories she read to the class during Bible Knowledge class.
“Mrs Yee had the Bible open, and read stories to us and showed us the pictures.
“Those began to have an impact on me.”
Joshua’s family were of a different faith. He was brought up on the idea that all religions are the same, that people “pray to the same God using different names”.
“So it gave me permission to participate freely in whatever was happening in school and to stay open minded – but with no need to convert.”
The stories Mrs Yee read the class kick-started in Joshua “a growing sense of admiration for Jesus, and a wonder of the kind of person that He is, His kindness and love”.
Joshua recalled looking forward to singing his favourite song – In the Stars His Handiwork I See – during chapel service.
“Each one of us, even non-Christians, had our favourite hymns. Not so much for the profundity of the words, but probably for the tune,” he said with a smile.
He felt comfortable with the prayers and faith programmes at the mission school. There was no pressure to give up his family’s spiritual beliefs.
But in Secondary Four, something began to trouble Joshua, who was then the Head Prefect (or School Captain, in the unique nomenclature of St Andrew’s School).
His close friends, who were also prefects, took opportunities during barbecues, dinners and social gatherings to ask him what he thought about the Bible verse “I am the way, the truth and the life”. (John 14:6)
That is, that Jesus is the one and only way to God.
“It implied things that were critical and negative about my beliefs. It offended me.”
“It created some tension in our friendship – enough to complicate it.”
This led to arguments.
“It created some tension in our friendship – not enough to derail it, but enough to complicate it.
“Things came to a head and I told them, ‘Enough. I don’t want to talk about this subject any more. I am prepared to believe in the whole Bible except this one verse that you keep confronting me with.’
“So I pulled away.”
Little did he realise that “something was already swirling” inside him.
Last day of Sec 4
On the last day of Secondary 4, Joshua and his schoolmates exchanged autographs with each other, and said their goodbyes to their teachers.
“I thought it couldn’t hurt if she remembered me when she said her prayers.”
Joshua went up to his teacher-in-charge of rugby with whom he was close.
Mrs Priscilla Krempl was Singapore’s first female rugby coach and referee, and would later become the principal of St Andrew’s Secondary School.
“As part of my goodbye to my teacher, I said to her, ‘Please pray for me for the upcoming ‘O’ Levels.’
“I don’t know why I said it, but I thought it couldn’t hurt if she remembered me when she said her prayers.”
What she said next surprised him.
“She said, ‘Sure. Why don’t we go to the chapel now?’”
Somersaulting in space
In the chapel, teacher and student sat side by side in a pew.
Joshua recalled: “We bowed our heads, closed our eyes and she began to pray. She said, ‘Dear Lord, we pray for Shaam as his exams are coming up …’
“Accompanying those words was a very, very weird sensation of spinning – like tumbling, as if I were in space.”
“After that, her words were drowned out by a voice in my mind that kept saying: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. I am the Way, the Truth …’
“Accompanying those words was a very, very weird sensation of spinning – like tumbling or somersaulting, as if I were in space. I felt giddy.
“The next thing you know, I’m weeping and crying uncontrollably.
“It was quite a supernatural thing. It was really something I couldn’t have engineered, something that I couldn’t have predicted.
“It was like something boiling inside me had come to the surface.
“Maybe because that was the first time I had prayed in a very personal way.”
“What have I done?”
Joshua was still very emotional when Mrs Krempl suggested: “Why don’t you pray now?”
“I didn’t ask for help with my exams – it seemed the least important thing at that point.”
He had never prayed out loud before.
“At prefect board meetings, it was always my duty to appoint a Christian prefect to open in prayer. After he says the words ‘In Jesus name’, other non-Christians and I would join in on the ‘Amen’.
“Now, blubbering through my tears, I started to pray,” he recalled.
“I don’t remember my exact words but I didn’t ask for help with my exams – it seemed the least important thing at that point.
“I felt like I had come face to face with God in some way. My prayer was something to the effect of, ‘I acknowledge You as God’.
“I felt like I was being confronted with the question that I had been running away from. I felt like ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ was now inescapably pointing to the fact that Jesus brings us to God in a way that no one else does.
“And then, more tellingly for me, I uttered the words ‘In Jesus’ name’. And my teacher joined in on the ‘Amen’,” he said.
When he finished saying his first prayer, Joshua asked himself: “What have I done?”
A week later, Joshua went to the home of his closest friend – another prefect – to study.
“Mong had to pick his jaw up from the floor. He was so shocked.”
Recalled Joshua: “We were taking a break from memorising Shakespeare. And suddenly, I blurted out to him, ‘Mong, I’ve decided to embrace the Christian faith.’
“I don’t know why I said it that way,” he said.
Joshua didn’t have a habit of journalling, so reckons he was “internally processing his thoughts, making sense of what happened the previous week”, when things suddenly became crystal clear.
“I think Mong had to pick his jaw up from the floor. He was so shocked.
“Then he let me in on a secret. He told me, ‘Do you know that at the beginning of the year, Wilfred had the assurance from God that by the end of the year you would become a Christian? And that we’ve all been praying for you behind your back?
(Wilfred Leow, like Joshua, went on to be a teacher in the St Andrew’s family of schools and subsequently a pastor.)
“Mong told me, ‘We prayed for ways to reach you. And then you became so hardened, and we were so discouraged. And the more we tried, the further away you ran.’”
“Do you know that we’ve all been praying for you behind your back?”
Said Joshua: “I had no idea they were conspiring to pray for me.”
Then Mong asked Joshua if he had prayed the Sinner’s Prayer.
Joshua didn’t know what it was.
“Mong said, ‘Let us pray. You say it after me.’
“So we sat down facing each other. The moment we bowed our heads and we began to pray, I started to weep again.
“As soon we finished praying, Mong ran out of the room and started phoning our friends with the news, ‘You won’t believe what just happened. Shaam just prayed to receive Christ.’”
Said Joshua: “It was a miracle to them.
“It was vindication for my friends that they had heard God right. I really did become a believer.
“And their prayers and efforts were not in vain. It was really faith-building for them.
“Because of this, I believe in the power of prayer.
“If I could be turned around so supernaturally, I think there’s hope for everyone.”
Gift of teaching
Joshua and his best friend, Mong, had made up their minds to go to a secular junior college. But just two months before the end of Secondary 4 – and before becoming a Christian – Joshua “made a 180-degree turn”, and chose St Andrew’s Junior College (SAJC) instead.
Looking back, Joshua saw how God had already been directing the course of his life, even before he became a believer. At SAJC, Joshua grew in his newfound faith, even before he could start attending church.
He subsequently received a scholarship to read physics – his favourite subject – at the University of Cambridge, where he found a Christian community on the advice of his Singapore pastor, Canon James Wong.
His time in Cambridge helped him grow in his love for God’s Word and his ability to lead Bible study.
During university holidays, Joshua taught physics at his former junior college. There, he discovered his gifting for teaching physics in a simple, logical and sequential way. He believes it was God’s way of preparing Him to become a full-time teacher, and subsequently, a pastor.
Twelve years after Joshua’s supernatural experience in his secondary school chapel, he felt moved to give up teaching to serve his God full-time as a pastor.
Almost 20 years later, Joshua had the joy of baptising his own father who became a Christian at the age of 80 – seven years before he passed on.
Looking back, Joshua sees God’s fingerprints in leading him to Christ: The provision of faithful close friends, the impact of a Christian institution, teachers who bookended his school years – from Mrs Yee in Primary 1 to Mrs Krempl in Secondary 4 – and others in between.
Teachers who made an impact included Mrs Yee’s husband, Joshua’s rugby coach in Secondary 4. Mr Yee Teck Peng, a beloved coach to many, communicated God’s love and care for others in practical ways and by example.
“He was always a gentleman and did not use foul language”, said Joshua of the coach who introduced tactical and strength training to reduce the likelihood of injury among the boys.
“He demonstrated care for the team, not just in terms of winning matches, but in terms of our health and physique.”
Joshua saw “all of these as the means by which God was impacting me”.
“God was very gradual, very patient, wooing me for 10 years from Primary 1 to Secondary 4, adding layer upon layer to my view of Christianity. And then finally, at the right time, it became a critical decision point for me.
“He was captivating me in terms of my falling in love with His person, His character, the kind way in which He dealt with everyone.
“He’s been incredible.”
A version of this story first appeared in Stories of Hope.
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