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Saving the day: St James Kindergarten preschoolers learning about anatomy at the Teddy Bear Hospital. St James Kindergarten is one of the church preschools that makes up less than 10% of all preschools in Singapore. Photo from

Three major Christian denominations in Singapore have come together to look into the urgent challenges facing church-based preschools.

Falling enrolment and competition from large operators warn of the possible end of the road for non-profit church preschools, reported The StraitsTimes on July 24.

The closure of these preschools would affect over 9,000 children and their families.

One of the first actions of the Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian preschool task force teams is to hold a jointly organised, nation-wide dedication service on August 31, in conjunction with Teachers’ Day, at Orchard Road Presbyterian Church (ORPC).

It is the first event of its kind where all Christians working in the preschool sector are invited to attend.

What’s ailing our pre-schools

“Our ministry in early childhood education is collapsing,” says Lim Eetuo, Administration and Operations Director at St James’ Preschool Services. He is part of the joint task force that hopes to provide support – both tangible and moral – to Christian preschools and Christians working in this sector.

An estimation based on statistics provided by Singapore’s Early Childhood Development Authority (ECDA) shows that Christian preschools make up less than 10% of preschools here.

This is almost a 50% drop from 2012 when there were about 120 Christian kindergartens in operation.

The numbers are still falling today.

Many church-based preschools are struggling with dwindling enrolment rates, a lack of manpower and financial difficulties. Some have shut down operations altogether. 

The church at the cusp of change, will it grow or decay?

Finding precedence

Alvin Ooi, 55, is the chairman of the Presbyterian Preschool Task Force which was formed three months ago. But when he was first asked about his background in the education sector, his startling disclaimer was: “I don’t know anything about preschools!”

Lim, who was previously a Deputy Director at ECDA, had been talking to Ooi about the issues he perceived and the need for some sort of collective Christian response.

It was only when Ooi started praying that he felt this was truly a burden from the Lord.

“Education is a ministry. Ultimately, we have to go back to our mission and objectives. This is why we can work together.”

This burden was accompanied by a revelation: An interdenominational response to address the needs of society had precedence.

In fact, Ooi was reminded of three specific examples: Trinity Theological College (1948), St Andrews Junior College (1978) and St Luke’s Hospital (1996).

Trinity Theological College is a Bible school that was conceived within the walls of Changi Prison during WWII by different church leaders who desired the betterment of society.

St Andrews Junior College is an educational institution which was started as a vision of faith in line with national educational developments.

St Luke’s is a community hospital formed to serve the long-term needs of the sick and elderly.

Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Brethren and even independent churches were involved in these endeavours.

Gathering critical mass

The Presbyterian Preschool Task Force contacted Rev Dr Chong Chin Chung, the Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore to share its burden for Christian pre-school education. As it turned out, the Methodists had already gotten a head start on the issue.

Three years ago, in August 2016, the Methodist Preschool Connection (MPC) was formed because the various principals and management of Methodist kindergartens expressed the need for a platform to share information and experiences, said Liaw Chun Huan, 49, who is part of the Methodist Preschool Education Taskforce.

“We cannot just let this be the effort of one church alone.”

Liaw, who has been involved in his church Sunday School ministry since his undergraduate days, is also the chairman of Faith Kindergarten, a ministry of Faith Methodist Church. He explains that the MPC is a connection point for principals; issues ranging from operations to enrolment are discussed.

It is a similar approach that this joint effort hopes to take – beyond the borders of a single denomination.

Rev Eric Chan, 54, chairman of the Lutheran Preschool Task Force, noted that the rampant uncertainty amongst various principals and boards needed a collective effort to address the issues effectively.

“I don’t think any denomination will be big enough to carry this burden alone,” he says.

Lim echoes that sentiment. St James’ Church Preschool Services, which started its management service in 2018, presents a centralised model of operations. But there are other models with differing levels of autonomy and ownership which would work just as well.

He realised that “we cannot just let this be the effort of one church alone”.

Finding the way forward in unity

Early childhood education has changed drastically in the last several years.

“The kingdom of God is larger than our denominations, our organisations.”

Aside from the dedication service on August 31, the task force aims to gather information from principals and teachers that will help frame the terms of reference of issues to be addressed. Events in September and October are already in the works.

Beyond that, however, there are possibilities that include setting up a Christian preschool service that can take over the operational or professional needs of each school with ownership and oversight of chaplaincy kept by the church.

The way forward is uncertain and Ooi declined to elaborate further “because I don’t want to pre-empt God”.

While history has shown that combined efforts like these are possible, the keeping of this unity is a unanimous goal and a keenly-felt challenge.

“The beautiful part is the setting aside of differences, recognising that we belong to the same kingdom of God.”

Liaw noted that differences are especially obvious in terms of how each denomination functions, their hierarchy and in the decision-making process. “But this is something that we will each have to handle internally,” he said.

“The beautiful part is the setting aside of differences, recognising that we belong to the same kingdom of God.”

Rev Chen termed it as their denominational “preferences” laid down in favour of seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, the Body of Him who is in us.

“The kingdom of God is larger than our denominations, our organisations; it includes every nation, every tribe, people and language (Revelation 7: 9-12) in order to achieve the unity of the body of Christ. “

He added: “Education is a ministry. Ultimately, we have to go back to why we started preschools, our mission and objectives. This is why we can work together.”

Indeed, as Lim says, the common vision is to have a change in mindset – from seeing individual church kindergartens as entities in themselves, to seeing them as “kinder-gardens”.

Corrigendum: In the original story, “Four denominations uniting to save Christian preschool education in Singapore”, we erroneously included the Anglican Church as being part of the task force. To clarify, the Anglican Church was also invited to jointly organise the nation-wide dedication service and, though they were not part of the combined task force at the time of reporting, Salt&Light understands that they have lent support to “a worthy cause” and have joined the other churches in endorsing the importance of Christian preschool education. We are sorry for the error.

About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and aquatics industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".