It’s No Use Knowing About Gorbachev If You Don’t Even Know Me

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Teacher Feature: Mr Edmund Kwok

By Claire Yip (13A01A)

Mr Edmund Kwok, International History tutor
Mr Edmund Kwok, International History tutor

A teacher feature on Mr Edmund Kwok has been in the pipeline at Press for almost a year now, but until a while ago, no one was willing to take it up. In a moment of impulsivity, I decided it would be something different.

Mr Kwok is an International History tutor who has been with RI for decades. The Minister for Education called him a ‘role-model’, ‘well-regarded among the JC History teaching fraternity’. In his youth he was among the first batch of junior college students in RJC, and did well enough to go on to do a double degree in NUS.

Yet his achievements are but a fraction of Mr Kwok’s person. Students describe him as ‘interesting’, ‘hilarious’, and even ‘self-absorbed’, but Mr Kwok seems to defy external judgment. He is, really, best understood in his own words, as when he is teaching. We conduct an extensive interview with him about his career, ‘intellectual people-watching’, and fashion.

Press: Can you give us a brief history of your teaching career?

Mr Kwok: Oh, okay. I can give you a handout, actually. But I can verbalise it now. Okay, I started teaching in 1991, that means from 1991 to 2013, most of the time I was with Raffles, but I was away for three years with the Ministry of Education, okay, as the curriculum planning officer. That was from 2000 to 2002. Okay, this is my twenty-second year in teaching. So, what else would you like to know, other than the time period? Oh, I started teaching Southeast Asian History for the first two years, and because of manpower requirements, I switched to do International History. In the early years I was teaching General Paper as well, but when I returned from MOE, I specialised in just doing International History.

I heard that you have a double degree in Geography and History from NUS.

Oh, because during my time in university, it was even more broad-based. You need to choose three subjects. So I chose History, Geography, and Political Science. Political Science was my minor. After my third year, I was offered to do Honours, actually both subjects offered me to do Honours. But at that time I don’t think there’s a double Honours, so I chose one, and I chose History, even though I felt it was a more challenging subject. But somehow or other, I was drawn to decide to take History for my fourth year.

How come?

I think it’s more than just the grades. I was scoring better for Geography, and Geography is more practical, especially human geography, I can see it happening all around me. For history you need to actually go back in time. Okay, you need to have this sense of empathy, and putting yourself in the shoes of other people. Otherwise you find that you will be very detached from the past, because you can’t feel how other people make decisions. Despite the challenges, I think it’s the passion, and the nature of history is such that we study historical personalities, okay, and the intentions behind their actions, and their actions, and most important is the significance of their actions.

‘For history you need to have empathy, and put yourself in the shoes of other people.’

Would you say that this passion for history is your most important reason for teaching?

I think my passion for teaching comes before my passion for the subject. Even before I got a chance to take History, at a very young age, I had already set my mind on teaching. So when I chose my subjects in university, I chose teaching subjects – History and Geography.

Speaking of your teaching, what do you think are some hallmarks of your teaching style?

Hallmarks? Oh, okay, hallmarks ah. I prepared something. I need to reflect first. Okay, wait, let me see. [Mr Kwok scans through a few sheets of paper he has prepared for the interview.] Okay, I think I use [my image and life story in my lecture notes] because it’s a matter of preference. I don’t want to be put in a situation in which I’m just introducing the subject. I think it’s one means to enthuse the students as well.

I don’t know whether this is typical or not for a History teacher, but I feel that in order to appreciate other historical personalities, you need to appreciate the teacher first. It’s no use knowing so much about Gorbachev, if you don’t even know a bit about me. Of course, whatever I want to share with the students is within my comfort level, but I talk about my career and things like that. Basically, I don’t want to be someone who is an inanimate entity, you know – like ‘Who’s the lecturer?’ ‘This guy, you know, is my History lecturer.’ It’s just like before a student actually does Middle Eastern history, the most important thing is the visual map. It’s no use knowing about Middle Eastern history if you can’t even visualise where the Middle East is. It’s the same thing, you see. You know the lecturer first, then you know the other historical personalities. But of course, in order to share about yourself, you must enjoy it. If you have a very narrow personal space, and everything is secret, of course it won’t work lah. You must enjoy it. And it’s not sharing about yourself as an end in itself, it’s for some more intellectual purpose lah – to enthuse the students about the subject as well.

I always talk about morning dews, which is actually encouraging students to give more insightful and refreshing perspectives. Above what I say. So I believe in giving the base – it’s like kueh lapis approach, you know? Okay, the students will add on to different layers of evaluation, perspectives, to the base.

Every time I see a new group of students I will [share about myself]. But of course, as I move along, it is done with more finesse. Basically it’s a way to market myself also lah, a shortcut to knowing who the person is, whether you’ve got the credentials, and, yeah…

‘It’s no use knowing so much about Gorbachev, if you don’t even know a bit about me.’
‘It’s no use knowing so much about Gorbachev, if you don’t even know a bit about me.’

What are the subjects that you share with students about? And, what’s out of bounds?

Oh, okay. Wah. Maybe you give me some examples and I’ll tell you whether it’s out of bounds or not.

Your personal life, like family?

Oh that’s fine, yeah. I do share about that, given the opportunity lah. Because I don’t force-fit all this, just because I want to share; I must have the opportunity. I mean, I feel that there’s nothing to hide about family. I’ve got a sister, myself, and my parents. That’s fine, I mean nothing to hide. I’m willing to share about my age, my birthday, and my career, uh, my pastimes…

What about your romantic endeavours?

Ah, that one, okay, maybe that is a bit out of bounds lah.

Could you share about your activities outside school, like your star-chasing hobby?

Okay, can. Okay, just in case you’re misunderstood, I don’t chase stars. Okay. I don’t chase stars only, I would rather call it ‘people-watching’. A more generic term. Because the connotation that’s associated with star-chasing is a bit strange…

A bit too enthusiastic.

Yeah, yeah. It’s like obsession or whatever. So I’d rather call it people-watching. Okay. Intellectually it’s called people-watching, or people appreciation lah. I know it’s a very grand term.

So the thing is not about who you watch. It could be people, it could be animals, it could be birds. The concept is ‘watching’. Okay. It’s like watching who’s who in politics. You know, watching politicians, in the entertainment world…and it’s not just watching per se, it’s the contributions. For me, of course I’m interested in knowing the politicians and the stars, whatever you call it. I like to watch people, I think it sharpens my observation skills, and I don’t just watch people for the sake of it. It’s a reflection – it’s about after watching people, what you do. It’s the whole process, you see. The concept is about observation. It’s about watching. And I think it introduces another aspect of life. Life is not about work only, it’s not about socialising. Life is more than just that, alright? As long as it’s healthy.

So it’s not what you watch, it’s reflection. I think as an intellectual person, I move beyond just watching. I actually reflect on how the situation was like there, you see, like all those people who were so obsessive with chasing stars or whatever, okay, what is the psyche of these people; what makes them so obsessive, compulsive, you know? Chase them all the way, everywhere. And I was thinking, if for whatever reason I have the chance to write my memoir, this will be one of the chapters.

But it goes beyond watching, right? For example, there is a photo of you with Romeo Tan…

Yes, yes, but of course when you watch, you take picture also lah. But in terms of obsession and compulsion I wouldn’t go that far lah.

As seen in Today: left, Romeo Tan; right, Mr Edmund Kwok
As seen in Today: left, Romeo Tan; right, Mr Edmund Kwok

Now the final topic for today: fashion. Who do you think is your number one style inspiration?

Oh my goodness. I’m not a professional fashion admirer, okay. One thing is that I don’t go for brands, per se, I go for what the brand offers. In fact I feel that those middle-range ones are the most innovative. In fact, the high-range ones, you pay for the brand. Whereas the cut and the texture may be slightly better, but the design is very normal. Very normal. You go Hugo Boss, the shirts are all very normal one.

It’s only when you go for the middle-range one, it’s not too high-end, and it’s still quite affordable, that they are more stylishly innovative. Ah. So I don’t go for one designer, neither do I go for one brand. So I…brand-hop. I go for the design and the fit.

And which shopping destinations do you frequent?

Actually, I go where I can find the shirts that appeal to me. But most of the time, I will tend to gravitate towards Orchard Road, and it’s not surprising, because it’s the most accessible. Although I don’t mind travelling out, if there’s something I really want. Anyway, I’m a very mobile person. I travel around Singapore using public transport, which takes me everywhere…I don’t need a car. In fact I have two cars – which is the dialect name for two legs. Kah. Kah is legs right?

Neng kah.

Yes. So I’ve got two cars actually. When people ask me, ‘Do you have a car?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I got two cars.’


This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
With assistance from Lye Han Jun.

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