By Jane Ng
WHEN The Chinese High School and Hwa Chong Junior College merged several years ago, 800 people, largely alumni, got together to vote on a new name for the school.
The ballot followed a year of sometimes heated discussions between school officials and former students, many of whom felt strongly about preserving their respective school's heritage.
During the ballot in 2004, the name Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) won by a small margin.
It was not the first time - or the last either - that changes to a school's badge, motto or name would stoke the nostalgic fires of alumni, many of whom remain passionate about preserving their alma mater's history, decades their after graduation.
Last week, 500 former students of Dunman Secondary joined forces to protest against a decision by the Tampines school to modernise its 32-year-old badge.
Following a meeting between school officials and alumni, the school relented a little and restored Dunman's motto, which had been axed. But the new badge will stay.
North Vista Primary principal Phua Kia Wang says a badge is a rallying point for a school, symbolising its values and what it hopes to achieve. It is also something many graduates use to define themselves.
'I remember sitting in a cab in which the driver displayed his school's badge even after leaving the school so many years earlier,' Mr Phua said.
'It showed that he felt the badge identified him as a person.'
HCI principal Ang Wee Hiong says the sentiments of the alumni should be considered when deciding on something as important as a school name or badge.
The selection of the badge and school name for HCI was a process that took more than a year and many meetings with former students from both sides.
'The discussions that went on were robust and rigorous. At board meetings, staff meetings, alumni meetings, and in school newsletters, the issue was thoroughly debated,' Mr Ang said.
The merged school eventually adopted the badge of Chinese High, took on 'Hwa Chong' for its English name and retained the Chinese name of Chinese High, Hua Qiao Zhong Xue.
Signs of further compromise: Its students now sing the Chinese High school song in Chinese on Mondays and Hwa Chong JC's in English on Wednesdays.
At the gates of the merged school, signs still bear the name of the two schools which now form HCI.
Current HCI Alumni president Desmond Ong, 56, said that while many older graduates had a strong attachment to the school and did not like to see change, it was important to keep up with the modern education landscape.
He said the new name better reflected the programme of the school, which offers a six-year integrated programme.
Educators say schools with a strong alumni body have a tough job balancing their views with the pressures of running - and marketing - a school in the 21st century.
Some have modernised their logos as part of a rebranding exercise. Others have been forced to merge because of declining enrolment or in a bid to offer new programmes that combine secondary school and junior college.
But, as in the case of Dunman Secondary, a wrong step can result in a backlash from the alumni, who view principals and other administrators as caretakers.
With mergers and changes in the education landscape, many schools have altered their badges. But not all changes have met with an alumni furore.
Presbyterian High School (PHS), for instance, redesigned its badge in 1994 to incorporate the school motto 'Aflame For Truth'.
Art teacher Boey Chen Koui, given the task of designing the badge to replace one which simply said 'PHS', said there was no backlash, possibly because the alumni were not organised at the time.
The National University of Singapore updated its coat of arms in 2001 to 'give the university a more distinctive brand and create stronger name recognition for NUS', said a spokesman.
The new stylised version appears on its website, while the original coat of arms is still used in degree scrolls and transcripts.
Despite the controversies that can arise, changes to badges, mottos and names are superficial, said HCI Alumni's Mr Ong.
'The true identity and spirit of the school does not change,' he said.
'The alumni still come back and are concerned about the progress of the school.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 10, 2008.