By Prof Tan Ser Kiat
Emeritus Consultant, Dept of Orthopaedic Surgery, SGH


The zebra crossing that almost never came about

Many of you cross College Road daily, using the zebra crossing from SGH’s Block 7 to the Duke-NUS Medical School. But do you know how the zebra crossing came about?

In 1966, I was a medical student at the then Faculty of Medicine, University of Singapore. The section of College Road that separates King Edward Hall (KE Hall – the then dormitory of medical students, where Duke-NUS now sits) and the Houseman Quarters (the current Academia) was a busy street linking Outram Road to the Outram Road General Hospital (ORGH, now SGH).

For medical students, crossing from KE Hall to the Houseman Quarters and ORGH was a risky, daily exercise. Some enterprising senior students then decided to paint a zebra crossing during Orientation, as part of the ragging activities.

At 2am, armed with pots of white paint, they rounded up a group of 10 freshmen, myself included, to paint the zebra crossing. It was quite a sight – all very official looking with seniors in luminous jackets and reflective lights directing traffic while we painted alternate the zebra crossing. When we were done, it looked rather professional from afar.

The next morning, the authorities, especially the Traffic Police, were not amused. They immediately painted over the zebra crossing with black paint.

Fast forward one year later, my friends and I thought it was a good idea to re-do the zebra crossing. This time, we got the freshmen to do the job. We expected to be punished by the authorities but lo and behold, not only did they not penalise us, they converted the amateurish zebra crossing into an official one, straightening the edges and erecting lights on both sides of the road.

Tears of Blood & Sweat

March 1971 marked the end of the Final Professional Examinations for the degrees of MBBS. It was a monumental and defining moment for all of us. While the top few students were absolutely confident, many of us were rather worried, especially for the clinical exams where we were subjected to thorough interrogations, interviews and sometimes, humiliation by some sadistic examiners to gauge our knowledge (or lack of).

For many of us, it was either the end of our five long years of studying (and sweating) to graduate with dignity, or if we did not make it, to face the humiliation of re-sitting the examinations in six months’ time (with no guarantee that we will pass then).

So on the evening before the release of our final results, a few of us had our ”last supper” at the Tiong Bahru market and to ”drown our sorrows” (just in case we failed). Two of my classmates (now very respected senior members of the profession) bought a pot of red paint and a ladder, and headed to the front of the faculty building where there were two majestic palm trees. They climbed up and painted red streaks on the trunks of the trees, to represent our ”tears of blood and sweat”.

Providence had it that the next morning, all of us in the group passed the final professional M.B.B.S. exams. There was much shouting, joy and celebration the “blood and sweat” on the tree trunks was clean forgotten.

Only one of the two original palm trees survives today and you can still see the faint red paint on its trunk. The other must have died, though not from the painting, I am sure.

Remains of faint red paint on the surviving tree