Welcome. We have been looking forward to this event, an exciting gathering of our pioneer educators to commemorate SG50 in education. A total of 11,200 pioneers and their guests have registered for today’s event. 4,700 pioneers and nearly 1,200 seniors will be our special guests today.
The oldest pioneer here today is retired principal, Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar, born in 1914 and who turns 101 this year. Seven pioneers here today are aged 90 and above! They include two younger men – well, younger, relatively speaking – who are Mr Teo Shiong Hong, 93, former Vice-Principal of Chong Fu Primary School, as well as Mr Chen Kia Yong, also 93, who retired from teaching in Pei Chun Public School. At just 90 years old, the baby of the group is Mdm Aminah Binti Mohtaram, retired Principal of Telok Kurau Primary School. Thank you, for making time to be with all of us today!
Standing before you today, I am reminded of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s speech at the Rally of Teachers in 1959, where he reminded the 10,600 teachers in schools then that they constituted “the most influential group of 10,600 people anywhere in Singapore” because in their care were “the impressionable minds of young Singaporeans”. Within months of achieving self-government, our leaders then knew that education had to be a top priority, and teachers were key.
Many in the audience today might have been present at those speeches, and were stirred by Mr Lee’s convictions to nurture a new generation of Singaporeans who will forge a multi-racial Singapore, become rugged and adaptable, and have the loyalty and leadership traits to take Singapore forward. The challenge was to do all these amidst great uncertainty, overwhelming odds, and meagre resources.
This gathering of our pioneer educators is an important occasion for MOE. It is first and foremost to thank you, to show appreciation for all that pioneers have done for Singapore. It is not an overstatement when I say: every person in Singapore today passed through your collective hands. Who we are today is a measure of your achievement.
Indeed, the true meaning of SG50 is about three things in equal measure: Appreciation of what has brought us this far; Reflection on what got us here and what we stand for as a people, and finally, taking Inspiration from what our pioneers have forged in the crucible of nation building, and furthering that legacy by asking: what must we do in future, for our future?
Appreciation – of pioneers and how far we have come
From Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs, The Singapore Story, comes an account of how in June 1964, the Kuala Lumpur federal government did not allow Singapore to use their Police Band for the Singapore State Day parade. Mr Lee was not happy about that. So he decided to get MOE and People’s Association to start a crash course for brass bands for all secondary schools. The plan succeeded – on Singapore State Day in June 1965, just one year later, the PA band as well as several school bands marched proudly in our parade. Mr Lee said, “We had shown KL (Kuala Lumpur) they could not hold down a resourceful and determined people.”
Such examples of determination and resourcefulness are, by now, familiar and inspiring stories told across many pioneer gatherings. Like our founding fathers, many of you who lived through those times had to overcome odds, faced situations where you were told you couldn’t do it, that it was impossible, or that you would fail. And time and time again, we hear stories of how our pioneers refused to accept the naysayers, dared to dream, and defied adversity by turning it into opportunity, resolute to make the impossible, possible.
And with that dramatic start, we had the beginning of what we now know as the Band Movement in Singapore. Though we started with only four brass bands and nine bugle bands in the mid-60s, today, we have almost 240 bands in schools. Many stories of educators who work in school bands echo the same determination shown us by then PM Lee in 1964.
For instance, we have Mr Lee Seck Kiang, who is 85 this year, and who started the Crescent Girls’ School band in the late-60s. He was the man who taught every instrument in the band, including the trumpet, tuba and trombone. But the amazing thing was – he could not read musical notes! This did not prevent him from putting up his hand when MOE called for Singapore’s pioneer Band Directors to be trained! Since then, Mr Lee has led his Crescent Girls’ School band, whose members include one Ho Peng, our former DGE, to perform some of its most challenging repertoire, including a 20-minute rendition of Tchaikovsky’s monumental 1812 Overture. Mr Lee Seck Kiang shared PM Lee Kuan Yew’s belief that band activities such as precision marching would build character, cultivate leadership, and a sense of purpose.
This is one trumpet player who refuses to blow his own trumpet, and in fact, is humble and continues to learn. He may be 85, but reveals that he taught himself how to play the flute at the age of 81 from a “Learn as you Play” DIY book. When asked why he still teaches despite his age, he simply said, “Why not?” Today, he is unable to join us due to a bad knee – we hope his knee recovers soon!
Moving on to 1995, we find Mrs Daisie Yip, now a retired Principal and former superintendent, who started the new Greenridge Primary School that year. Though the new school facilities were not ready, she pushed her staff and students to look beyond their makeshift circumstances. Her students wanted a school band which was a tall order, since there was no money. That did not stop her. She merely approached other schools for their old cast off instruments and with that auspicious start, set up the Greenridge Primary School Band CCA. In 1998, the Band had grown so well that it was the only Asian band picked from around the world to perform at Disneyland in France as part of the World Cup tournament’s opening ceremonies! Daisie is with us in the audience today – thank you, for helping your students to dream big!
Reflection – Lessons from the Past
Mr Lee Kuan Yew put Singapore bands on the parade square in one year, and boldly declared in our Independence year that we may be mudflats, but in 10 years, we would be a metropolis. Mr Lee’s determination has been echoed by our educators like Seck Kiang and Daisie. Their stories of determination, of never-say-die, and many other such stories illustrate the DNA of values and work ethic handed down to us by our pioneers.
In fact, this is exactly what our theme today is about – Living the Legacy, Sowing Seeds of the Future. It acknowledges how our pioneers’ true legacy is not in the brick and mortar, but rather, in the ethos, values, ideals and principles underpinning their toil. Today, these values and principles continue to be our compass in ensuring the future for the next generation, who are our little seedlings.
And I am glad that as we honour our pioneers it is fitting that we are doing so at this beautiful Gardens. In many ways, cultivating a garden is not very different from nurturing people. There is a Chinese saying, “十年树木，百年树人” – you take 10 years to grow a tree, and a hundred years to cultivate a person. As pioneers, you laboured, and we enjoy the fruits of your labour, “前人种树，后人乘凉”.
Mr Lee had said, “Just as a country is as good as its citizens, so its citizens are finally, only as good as their teachers.” Indeed. If I may extend this, it applies not only to teachers, but to anyone whose life’s work is in education, and who serves the students in our schools. Whether as school leaders, superintendents, policy makers in MOEHQ, support staff, or teachers, the collective impact of your work over the years has certainly been more than the sum of its parts. Your supervision and leadership of schools, your policies, your passionate lectures, your quiet advice, your inspiring classroom debates, your words and your deeds have shaped an entire generation, including myself. Thank you for leading, caring and inspiring.
Your life’s work stands before you today as far as your eyes can see, in the Singapore and Singaporeans around you. You helped nurture in our children the values of resilience, respect, responsibility, integrity, care and harmony, and taught them to think and act not just for themselves, but for the wider community. You nurtured in them the drive to succeed despite the challenges and set-backs in life. You helped them to dream beyond the reaches of the skies, and to stand up for what Singapore is today: a united people bound by their common objectives of happiness, prosperity and progress, in a country based on justice and equality for all, regardless of race, language or religion.
More than anything, you cared for them.
Launch of SG50 commemorative coins
This emphasis on education can be seen even in our currency – education as a theme is imprinted on the most ubiquitous of our dollar notes. The $2 note in circulation features familiar education scenes – students interacting with their teacher, prominent institutions of learning in the background.
To mark SG50, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) has over the last year been working on a set of Commemorative Notes and Coins. They will reflect both our history and the values that define Singapore. Details on the notes will be released later.
Today, I am pleased to launch the three SG50 Commemorative Coins, with values of $2, $5 and $50. The theme for this set of coins, “Education, Building Our Nation Together”, encapsulates education’s enduring role in nationhood.
The $2-value cupro-nickel coin features basic education at the primary and secondary levels, which equips our children with the skills, character and values that prepare them for the future. The $5-value silver coin showcases higher education and multiple pathways to success and a good, meaningful life. And finally, the $50-value gold coin proudly features our educators, who are at the front and centre of our work in bringing out the best in every child.
In fact, an exciting programme awaits you today – many of our students are ready to thank you with their performances and our fringe activities around the Gardens have been planned with you, and a little bit of nostalgia, in mind.
Inspiration – Building on the Legacy Together
Our pioneer educators played a pivotal role in shaping our society and nation. We remember your legacy, because we are living it.
In the past weeks, Singaporeans came together in unison, bonded by their deep respect and gratitude towards Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who gave his whole life to Singapore. They gathered their aged parents and young infants and braved a 10-hour queue for a few precious seconds, a quick bow and a heartfelt farewell to their founding prime minister as he lay in state. Their education has given them more than just the ability to make a living – it has given them a sense of identity, a sense of values, a sense of nationhood.
The journey made by many Singaporeans to Parliament House where Mr Lee lay in state, was a journey that started in your classrooms, when you taught them to be kind, to be grateful, to be responsible, to have a sense of togetherness. It was a journey that was nothing short of inspiring.
Your work, in the early years of our nation building, has forged a common experience and instilled a sense of togetherness. This is an intangible but critical achievement – I thank you deeply for this.
Many of my colleagues have told me that the events of the past weeks have renewed their belief in the critical role played by teachers in instilling values in our students. It inspired one of my young MOE colleagues, Lilian Tham, to say, “Now, we must press on, to have the indomitable will and spirit to continue this legacy”. It inspired another, Fang Yi, to say, “We will continue your legacy and make Singapore the brightest red dot on the world map.”
So SG50 is about bringing Singaporeans together to appreciate, and to reflect on how far we have come as a nation. But to stop there would not do justice to the legacy of our pioneers and forefathers. Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s reply when asked what he thought the next 50 years for Singapore would be like was that “The next 50 years will be better than the first 50.” He reminded us, right from the start that our future was ours to make and build, or to lose and give away. Each and every one of us is responsible for building a better common future. But our educators have a special role. If each and every educator entrusted with our young can ignite the minds and touch the hearts of our young, we will grow and multiply the creative energies of our next generation to achieve more than we can ever imagine.
These same words remain relevant for us, 50 years on – if we stand together, united by a sense of common destiny, and pursue our common cause with a rugged, robust spirit, we shall surely see a new rainbow, and ride it in search of the next 50 years.
So let me end my remarks this morning with a question, a challenge; in the language of educators, let’s call it homework for everyone here today, if you like – “Now, how are we going to make the next 50 years brighter and better together?”