Since taking on this role as Minister for Education, I’ve had many opportunities to make speeches to many distinguished audiences. But today I feel like a student back in school, standing in his Principal’s office!

As pioneer principals and educators, you have led schools from many stages much like the one I’m standing on. The difference was, you had hundreds of thousands of students sitting at your feet. Your words and deeds shaped an entire generation, including myself. I’m also very happy to see many former HQ specialists and admin staff with us this evening, and they played a very important role supporting our schools. It’s such a privilege to be addressing you this evening.

Paying Tribute to our Pioneers, Celebrating their Pioneering Spirit

Tonight’s event is the first in a series of tributes MOE and our schools have planned in recognition of the work of your generation – our pioneers. We have 14,000 pioneer educators on record, and we intend to reach out to each and every one through various celebratory events, through the efforts of both MOEHQ and schools.

Today’s dinner marks the start of these celebrations. We’d like to thank not just the pioneers here today, but also the rest of the 14,000 we have on our list. This series will continue into next year in line with the celebration of our nation’s Golden Jubilee with the SG50 activities. We can all look forward to a public event at the Gardens by the Bay, to tours and high tea at MOE’s Heritage Centre, as well as individual school celebrations, and an exciting public exhibition. So do continue to join us in all these events.

As I was preparing my notes for tonight, I thought hard about what I would say to such a distinguished group. You have such a rich store of life lessons, and it would be hard to do justice to what I’ve learnt.

Tonight, I met Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar who helmed Raffles Girls’ Primary, among others. She recently celebrated her 100th birthday and that would make her the most senior educator in the room. Some of you may also know of her late husband Mr V Ambiavagar, the first Asian Headmaster of Raffles Institution.

Like each of you, the Ambiavagars paved the way for the good work that we can do in schools today. And it’s amazing to hear what it took to be a school leader then. Mrs Ambiavagar tells me that apart from running the school and teaching English classes, as a principal she also had to keep an eye on the canteen cooks to ensure that the children had meat in their dishes! She had to mix the milk powder in a particular way, and added a little sugar, to make sure the kids drank it. Nutrition was a key school issue then.

I have visited our MOE Heritage Centre twice, and spoken to many pioneer educators. Each time, I learn of rich stories and moving experiences. Let me try and distil the essence of these stories in terms of 3 legacies that you have left behind:

The First Legacy – Foundation Laying in the Early Years

Professor Gopinathan and Associate Professor Goh Chor Boon’s monograph of 2006 titled “The Development of Education in Singapore since 1965”, recalled the context of those years when many in this room were still teachers and school principals.

What struck me most was how challenging that period was, at a time when we were a fledgling nation, a fragmented people, trying to find our feet. The monograph describes vividly the social, economic and political context for your work. The things we take for granted today – political stability, racial harmony, economic progress, were hanging in the balance, when we found ourselves, in 1965, quite unexpectedly, an independent country, and in charge of our own destiny.

Within months of our independence, our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew spoke on several occasions on the critical role of education to Singapore’s future – a future where our young forge a multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore, become rugged and adaptable, and have the loyalty and leadership traits to take Singapore forward. And the challenge was to do all these amidst great uncertainty, with meagre resources.

Mdm Fong Yuet Kwai, then Principal of Nan Hua Primary, had this to share of that period in our history: “There were a lot of uncertainties post-independence, and we didn’t know whether we could survive. We had no natural resources, no national defence. There was a lot of unemployment and people still struggling to have a house to live in. We were suddenly alone, and did not know where our future lay. But we knew we had to make it work.”

Many of you instinctively knew, as Mdm Fong, did, that it was up to you, to make it work, because, as the Chinese saying goes, 无国,无家, which means ‘no country, no home’. From this dedication to the mission of nation building, and this determination ‘to make it work’ despite the odds, our pioneer educators left us the first legacy – the foundation of our success.

Education was for all and it was the means to raise families from poverty. Our leaders and our people fought for independence from colonial rule so as to build a fair and just society. Meritocracy would give each child a fair shot at the future, no matter where his starting point.

We started literally with building good foundations. In the early years, we went on a construction spree – in the 1960s, we were completing one school a month. And to speed things up, they were done cookie-cutter style – they all looked like the one at MOE’s Heritage Centre, the site of the former Permaisura Primary school.

I was told that Principals who were rotated between these “H” design schools could find their offices blindfolded once they came through the entrance. They were always in the same spot in the layout!

But it was not only the bricks and mortar that was important. We had to forge common values and a national identity.

Together with our national curriculum and our bilingual policy – to study English and a Mother Tongue Language. Getting this language policy right in our classrooms was critical for a young nation with many ethnicities. Failure to do so often led to strife and even armed conflict as you can see in many parts of the world.

To enable all our children to have a better chance of success, we looked into helping different groups of children learn at a pace they could manage, just so that everyone could get good jobs when they left school.

We did this by creating different streams, to help different students, with different learning styles learn in the best way possible.

In doing so, we could keep more children in school, for longer. The dropout rate fell from 6% in the 1970s for the primary schools to just 0.07% in 1997. At the secondary level, the rate was even more dramatic – from 13% to 0.99%.

With a stable system and foundations in place, we could give school leaders more autonomy in the 1980s so that they could also innovate with curriculum and student development programmes.

To do that we had to groom and develop highly skilled educators who could then help us focus on nurturing creative, independent learners. Standardised curriculum and materials of an earlier era became more customised to the needs of the schools, and even the child. New specialised schools in maths, science, sports and the arts were set up. We have moved to a more flexible system, catering to more children with more choices.

Despite the evolution, one objective has held constant through the last 50 years, and it is to give every child a chance to learn and a fair shot at getting ahead. Opportunities were not reserved for the wealthy and connected. Indeed, our schools helped each child reach for the stars.

Our pioneer teachers played a pivotal role in shaping our society and nation by instilling common values and providing common experiences in school for every generation. We remember your legacy, because we are living it.

You were key to the education of our nation. Your early trials and triumphs in laying the foundations for a sound, progressive education system, steadily shaped the nation, one student at a time.

Over and above the countless schools you set up, the HQ teams you led, the essays and mathematical sums marked, the science experiments and basketball games conducted in labs and on fields all across our island, what has been your most important work must be the generations of children who have been shaped and nurtured by you.

This could not have happened without good teachers to begin with. Between 1959 and 1968, the teaching force almost doubled from over 10,000 to over 19,000 to fill the more than 130 new schools that sprang up in that time.

But in order to have good teachers in our schools, there had to be a systematic way of training and developing them. So before there were teachers, there were teachers of teachers.

In this domain, Dr Ruth Wong was an extraordinary pioneer. Widely regarded as a forward-thinking Singapore educator, Ruth Wong was the founding director of the then Institute of Education, the precursor to our National Institute of Education today. She was also the first woman principal of the Teachers’ Training College (TTC) whilst at the same time serving as Director of Research in MOE.

We recruited a high number of teachers, but to get our teachers trained, we innovated with part-time teaching programmes at the Teachers’ Training College. Many of you will remember training in the morning and teaching in the afternoon or vice versa. How challenging it must have been!

The establishment of IE improved teacher education significantly. In many ways, Dr Wong was advanced for her time, as this quote by her shows: “A teacher who is not an inquirer, nor a problem-solver, is hardly likely to provide the right intellectual climate for his pupils to ask constructive questions or develop critical ability.”

This insight that it takes skilled teachers to bring out the best in students helped establish a new curriculum for teacher education with a twin focus of building the teacher’s professional competence as well as the student’s personal growth. Under the leadership of Dr Ruth Wong, the concept of teacher training evolved into teacher education, which was an important step in raising the status of teachers both academically and professionally.

The Second Legacy – The Pioneering Spirit

I have heard many rousing stories. But at the heart of every story, I see three key values which underpinned this pioneering spirit. Ho Peng, our DGE, has reminded me that these are the 3Rs – not Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic, but rather Resourcefulness, Resilience, and Responsibility.

Resourcefulness – Making Do With Very Little

Today, education benefits from a large chunk of the government’s budget; we take up 20% of the Budget, totalling almost $11.5 billion second only to defence. But for a young nation 50 years ago, that was unthinkable.

Much as we had ambitions to haul a nation out of poverty, there were many other competing priorities.

I am always amazed to hear how enterprising our principals were back then – from sourcing extra training opportunities for the teachers, to collecting old doors to set up classrooms because we could not build enough schools fast enough.

As Principal of Pei Cai Secondary then, Mr Cheong Heng Yuen even walked the corridors of the neighbourhood flats on weekends, just so he could publicise his school to the families in the neighbourhood. There were no fancy banners or glossy brochures to sell his programmes. But in five short years, he turned around a floundering school of 300 students to 800 in enrolment. Mr Cheong gave new meaning to walking the talk!

Of course, where we could, the Ministry built, innovated and invested. We hired teachers. We developed curriculum. We wrote our own textbooks and published them for students. We spared no expense in building schools to keep up with the baby boom.

Over time, schools also had state of the art technology to keep them relevant to the times. In the days before YouTube, we broadcast our lessons on TV in the 1960s and many of you would still recall Miss Tan See Lai who drove the ETV productions back then. I had a chat with Miss Tan earlier, and assured her that my school then was most conscientious in getting us to watch every episode of ETV, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It was such a treat to be in the ETV room, as it was called.

When computers came into the picture in the 1990s we had to ration them and offered it first to our students from our Normal stream because they could benefit from it most. Today, we have moved past three phases of the ICT Masterplan, and all our schools have come a long way in using education technology in meaningful, relevant ways.

To help students acquire the scientific spirit of inquiry, we built science labs in all schools. But where we had little money or resources, many of you just put your minds to work. Ms Nanda Bandara, for instance, sank a bathtub into the garden to create an eco-pond for her students in Haig Girls’ School.

When we needed international experts to help us, we invited them. As I was speaking with Dr Ang Wai Hoong earlier, who was then Division Director, CDIS, she said that in those days, no one could teach us how to write text books, and we had to figure out a way of doing that. To then, at that time, apply the latest thinking of how the brain learns, to making sure that textbooks were written in a lively way – no more than 10 minutes of material, interspersed with plenty of activities. We had to get others to help to train us. Dr Ang said we got renowned American educationist, Madeline Hunter – to train us for next to nothing. We did all this to ensure that our students had access to standardised, quality materials to study from. Who would have guessed that today we produce textbooks that are sought after the world over, including the United States?

Each of these stories, and the many more that I would love to hear from all you, speaks of one vital value – the resourcefulness to make the most out of what little we had, driven by a mission to give the best possible education to our children. Our pioneer educators were improvising and learning as you were doing. Our younger educators, and all of us, must learn that can-do, can-think spirit.

Resilience – Never Say Die

We knew our teachers were the key to our successes. And this is why we had to empower and develop them as professionals. Certainly, at one point, the Ministry was recruiting 16-year-olds straight out of school, and sometimes even the exam halls. Hands up those of you who were recruited at 16 years old!

From your stories, I know those were tough times for many 16-year-old trainee teachers. Training was demanding. Because of the massive shortage of teachers, most were deployed almost immediately and as a teacher you had to juggle teaching in the morning, and training in the afternoon, putting you out for a full day, each day … for three whole years.

And even after that, teachers had to constantly learn on the job. When we needed technical teachers, some of you like Mr Jumaat Masdawood, one of our earliest superintendents, had to study woodwork or metalwork in the evenings, after putting in a full day in school. Just so he could teach the students.

And when many students switched to English language streams, subject teachers who were teaching in mother tongues had to learn enough English to make the switch too. Many of you also helped to maintain the ethos and relevance of various schools, including in some of our Chinese schools. Earlier this evening I met Mdm Kau Ah Suo, who was principal of Nan Chiau High, and Mr Chew Peng Leng, former principal of Sin Min High, in fact Mr Chew is still very much involved with Xinmin Secondary School.

When we tried to start up school bands for Extra Curricular Activities as they were called back then, teachers in their 30s went back to school to learn an instrument, just so they could lead the children. Imagine that.

I recently met Mdm Lau Kum Leng, a docent at our Heritage Centre, who described how all teachers also had to learn footdrills during their training – and like me, how she was marching out of step with the right arm and right foot stepping out together.

The sacrifice you made was tremendous. I’ve heard how our teachers were deployed to the Island schools of Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin. Each trip required a bumboat ride, and depending on which school it was, you’d have to make a bumpy ride on a jalopy over muddy roads, or a 2 km trek in on foot. Earlier this evening I met Mrs Tay, our Inspector of Schools, and she was describing how she took a bumboat to Pulau Ubin to inspect the schools, and how in the outlying areas, pigs came into the classroom as she was inspecting the classrooms.

You may have led schools with different mottos, but it’s clear your collective motto then was “Never say die”. In those days before we had a Teachers’ Creed, you knew — and lived — a common creed: which was to “Give our best to every child”. In fact, I heard an interesting story this evening, not just every child in Singapore, Mr Balagopal was also posted to Christmas Island.

And all your efforts paid off. We see how you prepared students with the critical, survival skills to face a fast evolving and developing economy. Without your agility we could not have responded to the demands made of our young nation.

And by your examples, the schools you led shaped our approach to life at large and helped to develop a resilience and ruggedness in our approach to our problems as a people. It made us a can-do people, with a strong work ethic, sought after across the world, dedicated to individual excellence but also to a duty to our fellow man.

Responsibility – Duty of Care for Students

Now none of this would have succeeded if our pioneer educators did not hold steadfast to your belief in duty of care for the students. This sense of duty translated often into a deep sense of responsibility to the children and their holistic development.

For Mr C Kunalan, whom I met at the Istana earlier this year, his vivid memories were of the DIY days. It was an era of do-it-yourself – you just roll up your sleeves and get it done. He shared how a senior colleague at his first school, a Mr Lai at Tiong Bahru Primary School, in his first year there, showed him how to draw a 300 meter track on the school field using pegs and strings and a clever application of the Pythagoras Theorem, Circle Theorem, and the concept of Pi. For the next 6 years, Kunalan and Mr Lai would mark up the field in this manner every year for the school.

Today, our students train on fields and tracks that enable them to develop a love for sports and outdoor activity, and at the same time, encourage them to be the best athlete and sportsman they can be. And our teachers are as dedicated to helping them do that, except they need not draw the running track anymore!

There are also wonderful stories of how our pioneer school leaders were brave and focused in making the right decisions for their students and their school.

Many friends commented that I was very bold to abolish school ranking and to stop the naming of top PSLE scorers. I thought it was, until I learnt that many years back, Ms Nanda Bandara, as Principal of Haig Girls’ School, did it even more boldly: she banished class rankings despite resistance from parents and teachers and let go of teachers who refused to change their practices.

This meant going up against some of her most experienced teachers – a risky and scary move for her, a 36-year-old teacher who had literally become a principal overnight. She saw that ranking had made students unnecessarily competitive, and insisted that good teaching meant more than just passing exams,

This was a principal who was not afraid to do things differently and responsibly as long as it was aligned to the values she held for teaching.

These stories I’ve told tonight will hopefully remind us of the timeless and timely values you represent as pioneers. I am sure there will be many more such stories. We will remember:

  • your resourcefulness in seeing possibilities and getting a lot done with very little resources at your disposal;

  • We admire your resilience and grit, in the face of great odds, as our young country was building a nation from scratch.

  • And we will continue to be inspired by your deep sense of responsibility to the children, soldiering on come rain or shine, because – as many of you tell us simply – “our children and our staff needed us”.

Our educators today continue to hold steadfast to these same values and mission in bringing out the best in every child.

The Third Legacy – Sending Arrows into the Future

I’d like to move on finally to a third and critically important legacy you have left us. This is your role in nurturing generations of teachers, who were inspired by you to join this noble profession. I was very happy to hear that many of you this evening were talking about your principals, and many of our current principals were talking about principals of these principals, all in the same room.

There’s a short verse from a poem by one of our young teachers, Ms Ann Ang, titled “Never Alone”. There’s a copy of the poem on every table. Her poem beautifully captures how, like arrows into the future, great teachers inspire others to want to pass on the same inspiration. It ends with this verse:

So today, let your students say:
That each of us is an arrow into the future
Inspired by your hope and belief
That we rest under trees that you planted in school
That your voice is a lamp for the soul
That as the years past, and students grow up,
The song you began, we still sing in our hearts
That some of us teach, because of you.

Indeed, education is never ending work, and more will follow in your footsteps – purposeful, determined to serve and nurture the youngest amongst us in this country. Under the guidance of your Directors of Education and Director Generals of Education, Mr John Yip, Mr Wee Heng Tin, Miss Seah Jiak Choo and now Miss Ho Peng, we’ve witnessed how you’ve continually built on the waves of good work that came before. This is this how good leadership should be. And this is the mark of a true fraternity at work.

We stand on the shoulders of giants and through our collective hands we hold the future of the nation, and build on the firm foundations you have laid. Those same values you stood for still hold true even if the tools to teach and the programmes we roll out may have changed.

In nine days, as we celebrate our nation’s 49th year of independence, do so knowing that as our pioneers, you played a big part in making all this possible.

Your first legacy laid the firm foundation for our success in education, and in our nation. Your second legacy – your pioneering spirit, underpinned by the values of resourcefulness, resilience and responsibility, forged a generation of young Singaporeans to become good and worthy citizens of Singapore. Your third legacy is to inspire many of your students to join the noble profession of teaching, to carry the torch forward and to keep its flame burning bright.

The Prime Minister was delighted to hear that I was meeting all of you this evening and he wanted me to convey his best regards to you — for dedicating your lives to nurturing and providing a quality education to generations of Singaporeans!

So I invite us to rise in tribute to our pioneers as I and my colleagues in the Ministry of Education salute what you have done for Singaporeans and for Singapore’s schools.

To our pioneers! We take inspiration from your journey as we continue to build an education system that honours your pioneering spirit.

Thank you.