Today is a joyous occasion as we gather to witness another batch of scholars and teaching award holders commit yourselves to joining the noble profession of teaching. I extend my heartiest congratulations to our 204 scholarship and award recipients this year.

Building on the foundation of our Pioneer Educators

Last evening, I had the privilege of spending the evening with a few hundred pioneer educators at a tribute dinner for our pioneer school leaders. It was inspiring to be in a room full of legendary former teachers and principals, people who have done much to build our education system and indeed our nation. Each one of them has a rich story to tell – if you have any pioneer educators in your family or neighbourhood, I encourage you to ask them for their stories. You will learn a lot about how our people, and our nation, were built.

The impact of our pioneer teachers, not just on individual students, but on our nation as a whole, cannot be overstated. Singapore’s early days were a time when we needed desperately to create opportunities for Singaporeans, and at the same time give young Singaporeans the values, knowledge and skills to seize the opportunities. Don’t forget that our pioneer educators themselves were young, learning on the job, sometimes teaching in the afternoon what they had just learnt themselves in the morning. Some of them were younger than you are now, when they had already started teaching.

But our pioneer educators were resourceful and resilient. They rallied together to raise a nation with the limited resources available to them then. In so doing, they laid the foundations for our nation to climb out of poverty towards progress and opportunity, and for our people to step forward with grit and ability.

It gives me great pleasure to share with you a few of their stories.

At the pioneer generation tribute event at the Istana earlier this year, I met Mrs Niva Dutt. Mrs Dutt is 74 years old. She was one of the pioneer teachers at National Junior College (NJC), which was Singapore’s first junior college. Back in the 1960s, there were four different language streams at the secondary school level but English was the de-facto language of instruction at NJC. Knowing that her students from the non-English streams were struggling with the English language, Mrs Dutt took it upon herself to conduct her Economics lectures twice for these students to make sure they understood the concepts.

Mrs Dutt later assumed principalship at Cedar Girls’ Secondary School. She deeply cared for her students, and this was evident in the way she ran the school. To ensure that no child started their school day hungry, she started the breakfast scheme, providing biscuits and Milo for students who had no breakfast at home. Mrs Dutt’s belief that every child is unique and should be given the opportunity to develop in their areas of interest also led her to develop a wide range of co-curricular activities. Her dedication to the welfare of her students and to the holistic development of each child – these are values that our education fraternity continue to hold dear today.

Another remarkable pioneer educator is Mr Abdul Rahman, who taught students at Kampung Pasir Malay School at Pulau Tekong. Every school day, rain or shine, Mr Abdul Rahman had to ride a boat from Changi Jetty to Pulau Tekong before taking a kampung taxi to his school. Back then, instructional materials written in Malay were scarce. To increase the learning resources available to his students, Mr Abdul made the effort to translate materials written in English Language into Malay for his students.

The additional work never deterred Mr Abdul Rahman. He was not just happy to go the extra mile, it was the most natural thing for him and many other pioneer teachers like him, to do whatever was needed to serve the learning needs of their students. Mr Abdul Rahman started teaching at age 18. Now he is 72, but still going strong as an educator. He now teaches at Montfort Junior School.

We continue to have shining examples of educators today, following in the footsteps of our pioneers. Ms Lim Chye Ling is a Head of Department at Kent Ridge Secondary School. She received the President’s Award for Teachers in 2013. Like Mrs Dutt many years ago, she initiated a Breakfast Programme at Kent Ridge. Her reasons were slightly different. These days, the nutrition issues that Mrs Dutt faced are no longer urgent. Instead, for Ms Lim, the breakfast sessions are a good chance for students to interact with their form teachers, year heads and school leaders.

Another example is Mr Yap Boon Chien, who received the President’s Award for Teachers in 2012. One of his students, Steven, was eager to be the Robotics Club president. While Steven had the potential to be a leader, Mr Yap also saw that Steven had to build up his relationship with his peers. So Mr Yap made it a point to coach Steven that being a leader was about serving others. Under Mr Yap’s guidance, Steven learnt the importance of humility. Eventually, Steven won the respect of his peers and served as the President of the Robotics Club for two years. Steven was so touched by this experience that he nominated Mr Yap for the President’s Award for Teachers.

Today, Mr Yap is a Lead Teacher at Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, and he guides and leads both his students and colleagues, helping them to reach their fullest potential. Mr Abdul Rahman, who has been teaching for 54 years, worked on language, while Mr Yap worked on values – both, despite the difference of decades, knew their students well, and put in the time and sweat to develop the lessons that would most benefit their students.

These are just some of the stories of how our educators shape lives and mould a nation. In the course of a teacher’s professional life, he or she can easily affect tens of thousands of young minds. The legacy of our pioneer educators was to make sure that impact was one of strength and character. Their legacy passes on to you today.

Leaving Your Mark on Future Generations

Now, what do these stories mean for you? It is this: the next chapter of the story of Singapore education – indeed of Singapore itself – is for you to write. Through the years, no matter the changes in our advantages and challenges, our pioneer educators have told, and our educators today continue to tell, a rich and inspiring story. They pass on to you a tradition of resourcefulness, resilience, and responsibility; a mission of bringing out the best in every child; and a legacy of continually building and strengthening a nation to succeed against the odds.

Our pioneer educators thrived in a period of great uncertainty and volatility. The next fifty years for us will be similar – there will be a period of volalitilty, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – but probably even more challenging because of the speed of technological changes and the speed of globalisation. In the midst of these challenges, it will be all the more important for teachers to help students develop the values and strength of character that will form their personal anchors in a world of flux.

Our pioneer teachers taught your parents to stand on their own feet and to stand tall. You will do the same, keeping the can-do spirit alive and strong. You will also need to teach your students to reach for the stars with one hand and extend a helping hand with the other. You can do this by helping them understand themselves well, appreciate their place in the world, and, most importantly, act on their love for and duty to their home and loved ones. I hope that, like your pioneer educators, you will see this as a call to action, as a challenge to innovate.

The next few years will be exciting years of discovery for you as you begin your tertiary education. Your minds will be stretched as you are exposed to the work of great minds and engage in conversations with your professors and fellow classmates. I encourage you to make the best use of these years. Deepen your knowledge, broaden your perspectives and reflect on the type of educator you want to become.

You are no longer just a student; you are on your way to becoming a future role model, a legacy-maker. Some of you are going to NIE next. I advise you to use this time to build your friendships and find your mentors. These are the people who will support and sustain you through your own teaching and learning journey.

It is a noble profession you will join. I hope you are very excited to join it. When you stand before your students one day soon, remember that your legacy will not be one of just brains. You will have a hand in the heart, soul, and spirit of your students. The torch passes now to you, to keep alive the nation-building legacy of our pioneers, to blaze new trails in your own pioneering spirit. The teacher’s privilege to impact many young lives comes with great responsibility. I am hopeful that you will uphold the trust that we all place on you.

Last night, there was one thing that the pioneer educators consistently told me. They said, “We were just focused on doing our job, and doing our job well. Now we look back and realise that we made a real impact.” Our pioneer educators were modest about their individual efforts. But a teacher’s impact on each young life is never small. And when you put all the work of our teachers together, they touched innumerable lives, and they collectively shaped the whole nation.

This is an important mission for all our young educators. I look forward to your great work ahead.

Thank you.