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Recognising the legacy of pioneer educators

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat lauded the nation-building achievements of Singapore's pioneer educators at a dinner on Thursday (July 31), an event that marks the start of year-long celebrations to honour the contributions of these educators. 

SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Education paid tribute to Singapore's early educators on Thursday (July 31), at a dinner attended by more than 700 pioneers and guests.

In his speech, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted that there are some 14,000 pioneer educators on record, and highlighted their legacy that was created in Singapore's post-independence years. This includes their pioneering spirit - underpinned by key values of resourcefulness, resilience and responsibility.

"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," said Mr Heng.

"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 global economies."

Mr Heng also noted that while Singapore had ambitions to haul a nation out of poverty, there were many other competing priorities then. The situation is very different today, as education benefits from 20 per cent of the government's budget, or almost S$11.5 billion dollars - second only to defence.

Throughout his address, Mr Heng recounted stories of educators, such as Pei Cai Secondary principal Cheong Heng Yuen, who had spent his weekends walking around his neighbourhood to publicise his school.

"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!" said Mr Heng.

"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. We must learn that can-do, can-think spirit."

Mr Heng also noted that pioneer educators had laid the firm foundation for success in education, and in the nation. He recounted how in the 1960s - the country went on a "construction spree" - completing one school each month

"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 Language. Getting this language policy right in our classrooms was critical for a young nation with many ethnicities. Failure to do so has often led to strife and even armed conflict as you can see in many parts of the world," stressed Mr Heng.

He added the other legacy the educators left, was that their examples had also inspired students to join the teaching profession.

The dinner was also attended by many former principals - including Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar - who helmed Raffles Girls' Primary, among other schools. She recently celebrated her 100th birthday, which made her the most senior educator in the room.

When asked what she remembered most about her long teaching career, she said it would be her relationship with the pupils. "I had a good relationship with them. As teacher, or as principal, or in any dealings with them," said Mrs Ambiavagar. "I had a very good relationship, never unpleasant, so I'll definitely have good memories all over the place."

Tonight's event marks the start of year-long celebrations by MOE and schools to honour the contributions of pioneer educators. The series will also continue into next year, in line with the celebration of Singapore's Golden Jubilee with the SG50 activities. Mr Heng said this would include a public event at Gardens by the Bay, tours and high tea at MOE's heritage centre and individual school celebrations.

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