Me (front, fourth from left) in Primary One, Parry Avenue Boys School, 1958, when Singapore was still a British Crown Colony. Lee Kuan Yew took over the following year as prime minister of the new self-governing state. The teacher next to me is my own cousin

Prospects are good if we stay educated

Francis Chin, April 14, 2015

“WILL SINGAPORE thrive and give you promising careers?” asked Mr Lee Kuan Yew in front of a packed auditorium of students at the Nanyang Technological University.

The then Senior Minister had just taken his audience on a historical tour de force, starting from 1940 when he was a student at Raffles College, through the war years, and the Cold War of the 1960s, to the post-Millennial world.

His own answer was both pointed and practical: “The prospects are good, provided we stay better educated, more organised, more productive and more competitive – always a step ahead of the pack that is snapping at our heels.”

I was sitting not more than 30 feet in front of him as I absorbed the history lesson he gave. Reflecting on his speech, based on my own online jotting of the evening of February 18, 2003, I believe what he said continues to resonate among the tertiary students in the audience and with all who care about educating our youth.

Mr Lee pointed to frictions and conflicts because of a world packed with 6.2 billion people (today in 2015, world population is closer to 7 billion). “More people make for more economic growth, more prosperity,” he said. “But more people worldwide also build up grave problems: earth warming, rising sea levels, melting ice caps as carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in the air change climates throughout the world.

“With greater density of people, there will be more friction and conflicts, as they fight for the same finite space in the world and for its limited resources, especially oil.
“There are other deep and abiding problems: Aids (eventually maybe a cure will be discovered), drug smuggling, illegal migration, global mafias. They are part and parcel of the globalised world, like global terrorism.”

The grand old man is no more with us, but these problems he presented with uncanny prescience are still here. If anything, they have grown larger and more intractable.

The first time I heard of Lee Kuan Yew was in June 1959 when I was in Primary 2 in Parry Avenue Boys School. Lee’s People’s Action Party had won the local election and he was to become the self-governing state’s first Prime Minister. Instead of the familiar British Union Jack fluttering on the flagpole in front of the school porch, we saw a flag of red and white halves, with the strange symbols of a crescent and five stars. Instead of singing “God Saves the Queen”, we sang “Majullah Singapura” and not understanding a word because we had not learn the new national language, Malay.

Things that were familiar were gone overnight and my parents and other grown-up relatives living in Chinatown were anxious, fearful and uncertain. Most of them were émigrés from southern China who escaped the civil war and poverty of their motherland to look for a safer, better future in British-protected Malaya (that included Singapore). They thought the PAP was another Communist set-up like the one that had conquered China hardly 10 years earlier (October 1949).

No, my elders didn’t want to have any truck with Communists or Socialists. Revolutions and civil agitation disrupted lives and livelihood. Sensible folks just wanted somewhere safe and peaceful where they could set up homes, send their kids to school, work hard, save money, and hopefully, retire with a small measure of comfort. There was genuine fear that Mr Lee and his fire-breathing comrades would kick out the British and impose some sort of Socialist regime with Red overtones in Singapore.

I recall the spirited discussions and loud arguments my father and other relatives engaged in, regarding the real agenda of the PAP. Gradually as people saw the new government in operation and the way Lee kicked ass and got everyone working to turn this “scruffy” place (Lee’s own description of Singapore in his Autobiography) into a decent state with decent multi-storey public housing, decent roads with street lamps, and even a decent, honest police force, a sense of confidence returned.

In 1963 or thereabout, my family moved out of the windowless cubicle in Amoy Street Chinatown that we were living for more than 10 years, to a brand-new flat in Jalan Tenteram in a new town with an anglophile name, St Michael’s Estate. For myself who spent my entire Primary school years reading about English shires and villages, what could sound more posh and Anglo than “St Michael”?

I don’t remember much of the place except the rows of six-storey apartment blocks that were our new homes, and the barb-wire fences that surrounded the nearby open fields (to prevent children from stepping on the young grass). I was told that if the buildings were higher, the government had to install lifts. Each flat had one room, plus a small enclosure that was used for cooking and dining, and a tiny bathroom. The toilets were outside and shared by all, and as far as I remember, were permanently choked with shit. At least in my Grandma’s Chinatown house, the toilets were clean, and we could squat and deposit directly into buckets that were replaced each night by “night soil” carriers.

Cutting right across this new housing estate was a private dirt road where lorries sped back and forth, carrying piles of mud from a nearby place called Toa Payoh where the vegetable farms were being demolished and the surrounded bushland cleared to make way for another housing estate. The roar of the lorries and the permanent cloud of dust from the dirt road made St Michael’s Estate more toxic than the “scruffy” streets of Chinatown.

Lee did try hard to improve on what the white man left him. Education was one effective way to brighten the future of young people. From a personal aspect, I believe that without the socially-compassionate policies and practices of the early-days PAP government, I would have remained illiterate, and would have grown up to be a street hawker or shop assistant or even a bookie runner for some gangs. In my primary and secondary school years (1958-1967), my father was too poor to buy textbooks for me or pay my school fees, and it was the waiver of the fees, and the supply of free, though dog-eared books that I learnt to read English sentences starting with “Janet and John playing together in a farm” at age seven and progressing to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights by age ten (I was a voracious reader, devouring anything and everything in print).

Students today should take heart from Lee’s tips in his NTU speech to:
• stay better educated – to chase knowledge and learning throughout life, and
• be more organised and productive – an organised life trumps most competition.

Only then can we say that “our prospects are good”.

Lee Kuan Yew died on March 23, 2015

– First published in the Singapore Institute of Management's internal Web site


Primary One class in Parry Avenue Boys School, 1958