By Koo Tsai Kee, For The Straits Times
HE WAS a child hawker, a street vendor - a breed that is now an extinct species, and rightly so.
He was also my ex-neighbour and my senior in school. Unknown to him, he inspired me to follow him to Raffles Institution.
Every day after school, my neighbour would exchange his school bag for a basket of piping hot, salted, deep-fried pancakes - better known in Cantonese as hum chiem penk - and hit the streets. His mission was to sell them all. There were no stipulated working hours. His father's instruction was simple: Come home only after all the pancakes are sold.
Thus, every day, without fail, rain or shine, this RI boy would roam the lanes and alleys, shouting hum chiem penk till his voice was hoarse. After four decades, his strong, coarse voice still reverberates in my memory.
Last week, the same familiar voice greeted me from afar at Clementi Stadium. I recognised him instantly. Still he asked: 'Can you remember me?'
I never forgot him. He never knew he was my quiet hero.
He said he was now happily retired and spent much of his time watching games. I was impressed when he pointed out to me who were the good basketball players on the circuit. I was at Clementi Stadium to lend support to my daughter's basketball team.
On this 44th National Day, my friend is the epitome of how far this nation has travelled. He did not attribute his good fortune to diligence or luck but to the leadership of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
'I hope Lee Kuan Yew will live a long life,' he said simply.
His family was poor. In the neighbourhood where I lived, we were all either poor or very poor.
We did not have grand plans for our future. We lived in the present. So when my neighbour opted to study in Raffles Institution his father was livid. 'Don't waste money,' his father shouted.
RI was an expensive school for his family. His brothers walked to their schools. They came home to hawk the pancakes. But RI was far away and my friend had to take a bus to school. That meant more family expenses and less time to sell pancakes.
In terms of today's human rights vocabulary, my friend was a child labourer. Fortunately, he got his wish to attend RI, no doubt because he assured his father that he would continue to sell pancakes and bring home his share of the family's income.
He didn't go to university. That was a bridge too far for the family. But he could easily have gone to university. He was a bright and diligent student. In his days, scholarships were few and far between.
Schoolchildren today are so fortunate. No father would ever scold a child for securing a place in RI. And there are hundreds of scholarships available. This year, the Public Service Commission alone awarded 82 scholarships. The Defence Science & Technology Agency and DSO National Laboratories offered more than 100 scholarships. All the government-linked companies and statutory boards are eager to catch their share of bright kids. Even private companies, big and small, are offering scholarships. If my friend were a teenager today, he would have the pick of the best scholarships.
Still, I know of too many bright students who do not wish to take up scholarships. This means the country has prospered. Students and parents now have options that my friend did not have.
Although he was not religious, my friend felt blessed. He told me he is not rich but he is happy. He did not go to university but his two daughters have. One has completed her Singapore-MIT masters programme while the other is pursuing an MBA.
Forty-four years ago, his family worried for him. Forty-four years later, he has no worries for his own family.
The writer is Minister of State for Defence.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.