By Jennani Durai
THE first batch of recruits for national service (NS) in 1967 were not just wet-behind-the-ears 18-year-olds. The pioneer cohort also included new graduates from the then-University of Singapore, recruited into the fledgling army.
'At that time, when you graduated, it basically meant saying goodbye to all your university friends. It was because of NS that we stayed in touch,' said Mr Teo Cheng Keng, 65, who was in that first batch of NS men.
The retired chief executive officer of an import-export company and his NS buddies have formed the NUS-NS Pioneers' Association, to reunite that unique cohort of NS men, and to give something back to both institutions that shaped their common experiences.
So far, 38 men have joined the association.
'We feel the responsibility to contribute something to Singapore, and to leave a legacy for the next generation that is more meaningful than property and money,' explained Mr Teo, who spearheaded the effort.
After jointly raising $32,000 for the National University of Singapore's (NUS) alumni development, the group decided they needed another way to leave their legacy, and came up with the idea of a scholarship.
They now plan to set up a scholarship for children of former NS men to do a first degree course at their alma mater.
Mr Teo believes some 300 to 500 graduates were affected by the Enlistment Act of 1967.
'The British withdrew in 1967, and the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) was in a hurry to get the Armed Forces going. So they started to enlist graduates,' said Mr Eric Lee, 65, treasurer of the association, who worked in a chemical trading company for 31 years before retiring.
Their three years together were a 'life-changing experience', said Mr Teo.
'We embraced it with patriotism. At the time we were most needed, we were happy to respond and sacrifice to serve our nation,' he said.
The group is currently in talks with NUS and Mindef to implement and supplement the scholarship programme, which they hope to start as soon as they receive the go-ahead from both institutions.
Mr Teo raised the proposal at a recent dialogue with Education Minister and Second Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, and has since received an invitation to discuss the idea with Mindef officials.
The scholarship would first be opened to the faculties of science, arts and social sciences, and law, with plans to raise enough funding to open it to all students receiving a first degree, with the exception of medicine and dentistry, said the group's assistant secretary, Mr Richard Lim, 65.
Tuition fees at NUS range from $6,000 to $8,000 a year, for courses other than dentistry and medicine.
The group intends to have at least $100,000, which they think will be enough to support four students in the university at any point in time, and plans to raise funds continually.
It is a hefty sum, but Mr Teo believes raising the money from the group will not be a problem, as most members have the means and generosity.
In order to qualify for a scholarship, a student's father must have completed all reservist training, but need not be an alumnus of NUS, said Mr Lim.
Mr Teo sees the scholarship as a way to keep the association's ties with the university strong.
But his personal aim is to leave a legacy to be proud of, one which will impact more people than just his wife Sharon, and their two children, who are both in their thirties.
'I have no grandchildren, but this is something I can do that could help many people's grandchildren,' he said with a laugh.
Gesturing at his bungalow, he said: 'I'm already 65. I can't take all this with me.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.