THEY laid Singapore's educational foundation; were resourceful, responsible and resilient; and nurtured new generations of teachers.
Singapore's pioneer educators left these three legacies, and their words and work shaped an entire generation, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, as he paid homage to 700 retired principals, educational specialists from ministry headquarters, and administrative staff at a Pioneer Tribute Dinner last night.
Speaking at the dinner at the Fairmont Hotel, Mr Heng celebrated these trailblazers' "rich store of life lessons".
For instance, as a school principal, Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar, 100, had to make sure the children had meat in their dishes and drank the powdered milk they were given as nutrition was a key school issue, he said.
Singapore laid its educational foundation by building more than 130 new schools and recruiting thousands of teachers.
This system then evolved as different streams were created to help different students, and today more flexibility and new specialised schools in science, sports, and the arts have been introduced, Mr Heng said.
Today, education takes up as much as 20 per cent of the Budget, at almost $11.5 billion, and is second only to defence.
"But for a young nation 50 years ago, that was unthinkable," he said. The pioneer educators' enterprising spirit in the face of limited resources, was another major contribution to the country.
Mr Heng singled out several for praise, including Ms Nanda Bandara, 76, who sank a bathtub into the Haig Girls' School garden to create an eco-pond.
Ms Bandara, who was at last night's dinner, recalled: "We were limited in resources. But the children were interested in science - what's the difference between the eggs of a frog and a toad, for instance? "So when we had the pond there for them, they could remember.
They saw the difference between different water plants."
Mr Heng said the ministry often recruited 16-year-olds straight after their exams to plug a shortage of teachers.
Some had to juggle teaching in the morning and training in the afternoon. Others, like former Commonwealth Secondary principal A.N.
Balagopal, 84, were once posted to remote Christmas Island, a 135 sq km speck in the Indian Ocean, south of Java, that was formerly administered by Singapore. It took three to four days to sail there in choppy waters.
Because of these educators' resourcefulness and dedication, many of their students have been inspired to follow in their footsteps, said Mr Heng.
This is the third legacy of these pioneers: nurturing a generation of teachers who will continue their good work.
"We stand on the shoulders of giants and through our collective hands we hold the future of the nation, and build on the firm foundations you have laid.
"Those same values you stood for still hold true even if the tools to teach and the programmes we roll out may have changed," said the minister.
Last night's dinner was the first in a series of Ministry of Education (MOE) events to mark Singapore's first half-century and pay tribute to educators. There are some 14,000 retired pioneer educators in the ministry's books, Mr Heng said.
These events will continue into next year.
For a start, the MOE Heritage Centre will organise a series of weekly Friday tea sessions for pioneer and retired senior educators from Sept 5 to Oct 31.
To sign up, retired educators can call 6838-1614 or visit www.moeheritagecentre.sg
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.