Sschools are important platforms for Singaporeans from less well-off backgrounds to move up and make good in life, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday, as he held up National Junior College (NJC) for doing its part in the endeavour.
It has, most importantly, helped keep pathways open for all, Mr Lee said of his alma mater, reiterating a theme that is a key part of the Government's agenda for the rest of its term, as it seeks to address concerns over education and social mobility.
Since it was established in 1969, the junior college has continued with its tradition of not having affiliations with any primary or secondary schools, said Mr Lee. He noted that its JC1 and Secondary 1 students come from almost 100 secondary and primary schools.
It also seeks out talented students from less-well-off homes, supporting them with bursaries.
At the same time, it promotes "a culture of moderation and restraint" that allows staff and students to interact comfortably on equal terms with one another, he noted at its 45th anniversary celebration last night.
Mr Lee also highlighted the development of "leadership with sensitivity", using a phrase from the school's motto.
This, NJC did through its boarding programme, which helped to foster in students the instincts to serve and lead.
The programme has enrichment classes to bring less-privileged students up to speed, and community attachments to help students understand issues faced by other Singaporeans.
His nod of approval for NJC's efforts and the environment it fosters comes amid recent debate in Parliament about whether the education system continues to give opportunities to students to do well regardless of their background, and the Government's emphasis to keep paths upwards open for all. In the debate, PM Lee also pointed out the need to shape the culture in schools so that students from different backgrounds interact with each other more comfortably.
Aside from the junior college's achievements, PM Lee also recounted his days at the college, and there was no mistaking the special place NJC has in his heart.
He was in the first group of students to enter what then appeared to be a "grand" campus in Linden Drive, he said.
He had joined only in the second year of junior college to do his A Levels in English, after already completing its equivalent in Chinese at the Catholic High School. He became the school's first President's Scholar. His wife Ho Ching, was also from NJC.
Mr Lee said the school was set up as a "national institution to train national leaders loyal to our country, proud of ourselves and our identity, with a sense of duty to serve the nation".
As Singapore's first junior college, NJC's growth has also been synonymous with Singapore's education journey, he said.
It pioneered learning methods and systems that have been adopted by other junior colleges. It trained students to question, and seek better answers, he added.
Indeed, its founding goals of developing leaders with honour and providing quality education for students of all backgrounds, remain essential today.
"It must continue to be a truly national junior college, engaging the broader community and alumni network to thrive," he said.
As PM Lee recalled the various teachers who taught him, one person stood head and shoulders above the rest - NJC's first principal, Mr Lim Kim Woon, who often played sports and hung out with students in the canteen, and was a consummate teacher.
"He was a human dynamo and great inspiration to all of us," said PM Lee, who presented Mr Lim's wife and son with a commemorative book on the school. Mr Lim was not present due to ill health.
This memory of Mr Lim was shared by Ms Joyce Lye, 62, who was Mr Lee's schoolmate. She had been so inspired by Mr Lim's exhortations to "live a meaningful life by contributing to society", that she set up the charity Kampung Senang to help the needy.
She was among the three alumni whom Mr Lee highlighted in his speech for embodying NJC's values and making contributions to Singapore. The other two were Dr Pauline Cheong, 59, who started the Himalayan Vision project that provides free eye operations for poor Indian villagers, and Ms Clarissa Ho, a former canoeing captain who, after her A levels, collected past Ten Year Series from the graduating class and donated them back to the school.
Ms Lye said of the school: "I had no family background to speak of, and yet I was admitted based on the interviews and given the same opportunities. The school really left its mark on me."
This article was first published on June 7, 2014.
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