Education Minister praises pioneer teachers at tribute dinner

Education minister Heng Swee Keat (centre) greets 100-year-old Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar (left), former principal of Raffles Girls' Primary, Bedok Girls' and Balestier Boys' School, during the Ministry of Education dinner to honour pioneer educator
Education minister Heng Swee Keat (centre) greets 100-year-old Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar (left), former principal of Raffles Girls' Primary, Bedok Girls' and Balestier Boys' School, during the Ministry of Education dinner to honour pioneer educators on 31 July, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - A school principal who turned a bathtub into an eco-pond, a teacher posted to remote Christmas Island and a centenarian who used to make sure her pupils drank their powdered milk.

These were among the pioneer educators lauded by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat on Thursday night at the Ministry of Education's Pioneer Tribute Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 700 education staff past and present, he celebrated their "rich store of life lessons".

He also noted the "three legacies" left by Singapore's pioneer educators: laying Singapore's educational foundation; being resourceful, responsible, and resilient; and nurturing new generations of teachers.

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 attended the 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."

Often, the ministry 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, Mr Heng said.

He also paid tribute to Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar, who helmed Raffles Girls' Primary, among others. Mrs Ambiavagar, who celebrated her 100th birthday recently, was the most senior educator at the event. Her late husband, Mr V Ambiavagar, was the first Asian Headmaster of Raffles Institution.

" It's amazing to hear what it took to be a school leader then. Mrs Ambiavagar tells me that apart from running the school and teaching English classes, as a principal she also had to keep an eye on the canteen cooks to ensure that the children had meat in their dishes! Nutrition was a key school issue then," said Mr Heng.

Others, like former Commonwealth Secondary principal Mr 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.

Many students, Mr Heng said, have been inspired to follow in their footsteps and become teachers themselves - the pioneer generation's third legacy.

"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," he said.

The dinner was the first in a series of MOE events, continuing into next year, to mark Singapore's first half-century and pay tribute to its former teachers. There are 14,000 retired pioneer teachers on the ministry's books, Mr Heng said.

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, call 6838 1614 or visit www.moeheritagecentre.sg.

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