Father of moral education, Fr Robert Balhetchet, dies aged 76

Dr Robert Balhetchet died of pneumonia aged 76 on Tuesday morning (March 15).
Dr Robert Balhetchet died of pneumonia aged 76 on Tuesday morning (March 15).PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - Friends, teachers and the Catholic community have paid tribute to diocesan priest Dr (Rev) Robert Balhetchet - the father of moral education in Singapore - who died of pneumonia aged 76 on Tuesday morning.

"Father Bob", as close friends called him, was suffering from end stage chronic obstructive lung disease and had been warded at Mount Alvernia Hospital since February.

He shot to national prominence in 1979 when he was asked by then Education Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee to craft the curriculum and prepare the materials for a revised secular national moral education programme for schools.

Described as the "first of Dr Goh's wise men", his work resulted in the Being and Becoming moral education programme and later the Good Citizen programme for primary schools.

Former Raffles Institution's principal Eugene Wijeysingha, 82, said: "Although it was a sensitive thing for a Catholic priest to develop a programme for all children in schools, he was picked to develop it in a very unbiased way."

Fr Bob was reported as saying that his assignment with the ministry was "a formidable task, but a priority which I will take on not as a priest but as a Singaporean".

Despite his role in helping the nation's generation of youth develop a moral compass, Fr Bob had a cheeky streak as a boy. He admitted pulling pranks on some teachers by hiding live frogs, lizards and mice in their desk drawers.

Fr Bob, a former SJI prodigy who passed his A levels at 14, had written an essay on wanting to be a priest when he was 12. He also spoke nine languages including Spanish, French and Tamil and had a doctorate in dogmatic theology.

He was ordained as a priest in 1964 and became rector of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd where he served between 1979 and 2001 while working with the Ministry of Education up till the 1990s.

He was a heavy smoker and relied on an oxygen tank and respirator in recent years.

In a Facebook note on Tuesday (March 15), MP Alex Yam for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC wrote that he had first met Fr Bob as a primary school student at Maris Stella High School where the priest conducted mass. "It was his wonderful singing voice and accent that drew me to the mystery of the faith," he said.

Fr Bob's best friend, Mr Alexander Louis, 62, a retired lawyer and current secretary-general of the United Nations Association of Singapore, said he was a man of great intellect but was sometimes misunderstood as arrogant.

Mr Louis, who was a warden at the Cathedral, said: "He was a kind and wonderful person. For instance, he created job openings within the Cathedral for the needy.

"He even helped the Cathedral save money by stitching together altar cloths and fabricating lights for the church before it became a national monument."

In an obituary notice, the Catholic Church said that Fr Bob had been overall coordinator when Pope John Paul II visited Singapore in 1986. Archbishop William Goh will preside over his funeral this Saturday at 9.30am at the Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Tanjong Katong where his body now rests.