Fifty years after it was set up to develop Singapore's future leaders, National Junior College (NJC) continues to keep its doors open to all, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
Speaking at a dinner at the Fairmont Ballroom, Raffles City Convention Centre to mark the golden jubilee of Singapore's first junior college, he said the first students to walk through its gates came from all over the country.
PM Lee himself, then aged 17, was in the JC's pioneer batch in 1969.
This open and inclusive ethos lives on till today, he noted, pointing to its student population that hails from 139 primary schools and 80 secondary schools, with youth from different social circles and all ethnic groups.
"It's important that our schools create opportunities for students from different social backgrounds to interact so that we can break down social barriers, dispel stereotypes, build understanding and lifelong bonds," he said.
PM Lee noted that since its birth, NJC has had no affiliation with any primary or secondary school.
Admission is based not just on academic results but also on an interview to assess leadership potential, values and future contributions to the school, he noted.
In more recent years, it has been making a special - and praiseworthy - effort to coax talented students from humble backgrounds to apply to the college, he said.
The efforts go beyond financial aid, he added, citing its buddy programme that gives primary school pupils the chance to stay in NJC's boarding school and learn skills, such as leadership and teamwork, from its seniors.
"Our schools are important platforms for us to level up Singaporeans who start off from less advantaged backgrounds, so that every child can have the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential," said PM Lee, addressing about 1,090 people, largely alumni, including Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Singapore Institute of Technology president Tan Thiam Soon.
PM Lee acknowledged that academic grades "are not the be all and end all in life". Still, it is important for NJC, and all other schools, to maintain focus on academic excellence, he said.
"There are many paths forward, even for students who are not academically inclined or for some reason have not done well in school.
"But students should still study hard and learn as much as they can... A student who takes his studies seriously demonstrates his ability and drive, and prepares himself to take up the jobs and responsibilities in our modern economy and society," he said.
While NJC's traditional strength has been in the sciences, he urged the school to extend this to the arts and humanities, too.
"The arts help us understand the intricacies, complexities and subtleties of human beings, hone our creativity and curiosity, and learn about our past so we can make better judgments for the future."
On a more personal note, he paid tribute to his former teachers, including Ms Kwa Ee Hua who taught him economics and later became NJC's vice-principal for 25 years, and NJC's founding principal, the late Mr Lim Kim Woon.
"These teachers taught us the values and spirit that enabled us, their students, to succeed."
PM Lee added: "(Mr Lim) was a pivotal figure in NJC's history... He sought to bring out the best from every one of his students.
"He left a deep impression on all of us lasting more than a generation."
Ms Joyce Lye Geok Choo, who was in PM Lee's 1969 batch, said Mr Lim played a major role in getting her where she is today.
The 67-year-old, who had worked in banking for 25 years, is the co-founder of charity Kampung Senang that offers childcare, student care and senior care services.
Growing up in a kampung called Mattar Ikan near Upper Changi, she said she was inspired to serve the community by her father, a traditional Chinese medicine physician, who often gave free consultations to their poor neighbours.
"At NJC, Mr Lim told us, life is not just about who drives a fancier car or lives in a bigger house," she said.
"He encouraged us to think beyond that... He always said we were in NJC to learn and serve others with gratitude and honour."
NJC has come a long way since its early years, PM Lee said.
"Much has changed in Singapore in 50 years, but your founding goals and ideals of developing leaders with honour and providing quality education for students of all backgrounds remain just as relevant today."