SINGAPORE - Fifty years after it was set up to develop Singapore's future leaders, the National Junior College (NJC) continues to keep its doors open to all, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (May 17).
Speaking at a dinner in 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.
The PM noted that since its birth, NJC had no affiliation with any primary or secondary school.
Admission was 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 encourage 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.
They include Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Singapore Institute of Technology president Tan Thiam Soon.
The Prime Minister acknowledges 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... and teachers must still do their best to help their students master the academic curriculum."
"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."
While NJC's traditional strength has been in the sciences, he urged the school to extend this diligence 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," he said.
He noted that NJC was the first JC to start the Art Elective Programme in 1985. It has also set up an Art Centre with facilities such as a pottery kiln room and a drawing and painting studio, to strengthen that programme.
On a more personal note, PM Lee paid tribute to his former teachers, including Ms Kwa Ee Hua, who taught him economics and later became NJC vice-principal for 25 years, and the college's founding principal, the late Mr Lim Kim Woon.
"These teachers were not only pioneers in NJC, but also members of the Pioneer Generation. They taught us the values and spirit that enabled us, their students, to succeed."
Of Mr Lim, he said: "He was a pivotal figure in NJC's history... To the students who were lucky enough to be studying in NJC when Mr Lim was principal, he was a great inspiration. He sought to bring out the best from every one of his students.
"He spent hours in the canteen and on the school field with us, taking an interest in us not just academically, but engaging us as young adults - chatting, arguing and inspiring at the same time. 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 big part in getting her where she is today.
The 67-year-old is the co-founder of charity organisation Kampung Senang that offers childcare, student care and senior care services.
It was her childhood dream to serve the community, said Ms Lye, who grew up in a kampung called Mattar Ikan near Upper Changi.
Her father was a traditional Chinese medicine physician who often gave free consultations to their poor neighbours.
She noticed that some of these patients would come back two to three weeks later bearing gifts like home-grown fruits or fresh chicken eggs to show their gratitude.
"Since then, I always believed that helping people to be healthy is a very happy thing. Service is our purpose in life, and my father sowed that seed in me," said Ms Lye, who worked in banking for 25 years before starting Kampung Senang.
"At NJC, Mr Lim made a big impact on me. He always spoke to us students like he would to a friend. He told us, life is not just about comparing whose results are better, or who drives a fancier car or stays in a bigger house."
"He encouraged us to think beyond that... he always said we were in NJC to learn and serve others with gratitude and honour."
Similarly, Mr Thambynathan Jasudasen, also from the 1969 batch and non-resident ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union, said: “Mr Lim was a man who, while ready to break new ground, also held fast to old school values. He raised intense emotions, both positive and negative among the students and unified the student body in challenging some of his assumptions and ways of doing things."
Mr Jasudasen, 67, who was not at the dinner but told The Straits Times in an e-mail: “The teachers too were special because they were always available and took the extra step to meet our needs. This special relationship continues till today, 50 years later, as we meet up regularly.”
NJC has come a long way since its early years, the PM 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."