School bag and stationery gift changed poor boy's life

Mr Veera Sekaran, who was five when his father died, said his mother worked as a nanny to raise a family of nine kids. He worked part-time and graduated from NUS after getting help from a benefactor. He now pays back to society by hiring ex-convicts
Mr Veera Sekaran, who was five when his father died, said his mother worked as a nanny to raise a family of nine kids. He worked part-time and graduated from NUS after getting help from a benefactor. He now pays back to society by hiring ex-convicts and donating to elderly and children's causes.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Kind act one of five stories in short film to be shown during National Day Parade

During primary school, Veera Sekaran often went to school carrying his textbooks in a paper bag.

On rainy days, he would hold the bag close to his chest so it would not tear. Sometimes, when the bag got torn, "I had to look for another bag in the rubbish bin", he recounted.

A teacher at Canberra Primary, Mrs Chee, noticed this and rallied the boy's classmates to donate a school bag and stationery to him, Mr Veera, now 56, recalled.

The kind act was captured in a 10-minute film to be shown during this year's National Day Parade (NDP). The film tells the stories of five Singaporeans who had overcome adversity, including Madam Mary Klass, 83, who represented Singapore in athletics at the 1956 Olympics. Her father was opposed to her joining the sport.

"It made a big difference in my life," Mr Veera, the fifth of nine children, said of the gifts from his teacher and classmates.

Mr Veera was just five when his father, who worked as a road sweeper and a gardener, died of an illness. His mother worked as a nanny to support the family and relatives helped to raise him and his siblings.

SMALL ACT, BIG IMPACT

When I saw the video at the rehearsal, I cried... Looking back, the gesture meant so much to me.

MR VEERA SEKARAN, on how the gift of a school bag and stationery made an impact.

At school, he looked like "a rag doll" in oversized uniforms passed down from his older brothers.

But the teacher's kind act made him realise she had seen something promising in him that he did not see.

He did well enough to go to Victoria School and later the National University of Singapore (NUS).

When he was in his teens, he took on part-time work - from being a waiter to a construction worker - to help support his family. During his pre-university days at Victoria School, for instance, he worked in a granite quarry shovelling granite dust from 9pm to 3am.

"I would be completely covered in soot when I got back home. I had only a couple of hours' sleep before I had to wake up and take the bus to school," he said.

Despite having to juggle his studies with a job, Mr Veera won a place at NUS. But the problem was that he could not pay the course fees. He got a break when friends introduced him to a man who would change his life - lawyer Haridass Ajaib who offered to pay his fees.

Mr Veera said: "I promised to pay him back, but he told me to pay it forward to others who need help."

Mr Veera went on to graduate from NUS with a degree in botany, becoming the first in his family to attend and finish university.

Today, the father of two is the founder of Greenology, which develops ideas for green walls and urban farms and offers horticultural consultancy services. He pays it forward by hiring former convicts, buying food for elderly people at eateries and helping the elderly and children with special needs.

Mr Veera hopes his story show acts of kindness, no matter how small, can have big changes in someone's life. "When I saw the video at the rehearsal, I cried," he said. "Looking back, the gesture meant so much to me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2018, with the headline 'School bag and stationery gift changed poor boy's life'. Print Edition | Subscribe