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Address By Prof Cheong Hee Kiat At The Book & Exhibition Launch

Address By Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President, SUSS, At The Book & Exhibition Launch (“The Char Kuay Teow Legacy”), 16 October 2019


Good morning, distinguished guests, colleagues and students,

Let me first thank H H Tan for inviting me to share a few of my thoughts on this august yet celebratory occasion.

My University, the Singapore University of Social Sciences, or SUSS, just had its convocation last week.  As is normally done, we feature good stories about our newly-minted graduates and award winners.  Invariably, we find some students who win awards or excel in studies, and who also have overcome difficult personal circumstances while doing so.

Let me cite a couple of these whom we celebrated last week:

  • One was a valedictorian who didn’t manage to get into any other autonomous university but found his footing and calling at SUSS – he won two achievement awards.His mother was stroke-stricken when he was 12, and his father single-handedly laboured on as a taxi-driver to support the family.
  • Another did well, too, even as she had to be the sole bread-winner for her family after finishing polytechnic studies because her parents, with only Chinese-speaking background, were both unable to work due to their medical conditions, and she had to get her degree later on a part-time basis.

There are many other stories like these among our students whom we have helped - again, let me briefly mention some:

  • One had to live with his grandma without a stable source of income when his parents passed on;
  • The father of another is incarcerated and mother is the only one working in the family;
  • In yet another case, parents are divorced, father is jobless, mother is on part-time work;
  • Still others have one parent or both chronically ill or bed-ridden from a stroke, or severely diabetic – all unable to work.

We cannot help all cases as we don’t have enough resources to do so.

But to every student in need, financial aid is a hope, an encouragement, an expression of care, a sharing of burden. It makes a big difference in the lives of the recipients, and it makes their learning much more manageable because there isn’t the additional burden to divert the attention from studying. One will hope that when these are helped, they will in turn help others in lesser conditions, perhaps, not immediately but remember to deal the kindness one day.  It is gratitude that we will need to plant in both individuals and organisations that receive financial gifts, so that a virtuous cycle of giving and receiving will be perpetuated. I was so heartened when one of the recipients of our inaugural SUSS Entrepreneurship Awards at last week’s convocation decided to give the $5,000 prize to the charity where he performed his service learning.

Education is often cited as a social leveller – it helps bridge gaps, opens minds, gives opportunities to all who aspire to succeed in life, brings hope of improvement to a succeeding generation.  The process of learning really begins after birth, in the home, but formally in early childhood education, and then schooling, and all the way to university for those who can make it.  But making good education opportunities available is not sufficient.  There is also a need to ensure that those who are not financially able, or disabled in other ways, can take the opportunity. On this aspect, in various situations, many cannot afford to study, so don’t get to partake of the education; some cannot progress because of disruptions in their lives, needing to support others, having to work while studying, thus not fully able to focus on their studies, and so on.  Such support enables the recipient the chance to reach full potential, and often, the donor doesn’t get to see this outcome so it is in faith that the giving is done.

Thus, we are thankful to benefactors who put their hopes, faith and money into supporting education.  Donors like Ong Tiong Tat and Irene Tan Liang Kheng whom we are honouring and remembering in this book and exhibition being launched today. Theirs is a poignant love story, one where love shines through and drives their life narrative which continues today.  Love reigned in the lives of Ong Tiong Tat and Irene Tan, but ultimately, it was, and is, love for people that undergirds all the donations that this book documents.

I am encouraged when the donors come both big and small, when it is not the large single donation alone, nor the large corporations, nor the super-able who give, but also the smaller givers, the single individual who gives out of generosity and not compulsion, or out of what he has of little rather than of plenty.  Then, it is truly the sacrificial participation of broad society in a future-proofing endeavour. And may I challenge donors – usually, it is those who need financial help who go looking for funds.  Perhaps, more can be done by donors to look where help is most needed rather than simply give to known causes, reputable beneficiary organisations which ironically may need the donation least because so much has already been given them in the past.  To use a horticultural metaphor, we should spread good soil all around than keep piling it up in several heaps – there’ll be more grass growing all over and you’ll get a nice green lawn.  Yes, I am rooting for the small people, the less well-endowed organisations which do not have much but can still do much with the little they get.

Let me end with this thought: even with opportunity, with financial enabling, it is still not enough. It is not just about financial want that can hold back access to education; it can also be academic poverty, social and emotional deficiency that will get in the way of progression in education.  We will need also to look at how our students can be supported in their learning when these barriers come in their way.  We need a holistic treatment of a learner’s conditions to help him succeed. And, to provide this holistic support, donations are also needed.

For today, let us remember the wonderful work and generosity of Ong Tiong Tat, Irene Tan and their nephew, H H Tan, who worked tirelessly to spread the estate of his uncle and aunt to many worthy causes and so, honouring this couple’s memory in perpetuity.  H H, we are here today because of your deep desire and effort to have this book and exhibition.  You’ve done it!

Thank you.

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