Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

Words are used to express our philosophy, our beliefs, our thoughts and our knowledge. For the young the pen helps them to pass examinations for a better life. Just about every thing we do depends on our use of words. Words can win friends or make enemies, inspire or upset people, create clarity or cause confusion. Words are written with pens.

Words can make us act to please or irritate, or to solve problems diplomatically without the use of force. The sword, on the other hand, is mainly used to threaten or harm others physically which words can also do.

Most influential people become what they are by the power of the word. Only “uncivilized barbarians” and modern dictators use the power of the sword to get what they want. To these people “Might is Right.” They cause the problems we face and upset the peace in our world.

Let all peace loving people show the world that we prefer the pen more than the sword. The computer ( the modern pen) is more powerful than all the modern weapons which replaced the old sword. Use your pen wisely, let the Pen continue to be your best friend to preserve the Peace we want in our world.

May the spirit of Christmas be with you all year round and all your wishes come through for the New Year and the years to come.

Lee Kum Tatt

Setting New Year Resolutions

The New Year (2008) is fast approaching. It is the day when we make decisions about what we want to accomplish and where to place our priorities in the coming year. Some people do not think too much about setting such New Year resolutions, but others do. My husband Dr. Lee Kum Tatt (LKT) belongs to the group of “others”.

Some common resolutions people make include:
(i) I will stop smoking, stop drinking or lose some weight ,
(ii) Fantasizing on something without any clue on how these can be achieved.

These are frivolous resolutions people make without serious thoughts. Some are broken even before they get started. Because of this some believe it is a joke to make New Year Resolutions.

LKT sets up, together with his family members, New Year Resolutions just as he sets up policies, plans and implementation strategies for the organizations under his charge throughout his life. Like his staff we are expected to do our best to make the resolutions effective and produce the expected results. In the beginning we muddled our way through with some guidance from LKT. In this way we learned how to handle our own lives.

LKT is not a guru in management but we can learn a lot from his experience and the anecdotes that he can give. Today there are many books available which teach and give advice on how to make effective Resolutions and tips on how their goals can be achieved.

This year LKT wants his older grandchildren to continue to study and work hard so that they can be useful citizens who can make contributions for the betterment of their fellowmen as part of their mission in life. This is a resolution which every parent would like their children to have. However this Resolution has to be understood and takes time to acheieve results. He bought each of them a pen of their choice with an attached message.
Some may find this approach useful. Hence we decided to produce this message “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword” in LKT’s blog to start the New Year.

Best wishes for a peaceful and successful new year to everybody.

Mrs. Engeline Lee Eng Neo.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Singapore Polytechnic

Singapore’s human resource development made Singapore what it is today, particularly in the field of S & T and technical education, The Singapore Polytechnic, through its 53 years of history, contributed a great deal to Singapore’s development. I spent many years developing S & T and related field together with many others. My colleagues who have gone through these interesting and challenging times with me will have their own stories to tell of the role that Singapore Polytechnic played in the development of Singapore. I have encouraged some of them to do so for the benefit of those who may need this. Our oversea colleagues, especially those in the region, may like to share with us some of our experiences of what to do and what not to do in S & T and technical education.

It has been to me a very positive experience. In 1959 when Singapore became self governing, our country and the region were in turmoil. We were concerned about the spread of the Vietnam War and the need to create meaningful jobs and a future for our people and our families. When we look back, in the 48 years we have achieved a lot. The Singapore Polytechnic has played its role. Without the Singapore Polytechnic Singapore would not have industrialized so quickly. Yes, there may be some who can argue that it could have been done faster and better. These are people who were not personally involved in the implementation or carry the responsibilities of the decisions/actions taken. I have been involved in the building of the Singapore Polytechnic as a Board of Governors member from 1959-1981 ( 21 years). I have also been an active player in S & T and technical education for many years in many fields. The policy making , planning and their implementation under some trying conditions have been a very positive and satisfying experience for me. I believe my colleagues and I have all given of our best.

In building the Singapore Polytechnic there were many contentious issues involving vested interests of many influential parties to be resolved. These included:The authorities on why we needed a polytechnic How to ensure that the standards meet the needs of those we serve? - our country, our industries and commerce, our professional bodies, the expectation of the parents and the students and our image to those we serve etc. How to find and develop the resources (finance and people) and create the environment to keep the important forces balanced for everybody’s benefit.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive academic study of the development of the Singapore Polytechnic. Many studies and reports are available from the archives and libraries on this subject. However there are few articles written by the people who were deeply involved for years in the Institution’s development. I like to share my personal experiences with those interested in:

1. How the Singapore Polytechnic was built and continuously restructured
2. How some of the these activities have affected the lives of so many
3. Some special cases of Singapore Polytechnic’s experiences in its development.

The above information can help us to project our visions for the future of Singapore Polytechnic. To make easy reading the articles will be presented in Parts over time.

Part (I) will start with a brief history and comments on how the Singapore Polytechnic was conceived and started till 1959 when it was first re-structured.

Part (II) will present some of the restructuring activities carried out and the challenges the Singapore Polytechnic faced and how these were handled.

Hopefully Part (III) will convey to you not only what has been done, but also on why and how certain decisions were taken and implemented. In some of the case studies you may be able to spot occasional comments on why I wish certain events had been done differently at different times. These are not “regrets” but rather they are to be taken as hind sights where useful lessons may be learned.

These articles are my personal experience and views and they do not represent the official views or stands of the Singapore Polytechnic and its related authorities.

Lee Kum Tatt

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What Makes A School Great

The following are important factors that make a school great.

The founding vision of the School The building of its tradition Instilling into the teachers and students the right spirit. Dedicated & great principals and teachers Good students to produce Great Alumni

These are the pillars on which a school is built. Its greatness depends on the efforts put in by everybody involved in building of the school over the years. Everybody who has been with the school, the policy makers, headmasters, teachers, students through their activities and achievements contribute in the making of the image and reputation of the school. It requires a constant positive input from everyone involved to build and maintain the greatness of the school. The Penang Free School has gained this reputation not only in Malaysia but also abroad. The Singapore Old Frees contributed much to their new found home, Singapore. We must continue to do this and more to remain proud of being an Old Free.

History of Penang Free School.

The Penang Free School (PFS) is the oldest English School in Malaysia and the S.E.A. region. The School was founded on October 21 in 1816 and is located in the island of Penang. The word Free is important to many as it reflects the founding vision of the School. Being Free liberates everybody involved with it from being stereotyped by race, creed, economic or social standing. We are equals in the eyes of the school. We have to prove our worth. The School gained the reputation of being the institution for the best of our junior school students in Penang. Gaining admission to the school fulfils the dreams of many parents for the children.

Instilling the right spirit to the students.

The School's motto Fortis Atque Fidelis (Strength with Fidelity) and the School's rally song , (reproduced below) which we sang every year on Founder's Day, and on special functions inspire and fire up the young minds to do many things which we might not have done otherwise.

School Rally Song

It matter neither how strait the gate,
Nor how charged with dangers the goal,
Let the tempest rage and fell odds inflate,
We'll do it with our heart and soul.

Let us march unto fame,
Let the aisles proclaim,
Till our anthem will dare us to do,
Let us onward to win and new laurels gain,
Free School for the brave and the true.

In addition to this my headmasters Mr. L.W.Arnold (1940) and Mr. D. Roper (1946) reminded us that our Founder's Day, 21 October, is also the day that Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the combined superior French and Spanish Armada at the battle of Trafalgar . Although terribly outnumbered in ships and men England won the battle and this was attributed to the famous message Nelson gave to his men at that time:
" England expects every men to do his duty."

The Frees , young and old, are also expected to do their duty wherever they are at all times to win the many battles that had to be fought.

What did the school do for me?

I had some great teachers who not only taught me how to pass examinations but also helped me in many other ways. Mr. Ng Chong Weng, my Pinhorn House sports master, saved me the long walk from the school to the bus stop at Green Lane by dropping me at the nearest point to my home in town. Mr.Ooi Khay Bian (OKB) supported my request to be exempted from the Science classes so that I could use the time saved to do my home work and other studies in school as I had to teach to earn extra money for the family. I was the only student given this exemption. This incident has particular significance to my life. I would not be what I am, a man of science, who has used his science training for the development of our scientific manpower and industries through education and its application in Singapore.

Here is the story of this incident.

As my Senior Cambridge results were very good I cheekily decided to apply for a scholarship to study Science and not Arts in Raffles College. I took a big risk as I would have a better chance of getting a scholarship in Arts, without which I could not have gone for further studies. Risk taking, part of my PFS training? I expected the headmaster and my form teacher Mr. Ooi (OKB) to fall off their chairs with my request as I was the only student exempted from the science classes during 1947. They did not. They must have supported my application strongly as I was awarded the prestigious Raffles Scholarship. Such instances cannot happen in modern times! This is "flexibility" on the part of a headmaster of a great school and I am grateful. I ended up practicing science all my life in numerous capacities. I became the first chairman of the Singapore Science Council for 10 years, an advisory body to the Singapore government on science after Singapore's independence! I was also founder chairman and CEO of the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR) for 18 years besides many other appointments and involvement in many other activities
It will be interesting to hear from other Singapore Old Frees how the PFS has made a difference to their lives. This can be an encouragement if not an inspiration for the young Frees to look out for the things that they may have taken for granted.

Alumni of The Penang Free School.

PFS, formed the backbone of Malaysia's education. It educated many generations of rulers, Malaysia's first Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, law makers, professionals and people of social standing in Malaysia. PFS can boast of being the Alma Mater of many well known and successful alumni all over the world. This includes the world renown Plague fighter, the late Dr. Wu Lien The, who also pioneered the modernization of China's public health system.

Singapore has its share of talented and dedicated Old Frees. In the 1940's to 1960's the Chief Justice, the Attorney General and seven out of the eight High Court Judges were Old Frees. The Speaker of Parliament was also an Old Free who was also the first professor of surgery in the University of Malaya in Singapore. The medical profession was dominated by many Old Frees in the University and in Singapore's Health Service. The Old Frees then expanded themselves in holding important posts in public administration and management in Singapore like Education, Industries, Engineering, Architecture, Customs, Science Institutions, Business, the professions and other walks of life. They served Singapore with dedication, commitment and courage that our school has instilled in us during our school days. We are constantly reminded of our School's motto, the Rally Song and the upbringing our dedicated teachers and headmasters gave us through their values and practices. We often speak of the Old school with pride for what it has given us to serve our adopted country. Let us hope that this oldest English school in Malaysia and S.E. Asia will always remain a great school that everyone will always be proud of. The School is great not because it is the oldest but that it is also the best and is Free – free from many of the social, economic, religious and racial issues which have bogged down many institutions and even governments throughout the world. Long live the Great Penang Free School!!!

Lee Kum Tatt
24th October 2007

Pride of an Alumnus of a Great Institution

Should schools train students just for jobs or to produce creative individuals, some of who may start off as fledging rebels, with what they consider as good causes for change? Most institutions do the first one, only the great ones can handle both. We have our well known schools. The question is how to create more of such schools and make them great?
The parties involved: the authorities, the principals, teachers, the choice of students and the alumni they produce must work together to lay the right and strong foundation and pillars for such schools and institutions to grow. This requires effort, time, courage and tolerance from many to do what has to be done.

My husband, Dr. Lee Kum Tatt is proud that he came from a great school – the Penang Free School (PFS).
\u003c/span\>He attended the recent get together of Singapore Old Frees to celebrate the 191\u003csup\>st\u003c/sup\> anniversary of PFS where he met many enthusiastic Old Frees and shared many wonderful memories they had. He was so fired up that he jotted down an article "What makes a School Great".\n\u003cspan\> \u003c/span\>He feels that we must give credit where credit is due especially to those who have helped us to be what we are. He hopes some other Old Frees will also do likewise in their own way by telling their own stories. This will keep alive the spirit we got from the School and the time we had together.

He attended the recent get together of Singapore Old Frees to celebrate the 191st anniversary of PFS where he met many enthusiastic Old Frees and shared many wonderful memories they had. He was so fired up that he jotted down an article "What makes a School Great". He feels that we must give credit where credit is due especially to those who have helped us to be what we are. He hopes some other Old Frees will also do likewise in their own way by telling their own stories. This will keep alive the spirit we got from the School and the time we had together. As a teacher myself I love and enjoy the memories of the happy events we shared together with other alumnae. These human bonds are what make the Institutions great.

Mrs. Engeline Lee Eng Nio
24 October 2007

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What Do We Believe In

( Part I) Superstition or Common Sense

I was brought up in an environment which mixed up religious beliefs, superstitions, and common sense. It was not until I studied science that I learned to put more emphasis on facts based on scientific data to form my reasoned judgment on what to believe in. As I progressed I had not only to deal with spiritual feelings but I also had to handle emotional matters involving facts, opinions, statistics and fantasies in the name of creativity in my public life. I believe these are some of the stages many also go through in their lives.

Although I did not stay with my Mother until I was 13 years old, my mother’s beliefs and reactions have very great influence over my early life. My Parents molded my early life, character, values and philosophy. This affected many of the things I did. Some of Mother’s beliefs became my motivating and inspiring factors which made me do what I did. Some of her other beliefs became my fears. These inhibited many activities which I would have loved to do but did not do. Do not under estimate the influence your parents have on you.

After I studied science my new found knowledge changed some of my thinking. I no longer accepted, without question, what I considered as my Mother’s superstitions or “Grandmothers’ tales”. Some of these clashes were quite serious and required very careful handling to avoid serious arguments and explosions with my Mother and those who think like her. I notice many people, even today, are affected by these beliefs, superstitions and facts which we cannot ignore and ridicule in order to have peace in our society, with ourselves and others, espcecially our neighbours.

If my descendents are to know me better they must know how my early upbringing has affected my life and the struggle I had to go through to cause change. Sometimes these changes came with the exertion of great effort and at a great cost. Fortunately there were positive aspects to some of these beliefs which are sometimes classified as “family upbringing” and “Confucius teachings”. Where these are concerned there could be no arguments. Whatever my parents and elders said goes.

I will divide my articles here into three groups: (a). the positive ones; (b). the negative ones and (c). the in-betweens. I will start off with how these beliefs (a) and (b) presented themselves and the episodes that they created which made me what I am. Episodes in category (c) will be given in installments in the latter articles that follow.

(a) The Positive Beliefs

Our family was not wealthy and I know what poverty and sufferings mean from experience in my younger days. To break out of this vicious circle we have not only to work hard but also to pray for some miracles to take place. We needed these divine blessings which we believe will come upon us by doing good deeds to others. My parents taught us that good deeds go round and come back to you when you least expect it.

There is a Chinese saying that :

"Good deeds will be repaid with Good deeds,
And Evil with Evil.
If the deed seems not to have been paid
The time has not yet come.”

For this we must keep on trying to do good deeds. Some western culture also believes in this. Many also do good deeds and actively participate in charitable and social work helping others. We must also be always grateful to the many who have done us good and let us help others in return.

Surviving the Japanese Occupation and Thereafter.

Although my parents were not wealthy, they were very active in charitable activities throughout their lives. They continued to share with others the little we have even during the Japanese occupation. My parents had a large family to support but they even adopted a poor girl into our family. As young children we did not understand why my parents did what they did then. Looking back we were blessed in other ways. We survived the War and its terrible aftermath. We were able to accept the hardships that came with it. We were taught to be thankful for all the kind deeds others did for us. They are the good that comes back to us for some good we must have done. We do not have much but we never thought that we will be what we are today.

We therefore believe that doing good and helping others does pay in its own ways. We are concerned that this practice appears to be fast disappearing in our materialistic society of today where people consider rewards and returns first before service to others. Let us continue to do something about this important value of our culture. Let us not forget this in our pursuit for “success”. This is a good practice which we inherited from our ancestors.

Miracles can happen because of Fate?

Some people belief that if something is fated, it will take place irrespective of what happened in between. I believe that “God helps those who help themselves”. Even though it may be fated if we do not help ourselves enough through hard work certain things will not happened even though it may be fated.

Some examples of this belief.

1. I was born a sickly child. Either one of us would be sick when my Mother and I were together. If I was to survive I would have to be adopted “spiritually” by my late uncle. This happened and my Mother and I survived. Superstition, fate or did we really avoided the inevitable by following the priest’s advice?.

2. A Tibetan monk predicted that if I survived I would become “somebody” one day. That could only happen if I worked hard. This made me want to work hard and I did. If I did not work hard I would not be what I am today. All the hard work I did and the rewards I received can be the result of the returns from the good my parents have put in for me. My wife and I will continue to help others as our way of life even if no big deals come to us, no big evil will either. It is difficult to relate one event to another but we know the relations exist and that is good enough for us to continue to be helpful to others. I never worked for many of the achievements and bouquets given to me. I never expected any of them. This must be Providence’s way of acknowledging what we have done.

Superstitions & Negative Beliefs.

I believe what I am going to say here is still being practiced by many, especially the senior citizens, as part of our culture, tradition or religious beliefs. My Mother was a strong follower of Buddhism. She did not like to slaughter life animals for food and ate only vegetarian food at least twice a month. My father abstained from beef. My Mother released pigeons during certain religious festivals and we do not eat birds. In the family the meat we ate came from fish, pork and poultry. Only the chicken and the ducks had to be slaughtered and this was done by the maid. During the war years I had to do the slaughtering of poultry too. Psychologically could this be the cause of my frequent illness during the war time? Or was it due to malnutrition, overwork physically and lack of medical care and medicine or all? This question was never asked because there were no means to prove one way or the other. The fact was I was real sick and my Mother was not really comfortable either. Our Mind can play a lot of tricks on us if we do not know how to control it. I have learned to control my mind in various ways since.

Other events that add on to these superstitious beliefs include the following incidents or coincidences.

1. My second brother died when he was two years old. Apparently he was bitten by our pet tortoises. He developed a fever from which he never recovered. The 4 tortoises were sent to the Ayer Item Temple in Penang. My Mother vowed not to eat tortoises after that.

Later my grandfather was down with cancer and he had to drink turtle soup. My Mother had to be the one to boil the soup over a kerosene burner. The kerosene burner exploded and three persons caught fire, my Mother, my cousin and my brother. All three were admitted to the hospital with severe burns. My cousin died within two days. My grandfather died two days later while my Mother and brother were still in hospital. Fortunately they recovered. This was a terrible experience which is hard to forget especially the scene at that time of the fire and the screaming. This event left a very big impression on us all, especially my Mother. What really happened? Different people gave different interpretations but we cannot escape from the superstitious belief that a vow had been broken. Turtles and tortoises are related and my Mother should not have cooked the turtle soup herself.

2. When I was a forensic chemist I had to help in the scientific investigations. These included matching blood of the victims or suspects with those found on the exhibits submitted by the police. I had to take blood samples from some “accused murderers” who had stabbed their victims to death with knives. At one time I could not understand why some of these “cold blooded murderers” shivered and trembled when I pricked their fingers with just a tiny needle when they could use a knife to stab another man to death. I expected murderers to be tough guys. I was wrong. Some were not murderers with intention.

These cases usually happened during important Chinese festivals, especially during the Chinese New Year period. Most of these people were from the Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates where they live very close together. Many wanted peace and quiet by themselves when they sent their “gods” away for the New Year or welcome them back after the year has begun. Any misunderstanding, however small, could be interpreted by some to disrupt the peace and bring bad luck for the year. So strong is this belief among some people that they can loose their cool or control of themselves by doing things which they otherwise would not have done. They even commit murder without them realizing it, something way out of their character. .

3. When I was Chairman of the Citizen’s Consultative Committee of a certain constituency I had to help the Member of Parliament ( MP ) to attend to the needs of the people there. Whilst it is not possible to meet all requests from the citizens because of our laws and regulations there were certain requests we could ignore only at the risk of hurting members of the constituency. I am referring to the culture of our people due to their different religious and racial beliefs. We are a multi racial and multi religious society. Every citizen, especially the community leaders must respect other people’s beliefs and not ridicule them. We expect our grass root leaders’ personal sensitivities to be respected by the people too but this sometimes does not happen.. Respecting each others’ beliefs is always a challenge everyone of us in our multi-racial and multi-religious society constantly faces.

Besides the racial and religious beliefs and practices other human requirements like attending religious festivals, weddings and funerals etc our grassroots leaders have to give “face” by attending the functions they are expected to attend. There are many of these functions for grass root leaders to attend. Grass root leaders, who are volunteers, have to balance their time to attend to these activities with passion and sincerity without hurting the concerned parties. To the materialistic society we are fast moving into, how to get enough people to continue providing voluntary social and community service without self interest will always be a challenge to us all. To keep ourselves as a united community we must enjoy the trusts of those we work with by working hard and showing good examples of ourselves. Be sensitive to other’s beliefs and practice besides their needs as some of our dedicated grass root leaders do. Make out a list of the things we must never do. Respect each others’ beliefs and do not practice the “Do as I tell you but not do as I do” approach. Do not act as if you are the only clever one around the joint. This is tantamount to insulting other people’s intelligence, an act which is not acceptable in modern times. In a multi racial and multi religious society we must always be aware of this if we want to keep our peace. This cultural and religious divide is not easy to close. Special effort is needed to keep the gap small. Added to this we have to keep the gap between the rich and the poor manageable if we are to keep the peace we have and need. Remember every action from us counts. This is a secret that others can learn from us.

Do good to others and good will come to you.

Dr. Lee Kum Tatt

Secrets of Singapore’s Success

Many reports, articles, and books have been written glorifying the success of Singapore. These writings describe how tiny Singapore became great in so many ways to the envy of many, pride for some and embarrassment for others. Many have asked what is the secret to this success. Different people will give you different stories. The fact is that their combined contributions made the difference. This tiny red dot with a multi-racial and multi religious society have been living together in peace and built a city state with a high quality of life. We have made every individual’s action count. We have won our political freedom from the colonial masters. We have gained much ground in our fight against poverty and disease. We must ensure that we do not loose too much of our peace with ourselves, our neighbours and with the world in doing this. This is something we must continue to do now and in the years to come. We can share with the world that progress and peace can exist together in Singapore. If this can be done in Singapore why not in other parts of the world?

I came to Singapore more than 70 years ago as a child.

My husband, Dr. Lee Kum Tatt (LKT) came to Singapore 60 years ago to study in the Raffles College and we stayed here since. Many people helped and guided us. We like to think that we have also done the same to many in return during our life. LKT brought up a number of successful persons in their professions and careers. I have taught many students who are successful citizens of this country. LKT enjoys doing this and is concerned that this public spirit of helping others is being eroded in our fast changing materialistic society where people want rewards before service. He thinks this is a pity. When he was younger he shared his knowledge, experience, time and opportunities with many who are still his friends. He treated them all as his kin.

Now that he is eighty he decided to enjoy life in his golden years. He still has much to share with others. So we have persuaded him to share with us whatever he still has and still can give as part of oral history from the horse’s mouth.. Read the articles in his blog. They represent his personal views, values, experience and knowledge given freely and happily. This is the important part. Take them for whatever they are worth.

Engeline Lee Eng Nio

Monday, September 17, 2007

Education in Singapore

Singapore has not done too badly in Education over the last fifty years. What we have now is the envy of many other countries. But Education is a continuous process and we still have much to do to carry on our journey. What were some of the important events that happened; how did they happen and what did we do? If we know some of the answers to these questions they will help us have a better understanding of our Education system and our own role in the process.

Education means different things to different people. Depending on who you are, you will have your views about Education and how it should be treated in so far as it affects you, your family and your fellow citizens. The common questions asked include the following:

a. What does Education mean to you? What do you want to be educated in?

b. Modern Education seems to ask the following questions. Is Education

(i) a necessity you need for your job.

(ii) an opportunity or something essential for the future,

(iii) an investment for better returns in terms of income, better jobs or social status for the individuals and the nation as a whole? Or

(iv) a business to be promoted for Singapore to become a knowledge based economy and an Education centre?

c. Personally what do you want to be educated in and for what purpose? What must you do to achieve your goals? How much are you prepared to sacrifice in terms of financial and opportunity costs for your education.

d. What are the motivating factors that will make you do what you have to do?

You will have to answer these questions yourself. I will share with you my personal experiences in the various positions I went through with my limitations, the changing environment and motivating factors. We share many commonalities and differences from which we can learn from each other. How did we, I and my family, together with some of my colleagues and friends, cope and escape from the poverty trap? We avoided being condemned for life as part of the forgotten generation because of conditions we thought were beyond our control. These conditions include foreign domination, interferences, colonialism, war, internal strife between parties with conflicting interests resulting in national chaos. Every one of us has a role to play. If we make our contributions together we can make a difference. What matters most is our attitude. Education is the building up of human capital. It is not the job of one man alone. It is a collective contribution from everybody. The resulting benefits must not be confined to only a few and their families but must benefit, and seen to benefit others too, our community, our country and our fellow men. There can be no peace if poverty is not checked.

Education Policy in Singapore during the colonial era

There was no education policy for development in Singapore and Malaya during my grandparents’, parents’ and my own early days. British policies during the colonial period in Singapore and Malaya were meant primarily to serve British interest. The demand for education was not widespread because of the cost which the poor could not afford. Parents prefer that their children work to supplement household income or do household chores, especially the girls. Still the supply did not meet the demand for more education. Under these conditions voluntarism had been an integral feature of British colonial education policy. The colonial government only set up a few primary and secondary schools for those who could afford or some, like my parents, who were prepared to make personal sacrifices for their children’s education.

The various communities, especially the Chinese community, contributed a very significant part in finance and management in building up our schools and our country. This is the positive side. At one time 50 % of the school students in Singapore were from the Chinese schools. When Singapore became self governing, and later an independent country, this colonial legacy of schools supported by voluntary contributions from the communities including the establishment of a Chinese language Nanyang University created some serious problems for the Government of the day. Thank goodness many of these problems have mostly been resolved. We can look to a future where opportunities are made available to develop individuals to the maximum of their capabilities and potential with everybody playing their part. However we still have to meet the challenge on how to meet the needs of the less fortunate who cannot even afford to accept what is being offered now.

Goals of my primary and secondary Education

Both my grandparents ran away from the poverty of China in the later part of the nineteen century. They never had much education and had to struggle for their living in Malaya. They “educated” themselves on the job. My paternal grandfather became a self taught businessman with a skill he learned from his jobs. My maternal grandfather became a self taught Chinese physician with some help from a Tibetan monk. How they wished they had more education which meant more knowledge, experience and skills to make a better living. My father was very proud that he attended St. Xavior’s Institution in Penang where he obtained his Junior Cambridge certificate. Later he got a diploma in short hand dictation through private studies. This enabled my father to get a job in Medan, Sumatra as a clerk earning a monthly salary of Malayan $ 60 during the great depression in the 1920’s when there was widespread unemployment throughout the world. My father married my mother and had to live away from Penang, their place of their birth. When I was born I was left to grow up with my maternal grandparents while my parents remained in Medan. This was the first payment my parents made to give me some kind of education. They made many more sacrifices in later years to see me through my school and university education.

My maternal grandfather’s concept of education was to make me study some of the Chinese classical books where hopefully I would learn how to read, write, and count and to appreciate some Confucian values of filial piety and hard work and the need to help those in need. He kept me at home and taught me personally himself. My grandfather died when I was 7 years old. I joined an English primary school after that. My goals then were to study hard, honour my parents by doing well and set a good example for my younger siblings to follow. I never had any pressure to do well for material rewards or punishment. I worked hard on my own as my guardian, my illiterate maternal grandmother, was in no position to help me in my studies. However she gave me the moral and emotional support I needed. She made it clear to me that life can be very miserable if one is poor and illiterate. I was an excellent student and had a few double promotions in school. I sat for the Junior Cambridge examination at the age of 14 years old when the S.E.A. war broke out. Then my future appeared to be destroyed. I lost 5 good years in the prime of my life because of this. I will share with you how I overcame some of the difficulties I encountered. My wife and friends who came from different backgrounds may see things differently. They may have different stories to tell with different emphasis on different factors that made them what they are. Whatever differences there may be we share and enjoy some common accomplishments on the projects and things we did together. That makes our working together meaningful and worth while. We have common motives which we shared.

Goals of my children’s education

When it comes to my children’s education I made sure that they understand the importance of education. Education can give them at least two good things. One is to train their minds and make them more of a human being who can think and make the right decisions and not like animals which live by their natural instincts of survival and procreation. Many animals are happy with their lots by staying in captivity and be fed like some people in the colonial days. I do not belong to this class. I do not want my children to belong to this class either if I can help it. We have to work hard for what we want otherwise we just exist.

Second, common knowledge and statistics have shown illiteracy and poverty form viscous circles which may be difficult to break. The common way we know to break out of this viscous circle is through hard work, backed by right values and attitudes. These abstracts, which are not easy to quantify, have to be learned and practiced through education at home, in schools and in our environment before their effects can be felt and appreciated.

My wife and I never forced our children to study for specific professions or occupations. We gave them the exposures necessary for them to make their own decisions with some guidance. We gave them the assurances that we will back them through university education if they do their part and qualify. I know how important this assurance can be as it was something I never had myself. I never dared to think of having a university education as my parents could not afford it. My only hope was through working hard on my own to get a scholarship which I did. After that the rest was up to me.

Two of my daughters are medical specialists practicing on their own. My son is a mechanical engineer doing his own business. They have families of their own. They and their families have many things which I never had before. My wife and I considered that we have done our job in bringing them up the best we can. We treasure the family. Our children do not have to sacrifice their family lives for the sake of their careers or occupation because they have to live up to the Joneses. But we still help out where we can. Further we hope we have imparted to our children the importance of keeping the family together. We still have our regular family meetings every week. We hope that our family will remain intact long after we are gone and that we have shown a good example of how the family can be kept together. Concentrating on the family may have cost our children opportunities to advance in their careers but we are happy with what we and they have.

As regards our grandchildren their views on education and life are very different from ours. However they are our children’s responsibilities but it is good for us to know their thinking especially when we have had experience educating others besides our own children.

Important changes after Singapore became self governing in 1959

Since Singapore became self governing in 1959 Singapore’s education system has undergone many major changes. We now have a system where many opportunities are available which never existed before. Because of the numerous choices possible it has become a problem to some. It is a system many other countries envied us for the way we try to build up our only resource, our human resource, into our human capital, through education for our future.

Education in Singapore is managed by the Ministry of Education which directs the Education Policy. Many parties from all walks of life are involved in this process. It is not an enviable position to be in where the Ministry is expected to please all the people all the time. As individuals we have to take responsibility for what we do ourselves. I think all those involved have done a good job in one way or another for themselves and the country under the circumstances. We must however continue to do more, especially for the less fortunate that still form a substantial percentage of our population. The less privileged too must themselves do their part through hard work backed by good values and attitudes to stand out and avoid being forgotten among the lost generations like some of our ancestors were. We can be in control and change some of the conditions that affect us. To those who are more fortunate, do not take too many things for granted and over indulge. Instead concentrate more on creative thinking and opening up new frontiers and not just passing examinations. History teaches us that even great empires collapsed if their people lack this. This message is still good for our times.

Lee Kum Tatt

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Education, Careers & Continuous Education

Education and careers are topics that affect everybody be you a student, parent, teacher, employer or union leader, researcher or professional including those in the teaching institutions, the authorities, or the government and the man in the street.

Everybody has been educated in one form or another, be he a medical doctor, a trained professional plumber or an IT specialist. Their income and social status may differ but everyone can be very happy in what they do. Many claim to be experts on areas they have personally worked in, or have experience in.

With the different background, different needs and expectations there are bound to be different views on how things should be done or done better, especially when they have to pay for the cost of getting their education. The debate on how to educate one self or others will always be a hot issue for many depending on the position you find yourself in.

Clashes between the interested parties in priorities and approaches, especially between the students and the authorities, the unions and the employers, and even between parents and children are not uncommon in many countries. How did we get into this position at times and how do we minimize or avoid future clashes like these for our own good and the good of our society, is a constant challenge to us all.

I have been through many of the positions mentioned above and can share with you what it is like to be in some of these positions and the responsibilities we carry. What are the questions that are normally asked and the answers that are commonly given?

This depends on your position whether you are a pupil, parent, teacher, professional, or authority or a common citizen of your society. What you expect in the form of money and status, job security etc for what you can give and what the employer or clients want in return. These include your paper qualifications, capabilities to produce results and your attitude towards your work, the mission of your company or organization and your fellow colleagues.

As we are born in different times under different circumstances our needs and expectations must be different. Nevertheless there are certain common factors that still remain constant like why do you have to educate yourself, in what areas, what are you looking for, and how are you to get what you want. If some of these questions can be answered realistically and sensibly by yourself a lot of problems can be resolved. I believe that most of the time the solutions rest with ourselves.

Instead of writing a long essay on this very complex subject I will try to share with you some of my personal experiences in the various positions I held and I went through in my life which have also affected the lives of others. For ease of reading they will be presented in separate articles with me as a student, a parent, a professional and an authority in charge of the application of science and technology in our manpower development and in the building up of some of the sectors of our economy.

Many people have touched my life and in return I have also touched the lives of many people. I hope this has been for the better under the circumstances we have to work in our days.

Lee Kum Tatt

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Why Study Science?

Anonymous said:

At times I wonder . .. without all those advances in science, will human life be less happy or will it be less satisfying. I truly doubt so.

So what have all these advancement contributed to? They simply give us more reasons to earn more, to be financially successful so that we can enjoy them. Do the poor get to enjoy them? No.

Science saves more lives but it also kill more lives.

Improvement in science without improvement in our spiritual level is basically a zero sum game.

My Reply.

You commented that:

(i) you have doubts that without the advances in science human life will not be less happy or less satisfying and

(ii) that the poor do not get to enjoy what the advancement in science contributed.

These are very general statements. The issue is not on the study of science to generate more knowledge, which is neutral. It has more to do with the our wisdom (the ability to use the knowledge and experience) individually, collectively or as a country,to make sensible decisions and judgment.

As a country Singapore has not done too badly in transforming itself from a third world country to a 2nd if not 1st world country within a span of 48 years since we gain self governing status in 1959. We should ask ourselves how did we do this and what more could have been done? This is a question which many in the developing countries asked us.

We never had much science education and its application during the colonial days. We just existed and had hardly enough to live on. Now science education has given us more to live on and something to live for. The rest is up to us.

We must never allow ourselves to kill the spirit of science, the spirit to ask questions to get knowledge which can help us move forward. During the colonial days many of us have been taught the virtue of ignorance as expressed by the poem by Thomas Gray “On a distant prospect of Edon College” It reads as follows:

“Yet ah : why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late.
Any happiness too swiftly flies,
Thoughts would destroy their paradise.
No more, where ignorance is bliss
‘Tis folly to be wise “

Gray emphasized that WHERE ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.

As I grew up I discovered that

Not all ignorance is bliss

Remaining ignorant is easy. It makes one lazy and selfish – two of human beings most pronounced and common trait. It only makes it easier for others to manipulate or control us.

After that I tried to learn how to be wise to search for wisdom with integrity and honesty for the good of others because “ When Wisdom reigns, Knowledge is Divine.”

Fewer people will be confused if we can do that.

A Science Pioneer and his dilemma.

Bakar Mansary (Canada) said :

Thank you so much for sharing your ideas with us. They are very inspiring especially for people in industrializing societies and those that are yet to industrialize, like Africa. Lee Kum Tatt has said it all. Keep up the good work.

My reply.

Thank you for your comments. I am delighted you found some of my views useful. If we in Singapore can do it, others too can also do the same, given the common political, social and individuals’ will to work together for a common good.

C.Goh said:

Thanks for sharing your views with us. I hope this philosophy and stance would be included in the science curriculum as the underlying universal principle of truth and ethics.

There is some concern that many students who specialized in science at A levels applied really with the intention to study medicine and other professional courses for better pay, and or prestige and not for the love of science itself.. This may create a talent crunch for our science and technology programmes to progress. To produce good scientists we need passionate and dedicated people. How do we encourage more people to study science for science sake?

My reply:

Thank you for your comments. Science is a difficult subject not many take to when they are young. Science should be taught more for the “spirit of science” than to turn everyone into a potential Nobel Prize winner. The spirit of science is to develop in us the longing to know, to understand and demand for objective verification. This will help us review many things which we normally take for granted without questions and then complain.

Science is a challenging and exciting profession for those who can find the beauty in it. How do we find that beauty in science? There is no difference in our finding the beauty in the spouse we marry. This will take a little time and effort but we can do it if we really want to.

The younger generation does not have to fight for their survival like some of us did. They put more emphasis on making money first so that they can have a good quality of life and a sense of security in their profession or career. When these are accomplished many will like to do what they love. We may not produce Nobel Prize winners but we can still produce scientists who can do good thing for our country and others if not for Science itself. Together they can make a difference to us all. We must create the opportunities which we lack in the past for everyone to do his best. That is important.

A science graduate has many openings for jobs which the established professionals i.e. medicine or dentistry, would not take. These include banking, business, industries and management besides many other professional specialties where people with a scientific, technological or technical background would be at an advantage. There are many of these jobs around. Our people themselves must be wise enough to know what they want and what to do.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Decisions Making By Young Professionals - Kum Tatt's views

Every one of us has to constantly make choices and decisions throughout our lives. The choices available, and the motivating factors in decision making, change with time. Sometimes we like to have freedom of choice. Sometimes we want freedom from choice. What is choice? Choices are opportunities and options open to us. Not many know of all the options available to them. We have to make decisions when we face uncertainties. What is the relationship between choice and decisions? To me choices are the options available. The more knowledgeable we are the more choices we will have. Decisions are the priorities we place on these options. The wiser we are the better decisions we will make. But wisdom takes time and experience to acquire.

Decisions come with responsibilities, something which many like to avoid. We make choices for the better or for the worse. There are no guarantees that we will always make the right choice. How do we ensure that the choice and decisions we make are the right ones? As for me I go by my conscience. Consciously or subconsciously we think about the problems. We make our mind and brains work overtime to show us the choices opened to us. Some people like to duck making the choices, especially when their decisions can result in great consequences affecting not only their lives but also others.

There are many types of choices we have to make in our lives. Some are more important than others. Choosing what to eat or where to go for a short holiday is of less importance to me. Choosing a spouse, a profession and career is very important. The choices we made or did not make affect us in many ways because of our decisions. What are the usual choices we have to make? How are decisions taken with these choices? What if we have only Hobson’s choice, what can be done to minimize the damage or help us to turn disadvantages into advantages? This article is not meant to be an exhaustive one. A better understanding of the choices and the decisions we have to make from time to time will give us a better understanding of what to expect and what to do.

Innovativeness , Creativity and Entrepreneurship

People who are not decisive often complain that they have no choice. This is not true. If only we use our mind and think hard enough we can always see many options. Whether we choose any of these options is another matter. Much depends on our own capability to handle the situations. Whenever I find myself in this situation of uncertainty and passionate enough to want something done I tell myself “I will find a way or I will make one”. This approach often works for me. Most people would not want to stand in my way when I am in that mood. I got myself out of many difficult situations and predicaments using this approach by creating new options or opportunities for myself and others. The question is how does one generate ideas or options? The process of finding new ways of doing things involves creativity and risk sometimes called entrepreneurship. Because of the risks of failure, which can be very costly, most people shy away from being creative or entrepreneurial. This is a pity. Few knew that they can be innovative by modifying and improving what are already in existence. The risks are smaller. I started my life and research career through innovation, making things better, be more productive or more safe for myself professionally. After that I progress from there.

Creativity and entrepreneurship are two different things. One can be creative without having to take much risk especially when you can find someone wealthy, powerful and famous to back you. Only a few lucky ones can do this. To be able to take personal risks involving reputation or image, career and finance which can affect not only your own life but that of your family and others requires more of us. Until the common question on whether entrepreneurship is born or made is settled there will always be controversy on how to be a successful entrepreneur. The best way is to ask those whom we consider as successful risk takers to tell their tales which may inspire us to take more risks. Our media is doing quite a bit on this now. In the meanwhile I am still trying to understand how successful entrepreneurs are made. I have to make many decisions in my life. Whether this qualifies me to be an entrepreneur is for others to decide. I have done some successful ventures and some not so successful ones. Perhaps if I am to narrate some of my personally feelings during these various stages of my life on these various projects I did, some lessons can be learned from them.

Never be impulsive in decision making.

Impulsive decision-making is not a strength especially when you do not have sufficient information or knowledge to handle what you have on hand. It is true one cannot expect to have all the knowledge one needs before he starts to decide. Most people will have the knowledge and skill to do the routine. When you have something out of the ordinary what would you do? When I was a young professional officer (a Chemist), I had to muster everything I had to trouble shoot and provide the solutions. We were judged by our ability to solve these problems. This differentiates the men from the boys. I have done much trouble shooting when I was young. I did not have much guidance in the colonial days. Examples of some of the cases I had to handle will follow. This included the Barley Poisoning Outbreak in Singapore in Sept 1959 where 8 children died and many were hospitalized and Singapore panicked for a few days. I have reported this incident in my blog on 9th July 2007. Having to make decisions of this nature can be quite nerve wrecking.

When I became head of department and chairmen of some statutory boards the decisions I had to make were very different form those I had to make as a young officer in the laboratories. I will say more about this subject on how to differentiate between policy and professionalism in my later articles. This issue, if not properly clarified, can cause a lot of confusion between a professional staff and his non professional manager. Where do we draw the line between professionalism and policies in decision making to avoid unnecessary frustration between all concerned and hinder the development of multi-disciplinary institutions which we are building.

Lee Kum Tatt

Decision making by young professionals- Mrs Lee's views

When Kum Tatt was a young chemist in the early 1950’s he, like many others, liked to give of his best. He was quite idealistic. He could not understand why he was not allowed to do many of the things he liked to do which he considered as good for his work and for Science itself. “Research” then was supposed to be an activity which was to be encouraged but for some reasons or other never had the official support it deserves when it comes to funding and doing the projects. Kum Tatt had to devise his own ways and means to overcome these difficulties. He had the stamina and passion to pursue what he thought was right. He managed to publish many papers in international scientific journals without having to apply for special research funds for his work. How did he do that? It was tough going in the beginning but Kum Tatt managed to establish his credentials and had his approach accepted. He received a few thousand requests for reprints of his work even in the 1950’s. With time this helped him established himself as an authority in certain areas.

Even today some young professionals still find difficulties to get funding and support for their research. It is not uncommon to blame others for this. Perhaps the initial approaches are not correct. The researchers’ credentials are not yet established to command the trust and support they deserve. Who’s fault can this be? How can this be corrected ?

Being the first hospital physicist in Singapore and the only local lady University don in physics for many years, I experienced the same difficulties in getting funding for the research or work I wanted to do. I had to find my own way in helping myself and others in doing what I wanted to do. I spent several years helping SISIR in building the Non Destruction Testing facilities and the industrial application of radio isotopes in Singapore to meet the needs of our important metal, aerospace, refineries, shipbuilding, construction industries and even our PSA (Port of Singapore Authority). Today Singapore has the strongest Non Destructive Testing facilities in the region and many of our graduates are employed in these activities.

Kum Tatt ensured that I was not paid a single cent for my work. I benefited by the practical experiences which improved my teaching and had a few publications on my work in this area. This was done through the cooperation between SISIR and the University. If only more university staff could step forward, more could be done.

Perhaps we should study one of Kum Tatt’s quotes which guided him throughout his life. His quote is:

The world does not care for what you lack
It is interested only in what you have to offer.

People will pay only for what we have to offer to meet what they need. Do not expect too much before you deliver. The element of trust has to be developed. Kum Tatt’s article which follows is useful in this respect.

For me the experience of having to work with SISIR and others stretched me intellectually, professionally, emotionally and even physically for a lady but it gave me a career which is well worth the effort it takes to succeed.

Engeline Lee Eng Nio
(Mrs. Lee Kum Tatt)

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Common Sense and Your Blue Roses

NUS Commencement Address
9th July 2006
By Dr. Lee Kum Tatt

“Common Sense and Your Blue Roses”

I am honoured to be with you today on one of the red letter days of your life. I can feel the joy in your hearts, be you a graduate, a parent or loved one, or a University don. I have gone through these various positions myself - thrice as a graduate and a few times as a parent and grand father. I have taught science to medical, pharmacy and science undergraduates as well as supervising some M. Sc. and Ph. D. students for several years on an honorary basis. Seeing the students passing and doing well in life is a great reward by itself. Education is a noble profession and a good practice.

To the graduates I congratulate all of you for choosing Science as your specialty. Science is an area where Singapore’s competitiveness and future will depend. Many have contributed much towards making Singapore a science hub. You have been taught in one of the best Universities in the world, the NUS. You should be proud that you have joined the rank in being a man of Science in our new world.

Immediately after Singapore’s independence in 1965 it was decided that Singapore should go for a knowledge based economy with Science as one of the main pillars. Singapore’s only resource – the human resource, must be developed. The Singapore Science Council was formed. As the founder chairman of this Science Council I had to figure out how to tap, organize and expand the scientific human resources we had then and to build the infrastructure needed to help in the national development of Singapore. Our financial resources and network then were limited. It was quite a challenge for me and my colleagues to have to decide on what to do. I am sure you the graduates also have this very challenge in front of you now. What are you going to do now with what you have to give to get what you want?. Your future is in your own hands. You can start by taking a job that will require your science training and do the routine work that has to be done. If you want to progress faster and be able to do some of the things you like to do, you have to be different. You have to be innovative, creative and courageous. Like joining the university; if you did not attend the university courses you definitely will not get a University degree today. Even if you attend the University courses there was no guarantee that you will get the degree. Today you have shown that you have that X factor in you which drives you to take risk and you passed. Continue to have faith in yourself and dare to be an entrepreneur if you want to progress in the modern world. Your science training will stand you in good stead.

In the 1940’s science comprised of only Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. They are called the Exact Sciences. Today everyone is a scientist except a few artists who still take pride in belonging to the Art fraternity. Today we have the medical, biological, engineering, economics, social , political and even domestic scientists. The Exact Sciences which you have been taught involve the study of the chemical and physical nature of matter. You learn to ask questions on why, what and how things happen. You studied and develop laws, hypothesis and concepts to explain what you observed. Your experiments must be verifiable and reproducible.

The other type of scientists concentrates more on the study of the nature of Man and his behavior, a more unpredictable subject than the Exact Sciences. They also have their own laws and theories to explain what they think is happening around them. You know the economists’ law of diminishing returns. Do not put money in certain investments if you want to make more money. These non – exact scientists concentrate more on with whom, where and when to make things happen. For example many businessmen discovered the importance of the law on “Kwan Si” or good human relations. It is not what you know alone that matters but whom you know that counts. How can you take advantage of this law and with whom? Unlike the exact sciences these other laws border more on common sense. They exist and they affect you.

The exact sciences develop your I.Q. which you have. You need to develop your E.Q. further to get on in life, to work with others as a team and to rise from there.

As an Exact Scientist pursue your interests by all means. Be a pure research worker and try to learn more and more about the nature of matter. However do not neglect to understand the laws that govern the nature of Man if you want to succeed as a citizen of the world. With your scientific knowledge coupled with some common sense you will have a great advantage over others in the modern world.

When you are an undergraduate you have to do what you are told. So long as you can reproduce the results on experiments established by others (cook up some results if you have too) and reproduce in the examinations what you have been taught you will pass. When you do your Masters or Ph. D. degrees you will have to produce something “new”. You learn to innovate, to produce a modified compound or formulation, a better process or a better product. This training in research will give you a good grounding on how to “innovate” in your coming profession or career. How to progress beyond that to the creativity and invention stages requires much more. You have to know your own strength, what you are you at, and find your own niche. You have to find your way or have to make a new one to get to where you want to go. This requires common sense and courage which has to come from you. Believe you me it is great to be able to reach there.

I like to tell you two stories on how I use my common sense backed up by my scientific training to achieve what have to be achieved.

Story No. 1 First Law of Common Sense

The world is interested only in what you have to offer.
It does not care for what you lack.
Lee Kum Tatt

When we started to build our science infrastructure and manpower Singapore needed a lot of outside assistance in expertise, training of our people and finance to buy equipment. Singapore was not one of the 26 poorest countries in the world. We had no priority in getting aid from the United Nations or foreign aid giving agencies from USA, U.K., Canada, New Zealand and others. We had not only to compete with outsiders but also among some of our own local colleagues in other Ministries for these aids. Yet we managed to receive millions of dollars in aid ( foreign and local) in the form of expertise, training of our personnel and purchase of equipment in building some of our institutions which I was personally involved. These include :

(i) SISIR and the Quality Movement;

(ii) establishment of the Science Centre and the Science Park,

(iii) building the professional engineering and architecture departments of the Singapore Polytechnic which have now become the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Architecture and Building of the NUS.

(iv) Building of the Singapore Polytechnic and its technician courses.

These organizations have paved the way for the implementation of many new institutions, projects and schemes. These activities have played a highly contributive role and formed the essential foundation towards the making Singapore what it is today through the application of science and technology and the net working among the important segments of the country. They have created many jobs.

As graduates you are part of this system and you are expected to play your role to ensure that this system continues to grow for our own good and the good of our fellow men. For manpower development Singapore now has 4 very good Universities compared to the two small ones we had in the 1960’s. We have five Polytechnics instead of two in 1965 for the training of technicians. The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) is producing the craftsmen we need.

How did we get the assistance we lacked? We applied the First Law of Common Sense. We did not expect to get something by doing nothing. This is against the First Law of Thermodynamic. You cannot get something out of nothing. We discovered and offered to the aid agencies some of the things they wanted. We created projects which produced results which could also benefit other countries in the region and which the aid agencies were looking for. We offer what we had and we delivered what we promised. We never begged or demanded that others give us what we lack. As you start your profession and career, do not start by demanding and complaining that you are not getting what you think you deserve. Offer what you have, deliver and the rest will take care of itself.

Today we are fortunate to have the National Science & Development Board (NSDB) and now the A-Star to succeed the original Singapore Science Council. They have a few billion dollars to develop what we still lack.

Story No. 2 The Blue Rose.

Man does not live on bread alone.
He needs something to live for.

Man requires inspiration to take risks.

As Chairman of Singapore Science Council I attended an international conference in 1968 on “Science and The New Nations”. I was asked how Singapore would mobilize its people and resources to do R & D. Being a newly independent nation with no money, no natural resources, no tradition on R & D and only 1.6 million people this was a difficult question for me to answer. Off the cuff I told this story to illustrate what I proposed to do.

“There was once a small child with only one coin in his pocket. He went to buy himself a slice of bread. He saw a blue rose and he wanted it. He asked the shopkeeper whether he could have the rose as well and was prepared to take a smaller slice of bread. The shopkeeper thought this was rather unusual for a small child to want a rose when what he needed most was to have something to eat. The shopkeeper asked the boy why he wanted the rose so badly. The boy replied:

Madam , The bread is something I need to live on now. As a human being the rose reminds me that I always have something to live for. The small child got his rose and he led a full and meaningful life thereafter. I got off the hook with this story.

The moral of the story is that we must have our own Blue Roses as our inspiration. I have retold this story many times since. So I thought I should share it with you. We must have something that we love for which we are prepared to fight, sacrifice and even die for. These include our family, our special dreams, and our ideals. As true scientists our work must benefit our fellow man and not harm or destroy others by the wrong use of our work. This we must never allow to happen. My Blue Roses remind me of all these. My scientific publications and patents reflect my passion and commitment to R & D. My family is my most important Blue Rose to me. Most of my life’s work has been dedicated to the service of my fellow men. I hope that you will develop your own Blue Roses and that they will give you just as much joy, satisfaction and strength as mine gave to me. Unlike the other coloured roses that people give to their loved ones and friends the Blue Rose does not physically exist. It exists only in our Minds. You have to create them yourselves in your own minds. What are your Blue Roses?

Let me conclude by congratulating once again the graduates, parents, guardians and the university staff for a job well done. To the graduates with your newly acquired capability to offer what the world wants and with your own Blue Roses you should be able to have a bright and rewarding future.

Thank you , Gook Luck and God Bless You all.

Lee Kum Tatt
4 August 2007

Friday, August 3, 2007

Application of Laws of Chemistry to Our Everyday Life

This Article is Meant for Amusement

This is part of a closing ceremony speech which I delivered at the first National Chemistry Week held on 23rd June 2007 at the NUS. The audience included members of the public, students and personnel of firms that had participated.

I am greatly honoured to be here to perform this closing ceremony for the First National Chemistry Week. The event is a great success. My grandchildren and friends told me how much they enjoyed themselves. My adult friends told me they enjoyed their visit to the Breweries, especially the free beers. Many Singaporeans know more about Chemistry now and what it can do for them.

I like to congratulate SNIC , the President Prof Andy Hor, the chairperson of the organizing committee Dr. Leong Lai Peng and all those involved for a job well done. I know how much work is involved. Let us give them all a big hand.

NUS has produced a brochure on Chemistry, The Central Science. I wish I had a copy of this brochure before I studied Chemistry in the University. I recommend those who are interested to study Chemistry or Science to get a copy of this brochure. It tells you everything you need to know about Chemistry. What you can learn, the courses and research activities now available, what the Department of Chemistry is like and even what you can expect your future to be with Chemistry. No one showed me this crystal ball during my time. I groped around finding my own niches.

Aim high with Chemistry. Hitch your wagon to a star. Chemistry and Singapore A-Star are good stars to hitch to. Your rewards are the “pies in the sky” that you can get. I am not here to sell you Chemistry, the magic pill that can cure all your ills. However I like to share with you the pleasures I had and enjoyed with Chemistry throughout my life. Chemistry has been my great teacher. Chemistry has taught me one great thing. Always make the Chemistry right and all will be well. Who are the best people to do that, making the Chemistry right, the Chemists of course. The theories and laws we study in chemistry are universally applicable if you know how to apply them. Let me give you some examples.

We have boys and girls everywhere; in our work places, in the universities and our communities. They are biologically compatible, they like to get married and yet many do not get married. Why? Even our government is worried and they have set up the SDU. The answer is quite simple. They have not got the chemistry right! Without getting the proper types of people (molecules) together, ensuring that the environments (the media, the pH, the temperature, the pressure, the catalysts required and the 5 C's etc) are right, no reactions will occur. I applied my knowledge of chemistry when I was courting my wife. It worked. I am sure you can make it work too with a little help from your knowledge of chemistry. This special reaction has to be done by you, yourself unless you can accept an arranged marriage with its attendant difficulties. Chemistry graduates can make good marriage counselors.

Making the chemistry right for people to cooperate with each other is very important and is good business. With proper networking we managed to get thousands of people to work together and raised millions of dollars for the various projects we did. If you can make the chemistry right, you can get what you want. Some people classified fund raising and marketing as an art. I believe it is more of a skill in chemistry where chemists can do very well. The Department of Chemistry should consider teaching this skill as a specialty and a topic for special research. Chemistry has discovered thousands of ways to make difficult reactions work. Why not apply this knowledge to solve real life problems. I am sure this will be a very popular course.

The chemists must not confine themselves to the laboratories alone. You cannot think outside the box when you are inside the box. Get out like what has been done during this National Chemistry Week. You are also needed outside the laboratories where you can catalyse and initiate actions that affect the lives of others. I know my grandchildren and their friends are very impressed by the activities you showed them.

Mathematics used to be the Queen of Science. Now, Chemistry is the King of Science. Its laws are universally applicable to so many things. As chemists we are proud of that. Chemistry has served us well. Let us support our King to deliver what is expected. Know more about chemistry, you can’t go wrong.

Lee Kum Tatt

Dr. Lee Kum Tatt blogs too

Dr. Lee Kum Tatt blogs too
By Elia Diodati

“The world does not care for what we lack, It’s interested only in what we can offer.” - Dr. Lee Kum Tatt

I read yesterday on takchek’s blog that one of Singapore’s most prominent scientists, Dr. Lee Kum Tatt, now has his very own blog. Who is he and why is he prominent? The citation for his 2005 NUS Distinguished Alumni Award explains why.1
As one of Singapore’s very first homegrown scientists, Dr. Lee has chosen to write some form of informal memoirs on his blog about why he chose research as a career. The forwards by his wife Engeline and his friend Tan Kin Lian are often quite touching too. I found all of it to be very absorbing reading, such his vision for the RISIS gold-plated orchid, for which he must have struggled mightily against what appears to have been a ubiquitous climate of FUD and pessimism.

In particular, I found his experiences as a professional chemist in the final days of British colonial rule, resenting insinuations that the locals couldn’t possibly be as smart as proper British scientists, and always having to sit down and shut up, particularly noteworthy. If anything, Dr. Lee’s narratives confirm the existence what I have long suspected to be the pervasive colonial legacy of a collective inferiority complex that I have found to exist in contemporary Singapore.
We need people like Dr. Lee who dare to challenge the status quo when it is necessary to do so. For this reason I recommend all my readers to browse his collection of little vignettes.

Prime Minister’s Office (Singapore), National Honours and Awards, 8 August 2006
National University of Singapore, NUS Science Alumni: Distinguished Alumni Award 2005 - Dr Lee Kum Tatt, BBM, PPA(E), PPA(P), 22 May 2007
Lee Kum Tatt, “Ask the great questions“, 14 April 2007
Lee Kum Tatt, “Making The Incredible Credible“, 1 May 2007
Lee Kum Tatt, “Challenging Selected Myths“, 20 May 2007
Lee Kum Tatt, “My passion for research“, 5 June 2007
Lee Kum Tatt, “Fighting Boredom and Insult“, 6 June 2007
Lee Kum Tatt, “Research During The Colonial Days.“, 11 June 2007

In his citation, Dr. Lee’s name carries the honorifics BBM, PPA(E) and PPA(P), which respectively stand for Bintang Bakti Masyarakat, or The Public Service Star, Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Emas), or The Public Administration Medal (Gold) and Pingat Pentadbiran Awam (Perak), or The Public Administration Medal (Silver).↩

Why Blog And For Whom?

Some of my friends and my family feel that I have done something in my life which can still be of benefit to others. Twelve years ago my wife and I started writing our memoirs meant for our immediate family only. This decision still stands. Now I have been persuaded to share some of what I have written on my thoughts and experiences with others.

What Science can do for us.

When we were young we learned, promoted, taught and applied science for our own development and that of our fellow men and Singapore. In the process we touched the lives of many people and vice versa. We have plenty materials in the form of printed matters, scientific publications, reports, magazines, newspaper cuttings, published speeches, keynote addresses, photographs etc on some of the work we did. The interesting part is not the compilation of our publications or the collection of photographs but the discovery of what motivated us to do what we did. How did we overcome the many uncertainties and obstacles we met on the way? In this process we got to know ourselves better; our values, our philosophy, our culture and even our character. In short we learned what is important to us and to others too. These are abstracts which are difficult to define but important to know so that we can conduct ourselves better to achieve the peace we want with others and our surroundings. We learned the science of human nature (the nature of Man) which we were never taught when we were learning the hard sciences (the nature of Matter) like Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics and their applications. We tried to integrate the two sciences to lead our lives. It has been satisfying.

We have gone through the changes of a science student, teacher, research worker, manager/administrator and beneficiary of science. Every metamorphosis change creates uncertainties and can cause crisis of varying degree to different people. To many they like to know how to handle their middle age crisis where their families’ interests also come in. To some a change of research topic or job can cause them a lot of disruption and discomfort. To others even holding on to their job becomes a bore and a chore. How I wished that I could have someone with experience to tell me what to do, to expect or not to expect when I was going through these changes. At least I am comforted to know that I am not alone in my “sufferings”. Others too faced similar problems. They survived with their “never say die” attitude strengthened. We should be able to do no less. I found this often works for me too. It is for these reasons, and these reasons alone that I was persuaded to contribute to this blog.

The subject I will deal with in this blog will essentially be on S & T and how its learning and application can affect our lives as we and others have experienced it. It is not easy to write articles to cater for such a wide range of audience from students to practitioners and all those affected by the ever changing scientific environment we are in. I am now in my golden years (80 years) and I have no “koh yeok” ( Chinese medicinal plaster that is supposed to relief most pains) to sell. So please read my articles for what they are worth.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Our Philosophy - Science For Everybody

Our philosophy was that Science affects everybody, therefore science must be made to be everybody’s business for the betterment of our society. Many of us at one time or another have encouraged others to engage in positive activities with passion and commitment to make their contributions. How to make people accept this approach has always been our challenge.

It is part of human nature to want to do some good deeds for others, to be noticed, respected and accepted by our peers and members of our community. We have to give our people opportunities to do this in their own way. In return we must give credit where it is due and show our appreciation and recognition for the contributions our people made. What we could give in return was not much but it was enough to attract many to participate in our various programmes and projects.

Not every one celebrated when Singapore became an independent nation in 1965. Many were really worried about the future. The challenges we faced were formidable and daunting. Political freedom alone would not provide us with the type of life we want. Political freedom with all the slogans of the day could not give us freedom from poverty and diseases. We could not even get jobs during the Japanese occupation and immediately after the war. Political independence is great but how are we to continue to survive and pursue the ideals as represented by our National Flag? .

Independence was a real wake up call for many of us. We could not accept certain conditions. We were too proud to beg or to live on charity. Many of us have lived through World War II and its aftermath. We knew what things were like at its worst. We survived and were confident that we can do it again. We must not fail as this would be a let down to ourselves, our families, our ideals and our country. We could not live with ourselves if we fail. This was the spirit that kept many of us going.

We realized that unlike the newly developing countries the rich and powerful nations have highly developed science and technology (S&T) capabilities which they applied successfully for their economic and national development. S & T resides in human beings. We can build our S & T capabilities by building up our human resources. This was made one of our national priorities, the development of S & T manpower.

The next important thing is to make our people work together for some common missions. In tiny Singapore making people work together should be easier than in big countries. This made Singapore what it is today. How did we do it? This is best illustrated by the individual successful activities, projects and institutions we have built. In this many people are involved and they have their own tales to tell in every case.

If these people can tell of their experiences, their challenges and their feelings of success they will help encourage and inspire others to do the same without undue fear of failure which often is the cause many are held back from action.

Yes, it is true that when something becomes everybody’s business, it can become nobody’s business. Singapore is good in getting important parties to work together. We need more people who know how to do this. Having high IQ individuals alone is not enough. We must have people with good EQ besides being street wise so that we can be accepted and trusted by those we work with. We also need more people who are passionate and dare to do what they believe in. This is something worth striving for – more quality people and not just more people alone. Some of the projects we did and the challenges we faced will be discussed in the coming articles.

Lee Kum Tatt

Importance of Philosophy in Development

Dr Lee Kum Tatt believes that to start anything new and worthwhile one must have a good philosophy to start with especially when one has to work with many other people in the process. This philosophy is required in formulating macro policies from which the changing micro policies with goals and other indicators can be planned and set. How to promote Science and Quality to the people of Singapore is something that Dr. Lee has taken the lead to do in the early days of Singapore’s independence. How to stir up the emotions of the people he served and make them commit passionately to do what has to be done is an art in itself. The promotion and development of science & technology, manpower and quality of our manufacturing & service industries are good examples of what can be done when driven by good philosophy and good leadership.

I must admit that often we could not see where Kum Tatt was heading in the beginning of some of his projects. With time we begin to see the wisdom in what he does. This is one of the reasons why we encourage him to put some of his thoughts and experiences in writing so that others may get something out of it. Take them for whatever they are worth.

Engeline Lee Eng Nio
(Mrs. Lee Kum Tatt)

A science pioneer and his dilemmas

The NUS Faculty of Science will be celebrating its 80th anniversary next year. Many friends have asked me whether I will say something about the development of Science in Singapore for the benefit of those who aspire to be scientists of the future.

Science affected my entire life and I have a very intimate relationship with it. I hope I have also done something for Science in return especially for Singapore and its people if not for Science itself. My relation with science was not one of “Love at first sight” affair. When I was a boy I was interested in science more out of childish curiosity than personal interest. I studied science on a Raffles scholarship in the University because I needed something to earn a living. A science diploma would enable me to get a good job as a teacher then. During my undergraduate years I developed an interest in research and an urge to get a higher degree. To be addressed a doctor with a Ph. D. was something I found difficult to resist. I could do it, why not? I obtained a Shell Research Fellowship to do my Ph. D.

Although Science affects every aspects of our lives not many of us know :

(i) How Science was introduced and how it helped Singapore to develop.

(ii) What and when were the significant policies introduced?

(iii) How were these ideas and policies implemented; who were the people and sectors involved and who contributed to it?

(iv) What were the impacts these actions had on Singapore?

(iv) What is the present position of science like and what can we expect of the future?

(v) What can others learn from Singapore’s experience?

(vi) What were the risks and difficulties encountered and how were they overcome?

These are questions and information commonly asked for, that many would like to know. No one person can answer all these questions because each would have seen and done things differently depending on their own perspectives, capabilities, responsibilities and the environment at the time.

However most people will agree that Singapore has not done too badly given the environment and the limited resources it has. Indeed others can learn something from our experience. If more of our people can come out and tell their own stories and organize themselves we may have something to show and teach the world on how we industrialized our country in less than half a century something which Europe’s Industrial Revolution, with all its resources and political power, took more than two centuries to achieve.

Technologies and the environment may keep changing but there are some basic values which made us what we are as a people. These include our culture, our ideals, our philosophies, our traditions and the things that make us proud to be what we are. We must never lose or change some of these basic values we possess. We must identify what these are and strengthen ourselves wherever possible. This is what made certain societies strong and great.

Most of these basic factors are abstracts which build our faith, our confidence and our trust in ourselves and in our fellowmen so essential for any society’s stability and strength to grow. On the macro policy level we must avoid brushing aside everything in the name of pragmatism and the need for change. This can be dangerous to our society as a whole in the long run. The micro level like culture and values which affect many on the ground are just as important.

We are occupied with ephemeral interests like promoting science, training the necessary manpower for jobs, building the institutions and making money by helping our industries and our country grow.

Fifty years ago not much of these activities were done. Some people may laugh at the things we did just like some will smile at the attempts of the early alchemists who tried to change everything into gold. People will not smile at our endeavour to build the scientific spirit of enquiry and research because the benefits are lasting. By themselves our efforts may be insignificant because we did not produce a Nobel Prize winner or a famous inventor like Thomas Edison or Alexander Fleming.

However I believe our combined efforts, past, present and future, in this direction should stand out like a lighthouse in the misty and turbulent sea of conflicting interests around us. Our ability to network and work together should form the foundation for our future and should be strengthened. I and my colleagues hope that this spirit of enquiry and cooperation will endure for centuries to come, standing serene and bright and letting its lights shine before all Man. This is my hope and my dream.

These articles are attempts on my part to tell some of the things my colleagues and I did during our time and the philosophy adopted trying to make science help in the development of Singapore. We faced many dilemmas and challenges and we solved them the best we could. It is our hope that some will find our experience interesting and encouraging if not inspiring too.

Lee Kum Tatt

Monday, July 23, 2007

Quote of the Day

On 02 April 07 I posted an article in my block on “How to be Creative”. I discovered that somebody very kindly took out a statement I made and called it “Quote of the Day.”

The quote is “The greatness of a person can only emerge when he has shown his ability to create, passion to pursue, courage to commit and capability to achieve”.

His comments were: Two questions (may be four) that might follow from the quote,

1. Do I want to be great?
2. Do I agree? Does it really have to show? To whom?


It is part of human nature to want to be noticed for what one has done. This does not mean that everyone wants to be “great”. It is also a good practice for any individual or community to show appreciation to those who have contributed or done a good deed. This is part of our culture which we should retain. Much is being done at present in this direction. The question is can we do more? Do we always know how to do what has to be done and to whom. What criteria can we adopt without causing contradictions?

We know that “Some people are born great. Others have greatness thrust upon them.” My quotation describes those who have earned their “greatness” many of whom never worked for this status. These include national awards, professional recognition, community honours etc. In the past “great” men were only recognized posthumously. I like to suggest that more of our unsung heroes who have contributed in whatever field should be acknowledged while they are still alive. This will encourage more people to be creative and contribute for the betterment of our society.

Thanks for the comments.

Lee Kum Tatt