40 years later, I remember life lessons from my principal

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By Richard Seah

The return food tray initiative, which the National Environment Agency launched last year, might not have been necessary if every Singaporean had gone to the same school as I.  At least, the campaign would not have met with the resistance it did. More than 40 years ago, it was already instilled in me that the courteous and considerate thing to do after eating at a school canteen or hawker centre was to clear the table. And not leave a mess behind.

This basic lesson came from Lim Kim Woon, the first principal of National Junior College who passed away last week. This was Singapore’s only junior college from 1969 to 1974 (until Hwa Chong opened that year) and it continues to be one of the top colleges for pre-university education. Calculating from the age of his passing on July 5 at 81, Lim Kim Woon was only 36 when he was given the heavy responsibility of grooming Singapore’s supposedly finest students.

What a fine job he did. Practically all NJC students under his care have great respect for the man – and had their lives impacted in more ways than one.

For me, the big lessons that he taught were about the little things – like having basic consideration for others. So another memorable lesson was about how to use the toilets. One morning after the school assembly, he asked the boys to stay behind. We worried that he was going to check us for long hair. Instead, he gave us a lecture on why we should pee at the urinals and not at the toilet bowls, where we might wet and dirty the seat. It was common sense.

Students remember Lim Kim Woon especially for queuing with them for food in the canteen. He also played football and other games with them. Back then, there were no sceptical comments about him putting up a wayang (show). He was genuine. He genuinely wanted to chat with us and get to know us better. Many of us are amazed that he still remembered our names decades later.

Lim Kim Woon seemed to be driven by a strong desire to impart – anything from knowledge and ideas to manners and the fighting spirit of “never give up”. And so one of the things I appreciated was the very long suggested reading list given to each of us at the end of Year I. From there, I got acquainted with the ideas of American educationist John Holt and was half-inspired to pursue a career in education. It was not meant to be. I also got to know The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris and The Waste Makers by Vance Packard, although not Bertrand Russell, whom he was fond of quoting.

Yet another valuable lesson I learned came without him saying a word. It was when I once sat in his car – although I cannot recall why I was privileged. During the ride, the car in front of him had stopped. And he stopped and waited. He did not sound his car horn, he did not try to overtake. He just waited. I was already a driver back then. He taught me a totally different way to drive.

He was said to be strict. Yet the military band wasn’t punished when we once played some mournful music for the march off after the morning assembly – in protest against something that neither my friends nor I can remember. The sight of Lim Kim Woon standing alone on the stage afterwards, staring into the blank, remains etched in my mind. I don’t think the group of “naughty” students who one day transported his car to the college lawn were punished either.

Let me end with one more anecdote. Once, some friends and I attended a classical music concert just days before the examinations and we were horrified to be “caught” by him. “Die!” we thought to ourselves. To our utter surprise, he praised us in front of the entire college during assembly the next morning. He taught many valuable lessons there – about balance in life, about not being kiasu (afraid to lose out).

For these and many more life lessons, on behalf of all your students, I salute you, Mr Lim Kim Woon. May you rest in peace.

 

Image: Straits Times