When Mr Chan Yeow Hwee first started his job as a teaching assistant in 1982, the buildings of Ngee Ann Polytechnic were small, boxy and plain. Today, they have been replaced by laboratories, air-conditioned classrooms and cultural centres. Polytechnic education has also evolved and Mr Chan was there to witness it.

Every day, thousands of students throng Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s sprawling campus in Clementi, pouring steadily into air-conditioned classrooms, laboratories and cultural activity centres.

But it wasn’t always like that. In the early days, the campus comprised a dozen or so boxy buildings that were only several stories high, said Mr Chan Yeow Hwee, 62, who joined the polytechnic as a teaching staff in 1982. The buildings were spread out across the grounds, a far cry from the bustle now at the current 33.6-hectare site.

Banner outside Ngee Ann Polytechnic at Clementi Road celebrating 25 years of nation building in Singapore. Image source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

“Not a single building that existed when I first joined remains. They have all been replaced by taller, larger buildings,” he said, wistfully.

“Everything has changed. Only the roads are the same.”

Mr Chan witnessed the dramatic changes in the polytechnic landscape in a way few people have, having both benefited from and contributed to polytechnic education.

As a student, he underwent the rigorous mechanical engineering course at Singapore Polytechnic, getting into the nuts and bolts of his programme.

“During my time as a student, we were trained with a lot of hands-on work, and had to learn how to operate machines that were being used in the industry at the time,” he said.

After National Service and working 4 years at the Public Utilities Board (PUB) as a technical officer where he trained his fellow workers, he realised that he enjoyed teaching and wanted to pursue it as a career. In 1982 he was recruited as a teaching assistant at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and went on to teach for the next 35 years.

Today, as a senior lecturer, he uses the latest technology, such as laptops, visualisers and software, to teach his students the intricacies of logistics management in lecture halls that can hold hundreds of students at a go.

“In those days, I remember we only had five lecture halls that could each accommodate about 80 people. Now, there are quite a few halls that accommodate more than 300 people each,” he recalled, adding that the only teaching materials available back then were chalk, blackboard and the overhead projector.

Classes in the early days at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Image source: Ngee Ann Polytechnic

But while the polytechnic’s landscape has changed, the main reason why Mr Chan continues to teach has not: the students.

Ask him how many students he has taught over the years and he shrugs. “Too many to count,” he said, with a wry smile.

He does remember one of them, however. The student, Mr Ang Kong Keng had come from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and was a bit older than the usual ‘O’-Level cohort.

“In those days, ITE students were not as good as the ‘O’-Level students. But I noticed that he was a lot more mature than the others and he seemed to pay more attention to his work,” he said.

Mr Ang turned out to be such an outstanding student that he was offered a scholarship by Ngee Ann Polytechnic to do a degree. Today, Mr Ang is now a senior lecturer, and they meet every once in a while at staff gatherings.

“I learned that there are many late bloomers in the system. Not everyone who goes through the education system will do well at the start. Everyone has to be given a chance,” he said.

Mr Chan too was given many chances over the course of his career. And one of them was to establish a six-month industrial internships programme, which he ranks as one of the toughest challenges he has had to face.

In 1998, he was tasked to spearhead the six-month industrial attachment programme for his new logistics management course.

“It was tough. Companies were not that keen, especially when you told them they had to pay the interns a small allowance. Don’t forget it was in 1998, at the height of the recession and the Asian financial crisis,” he said.

But with some persuasion, he managed to get the internships and gradually the industry came round to the idea. Today, nearly all polytechnic courses have an embedded industrial attachment component to help hone the students’ skills.

“A polytechnic education is to prepare young people for the industry. The environment may have changed but this emphasis hasn’t,” he said.

“The internship is the best experience for the students; it’s not just for the grades, but it is for their future.”

He also believes that the industry has a good opinion of polytechnic graduates, with many landing jobs at multinational companies.

But grades are not everything. He has had students who performed poorly in school but went on to excel in their careers.

In recognition of his contributions at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Mr Chan was awarded the National Day Long Service Medal by the government in 2013. After so many decades, there is no doubt that Mr Chan had made the right choice teaching in the polytechnic instead of becoming an engineer.

“I found that I liked [teaching], and I guess you can say I found my calling,” he said.

Written by: Elaine Chan

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign.

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