The Catholic Church’s role in nation building started long before Singapore’s independence in 1965. In the previous issue, the archdiocesan SG50 team presented some views of Catholics on the Church’s contributions in healthcare and social service. Today, we look at education and public service.


Q: How would you describe the Church’s contribution to education these past 50 years?

Dr Koh Thiam Seng, principal of St Joseph’s Institution:
Because of the wide range of Catholic schools in Singapore, the Church is able to educate young people from a wide range of academic abilities as well as faith traditions.
Dr Koh Thiam Seng, St Joseph’s Institution principal: Catholic education emphasises values.Dr Koh Thiam Seng, St Joseph’s Institution principal: Catholic education emphasises values.

While education at Catholic schools is founded on the Gospel values and is a living witness of our Christian faith, our schools continue to remain inclusive in their mission.

Perhaps the value of our Catholic education is that it is holistic and strongly emphasises the inculcation of values.

This enables our schools to form the character of our graduates who leave our schools with a heart to serve the less fortunate, the public at large, and to make a difference in the lives of others.

Besides our current president and prime minister, the other familiar names who have had the experience of Catholic education include Mr Teo Chee Hean, Mr George Yeo, Mr Lim Boon Heng, Ms Janet Ang (managing director of IBM Singapore), Ms Jessica Tan (MP and managing director of Microsoft Singapore) and many other luminaries.

Sr Maria Lau, provincial of the Infant Jesus Sisters:
The La Salle Brothers responded to the invitation by Fr Jean-Marie Buerel in 1852, as did the Sisters of the Infant Jesus who set up their first CHIJ school in Victoria Street in 1854, known later as Town Convent.
Sr Maria Lau:  The Church reassessed its role in sustaining schools’ Catholic ethos.Sr Maria Lau: The Church reassessed its role in sustaining schools’ Catholic ethos.

Like all pioneering efforts, setting up a school for girls in CHIJ demanded much hard work.

From the start, the Church of the period took a great interest in all that pertained to the faith formation and practice of the CHIJ students and children of their home. The Catholic cathedral opposite the convent was the focal point for all religious ceremonies for the convent community.

In the 1980s, the Church became aware of the need for a more proactive policy with regard to the 31 Catholic schools, recognising the diminishing number of Religious leading and teaching in schools.

It reassessed its role in terms of the guidance and support required for sustaining the Catholic ethos of schools and the quality of faith and ethical formation required for its students’ growth and development.

The Catholic Education Task Force was set up to look into this, to be followed by the Catholic Education Council, later to be replaced by a centralised service known as ACCS [Archdiocesan Commission for Catholic Schools]. These Church organisations progressively set about offering training for teachers taking on the leadership of Catholic schools and of those actively involved in faith and ethics formation.

Resources were placed at the disposal of schools and presently greater use of the media for resources is being offered to schools.

Sr Theresa Seow, provincial leader of the Canossian Sisters:
Over the years, what we have noticed is that there are a number of needy girls with NO learning issues falling through the cracks simply because they do not have the skills to help them succeed. Free tuition is not the answer as it is merely a solution to helping them pass examinations but not developing the appropriate life skills to teach them to help themselves to live their lives effectively and meaningfully.

What is important for the less fortunate girls is to help them build good habits, structures and/or routines which will raise their self-efficacy and self-management skills so that they will be able to succeed in first small measures then big. Empowering them with these life skills and self-discipline, these girls will eventually develop the volition to succeed in life and hopefully, move out of the poverty cycle.

Our Canossian schools in Singapore continue to do this purposeful work, especially with our needy, in order to respond to our foundress St Magdalene’s call to serve  them.

Public Service

Q: How do you think Catholics have responded to the call of serving in the public sector, as part of nation building, since the early years?  

Mr Tan Chok Kian, retired top civil servant who served as permanent secretary in the finance, social affairs and national development ministries, and helmed the CPF and POSB boards:

At about that time when a generous scheme for the compensation of British colonial civil servants in Singapore for loss of career was in progress, the first batches of graduates from our national university were about to graduate. These were the first Singaporeans, among whom were Catholics, who were the first lot of young public servants to serve the first locally elected government in Singapore in 1959.

It should be remembered that before self-government, there was a handful of senior civil servants in the public service. The most prominent was Stanley Stewart, a Catholic, who rose to the highest rank as Acting Chief Secretary. Others included Hon Sui Sen and K M Byrne.

These were outstanding  public servants who later continued to contribute to the early phase
of nation building as cabinet ministers.
Catholics were in all sectors of the public service, whether in the civil service proper, the statutory boards, the foreign service or other public bodies.

They played a crucial role in the administration of the government and helped significantly in the building of our young nation in the last 50 years. Because of the growth of our nation, some held senior appointments in the public service which gave them a challenging and fulfilling career as part of our nation building process.

Many belonging to the pioneer generation have since retired but some are still soldering on with heavy responsibilities, not least of which will be to point the way and guide our young generation into the future of our nation.

Mr Barry Desker, non-resident ambassador to the Holy See: Catholics have responded to public service.Mr Barry Desker, non-resident ambassador to the Holy See: Catholics have responded to public service.
Mr Barry Desker, who has a distinguished career in the public service and is the current Non-Resident Ambassador of Singapore to the Holy See and Spain, and former Ambassador to Indonesia and Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations:
Catholics have responded positively to the call of serving in the public sector. Most did so first as Singaporeans, and, then as Catholics. I would suggest that their willingness to serve was influenced by the ethos of service nurtured by Catholic schools and the emphasis on serving your fellow man, which has been a feature of the missionary outreach of the Catholic Church in Asia and elsewhere.

In the years immediately after independence in 1965, the representation of Catholics in politics, the civil service and the Singapore Armed Forces was well beyond our numbers in Singapore. This was even more so if you included those who had gone to Catholic schools.

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