Mr Khoo Kay Chai, fomer Principal of Singapore Polytechnic (SP) from 1976 to 1995, recounts the unexpected turn of events that landed him the job of the Principal of SP!
How did you become the Principal?
Yes, another story you asked me for is, “How did I become the Principal?” My predecessor, was an Englishman. His name was Ager. He was groomed to be the next Principal after Edis. In around 1971, he was recruited as Director of the School of Industrial Technology. After Edis retired in 1973, Ager became Principal. In 1976, I don’t know why, at that time, the thinking was, “Why don’t we recruit locals instead of expatriates?” That year, when Ager’s contract was up for renewal, the Ministry said, “No more renewal for you.”
He was very sad. He complained to the former Chairman Dr Toh Chin Chye, who went to complain to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I don’t know what happened upstairs. There was thunder. I was then just a simple lecturer-in-charge of Industrial Technician Certificate (ITC) courses. The Chairman called me. He was sitting in the Principal’s office, looking sad. “Sit down,” he said to me. I just sat down in front of him.
“I want you to prepare a report on SP for Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and give it to me in ten days.” “Okay, if you say so,”…I wrote a report, about poly, generally the issues that confronted the Polytechnic. Now I don’t remember all of what I had written, but I recall that one of the things I wrote about was that it was very hard to get lecturers. So whether he delivered it to the Prime Minister or he didn’t, I don’t know. Two weeks later he called me back to the office again and he was sitting on the Principal’s chair. He said, “Okay, tomorrow, you sit on this chair and start work!”
Okay, so he wanted me to sit on the chair, I sat on the chair the next day, and so that’s how I became Principal.
Before that I hadn’t a clue of what was going on. But since the Chairman said, “sit on this chair,” I just sat on the chair and did what the Principal should do. Under the rule, I was initially appointed as the Acting Principal for two years.
Two years later, the appointment for Principal was advertised. I never applied for it. On the day of the interviews, I sat on the sofa seat waiting for candidates to come for interview. So the candidates came. One of them was Dr Tay Eng Soon who later became the Minister of Education. He walked past me and greeted me. I know his brother very well. So he went inside the room for the interview. Fireworks! I don’t know what happened inside the Boardroom, then he came out. A few hours later, the Chairman called me in.
“You’re made the Principal.” That’s how I became the Principal! I never applied to be the Principal and I was not even a Head of Department at that time. Of course, there were other Heads.
After I became Principal, there were poison letters every day. Someone kept writing letters to Chairman about Mr Khoo. The Chairman called the Internal Security Department (ISD) to investigate, but they could not trace the author of the letters. Every day, every week, poison letters kept coming. It did not bother me at all.
Until one day, the letters stopped. I think the writer got tired of writing. We can only guess. Somebody must have been very jealous. Poison letter after poison letter. But in the end he stopped writing and I carried on! That was in 1976 when I was the acting as the Principal. In 1978 I became Principal. 1979 was the official opening of the campus. That’s the story of how I became the Principal.
How did you take on the role of the Principal?
You see, as the Principal, I considered it my job to find new things for the Polytechnic, new things to do. Innovative things to do - new ways of recruiting staff, new way of examining academic programmes, etc.
I was fortunate because I had the support of every Chairman of the Board. In those days, we were the only poly, and poly education was a red hot topic. The government was very careful about poly education. It was very important to Singapore. If we didn’t produce enough technicians, new factories could not open. And the factory CEOs were very good to me, because they wanted our graduates to work for them. The only people who didn’t like poly education were the students. To them, poly is second grade. Today the situation is different.
At that time, for quick response, I had to deal with the Minister directly. Generally, I didn’t deal with the Ministry of Education officials. The Minister tells me what to do, and I responded to him. It was like that, you see. From time to time I got messages from the Prime Minister’s office.
So it’s slightly different, the poly these days and the poly in the past. The good thing is, you got support for the projects. Of course the money was in short supply. At that time, Singapore was not as rich as it is today, but they tried their best to support us.
When you became the Principal, who were your main supporting people?
All the Heads. 99% supported me. Heads are very important people but my style was to empower them. I don’t put my finger into what you do unless I have to.