Singapore Polytechnic (SP) has grown to achieve the stature it has thanks in part to its strong succession of dedicated Principals. Each has helped bring the poly to new heights. Here, we speak to four of them to learn more about their SP journey.
Mr Khoo Kay Chai
Mr Khoo Kay Chai was the first local Principal of SP and also its longest serving. He helmed the polytechnic from 1976 all the way to 1995. Looking back, he says those two decades were a challenging phase for SP, especially during the initial period.
In his 19 years as Principal, Khoo Kay Chai steered the Poly through difficult and tumultuous times, and helped establish the Polytechnic as a successful model of education for Singapore
Reflecting on his years in office, what strikes Mr Khoo as most significant is how much the entire polytechnic system, and not just SP, has evolved overall.
“It seems like only yesterday that there was only one polytechnic, and now there are five. It is a testimony to the success of poly education,” he says.
The high regard people now have for Singapore’s polytechnics is, he reveals, a far cry from his early years as SP Principal. Quoting his friend Charles Letts, who was then a member of the SP Board of Governors, Mr Khoo shares that SP was at the time, “suffering from ‘academic apartheid’, i.e., academic prejudice.”
In those years, SP was regarded as a poorer cousin, an “institution of last choice” that was inferior to the junior college and university education route. Student morale was low, with antagonism brewing over their ‘lesser’ status, as well as over concerns that their diplomas would not be recognised.
The situation vis-à-vis educators was equally challenging as it was very difficult to get skilled teaching staff. For one, the teaching salary offered was not competitive – a qualified engineer could command more practicing his craft than turning to teaching. Furthermore, a person trained in engineering was one already inclined towards that discipline, and was unlikely to take well to the role of an educator. To address this, Mr Khoo reveals that SP “advertised all over the world, across England, Australia, all the English-speaking countries, and even Sweden.” Such was the importance he placed on obtaining world-class teaching staff for SP.
Mr Khoo’s mission to establish SP’s standing was supported by the highest level of Singapore’s government, which recognised that the poly was crucial to nation and industry building in Singapore.
“The polytechnic’s Technician Diploma was very important to them. The presence of SP helped Singapore to attract factories, and to fill staff positions appropriately,” says Mr Khoo.
In this manner, SP helped fuel Singapore’s rapid and successful industrialisation, and as its reputation grew from strength to strength, morale amongst staff members and students improved. By the time of the official opening of the SP Dover Road campus, on 7 July 1979, the turnaround was complete. SP was highly regarded and morale on campus had risen significantly.
“SP had achieved a lot for the Singapore society – students and staff members could hold their heads high knowing that SP was no longer an institution of last choice,” says Mr Khoo of the historic moment.
“The official opening of our Dover Road campus was performed by then PM Lee Kuan Yew. It was a watershed in the transformation of SP into a technician-training institution fully recognised in Singapore and the region. The occasion was even attended by 25 country ambassadors!”
Mr Khoo is – quite rightly – highly credited for improving the infrastructure of SP and upgrading its education programme. Yet, those are not his most fulfilling memories of the poly he helped nurture. Instead, it is in the many successes of SP’s alumni that Mr Khoo takes the most pride in.
“Most memorable to me are the successful graduates who became entrepreneurs and businessmen. There are also many graduates who became successful University professors overseas and locally.”
Mr Low Wong Fook
SP’s next Principal, Mr Low Wong Fook, who served from 1996 to 2007, derived his greatest satisfaction from the SP graduation ceremonies. To him, such occasions commemorate the success of students being equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to excel in both work and life.
Low Wong Fook, who helmed SP from 1996 to 2007, found the greatest fulfilment in SP helping all its students realise their full potential, that they may excel in both work and life
“We aim to produce graduates who would be highly competent, innovative and versatile. They would also have sound values and be committed to lifelong learning,” says Mr Low.
“With up-to-date skills and knowledge, as well as the ability to apply those in different situations, our graduates would be in good stead in the employment race. Furthermore, sound values and the passion for lifelong learning would ensure their continued success.”
To illustrate how the Polytechnic got the students involved in applying their knowledge to resolve real-life problems, Mr Low cites the MRT Dover Station construction project.
“Many people would have thought that the Dover Station and the nearby buildings in Singapore Polytechnic were jointly developed. But this was not the case in the beginning,” Mr Low shares.
Right from the planning stage of the project, the Polytechnic aimed to align SP’s campus development with that of the station to achieve a seamless connection for the commuters. Students from the Department of Civil Engineering & Building, under the guidance of teaching staff, were first tasked to deduce the likeliest location for the station – that was before the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) disclosure of the station’s location. Luckily, as it turned out, the deduction was spot on.
Next, the students, under the guidance of staff, were again involved in working with the architects from both development projects to further integrate their designs and planning.
“For the students, it was a meaningful learning experience to see their contributions to the design, however small, being adopted and implemented. It must have been a great confidence booster!”
In his own way, Mr Low thus helped to engineer one of SP’s biggest draws – an MRT station right at its doorstep! And, for this Principal, it was like killing two birds with one stone – student development and campus development!
Mr Tan Hang Cheong
Mr Tan Hang Cheong, Principal from 2008 to 2012, built on his predecessors’ accomplishments for SP by further enhancing the student experience.
Tan Hang Cheong, Principal from 2008 to 2012, lead the way to rejuvenate the SP campus and develop new learning and study spaces, so that students may have the best learning experience in SP
“Bettering their SP experience was my motivation. I wanted SP to be a more student-centric institution with students as our focus in all we do. The rationale is simple: SP exists because of the students, and it is our responsibility to make sure they have the best learning experience in the three years they spend with us,” says Mr Tan.
Many of the favourite hangout spots on campus now stand testament to Mr Tan’s dedication to enhance how people enjoy SP. Learning and study spaces such as The Spectrum and Hilltop Library; the unique Sanctuary Garden with its charming nature-themed structures; even the awesome Skate Park, which is a first for a tertiary education institution – these distinctive landmarks can all be traced back to Mr Tan’s initiatives, and he always found great fulfillment from seeing how popular those were.
“My most satisfying moments in SP were the walks around the campus and seeing how the students loved the rejuvenated campus and the new study areas,” says the poly-building Principal.
Mr Tan also strived to help SP staff be their best, so they could in turn help students excel.
“As the leader of the polytechnic, my role was to rally the staff to work as a team, reinforce the passion for teaching and remove obstacles so that staff can do their job well.”
These efforts for school, students and staff have left Mr Tan with a treasure trove of rich memories, from sports to studies, successes to sadness.
“There is a wide range of rich memories I cherish from my own years at SP. From exhilarating moments watching students compete in a race to shedding tears with them when they lost by a whisker of time; from proud moments seeing them receiving scholarships from ministers to consoling them when they were rejected from a university course; from the quiet satisfaction of seeing staff working together to sharing their grief when one was taken away from us at the prime of her life. There was never a dull moment at SP.”
Mr Tan Choon Shian
Today, it is Mr Tan Choon Shian who continues SP’s long and proud tradition of visionary leadership. He has been the Principal and Chief Executive Officer (PCEO) since 2013 and there is much he foresees on SP’s horizon.
Current Principal & CEO Tan Choon Shian has brought together the entire SP community to jointly create the new SP vision to set the Polytechnic's direction forward
In one of his first initiatives as PCEO, Mr Tan worked on refining the poly’s vision to meet the requirements of today and tomorrow. It is a crucial element to SP’s continued success as this will set the poly’s direction moving forward.
The new SP vision is one that Mr Tan is proud to say has been jointly created after one and half years of conversations involving practically every SP staff as well as students, alumni and partners. It has three key concepts: Inspired Learner, Serve with Mastery, and a Caring Community.
Here, Mr Tan elaborates further:
“SP’s reason for existence is our students – the learner. We need to learn continuously throughout our lives so as to discover and develop our passion and purpose. SP has a role to inspire the learner to do that. This is our concept of the inspired learner.
“The second idea is about the outcome of the learning, which we express as ‘Serve with Mastery’. As a Polytechnic, we can start our learners on the path to mastery, to be the best that they can be in their chosen area. This takes practice, commitment, and pride. Also, SP’s motto is
Berkhidmat Dengan Keahlian, which means ‘to Serve with Skill’ when translated from Malay into English. We can augment that meaning further and aim to serve with mastery.
“In addition, while mastery brings self-fulfillment, the bigger purpose of mastery is to make an impact on the people around you, in other words, to serve. This ties in with the third and final idea of our vision. Caring Community is about the broader impact achieved when all SP learners are Inspired Learners who Serve with Mastery. We would have a community of people who care for each other, and who care enough to do the right thing, and to change and make changes so that we are ready for the future. The caring community could start in SP, and eventually grow in Singapore and beyond.”
SP has many strengths – reputation; goodwill from stakeholders; passion and expertise from staff; and trust from students past, present and future. Mr Tan’s goal for the poly is to further synergise all of these so that the poly can achieve even more and deliver greater impact, together.
Principals of Success
The succession of SP Principals has helped effect great progress for the poly. Now in its 60th year, SP stands proud as Singapore’s first poly, and looks forward future-ready.