SPEECH BY MR VISWA SADASIVAN, SINDA TERM TRUSTEE, AT THE BACK TO SCHOOL FESTIVAL 2018 ON SUNDAY, 18 NOVEMBER 2018, AT SHUQUN PRIMARY SCHOOL
- In the 1960s – I think some of you are also in the same age group as I am, so you may remember this. The government at that time introduced the School Milk Programme. How many of you remember the Milk Programme? The grey-haired people, I think, and the ‘no-haired’ people, will remember the programme.
- I was from a very poor family – the youngest of six children. My father was working with the British Army, earning a total of $250 a month – bringing up six children. Very poor; struggling. Everything was a hand-me-down. I got shirts and everything else from my brother. I never owned a book. Everything was borrowed from friends, and there was no photocopying back then.
- So, the government decided to introduce the Milk Programme, because the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as the Prime Minister then, felt that the best thing that could be done for children from poor families was to make sure that they were healthy and they had nutritious food. Milk contained the right kinds of brain food, which some parents could not afford.
- At school, we used to have these three big buckets of milk – plain milk, strawberry milk and a third flavour, the name of which I don’t remember. We would bring our cups, stand together in front of the principal and finish the whole cup of milk. That left a very important mark on me – that this government actually cared for people who were left behind, by helping them in very practical ways. The Milk Programme did not just help me and other poor children like myself, in terms of nutrition. It also gave me a feeling that my family was not going to be left in the streets. It gave me a feeling that I belonged to a community, which was ready to help me.
A Sense of Belonging to a Community
- For many of us, we need to feel that we are not alone. When we’re struggling everyday, sometimes we wonder why we were born. Because the struggles that we go through every single day – especially as parents – it’s as if they will never end. But when an event like this happens, you are reminded that you are not alone.
- The Back To School Festival, which has been organised since 2008 – this being its eleventh year – is precisely for that reason. We organise this event not just to give financial aid, or books and bags. It is to remind each of us here that we belong to a community – that we belong to a community of people that is willing to pull each other up. And SINDA is just one part of that community; the government is just one part of that community; and that is the whole purpose of us gathering here today.
- This year, we are reaching out to the largest number of people in BTSF’s history – 2,500 people. It is not just about the monetary aid. It is about gathering everybody here together. Why do people attend mass in church when they can pray at home? Because God is everywhere, right? But if God is everywhere, then why do we need to go to a church, a temple, or a mosque? You know why? Because when you go to a place of worship, you feel you are not alone. You feel part of a community.
- So my message to you today is that we must continue to remind the person on our right and left that we are here for one another – that we are part of a community. Your son and daughter are my son and daughter. We have to look out for each other, because there are many families and many children who are struggling quietly. If you are a parent and you notice a child is struggling, don’t keep quiet. Contact SINDA. We will try our best to help them. It may not be a 100 percent, but we will find some way – the goal is that every child receives the help he or she needs.
The Importance of a Positive Home Environment
- Why is education important? Why does SINDA emphasise it? It’s very simple – without education, you can’t move forward in life. That’s why when SINDA was formed, the founders were very clear that the organisation would focus on children’s education, to make sure that every child receives the best opportunities to get ahead.
- We have STEP centres located island-wide and tutorial programmes in place. However, we realised that just because a student goes for tuition lessons, it doesn’t mean their problems are solved. The student may attend school, STEP lessons and then return home. But their home environment could be unfavourable. The parents could be fighting all the time, going through a divorce, or struggling to put food on the table. In that case, is tuition going to help the child? Tuition is only one of the many ways of helping our children. The greater priority is to give every child peace of mind. As parents, we think the children are not hearing us fight. Children have fantastic hearing. Even if you shut the door, they know that there’s tension. The children won’t be able to sleep well at night, when they know their parents are having a fight.
- Children need peace of mind. So we need to tackle not just educational opportunities, but we must help every family to have a happy life – as happy as possible, so that the children can concentrate on studying, without worrying about whether their parents are going to be separated. That’s why SINDA, especially in the last seven years, has channelled various resources into motivating and educating parents. We bring in experts to talk to parents about how they can play a more active parenting role in their children’s lives.
Creating Conducive Environments for Children to Learn
- So there are three things we need to bear in mind – just three things. Number one, children must have peace of mind. Without it, children cannot absorb knowledge. If you don’t have peace of mind and you don’t feel happy, you’re not going to learn.
- The second point is – we must create an environment where our children are excited about studying. We must make our children curious. When the child asks you a question, don’t tell them to keep quiet and study. Let the child ask you questions. If you don’t know the answers, go and find them. Curiosity is the making of a genius. Encourage our children to ask questions – it’s irritating sometimes but it’s good. We need to get our children to be excited about studying.
Setting Time Aside for Our Children
- And the third point – parents, we all need to make time. I know for some of us, it is very difficult, because we are working two jobs. But do you know something from my experience as a parent? I travel a lot for my work, but I make sure that I always spend time with my daughter. Sometimes it’s just asking a simple question. “How was school? What did you study today? Teach me.” You know children like to be teachers. They get very excited when they can teach their parents. So I ask my daughter to teach me what she’s learnt. The child’s mother can ask a thousand questions, but it makes a big difference when the father asks “Eppadi ma? School eppadi irunthathu?” [“How are you? How was school?”]. It makes a big difference, because fathers are usually very busy. So parents, we must pay attention to our children.
Coming Forward to Seek Help
- Let me end by saying this. The Back To School Festival, by gathering all of you here, is to remind each one of us – children, parents – that we are not alone. There are many Indian organisations and self-help organisations that are here to help us. Together with SINDA, The Singapore Indian Education Trust (SIET), Tamils Representative Council (TRC), Hindu Endowment Board, the HEB-Ashram, Family Service Centres, MENDAKI, CDAC – these organisations are ready and waiting to help you.
- But you can only get that help if you step forward and ask. Please don’t be shy to ask for help. This is an issue that SINDA has faced for 25 years. The people who need help are not coming forward to get help. Because if you are shy to ask for help, it’s not you who suffers, it’s your child. Please don’t let your pride come in the way of your children’s growth.
- My final point is this – every success starts with a dream. We need to let our children dream and we need to dream big for our children. The late Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam would not have been a rocket scientist and eventually the 11th President of India, if his parents did not dream very big for him. I would not be where I am if my parents did not have big dreams for me, even though we were poor. My classmate in school was K Shanmugam. He would not be where he was if his parents did not dream. Shanmugam and I, we both were from very, very poor families. And today he is the Minister for Home Affairs and Law. And we are both where we are, only because our parents said “Even though we are poor, we want to dream big for our children”. When a parent dreams big, the child will also feel that they can dream big, and they will be motivated to achieve that dream. And all of us will help turn your child’s dream into a reality – that’s a promise. And it’s also the reason why my favourite song – still – is “Munnaeru vaalibaa, munaeri endrum, thoduvaan nokkuvaai” (Keep moving forward and progressing, oh youth, and reach for the skies).