NEE SOON East Member of Parliament Louis Ng, in pushing for streaming in secondary schools to be abolished, perfectly highlighted the example of junior college teacher David Hoe (above).
Mr Hoe’s academic rags-to-riches story stands out as a potential script for a Singapore movie: Of a heartland rebel student who, rather awesomely, beat the odds to be a role-model teacher.
He was a potential flop as he scored 110 for his PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) and went into the Normal (Technical) stream, meant for the weakest students. He grew up in challenging family circumstances and fell into bad company but he turned over a new leaf at the right time to even beat overwhelming odds to be one of the top scorers in the GCE N-Levels.
There were more “hurdles” to come. He was still not allowed to do the GCE O-Levels and got the biggest breakthrough when he wrote to then-Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who intervened on his behalf so he could eventually take the O-Levels.
SCRAP STREAMING IN SCHOOLS
Calling for streaming in secondary schools to be scrapped, Mr Ng, a first-term MP, said: “There will be inequality in our education system. The fact is that not everybody is the same. But our students are not stupid and should not feel that they are or face that kind of stigma.
“We need to make sure their future is not decided by one major exam. We need to make sure that like where we live, we don’t have social stratification in where we study.
Mr Hoe’s success story must be repeated to younger Singaporeans to assure them never to give up their academic dreams. He says: “If they get the right motivation and direction, there’s still hope. I see value in young people, especially those who feel lost, and I think we should invest in them and give them hope.”
Today, he is an economic teacher at Eunoia Junior College, a well-respected youth and student leader, who had gone on exchange programmes in Harvard as well as Tecnologico de Monterrey, one of the top universities in Mexico.
TOUGH EARLY TEENAGERHOOD
He says: “People have invested in me and I want to give back. I want to teach because teaching is not just about imparting knowledge but affecting and shaping lives.”
Poor Mr Hoe. His parents got divorced when he was just a toddler. He says: “My dad was a big drinker. After they separated, I went to live with my mother; my elder brother went with my father.”
Mother and son lived in a one-room rental flat in Toa Payoh. She earned a living as a supermarket sales promoter but tragedy struck after a cataract operation went wrong and she became blind. To make a living, she took to selling packets of tissue paper and other knick-knacks in hawker centres and on the streets. Her seven-year-old son tagged along, acting as her eyes.
Life, as Mr Hoe recalls in an interview with The Straits Times, became even harder when his mother suffered kidney failure not long after; he had to take her for her dialysis sessions a few times a week. He says: “I don’t blame my mother. She was really good to me, but she wasn’t able to help or teach me. To some extent, I felt ashamed and I think it affected my studies.”
He attended First Toa Payoh Primary and he looks back on how his teacher had to “draw a chalk circle and make me sit inside the circle so that I would not disturb the rest of the class”.
With a grimace, he relates how the discipline master pulled him aside for his lack of personal hygiene when he was in Primary 5. “I remember very vividly that he told me to buy soap. I had to meet him early in the morning before school; he taught me how to wash my own clothes!”
DISMAL EXAM SCORES
When he was 12, his mother had a stroke and died. He went to live with his father and brother, then working as a driver.
His dismal score of 110 in the PSLE landed him in the Normal (Technical) Stream in Beatty Secondary School and the future did not look promising – at best, he would end up in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) if he completed his secondary education.
He further fell into bad company, and took up drinking and smoking. “I was just being delinquent,” he says. “I hung out with these people for a few months before I met the right ones.”
His new group of friends, he says, often hung out in the canteen to do their homework. They also helped to coach him in his studies.
He adds: “They were genuine and I was touched. They had a real sense of community and family which I never experienced. I realised I really enjoyed their company and I enjoyed being taught. It made me want to teach others too.”
Mr Hoe was determined to be a role-model to the younger generation. He set his mind on teaching as a career, a resolve made firmer by a couple of caring teachers and mentors
He scored four distinctions for his GCE O-Levels in 2007 and went on to Catholic Junior College, where he took physics, chemistry, maths and economics.
“Junior college was a completely different ball game. Many of the students came from good schools, were more affluent, eloquent and smarter. I had to learn how to adjust,” he says.
GOING ON TO UNIVERSITY
His hard work continued to pay off and he did well enough in his GCE A-Levels to be offered places in National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore Management University as well as Nanyang Technological University.
Rightly, he opted to study economics at NUS because it was a subject which allowed him “to express his opinions”. The teaching scholarship came in very handy and covered his student-exchange programmes to the US and Mexico.
“I realise that banking will make you a lot of money but it’s not what I want to do. I’m really interested in behaviourial economics,” he says, referring to the study of social, cognitive and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and their effects on the market.
“I feel that my job as a teacher is not just to impart knowledge but to train my students to see the world,” he says.
During his time in the US and Mexico, he would eat bread and drink water and use the money saved to buy food or have a meal with the homeless and the disaffected even though the areas he visited were often dangerous.
He even took part in a seven-day, 250km race in the Gobi Desert last year to raise a few thousand dollars for the charity.
Thanking MP Louis Lim for highlighting his success, he says: “I have a grand vision. I want to become a person who creates opportunities for young people.”
He firmly believes that “education plays an important role in giving students the tools to better understand the world”. He adds: “With that knowledge, one finds one’s place in the society and discovers how one can improve the lives of others.
“One of my responsibilities as an economics teacher is to offer students economic lenses in viewing the world. However, beyond pursuing academic excellence, they should be able to find their voice and place in making a positive impact in the community.”
TRUE LEGACY OF A TEACHER
Mr Hoe philosophically says that the “true legacy of a teacher comes from inspiring”. He explains: “Even though economics can be a foreign subject to many, I live by this belief, with a hope to inspire my students to develop a love for learning economics.”
Reiterating Mr Hoe’s rebel to role-model example, MP Louis Ng, makes his point in Parliament: “We need to make sure their future is not decided by one major exam. We need to make sure that like where we live, we don’t have social stratification in where we study.
“I know that streaming is a sacred cow and this practice has existed for many decades. Members will know that I don’t like to cull animals but, it really is time to slay this sacred cow.”
Hoe, Hoe, Hoe: The highlight of junior college teacher David Hoe’s academic rags-to-riches is simply like a Singapore dream come true – of a heartland rebel student who, rather astonishingly, beat the odds to be a role-model teacher.
Send in your scoop to firstname.lastname@example.org