About 20 years ago (Aug 5, 1995), The Straits Times reported then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying at the official opening of The Catholic High School's campus in Bishan:
"20 years ago, Catholic High was one of the best Chinese-medium schools. It set high standards of both English and Chinese, and enforced discipline strictly. This was why my parents decided to send me to Catholic High School."
But that was a sneak preview to what PM Lee told the Catholic High School staff and 1,800 old boys two decades later, at the 80th anniversary of the school's founding on Tuesday (Oct. 13).
Lee, who graduated with the class of 1969, said Catholic High was in fact his parents' first choice:
"More than 50 years ago, my parents decided to send me to Catholic High School. I brought home the form from school when I was in Primary Six to fill in which schools to choose to go to secondary school. And to my surprise, my paprents filled in the Catholic High School — 公教中学. (loud cheers from the audience)"
His reaction wasn't unfounded — after all, his parents were both Raffles Institution alumni. Anyway, right after that, he revealed the real reason for their choice for him:
"And they explained to me. They chose it because it was a Chinese-medium school. But it has high standards of both English and Chinese — bilingual. Also, it has strict discipline. Furthermore, it was a Catholic mission school. So, my parents were quite confident that they won't have to worry about left-wing activites (laughs from the crowd) disrupting the classes or subverting the students (more laughter). And they felt I would be quite safe in Catholic High School. And they were quite right."
The Catholic High School, which was led by the Catholic Marist brothers from the 1950s to the 1970s, were caring missionaries from France with strong moral courage. Their goal was to educate young people, especially those most neglected.
In the school's 80th anniversary commemorative book Taking the Lead: 80 Years of Bilingual Education, Catholic High expelled a student in 1954 when he participated in the Chinese Middle School students' demonstration against national service on May 13 that year.
In June, more than 70 students staged a sit-in to appeal for the reinstatement of their expelled schoolmate, with then-principal Brother Philippe receiving a threatening note to accede to their request.
Br Philippe refused to give in. By 11am, the police arrived and dispersed the group after issuing a warning. The students were expelled from school.
As a student, PM Lee was taught by another Catholic brother — Joseph Dufresse — who was at the helm for 14 years as the fifth principal of Catholic High.
The all-boys' school produced a total of 11 President's Scholars during Br Joseph's time as principal, among whom were PM Lee, former consulting firm McKinsey Managing Director for Canada and ASEAN Hsieh Tsun-Yan, former Minister of State Chan Soo Sen and his younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang.
Here's another bit of interesting trivia: PM Lee's current cabinet includes three old boys — himself, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say.
There were several Cat High boys-turned-politicians who attended Tuesday's 80th Founder’s Day dinner at Fairmont Hotel, including Parliamentary Secretary Baey Yam Keng, Opposition MP Chen Show Mao, and former Minister of State Chan Soo Sen.
You can watch PM Lee's full speech below, as he spoke about Catholic High's emphasis on values and character development and the need for Singapore schools to nurture students who are not only "book-smart, but will grow up to be citizens of good character who will contribute to society and serve fellow Singaporeans."
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* Editor's note: The author is a Catholic High School alumnus.
Top photo from Prime Minister's Office website.