The lady behind our CDIS TV programmes passed away over Chinese New Year. This is her amazing life story.

Ms Tan See Lai was also Singapore's first female newscaster.

Jeanette Tan | February 05, 2017, 03:35 PM

You probably don't recognise the name Tan See Lai.

But if you were born in the late 1980s or earlier, you might remember watching CDIS programme episodes in school — your teacher would have gathered everyone in the AV room around a TV set, and sat on the floor to watch 15-minute segments about anything from energy to Chinese idioms.

Don't recall? Try listening to the first 20 seconds of this clip:

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Even if you grew up in the time after CDIS, know that this lady can probably be credited for kickstarting the development of technology in Singaporean schools, starting from the first television sets — as well as the realisation of women in leadership in the civil service, and indeed, the corporate world.

But we digress. Tan See Lai passed away at the age of 82, one day before Chinese New Year. She was single, and lived alone with her helper in a simple but elegant house in Siglap, with a Honda Civic (and the occasional Toyota) parked in her driveway through most of her years.

A summary of her achievements

Her accomplishments in life were regrettably not noted or documented the way many of our late founding leaders' were, but they are no less worth sharing — just to name a few:

- In a time when young girls were told to stay home, maybe finish their education with secondary school, take on an administrative pencil-pusher job and find a husband ASAP, Tan went to university. In London. On scholarship.

- She was Singapore's first female newscaster when black and white TV was first introduced in Singapore. It was a part-time job for her, alongside reading the news on the radio.

- In a male-dominated working world, Tan rose the ranks to become one of Singapore's first female Deputy Directors in the civil service.

- She started the first-ever Singapore International School in Hong Kong.

- Oh, and there was also the small matter of getting notoriously-austere then-Education Minister Goh Keng Swee to fork out $78 million of the ministry's money to put a television set in every Singaporean school.

In short, Tan was one of Singapore's coolest female pioneers you never knew of, and whom you can no longer pay tribute to in person.

Now, let's expand on her life a bit.

Lost her father to the Japanese

During the Second World War, Tan was just starting primary school when her education was interrupted, like that of many other children.

Her father, who served with the British Army, surrendered to the Japanese with the mistaken belief and on their false promises of employment and safety. He was never seen again.

Relatives then took in Tan and her mother, and then fled to Cameron Highlands to see out the war, but as soon as they returned, Tan wasted no time in catching up, even as she and her mother lived on the British "Widows & Orphans" fund.

She attended Raffles Girls' School, and then went to what was then the Teachers' Training College (now NIE) to become an English teacher, with her first posting being Haig Girls' School.


Won a scholarship to study speech, drama and TV production in London

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family

It was around this time that she was noted for her exceptional expertise in the English language, and was awarded a government scholarship to the London School of Speech and Drama to study — something that was practically unheard of at the time, especially for women. Tan was the second Singaporean to attend school there.

You need to remember that this was the 1960s, around the time when most of our parents were growing up, and our mothers were told there was no need to be too educated. Secondary school was more than sufficient to land an administrative job, they would say. Leave the higher education to the boys.

And even if girls got to pursue higher education, it certainly wasn't overseas — Tan, however, pluckily boarded a one-way vessel to London completely unaccompanied, and spent three full years there before making the voyage home.

Flights back then, by the way, were insanely expensive, and were not built for long-haul — a flight to London from Singapore involved more than 10 stopovers, one of Tan's relatives said.


Came back to work for MOE

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family The only woman in the room. (Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family)

When Tan returned, she was put to work right away on the MOE's Educational Television Service (ETV). And while you will have no idea what that is or means, this is where we share that the truth is, education in the 1960s and 70s was way more ahead of its time than you might realise.

Literature classics were converted into full-scale film productions, shot and edited right here in Singapore, to interest students back then in the texts that were studied. Tan, for instance, produced and directed two educational TV dramas — an English television adaptation of the Chinese classic Lady Precious Stream, as well as a film called "The Good Earth", which won an NHK prize.

So good she proved to be at her work that she was also sent on overseas assignments around the region, producing educational programmes on science, math and other disciplines.

Here's her shooting on location in Indonesia, for instance:

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family Not bad ah, still so glam. (Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family)

Tan was also on the pioneering team who produced the CDIS educational TV programmes, which were shown in schools in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

And this is where Tan, whom you should bear in mind still did not have a degree qualification at the time, was bucking the trend and ascending the corporate ladder, until finally, she hit a ceiling.

She was not allowed to take up a directorship position because she was not a degree-holder, having on occasion related her experience to her grandniece Natasha Quek, who followed in her footsteps at the MOE:

"She told me she really had to fight for it (the position). They didn't want to promote her because she didn't have a degree, (but) she told them, 'What rubbish! This is nonsense. Why do I have to have a degree? You know I can do the work. You know I am the best person for the job.'"

And sure enough, she was the first female Deputy Director of the then-newly-formed Educational Technology Division. She would go on later to become the Director of Information Services at the MOE, after she was sent to Purdue University in the U.S. to do a Master's degree in media and mass communications, making her also the first Singaporean to study that.

Worked well with Goh Keng Swee

First DPM and Minister for Education Goh Keng Swee in 1980. (Photo: National Archives Online) First DPM and Minister for Education Goh Keng Swee in 1980. (Photo: National Archives Online)

In her roles at MOE, Tan worked so well with then-Minister for Education Goh Keng Swee that she pulled off one of what is likely her biggest and most impactful contributions to Singapore education: she successfully convinced Goh to dedicate $78 million on putting a television set in every school in Singapore.

Bear in mind, once again, that this happened in 1979 — when that amount was worth heck of a lot more than it might sound to you now. And TVs were still very expensive and clunky, but the ability to put just one set, and have just one TV room in every single school, was astounding for that time.

That move also set in motion the rapid development of technology use in education in Singapore, to the sophisticated and widely-envied system we now have with multiple computer labs, stations at various points, Wi-Fi zones and in some cases, tablets for every student.

Think of that.

And that was just her day job.


Singapore's first female radio and TV newscaster

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family

We say her work in production for MOE was just her day job, because she was also invited to read the news on the radio and TV — and she did so, on a part-time basis.

Your parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents might remember Tan as a famous newscaster, as she was the first to grace Singapore's black and white screens when TVs and live programming was rolled out across the country in the 1960s.

Back then, Tan's nieces told us, TV programs were only available for a few hours in the evening each day. Tan started off by reading the news on the radio, and later on for TV when it became available.

Some families without TV sets at home would gather at community centres to watch the news and other programmes ranging from guitar lessons (which Tan also produced) and a show she helmed called "Women's World":

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family That's her on the right, in the darker-coloured top. (Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family)

It was probably one of Singapore's first women's shows, too, and it was held in a talk-show format.

She had guests on the show and they tackled various issues or topics of interest, like shoes:

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family

And eh... table sculptures, or something:

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family

Pretty versatile studio set they had there.


And then...

She set up the Singapore International School in Hong Kong

Screenshot from video Screenshot from video

In case you didn't already know this, Singapore has its own international school, funded by our government: the Singapore International School.

There are now same-name institutions operated privately in Shanghai, Bangkok, Vietnam and Mumbai, and its campus is now located at Nam Long Shan Road and Police School Road in Aberdeen, but its very first site was in Kennedy Town, in Hong Kong.

Tan's relatives tell us that in the years 1989 and 1990, many Singaporean families were migrating overseas and there was a concern of a difference in standards of their children's Mandarin education. There was then determined a need for a Singapore international school, which offered education at Singapore standards, and which offered the same examination qualifications too.

Regrettably, if you read its brief history page on its site, you won't see any mention of her, but in those years, Tan was sent by the MOE to Hong Kong, bid for a plot of land and got the project going. She had a hand in curricula, hiring faculty and generally getting the entire school up and running, says Serene Chan, 55, one of her nieces, who is now a child psychologist.

"The funny thing is where their school — the school that my kids went to — was, (is) actually the building that she (Tan) put together for Singapore International School, which has since moved on to much bigger pastures.

And she says 'Oh you mean on that street, Kennedy Road? That used to be (next to) a pig abattoir; I had to go and bid for it but I thought, $1 a sq. ft for rental is very good, so I said never mind (the) abattoir, we will do it here.' Of course (as time passed) the world changed and the abattoir was gone in no time, but she had the foresight to be able to bid on the rent and all that. A lot of forward thinking!"

Oh and did we forget to mention that she also won two government service awards?

One was for long service (25 years), and the other was the Public Administration Medal:

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family

Here's former president Yusof Ishak pinning the PAM on her:

Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family Photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family

Practically her extended family's matriarch

There are other things about Tan that really defined her as one heck of a trailblazer — both for women in the working world and for the advancement of technology in education in Singapore — even the fact that she had her own car and drove it everywhere.

She also continued teaching English and phonetics at least thrice a week on the behest of her ex-student (professor and Head of English at NIE) roughly until the age of 72, around the time she was no longer able to drive, her relatives recall.

Her perfectionism and particularity showed in all aspects of her life — Chan shares that growing up next door to Tan, she would be forced to recite school speeches and presentations over and over again until every word was pronounced perfectly and accurately.

But at the same time, all her professional accomplishments aside, Tan's relatives say she was giving beyond compare. Despite all the things she did at work, she was somehow able to give all her nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews lifts and rides to wherever they needed to go — sending the boys across the island to army camp, for instance, no matter what time of the day or night it was.

She also organised the family's gatherings, and always prepared extravagant dinner spreads at Christmas and Chinese New Year reunion dinners — she also instructed them to go on with reunion dinner whether or not she was there this year, and poignantly, this year's reunion dinner went on as planned, with her present too, in her casket.

As one of her grandnephews Jonathan Chan, 25, a law graduate, puts it:

“I hope they will remember her as one brightly shining trailblazer in the early dawn of our young nation and a pioneering leader of our world-class education system... (and) as an example of service to nation, one who lived to perfection the quote by JFK 'ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country'.”


And that is Tan See Lai, epic Singaporean pioneer. Let's not forget the awesome life she lived.

(Editor's note: A previous version of this article was worded to give the impression that the Singapore International School has branches in other countries. These same-named schools are run by private entities and are not affiliated with Singapore's Ministry of Education. The line has been edited accordingly to reflect this.)

Top photo courtesy of Tan See Lai's family.

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