When teacher and ex-student meet, the first thing that strikes Mr Leong Sing is how tall Hoong Seng Keng is now.
In 2001, Mr Leong was Seng Keng’s form teacher at Zhangde Primary. Seng Keng, then 11, barely reached his shoulders. Now, the boy is all grown up; the 27-year-old is half a head taller than his teacher.
“You used to look up to me. Now, I look up to you!” The teacher beams with pride and pats his ex-student on the shoulder. He has every reason to be proud of the boy.
This year, Seng Keng has graduated from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with first class honours. He studied Electrical and Electronic Engineering and has already secured a job as a product engineer with multinational technology firm Micron Technology.
The future didn’t always look so rosy for Seng Keng. In lower primary, Seng Keng was getting single-digit test scores out of 100 for all subjects. He went into the EM3 stream for students who were less academically inclined.
“I remembered thinking I’ll probably just graduate from secondary school with a lousy grade and go out and work,” Seng Keng says. “No matter how much effort I put in my studies, the results didn’t show.”
The late bloomer recalls struggling to understand lessons and even apparently “simple” instructions in school.
Once, a teacher wrote “see me” on his test paper. Seng Keng didn’t realise this was an instruction for him to seek the teacher out. Instead, he thought the teacher wanted him to watch what she was teaching in class with extra attention. He did. It did not help much.
“The Best Teacher I’ve Ever Had”
The turning point for Seng Keng came in Primary 5, when Mr Leong walked into his classroom.
Form teacher Mr Leong would stay back after school to coach Seng Keng and other weaker students in class. He also didn’t mind marking assessment books that the students did on their own. “He always seemed very happy to mark our work,” Seng Keng says.
Mr Leong also gave pep talks to his students. Seng Keng remembers Mr Leong telling him that there are “many pathways to a polytechnic”. He could go to an ITE and then polytechnic. Those words encouraged Seng Keng and gave him hope.
Within half a year, Seng Keng’s results showed marked improvements. From getting borderline passes, he started to score over 80 and 90 marks out of 100 for his exams. At the Primary School Leaving Examination, he graduated first in class and went on to Normal (Technical) stream in Henderson Secondary School.
Teaching, His Lifelong Passion
Mr Leong can’t remember these incidents that Seng Keng recounts so vividly. He shrugs it off as “just what any teacher would have done”.
“My job (as a teacher) is to impart knowledge to the students and give them advice,” Mr Leong says. “It’s very gratifying to know that he is so successful now. I’m very happy that he still remembers me. This is a bonus.”
Mr Leong joined the teaching profession in 1965. It was his first and last job. Even though he retired from service a couple of years back, he continues to do relief teaching at primary schools as he enjoys interacting with students. He plans to share Seng Keng’s story with his current students, and hope they will be inspired to work hard to achieve their goals.
It has been almost 10 years since Seng Keng saw Mr Leong. They lost contact when the young man entered ITE. When interviewed by TODAY at his graduation, Seng Keng credited his teacher for turning his life around, hoping to reconnect with Mr Leong and thank him in person.
“Even though the two years [with Mr Leong] were short, they really changed my life,” Seng Keng says. “If [he] had come at a later point of time, I might have more difficulties [getting back on track].”