Learning > Inspiration

Life lessons from my mother

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SUSAN LONG on 28 Mar 2014

Singapore Press Holdings Ltd

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Ms Indranee Rajah, 51, lives with her 91-year-old mother, Madam Ng Yew Keng – also known as Mrs Mavis Thurairajah – in a flat originally built as Civil Service housing on the East Coast. 

 

Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah, who stood up for a constituent who was heckled online for wearing a shirt with holes, opens up to Susan Long about the Singapore she wants and the life education she hopes to impart to today’s youth.

 

AS A former school netball player, Ms Indranee Rajah knows this: “You cannot stand flatfooted in court, you have to be on the balls of your feet.” And she hopes to take this fleet-footedness to education today.

 

The Senior Minister of State for Education and Law, who is leading a national review of polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), wants to help “future-proof” the next generation’s education in an increasingly volatile world, where change lurks around every corner.

 

Paraphrasing American futurist Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock, the 51-year-old notes that “we teach our kids to prepare for their careers, but one of the things we don’t really do is prepare them for future change and how to handle it”.

 

The best way to do this, she feels, is to ensure that students get real depth and substantive knowledge, along with portable skills to prepare them for the future, like communication, leadership, resilience and adaptability.

 

Back from a recent study trip to Switzerland and Germany, the chairman of the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (Aspire), which has 98 members on various committees charting future directions for polytechnic and ITE education, is expected to present its recommendations in the second half of the year.

 

One of the early directions she is looking at is introducing more apprenticeships to deepen students’ practical knowledge. That means industry taking on an educational role, as in Europe, instead of placing the onus on educational institutions to produce graduates “all ready to be plugged into work”.

 

She cites how 10-year-olds in Germany choose either the academic or vocational path. If they choose the vocational path, leading to a wide variety of occupations from IT to banking and engineering, they join a company, not a school.

 

It is the company that pays them as an apprentice, then helps them find their school. From age 15, they spend three days a week at the company and two days in vocational school.

 

Sixty per cent to 70 per cent of every cohort in Germany and Switzerland chooses the vocational route, and Ms Rajah notes that most people view it as being on par with the academic route.

 

“To them, it is choose one or the other, it doesn’t really matter because they are both equally good routes in their eyes,” she says.

 

What struck her afresh is that an economy needs – and has room for – all sorts.

 

“You need academically strong people who like research and the theoretical part. But we also have a need for people more comfortable in a hands-on environment,” she says.

 

She is also looking into how to improve the prospects of those with skills and leadership potential – but limited education – to move up.

 

“Just because somebody does not have a degree does not mean that the person cannot be a good supervisor or manager, or climb up the organisation. The question is what opportunities are there for the person to do so through alternative means, such as professional exams or certifications recognised by the industry,” she says.

 

Another big push she is likely to make is for more career guidance, starting in secondary school.

 

In Switzerland, career guidance sessions are mandatory from age 13. They are geared towards not just burnishing university applications, but helping students discover their area of interest through a whole suite of personality tests and career coaching, which enables them to take full advantage of industry demand.

 

Life education

MS RAJAH says her goal is for students to emerge from the system with a sound knowledge of their subject area, self-knowledge about where their strengths lie as well as values such as integrity. Most importantly, she wants students to pursue the course that is right for them, not feel they must chase what others want, and be happy with their choice.

 

To her, what constitutes education is perhaps best captured in the programmes she has rolled out for disadvantaged children in her Tanjong Pagar GRC constituency over the past 13 years, as well as the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda), of which she has been president for the past four years.

 

She has dedicated herself to increasing the opportunities and exposure of these children, mostly living in rental blocks with their single mums. Apart from tuition, she tries to make up for what is lacking in their home environment through enrichment activities and outings.

 

She has paid out of pocket and roped in sponsors to take them to see musicals such as Merchants Of Bollywood and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

 

She has organised sex education camps, targeting those who, out of ignorance, might otherwise become single mothers at 14.

 

She has linked up with the United States Embassy to run basketball camps to give these heartland children a chance to mix with foreigners.

 

She has taken them to the Singapore Polo Club to learn how to behave around animals. She has even enlisted a chef to do a cookery programme, which teaches the children about dinner table settings and culminates in them serving their parents a sit-down dinner they prepared themselves.

 

Her ultimate goal: “We don’t want these children, later on when they grow up and go to social settings, to be at a disadvantage and have people look down on them.

 

“It is not the grades I am looking for, but life experience. What does it do, you may ask, to see a play? It just broadens your horizons, sparks your imagination, makes you think of things beyond yourself.”

 

Growing up without dad

THE youngest of three children, Ms Rajah says she was a late, “unexpected present from the stork”.

 

She was toddling around when her father, A.T. Rajah, retired as deputy commissioner of police at age 51.

 

He died at 54 of liver disease when she was five, her elder sister 13 and elder brother 15. She remembers the “sad, grave occasion”, the Hindu open fire cremation and lighting of the pyre.

 

Afterwards, her mother, Madam Ng Yew Keng, sold off their Braddell Heights bungalow “because of expenses” and moved the family first to a rented home, then to the nurses’ quarters at Woodbridge Hospital, where she was the principal nursing officer.

 

“My mum never mollycoddled us. She made sure that she provided for us and made time for us. But we were expected to do our part, like clean up after ourselves, make our beds, wash our own dishes,” she remembers.

 

She attended Marymount Convent Primary and Secondary, took the bus home, let herself in, helped herself to lunch, did her homework and played with her dog, all unsupervised, in her conscientious, self-regulating way.

 

At the National University of Singapore, she found herself drawn to law because it was about people, regulation, order and resolution – all of which appealed – and she graduated with a second upper honours degree.

 

The first day she reported to work with law firm Drew & Napier LLC in 1988, she stayed till midnight. Later, she found out that was an “early” day. As she remembers it, there was crying, out of sheer exhaustion, and many moments of “Am I good enough?” self-doubt when she lost cases.

 

But as her former boss Davinder Singh, 56, CEO of Drew & Napier, remembers it, she was one of the best lawyers he ever worked with, who put her heart and soul into every case.

 

“Indranee is completely straightforward, has an innate and strong sense of right and wrong, speaks her mind, sees through those with guile, and has no time for poseurs,” he says.

 

He credits her for revamping the firm’s graduate recruitment methods and helping it get the best talent, setting up precedent databases and introducing knowledge management way before it became fashionable.

 

She made partner within five years, and was appointed senior counsel in 2003. But more than any systemic change, Ms Rajah takes most pride in the young lawyers she helped “change” along the way as the partner in charge of recruitment and pupillage.

 

From ingraining basic courtesies to showing them how to handle difficult clients, she relished helping young no-fight lawyers transform into full-fledged ones. Memorably, she sent a young man who needed polishing on the social front for salsa lessons and bade him watch the movie Strictly Ballroom.

 

Her door was literally always open, says Ms Angeline Tan, 29, a Drew & Napier senior associate who worked under her. “She cared not just how good we were in our work as lawyers. She took an interest in our personal growth,” she says.

 

A time for everything

MS RAJAH made time for all of this by sleeping less, about four to five hours a day. After she entered politics in 2001 “to give back”, the late nights became early mornings. Her twice-weekly meet-the-people sessions typically end after 1am because she gives every resident the option to see her personally.

 

It all culminated in her most sleep-deprived year, 2010, when she was juggling her legal work, her own Tanglin-Cairnhill ward, assisting former minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew with his adjoining Tanjong Pagar-Tiong Bahru ward as well as becoming Sinda president.

 

In the aftermath of the 2011 General Election, where the People’s Action Party garnered its lowest vote share since independence, she left Drew & Napier, her “home” of 23 years, as its deputy managing director, for full-time office.

 

“It was not an easy time to be a politician,” she says. But for precisely that reason, she felt it was important to take the next step. “If there was ever a time I could contribute, this was the time,” she says.

 

Ms Anita Fam, 50, a full-time community volunteer and her best friend since kindergarten, testifies to Ms Rajah’s steely resolve.

 

“She doesn’t do these things because she sees them as noble. She does them because she feels that they are the right things to do. Tenacity is her second name,” she says.

 

What the elfin single woman also makes time for is exercising, doing intense gym workouts with a trainer up to thrice a week. She also cooks, making her own salads drizzled with her signature chilli balsamic vinegar dressing.

 

One reason she does both is to keep her energy up for her long, overscheduled workdays. The other is that her two siblings died young, compelling her to pay attention to her health.

 

In 1996, her sister Kumarie, a translator in France, died of breast cancer at the age of 42. Nine years later, her brother Ananda, a university lecturer, then 54, succumbed to a heart attack. Both deaths were dreadful shocks, which hit her and her mother, both Anglicans, hard.

 

Finally, a passage from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes provided the closure she needed.

 

Thumbing through her King James Bible in her office at Treasury Building, she recites: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die...”

 

She reflects: “It settled me a lot that there is an appointed time for everything. At the end of it, I took the view that everybody has a set number of years on this earth. The most important thing is how we carry on from there.”

 

Indranee Rajah on... 

HER 91-YEAR-OLD MOTHER

“She is a major influence on my life. Seeing how she struggled, working and bringing up three children after my dad passed away was, in retrospect, a lifetime’s worth of lessons on being strong in the face of adversity, maintaining dignity and principle in all circumstances, and love and sacrifice for family. The biggest life lessons she taught me were the importance of being independent, and that strength and compassion go hand in hand.”

 

STAYING SVELTE IN ONE’S 50s

“This is a word of encouragement for all women out there – despite the fact that it gets harder when you get older, it can be done.”

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.