The Encounter with a Great Teacher and How It Influenced My Teaching

I find it really incredible how fast time flies. One year ago, I joined the Department of Philosophy, and I had been so incredibly busy creating lecture videos, assignments, and other educational resources, that I haven’t had much time to sit and reflect on my teaching, or even document the thought processes, insights, and challenges that arose along the way. 

I want to begin by discussing one significant event that shaped the way I teach my course. And it has to do with the book project that I worked on last year, where I helped to write “Memoirs of a Flying Tiger,” with Captain Ho Weng Toh (who at this moment of writing, is now 100 years young and still very much active and alive).

Captain Ho fought against the Japanese in WW2 as a bomber pilot, and later came to Singapore as the first of four pioneer pilots for the then Malayan Airways, the precursor of Singapore International Airlines (SIA). You could call him the father, or even the grandfather of SIA because he trained the first 300 local pilots for the airline. 

While writing the book, I was struck by the fact that Captain Ho still keeps in touch with his students, even though he had retired 40 years ago in 1980. To say, “keep in touch” is quite an understatement. Because Captain Ho made it a point to become almost like a family friend to his students. He doesn’t just know them, he knows every member of their family – their parents, their spouses, their children. And in turn, these students of his have been introducing Captain Ho to many of the newer pilots who joined SIA since his retirement. It’s almost as if they are one big aviation family. 

I had to interview a few of his former students for the book, and I was particularly struck by one recurring comment: “Captain Ho is a great teacher.”

I couldn’t help but to ask them: “What makes Captain Ho such a great teacher?”

The answers surprised me because they had little to do with his teaching. Instead, it was all about the mundane things that make up our daily social interactions. It was the simple acts of kindness that made a deep impact on them. 

He was a father figure to his students. He made it a point to know them beyond superficial details, and he tried to be acquainted with their families and friends. He made the new cadets feel welcome and comfortable, and always assures them that they are doing ok (as they were nervous about crashing the aircraft). He regularly invited them for meals and he treated them as respectable equals, as friends. And he always pushed them to go further in life. And with patience and kindness, he kept encouraging them to go against their own perceived limits (for both work and personal matters) until they finally accomplished it. 

I find it so incredible that simple gestures like this can form long-lasting bonds with one’s students, to the extent that these bonds have remained for 50, 60, 70 years even! And even though some of his former students have passed on before him, Captain Ho still makes it a point to catch up with their families, visiting them, or even having meals with them. It’s just so incredible.

I was very struck by all these and I counted myself lucky that I got to learn about his way of teaching while I was setting up a brand new course. I told myself that I want to emulate the greatness of this man: I want to be as great a teacher as he is, and I want to have the same kinds of friendships with my students (and their families perhaps) that endure for decades.

I am glad to have had the chance to meet such a great teacher, and he taught me to put a personal touch in my interactions with my students, even though much of the learning takes place online for my course. This is why I am so happy to invest a lot of effort in interacting with my students both online and offline.

In fact, it was learning about the importance of simple gestures and extending little acts of kindness whenever possible, and how all that made a big difference in students’ learning, that I found the courage to make myself available on instant messaging (Telegram) to 800 students each semester. I was originally quite afraid that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the volume. 

It is tiring work, but I do find it incredibly rewarding knowing that I could be touching lives and making a big difference to my students’ lives through simple gestures like a text message. 

What is happiness?

A student asked me:

What is happiness?

I prefer to think of happiness more as a state of being rather than a feeling. Because in my own experience, you can be happy or even content about your current situation in life without necessarily feeling positive emotions. Besides, we don’t always have feelings stirring in us 24 hours each day (that will be quite destabilising).

I like to think that a happy person is one who is fully alive, realising every potential that is within his/her own being, whenever possible. For that to happen, one must be willing to embrace challenges beyond one’s comfort zone in all aspects: socially, professionally, academically, technically, etc.

In other words, one must be constantly aiming to grow and develop one’s self. Stagnation not only breeds complacency, but it eventually makes one feel very directionless, and you eventually lose your sense of purpose and meaning. I have not met anyone who enjoys being in this state. So I don’t think you can ever be happy (I definitely have never been happy when I feel that I have no sense or purpose).

My greatest inspiration is Captain Ho Weng Toh, the 100 year old WW2 veteran and the pioneer and “father” of pilots in SIA. I interviewed him over 9 months to help him write his memoirs. And he is very happy at the wonderful age of 100. Even now, he has been challenging himself to grow. He sets up initiatives to help others. He makes it a point to keep in touch with everyone in his life – he even tries to meet new people. He learns to use new technology. He makes sure he is still kept up to date on current affairs (and he even talks to people young and old to understand their perspective about the matter). He has never let age be the reason to not get out of his comfort zone. He even has a girlfriend!

People like him truly exemplify what it means to be happy, what it means to be fully alive. And that is how I view happiness.

Opening Remarks at the Book Launch for “Memoirs of a Flying Tiger: The Story of a WWII Veteran and SIA Pioneer Pilot”

Today’s the launch of my new book! This book — “Memoirs of a Flying Tiger” — is an account of the exciting life of Captain Ho Weng Toh, a 99 year old World War 2 veteran who fought as a bomber pilot against the Japanese and later became the first of four pioneer local pilots for Malayan Airways (now Singapore Airlines). He went on to train the first 300 local pilots for Singapore Airlines, all of whom now hold senior positions in the aviation industry or have retired.

Co-authored the book with Captain Ho Weng Toh, a 99 year old World War 2 veteran and pioneer pilot of Singapore Airlines who trained the first 300 pilots for SIA.

This book is the fruit of nine months of labour (while I was simultaneously writing my Masters dissertation). More than just editing the original manuscript which he wrote, I had to comb through dozens of historical documents, conduct a great deal of historical research to ensure the authenticity of the chronology. And best of all, I had to interview Captain Ho and the people whom he worked with just to construct a coherent and engaging story, one that would accurately mirror the story-telling of Captain Ho’s own voice.

This has been an incredible journey and one that taught me that the path to greatness doesn’t necessarily entail accomplishing great things, but in being so warm and welcoming to people, especially those in one’s team, that they’re part of a family.

Captain Ho has since been my role model and an example of a human and humane leader worthy of emulation. I have been inspired to follow his example with the way I lead my team of tutors and my class of 800 students. The success of this module is largely thanks to the many life lessons I learnt from him.

It has been fun and I’m so grateful to have been given this beautiful opportunity.

Launching the book together with Captain Ho Weng Toh; Guest-of-Honour Ambassador-at-Large Prof. Tommy Koh; and Director of the National Archives of Singapore, Ms. Wendy Ang.

Captain Ho’s family gave me the honour to be the emcee for the launch, and asked me to give the opening remarks for the event. Here’s the transcript of what I said…

Opening Remarks of the Book Launch,
“Memoirs of a Flying Tiger,”
at the National Archives of Singapore
Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Delivering the Opening Remarks to Guest of Honour, Ambassador-at-Large, Prof. Tommy Koh and many distinguished guests and members of the media.
Delivering the Opening Remarks to Guest of Honour, Ambassador-at-Large, Prof. Tommy Koh and many distinguished guests and members of the media.

The Nobel laureate and father of transplant surgery, Alexis Carrel, once said: “Man cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor.”

I’ve had the privilege of working very closely with Captain Ho in the writing of this book. And in that process, I’ve heard him recount so many stories of his life: the ups and the downs, and especially the downs and how he handled them. What I can say is that Captain Ho is truly that man who has remade himself.

He is both the marble and the sculptor.

Captain Ho has dealt with the hardships of war, and the pain and anguish of losing friends and loved ones. While it is easy for people to fall into bitterness and despair over such events. Captain Ho held firm to the values and principles his father taught him. In particular, resilience and compassion. He rose up and out of these difficult events, sculpting himself to be more human and humane than ever before.

I have witnessed the fruits of his humanity on so many occasions through my interactions with the people whose lives were touched, changed, and impacted by him while he was a flight instructor in Singapore Airlines.

We’d like to think that people will remember us for accomplishing great things.

Yet, having spoken with the pilots whom Captain Ho trained and the many people he had worked with, there was one thing that stood out so vividly in their memories so many decades later: it was the little things that he did. His warmth, his kindness, the simple gestures and words that make one feel welcome and at home, as if they were a part of a family – his family.

I work very closely with young people, and I can tell you that apart from festive occasions like Chinese New Year or regular family gatherings, young people these days rarely talk to people a generation or two older than they are.

There is so much wisdom, experience, and insight that fails to be transmitted from one generation to the next. That’s partly because we now live in a time of innovation and disruption, and with it comes the idea that many old things are outdated and irrelevant to our lives. We have the technologies, the hardware, that makes us more advanced than ever. But as cliche as it may sound, we lack the HEARTware, for we have forgotten how to be human and humane. We have, in many ways, stopped learning the best practices of living well and of working harmoniously from the generations before us.

If anything, my experience with Captain Ho has shown that there is still so much that we can learn from people in his generation.

In a few months time, Captain Ho will be a hundred years ago. I’ve only spent nine months working closely with him on this book, and that’s not even 1% of his entire life!

Yet I’ve gained and learnt so much from him. In that nine months of labour, I’ve been reborn. My perspective and my life has changed, and I now do my best to follow his model example of leading my own teaching team like a family the way he did. Had I not met Captain Ho, it wouldn’t have occurred to me how important, how worthwhile, and how meaningful it is to run a team the way he did: like a family.

There is so much wisdom and insight that one can gain from Captain Ho. He has a century’s worth of it. And I believe we can gain many insights from his life stories in his book.

Man is both marble and sculptor, and here is that man, that most beautiful work of art, ready to share his life and his stories with us.

Thank you.