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You never forget a good teacher

12 Nov 2019


Filmmaker Alvin Lee found his path to success because two teachers did not give up on him.
When a teacher believes, a child can achieve – that is the message in a short film, The Speech, produced and released in August by MOE. It shows the difference teachers can make when they believe in their students.

It is a message that resonated deeply with Mr Alvin Lee, who directed the film.

At 28, Alvin may be one of youngest and most successful filmmakers in Singapore – but his story could have turned out very differently. As a student at Chung Cheng High School (Yishun), he not only skipped classes and fought with schoolmates, but also failed Mathematics for his Secondary 3 prelims – with grades that even shocked him.

“I got 9/100, and I knew it was the end for me if I didn’t pass my maths next year for my O-levels,” Alvin recalls. “I was a rebellious student.”

A new beginning

All that changed when a new Mathematics teacher walked into Alvin’s Secondary 4 class.

“Mrs Ng was very patient. She never really scolded us, and even when she did, it was more an expression of disappointment than of anger,” says the filmmaker.

“She didn’t make me feel demoralised; she didn’t make me feel like a loser, or a failure. I think on some level, because she didn’t give up on me, that’s why I didn’t give up as well.” Alvin says that because Mrs Ng believed in him so much, it guilt-tripped him into putting in his best effort. “She was so nice to all of us that I felt guilty for not paying enough attention in class. Thinking back, it was really effective to get me to care.”

Mrs Ng, whose full name is Ng May Fung, stood out for going the extra mile: To persuade her students to stay back for remedial lessons, she even treated them to pizza once.

“When she did that, it left a deep impression on me and the rest of my classmates.”
With Mrs Ng’s help, Alvin worked hard on the subject, even to the point of buying several assessment books to practise Mathematics problems on his own.

At the O-level examinations, he scored a B3 for Mathematics, which enabled him to pursue digital media at Singapore Polytechnic. He eventually specialised in visual effects and motion graphics. From there, he received a government scholarship to study at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, beating over 1000 applicants. Since then, he has won a string of awards – both in Singapore and China, including Best New Director at the 2016 China Short Film Golden Hummingbird Awards. The awards are the country’s first national-level event for short films.

In Singapore, he directed film segments showed at the National Day Parade 2019. These featured four people and how their stories are linked to the progress of the country.

As a filmmaker, Alvin says the patient and soft-spoken Mrs Ng has had an influence on his method of directing.

“When I’m working with talents on set, I try to correct them and tell them what I want in a gentle way, instead of scolding them.”

An unforgettable reunion

Mrs Ng retired soon after Alvin graduated from secondary school. “I went back a few times to school,” he says, “but Mrs Ng was no longer teaching.”

But there was another teacher, who kept in contact with Alvin throughout the years: his former Chinese teacher, Mr Yip Wan Piu.

“Mr Yip was also my form teacher for four years in secondary school,” Alvin says. “Even when I was studying in China, I would receive text messages from him congratulating me on milestones like, winning an award or appearing on TV. I was very touched.”

Last year, Mr Yip invited him to his daughter’s wedding. It was at the wedding that he saw Mrs Ng again.

It had been more than 10 years since he had graduated from secondary school.

Spotting her at the buffet line, he walked up to her and asked in Mandarin, “Teacher, do you still remember me?” In his hands was his phone, which showed a snapshot of his class photo in the school yearbook, in case she did not remember him.

Mrs Ng, now in her late 60s, replied, “Of course I do,” as she pinched Alvin’s cheeks, like he was still her teen-aged student.

She said she had heard about his success as a filmmaker, and told him how proud she was of his achievements. He thanked her for not giving up on him in school.

“Aiyah, there’s no need to thank me,” she said to him.

The retired teacher and her former student then took a photo together, exchanged contact information, and promised to catch up another time.

Alvin had never forgotten Mrs Ng and Mr Yip, and their reunion was one he would not forget, either. He says, “Thanks to Mrs Ng, I passed my O-level maths, made it to polytechnic, and started on my path to filmmaking.”

“I wanted to thank her in person. It was a thank you that I’ve owed her for more than 10 years.”

A version of this article was originally published in Issue 35 of “Contact: The Teachers’ Digest” with the headline “You Never Forget a Good Teacher”.