Lee Bee Wah Paid For Her Siblings’ Education By Working As An Engineer In The Day & A Tutor At Night After Graduating From NTU
In this week's Hear U Out, the 61-year-old Malaysia-born former MP, who is the oldest of eight children, also talked about how she had no money to pay for her school fees during her first year in Singapore.
Former Nee Soon South MP Lee Bee Wah was this week’s guest on Mediacorp talk show Hear U Out, where she talked about her growing up years in Malaysia and how she helped her parents with the household expenses from the time she was in primary school.
The 61-year-old grew up in a small village in Malacca, and as the oldest of eight children, she would wake up at 5am every day to help her rubber tapper parents with their work before heading to school.
After school, she would pop by home to check on her siblings — she is 18 years older than her youngest sibling — before heading to the plantation again.
At the same time, she gave tuition to the kids in her village, and whatever she earned would go to the family.
When she turned 20, her parents suggested she move to Singapore to further her education, and so Bee Wah arrived here with nothing but a backpack filled with clothes and 20 ringgit in her pocket.
Bee Wah & her mother
Bee Wah attended the National University of Singapore (NUS) from 1981 to 1982 before transferring to Nanyang Technological University (NTU), where she studied civil engineering and would give tuition in her free time.
Her first year in Singapore was not easy as she didn’t have enough money to pay for her school fees.
“I was struggling with my schoolwork so I couldn’t teach as many tutees,” Bee Wah said. “I hadn’t paid my school fees when it was almost exam period and I received a letter from the university telling me that I might not be able to sit for my exams because I hadn’t made payment.”
She went to the student liaison office where she asked the officers if they could let her pay the $1000 or so school fees during the semester break as she would be able to work during that period.
The officer not only got her a job, but also helped her apply for the Lee Foundation bursary so she could pay her fees.
Bee Wah also received financial assistance from the Tung Ann District Guild in Singapore but continued to live very frugally.
“When I cooked instant noodles, I’d use half of the seasoning and keep the rest to cook with bee hoon for the next meal. Bee hoon comes in a big packet and is cheaper than instant noodles, so I had both at home,” she said. “We didn’t know much about nutrition back then and just needed to fill our stomachs.”
Things got better a year later, when she managed to find more tutees with her friend’s help.
“In my second year, my classmate told me that someone in Bukit Timah has three kids who are looking for a tutor,” reminisced Bee Wah with a smile. “I was so happy because I had three students. I found more tutees in the same area so I could go down the street to teach at the other house. If I remember correctly, I would earn S$700 to S$800 a month.”
The former MP in her younger years
“My parents were earning about 200 ringgit each, which added up to 400 ringgit a month. I was earning double of what they were earning. Of course, I had extra money every month, which I’d send home to help my parents.”
When she graduated in 1985, Singapore was going through a recession. But that didn't stop the resilient Bee Wah, who used an ingenious method to find work.
“It was difficult to get a job so I started by giving tuition,” she said. “I would alight the bus whenever I saw a construction site to check out the signboard outside. I would take down the names of the consultant and contractor and write letters to ask if they had any jobs available. I was very lucky to be one of the first among my batch to get hired. We finished our exams in February or March, and I started working in May. If I had waited for the company to post the job listing in the papers, all my classmates would be at the same interview.”
“I looked for tutees who were living near me by leaving my contact details in the mailboxes in my area. I was an engineer by day and tutor by night. My night job paid around the same as my day job and that’s how I managed to pay for the education of my siblings.”
Bee Wah and her husband Soh Chee Hiang
Photos: Lee Bee Wah/Facebook, Mediacorp