THE KIDS
COME FIRST

Mr Tan Kok Wah loves children.
“They’re cute; they’re cheeky,” he says
with a twinkle in his eye. It’s this innate
affinity for young learners that has energised
him over the course of his career in the
early childhood sector.

When you get older, you start to think about your place in the world, and the things that are truly important to yourself,” says Mr Tan, 66. “I decided that I had a duty to our children.”

Mr Tan is an Early Childhood Officer with the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA). Launched in 2013, the agency oversees standards for early childhood programmes and does long-term planning for the sector. Mr Tan’s work with the young began more than 20 years ago. After serving for 23 years as a regular in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), he joined Henry Park Primary School in 1998 as an Operations Manager. As part of his work, he assisted the principal in developing new school facilities, and admired the thought that went into designing a safe environment for children.

“Children are very vulnerable,” says Mr Tan. “They don’t have much situational awareness; they love running around. So it’s our responsibility to provide a safe space for them.”

In 2002, the Ministry of Education set up the Preschool and Special Education Branch (PSEB). His experience working with children at Henry Park Primary School inspired Mr Tan to join PSEB. Now at ECDA, Mr Tan is responsible for making sure new preschool centres follow the Education Act (which covers regulations on premises, curricula, management committees and teachers’ qualifications).

Mr Tan also takes time to guide new preschool operators, patiently walking them through the Act’s requirements and explaining that the regulations are simply the means to a bigger goal: the children’s well-being. This is why colleagues and operators often call him the “midwife” of local kindergartens. Without Mr Tan, preschools wouldn’t be set up and operating with the right standards.

“We work with an open, proactive attitude,” he says. “What we want is a trusting and win-win relationship with preschool operators and principals.” Indeed, many preschool operators remember Mr Tan fondly and are thankful of his assistance, as shown by the many appreciation letters he received over the years.

The SARS and H1N1 crises proved to be challenging for the sector, but it was such crises that showed how Mr Tan’s efforts in working with preschools had paid off. During these outbreaks, Mr Tan and other ECDA staff closely monitored what was happening at preschool centres, coordinated with relevant agencies on their findings and worked to implement measures to protect the well-being of students. “These crises raised awareness about the health and safety standards that we’d always been pushing for – that centres need to fulfil certain requirements so the environment for children is hygienic and secure at all times,” says Mr Tan.

There’s one more reason Mr Tan is excited about work each day and counts it a privilege to be in the education sector – he almost didn’t have the opportunity to further his own studies. “My family was very poor and they couldn’t afford to send me to school,” he recalls. “Finally, when I got a sponsorship from the SAF, I could study for a diploma in mechanical engineering at Singapore Polytechnic.”

“That’s why I’ll always be learning,” he says. “I know what it’s like not to have the chance to learn. So I want to do my part and make the learning environment a good one for both children and parents.”