Transcript of speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the 50th Anniversary Celebrations for Outward Bound Singapore (OBS), delivered on 29th November 2017.
Good evening, everyone. Happy to be with you today to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Outward Bound Singapore (OBS). I attended the 40th anniversary celebrations too. We took a boat ride out to sea and met some of the young OBS participants. It brought back fond memories of my own time at OBS in 1967, when I was a secondary school student, aged 15-years old like many of you today.
I attended one of OBS’ first intakes. The school had been set up by Dr Goh Keng Swee, who was Deputy Chairman of the People’s Association (PA). The British Army had been running a holiday adventure camp here in Pulau Ubin ever since the late 1950s, before the People’s Association took over. To get off to a running start, the first official OBS courses continued to be run by the British Army officers. There were two British majors who headed the operations. Many of the instructors were non-commissioned officers (NCOs) from the British Army, but locally recruited. My own instructor, I was in Tenzing watch (I’m sure some of you are still in Tenzing watch), was a Malay corporal. There were other Singapore volunteers, seconded from the civil service or Vigilante Corps, who acted as instructors. Among them were Mr S Puhaindran, who was a teacher and scoutmaster in Raffles Institution. Also Mr Mathias Chay, who is here today, who reminded me just now that he took the class where we all had to jump off the end of the pier and then into the sea.
Dr Goh Keng Swee set up OBS because he thought it would help to build ruggedness and resilience in our young people, in those early days of our nationhood. OBS was “rugged” in every sense of the word. The facilities and equipment were basic. We had canoes, sailing dinghies, prismatic compasses and topographic maps, some simple rope and obstacle courses, but not much else. No cutter, certainly no tallship. The dormitories were makeshift. This was a basketball court, and we had a row of dorms here for the boys and the girls were on the other side of the little cove. Nothing compared to the modern facilities and equipment that we see around us today. Pulau Ubin then was even more rural than today. There were prawn ponds, granite quarries, a few kampongs, old rubber plantations, lots of mangrove swamp and a bit of a beach. To us, it seemed like a large and unknown continent. For our final exercise, we spent a whole day hiking from one end to the other, from here to Chek Jawa, where we camped overnight. Today, Ubin is still rustic, but it has much better amenities, including paved roads. You can cycle or scooter its length in 20 minutes or 30 minutes, and it is much harder to get lost.
My coursemates and I found OBS a challenging experience, but we also enjoyed ourselves immensely. My course lasted 17 days, longer than most of the courses OBS now runs, except for your 21 days’ programme. We came from different schools, different social backgrounds (Chinese schools, English schools, different races), boys and girls. We made friends quickly. We had to. We also had to get fit, to learn new skills, to encourage one another along on exercises and adventures. We did map reading and orienteering, and often got hopelessly lost. We went canoeing and sailing, through sun and rain. 50 years ago, the Singapore shoreline opposite Ubin was rural and undeveloped, and we ventured forth from OBS – sailing to Pulau Seletar, canoeing to Coney Island, and orienteering in Punggol North.
Those 17 days had a lasting impact on us, and certainly on me. We were pushed to our limits, physical, as well as psychological. We gained self-confidence, became more resilient, and learnt to work with one another as a team. I think that was what Dr Goh intended.
Today, the mission of OBS – to develop mentally and physically rugged youths to be active citizens inspired to serve the community - is more relevant than ever. Our children are growing up in a much more developed and urbanised environment. There are fewer opportunities to rough it out in the outdoors, and shelter from bad weather is usually just a few steps away. So I am very glad even though it looked dark earlier this afternoon, we are out here in the open and not somewhere indoors. Nowadays, parents, teachers and schools are also more protective. When our children go camping now, you must put camping in quotation marks because, often they sleep in the school hall or the classroom, or sometimes, if they are very adventurous, on the Floating Platform in Marina Bay, which we recently had a very serious activity earlier this week. So that sense of nature, the outdoors and adventure is not quite the same. The boys will eventually do National Service, where they will become men, although it is much better if they are already fit, toughened and confident before they are called up. We want all our young people – girls as well as boys, to be rugged and tenacious, adaptable and resourceful. Here at OBS is where some of that should happen.
Outdoor adventure learning is especially useful in imparting these lessons, which are very hard to teach in the classroom. This is why MCCY and MOE developed the National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan last year. Part of the plan is for OBS to build permanent facilities on Coney Island to take in more students. OBS has already started some activities on Coney Island, and I will be visiting later on. With expanded facilities, every schoolgirl and schoolboy will have the opportunity to go through OBS at least once during his or her school years.
A key part of the OBS experience depends on the instructors. You are the ones who ignite the excitement of the trainees, stretch their limits and encourage their self-discovery, while letting them test and push boundaries in a safe and nurturing environment. Instructors are a special breed of young men and women. Well trained, dedicated, motivated, with positive energy and an optimistic outlook, who enjoy the work and deliberately choose a career path that is less-travelled. Many of you were inspired to become OBS instructors after going through the OBS course yourself, and realising the impact good instructors make. You are not just teachers, but also the trainees’ friends and mentors. As one aspiring instructor, Ms Angelique Poh, said, you can inspire the students to be “the best version of themselves, and to contribute to society, no matter how small they may perceive their contribution to be”. So if anybody here today is thinking of becoming an OBS instructor, this is a good opportunity to speak to the actual instructors to find out what it is like, and maybe, make a bold choice.
When I attended OBS in 1967, I did not imagine that I would be back here half a century later, celebrating its 50th anniversary. Since then, generations of young people have benefited from the OBS experience as I did. I hope many more in future generations will have the same opportunity, and will find it as enriching and worthwhile.
We have one of the best Outward Bound centres in the world, and now we are expanding OBS to make it better. If OBS does its work well, Singapore will always have rugged youth and rugged citizens who embody the OBS spirit “to serve, to strive, and not to yield”.
Happy 50th birthday, OBS!
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