A 28-year service of love

Salt&Light wishes all educators a Happy Teachers' Day!

by Tan Huey Ying // August 31, 2018, 12:00 pm

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"The children give me energy!" says Mdm Goh, whose work at the Student Care Centre and ministry in Sunday School have spanned almost 30 years. Photo by David Lawrence Lim.

“I once blocked this gang who was coming to beat up one of the kids.”

If you pictured these words coming from a scowling, strapping, crew cut discipline master, you’d be wrong. 

Madam Goh Imm Neo, 63, is tiny – 137cm tiny.

But that day, she faced down three angry teenagers in a stairwell.

“They were coming up the stairs, so I stood at the top. And that gave me the height advantage!” she recalls with a twinkle in her eye.

Mdm Goh’s Sunday School class, 1994. A petite woman (standing behind the “angels”), she is almost the same height as the children she teaches. Photo courtesy of Mdm Goh Imm Neo.

The 10-year-old boy she was defending had offended the gang and they were gearing up to teach him a lesson.

“I stopped them and told them to meet me downstairs to settle the offence.” With a tinge of disbelief in her voice, she joked: “I was so brave hor?”

What happened then? (You want to know.)

“I listened to what the boys had to say and … I made the 10-year-old apologise!”

It worked. The gang was appeased and left. 

This is classic Aunty Imm Diplomacy.

“Brave” is one word to describe her. “Cheerful”, “warm” and “compassionate” are other words that have been used to describe this woman of God who has been teaching His little children for the better part of her life.

Hopping onboard

Almost 30 years ago, in 1990, Mdm Goh (or Aunty Imm, as generations of children call her) started teaching in Sunday School at Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church.

“I was just a regular church-goer then, but they needed people, so a group of us decided to help and we all hopped onboard,” she says.

During the week, Mdm Goh worked in a freight-forwarding company coordinating projects and managing clients. But on Sundays, she told Bible stories to little children in Sunday School.

A student points out Mdm Goh amongst carolling students in an old album. Photo by David Lawrence Lim.

After two years of teaching Sunday School, Mdm Goh left her job at the freight company. She received several job offers which she declined.

“I had a very good boss but I didn’t want to do office work anymore,” she says.

At the invitation of her church elder, Mdm Goh started work at a Christian bookshop called the Learning and Creative Corner (LCC), where a young boy named Joel and his mother would often help out.

Joel Koh, who is now 33, was also one of her first Sunday School students. He remembers spending a lot of time with Mdm Goh in the bookshop.

Aunty Imm, as Mdm Goh is affectionately known, looking through the many photos of her students. She is perfectly comfortable in the child-sized tables and chairs at the Student Care Centre where she works. Photo by David Lawrence Lim.

Mdm Goh recalls: “Joel used to sing along to the Don Moen tapes. He hit all the notes on the dot!”

Today, Joel serves as a worship leader in the church. His daughter, Hailey, is five and is in Mdm Goh’s Sunday School class as her father once was.

“All of my students are so big now! Many of them are serving and involved in church, some are mummies and daddies. It brings me a lot of joy to see how God has worked in each of their lives,” she says contentedly.

A safe haven

Mdm Goh found working with children so meaningful that, in 1998, she joined the full-time staff of Bethesda Care Services working in their Integrated Special Student Care Centre (SCC). She is still going strong today. 

Chong Yong Jie, 27, speaks fondly of his childhood at the student care: “The Student Care Centre was there to provide me with a shelter and a place that taught me valuable life lessons such as humility and integrity.”

He comes from a single parent family and when he graduated from the centre in 2003, he returned to volunteer there throughout his secondary school days.

“My mother saw the centre as a safe haven while I wanted to be there for the younger ones and also to provide support for the staff as much as I could.”

Chong Yong Jie (standing at the back) with his group of friends who attended the Student Care Centre together as children. This was taken in 2010, when Yong Jie was 20 years old. Photo courtesy of Mdm Goh Imm Neo.

One such life lesson included the basic discipline of personal hygiene.

Mdm Susan Chin, 62, a senior staff member of the Student Care Centre, recalls hygiene being one of the few things that Yong Jie had to be nagged about.

“He always refused to bathe after playing basketball in the hot sun. His favourite phrase was: ‘Wait lah!'”

Thank you, God, for the food

When Yong Jie pictures Mdm Goh, an image of a prayerful woman comes to mind.

“Once, I fractured my wrist and I remember she prayed for me. I saw her praying very often.”

From left to right: Mdm Eling Koh, Mdm Susan Chin and Mdm Goh Imm Neo are senior staff at the Student Care Centre. Mdm Koh, 45, has been with the centre since it opened in 1996. Photo by Tan Huey Ying.

Mdm Chin has worked with Mdm Goh for more than 17 years. She, too, fondly remembers the many children who have passed through their doors.

Jimson and Branson, now 22, are twins who are on the autistic spectrum.

During their childhood at the Student Care Centre, they relied on sign language to communicate. Eventually, both twins picked up a few verbal phrases through social interaction. They could not express themselves well but they were good at watching and learning.

Mdm Chin recounts with amusement: “These two saw that Aunty Imm would pray for children who were not well. Once, when she was sick, we gathered to pray for her instead.”

Jimson wanted to join in. When it was his turn, though, he forgot what they were praying for and loudly proclaimed: “Thank You, God, for the food!” 

Jimson and Branson (centre back), 22, now lead independent lives. This was a recent student centre gathering in 2018 with some ex-staff and students. Photo courtesy of Mdm Susan Chin.

Praying on the way to work

There are humorous and heart-warming tales a-plenty. But Mdm Goh recalls a year when she had just about reached the end of her tether. 

“In our line of work, there is often somebody – that one child – who is especially challenging.

“There was this Primary 3 boy, he was so, so, challenging. He refused to do anything I told him to, he had mood swings and refused to follow the rules. I just did not know what to do with him.

“He drove me nuts. Everything was a challenge with him!

“So every day, I would pray on my way to work – for the classroom, for the class, but especially for this boy!”

Mdm Goh (front row, third from right) with her students at an outing during the school holidays. Photo by Mdm Goh Imm Neo.

Mdm Goh admitted that during that year, she did find it difficult to go to work because of what awaited her each day.

“But with God’s help, I got through the year and the boy changed for the better when he was in Primary 4.”

Kindred spirits

Mdm Goh counts herself blessed to work with kindred spirits.

“I scold them, then I give them chance. Mercy triumphs over judgement, right?”

Mdm Chin has worked alongside Mdm Goh for over 17 years and they have become very good at taking turns to play good cop, bad cop.

Good cop or bad, Mdm Goh is no pushover. It is not uncommon to see the diminutive woman staring up at pre-teens double her height, reducing them to tears.

When things get out of hand – as they sometimes do – Mdm Goh clamps down on the perpetrators in full force.

Days are filled with laughter at the Student Care Centre. Photo courtesy of Mdm Goh Imm Neo.

Still, Yong Jie says that Mdm Goh balances discipline with a heart of love and compassion for the children she teaches.

Mdm Chin puts it in a more straightforward manner: “She is the one who sayangs (loves) them the most.”

When the children learn their lesson, Mdm Goh often reduces their sentences.

“I scold them, then I give them chance. Mercy triumphs over judgement, right?” she grins.

Mdm Chin quips: “That gang you turned away also exercised mercy over judgement, you know – they saw your small size and decided to pang chan (give chance)!”

What pleases God

Mdm Goh says she has found great meaning in spending entire days surrounded by children – for both work and ministry.

In fact, being around children gives her energy, she says.

Her outlook on life is simple: Do what pleases God.

Her outlook on life is simple: Do what pleases God.

In even simpler terms, she seeks to know Christ and make Him known. As a popular Sunday School song goes:

“I want to know You, Lord
You are a great big God
I’m young and do not know a lot
Come and be my all.”

“Sometimes I change the lyrics to: ‘I want to know You, Lord, I’m old and do not know a lot,’” she laughs.

The Bible verse that Mdm Goh has treasured for many years, ever since her conversion, is: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Her faithful service is, quite simply, a response to the Love she herself has received. 

“Life just passes us by, which is why I believe touching lives is important. That lasts for eternity!” says Mdm Goh with her trademark smile.

Indeed, this warm and joyful woman has touched many.

I would know. I was her Sunday School student too.

My teacher

Salt&Light asked church and marketplace leaders to tell us about the teachers who have had a part to play in their ministry and life today. These are their fond recollections:

Joseph Chean, National Director, Youth With A Mission (YWAM)

“Mrs Lee Gek Kim from ACS at Barker Road was my Literature teacher. She never failed to impress me with her outfit. In my memory, she wore a different dress every day for the entire two years she taught my class.

“I was a pre-believer then. She presented herself as a Godly woman who had a deep respect for God and His Word.

“Her communication skills were excellent. She was animated and made Literature real and captivating. Also, she used her lessons to teach about values, which now I know are biblical values.

“She inspired me to be an effective communicator like her – capturing the attention of listeners and using the most common things in life to reveal who God is.”

Anita Fam, President, National Council of Social Services

“Her name was Sister Gerard Fernandez. She was my Primary 1 form teacher in Marymount Convent.

“She taught us for the whole year, and then she left and went to KL. She had so much love and patience for all of us. It made our entry into the school very ‘un-frightening’. If you were to ask many of my classmates in Primary 1, they all feel the same way. She has impacted us in a special way. 

“She was amazing because she kept tabs on all of us, and the day I graduated from university, it so happened that my dad had gotten an honorary doctorate from the same university. And so a photograph of us appeared in the newspapers.

“From there, Sister Gerard tracked me down – after a span of 14 years! She got my phone number and rang me up to congratulate me.

“Through the years she has watched over me and the rest of my classmates.

“And I will tell you something very special about Sister Gerard. Her own ministry was the prison ministry. She ministered to a lot of inmates, especially those on death row. So if you were to do a Google search on her, you’ll find a lot of background on this amazing woman who has given so much of her life to God and shared her love with all of us.”

Benjamin William, General Secretary & CEO, Singapore Red Cross

“One of the teachers who has made an impact on my life is Ethelred Fernandez.

“He was in St Gabriel’s Primary School when I was there in the 70s. He was our teacher as well as our hockey coach and also the teacher-advisor for the Science Club, of which I was a member.

“The impression he made on my life was his faithfulness to God – he always talked about the things of God and was a prayer warrior.

“Secondly, his humility. Even as a teacher, he treated us as friends.

“The amazing thing is that today, almost 50 years later, he remains in touch with us. So he is still very much a part of our lives.”

About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Salt&Light writer Huey Ying is a millennial with a résumé to prove it – she was a plankton-sized part of the finance industry before serving in a Christian organisation. She loves the sea and you will find her somewhere near the water during her holidays.