29 Sep The First Years of FES
My journey in Varsity Christian Fellowship (VCF) began in 1953, the year I entered university to study medicine. I had converted just before entering university. My choice of study was due in part to the influence of various doctors who were both strong Christians and very good in medicine. VCF had just started the year before, having separated from the Student Christian Movement, which had become influenced by liberal theology.
VCF helped strengthen my spiritual life. We met regularly to study the Bible, praying for and encouraging each other in the faith. Dr Leon Dale, a British lecturer in the Geography faculty, was a God-given mentor. I was the VCF committee secretary then and came to know him well. He taught me how to study the Bible and lent me many Christian books (a scarce commodity back then). He would open his house at Eng Neo Avenue every Sunday to all students, and served English tea and cakes. I was very impressed by how he took down the names of familiar students, and prayed for them regularly. There was no FES at the time, so he was the closest thing we had to a staffworker.
Despite being FES’ first chairman, I missed the conference that marked its beginning. Besides VCF, Christian fellowships started in three other places: Nanyang University, Singapore Polytechnic, and the Teachers’ Training College. By 1959, my graduating year, these movements felt they should make a national body and held a conference about this in Cameron Highlands. I did not attend as I was studying for my final exam. Without me knowing, they appointed me pro-temp chairman. I still remember how I found out! One day, after graduating, I decided to return to King Edward hall to visit Aw Swee Eng, a close friend. I was climbing up the short flight of stairs to the block and saw him standing at the top.
“Hello!”, he said. “I have good news for you.”
“What good news?” I responded.
“You have been appointed chairman of the new FES committee.”
I was very surprised, and honestly, uneasy. I had seen missionaries come through Singapore, many expelled by the Communists in China. Influenced by missionaries such as Hudson Taylor and J. O. Sanders to go to places where the gospel was less preached, I harboured a secret ambition to leave Singapore to be a medical missionary. However, I gradually came to accept that the Lord’s will was for me to take up the chairmanship for at least a few years. The gospel was needed in Singapore, and I was meant to be one of those who stayed rather than went.
Starting a ministry like FES in these post-war years was not easy. Singapore’s situation was generally difficult, and scarcity was everywhere. We focused on working with the few resources available. There was only one Christian bookshop; we were excited to have any Christian books at all! There was not much money going around either. When I first graduated and started as a houseman, my salary was only $400, which gives you some idea of how low salaries were then. I lived on half that salary. I gave the other half to my brother and his family, as he had supported me through university. It was very much about learning to make do.
In FES’s first several years, we did not have a staffworker and we relied on ourselves to do everything. We published a magazine with editing and publication help from others. I managed to buy a motorcycle, and I would go to the printers and do the distribution. All of this happened while I was employed full-time by the Ministry of Health, as the only doctor in charge of port health. I had wanted to work in the hospitals and become a clinician, but I was assigned to public health instead. I was disappointed as it was a ‘dead duck’ of a career with no chance of promotion. However, looking back, I thank God because there was plenty of waiting and free time which I would spend doing FES work.
When FES hired our first staffworker, Choong Chee Pang, in 1962, we could not even afford to pay him a full salary! Events among the student groups were financed by the students themselves. We emphasised a student-led movement. We tried to ingrain the principle that students are able to do it themselves and be sustainable by themselves. It helped that in those days the students were quite independent.
Part of the reason the ministry could work this way was because of the hardships many in my generation went through. In the earliest days after the war, we had no food to eat, and sometimes had only one meal for a whole day. In order to survive, we had to learn to be resourceful. Many of us came from a poor background, which helped us understand what it meant to have very little, and to share when we had gotten something. Not having very much also motivated us to save what we did have. We brought these values into VCF, then into FES.
By the time I ended my term as the FES chairperson in 1964 (when Chua Wee Hian joined us) things had stabilised. I saw my main role in those early days as laying foundations for the ministry. It is quite special to be among those who started FES and contributed to its early days, and to see that the ministry is still ongoing today. I am thankful that the Lord laid upon me the heart for FES work and a burden for this ministry.
My days of being on the FES ‘frontline’ are long past. Many things have changed since then. However, I think some things continue to be important. While there has been a generational shift which needs adaptation, the Bible still needs to be held to and obeyed as the Word of God, as the Truth. Space needs to be given to debate and discuss differences, but I hope younger generations will still hold to fundamental principles. Dedication is another needed value. Those of my generation had to be dedicated to the task, saving what little we had, building up FES and making sacrifices in the process. Learning dedication can be harder today when there are so many ready choices available.
Recalling my journey with VCF and FES, I appreciate anew how those of my generation and students from subsequent generations have been built up and deepened in their faith by this ministry. I pray that for all of us for whom FES has played a significant part in our Christian journey, that we would be united in serving the Lord amidst all our differences.
Dr Chew Pin Kee served as the first chairperson of FES from 1959 to 1964. During his days as a medical student in the University of Malaya (now known as the National University of Singapore), he was an active member of the VCF. He currently owns and runs a private clinic in the west of Singapore with one of his two sons.