When he was in Primary 5, Chong Kee Hiong scored the highest marks for mathematics and Chinese.
But his teacher at the now defunct Kim Keat Primary School told him he had won one prize too many and gave the maths award to another pupil who had finished half a mark behind.
“I didn’t argue with the teacher but I was very upset,” recalls the chief executive of serviced residences operator The Ascott. “The fact that I still remember it with such clarity shows that I am still disturbed by it.”
The episode goes against the ideals of fair play and meritocracy which he holds dear. After all, he says, Singapore’s meritocratic system made it possible for the son of a poor shoe seller to make good and become head honcho of the world’s largest owner-operator of serviced apartments.
He was the youngest of 11 children, and the family got by on the meagre earnings of his late father, who ran a small footwear stall in the Bendemeer market.
Home was a Housing Board rental flat in Toa Payoh.
“There were just two bedrooms. All the boys slept in one room; all the girls and my paternal grandma slept in the other. My parents slept in the living room,” he recalls.
He ended up in the living room too, and the sofa was his bed for several years until his teens.
Life was not easy and money was often tight. The children had to help out at their father’s stall on weekends, and their mother sometimes had to borrow from her parents to help tide over tough times.
“Being the youngest, I probably had it better than my siblings. But to save money, I packed food from home to school,” he recalls.
Mr Chong, 46, reckons he was aware of his poverty from a young age and probably nursed a subconscious desire to improve his lot in life from the time he was in primary school.
He remembers that when he was in Primary 1, he was called up, along with a couple of other small, skinny pupils, to stand in front of the class.
“The teacher asked us what milk we drank. I don’t think she was out to embarrass us, she just wanted to know why we were small,” he recalls.
“But it wasn’t a nice feeling to be singled out, and made to feel deprived.”
Fortunately, he is stoic. It’s a quality he thinks he developed from voraciously devouring Chinese sword-fighting novels by some of the genre’s most loved writers, such as Jin Yong, Gu Long and Liang Yusheng, as a child.
“In these novels, the heroes will always prevail although they have to undergo a lot of hardships first,” he says with hearty laugh.
“Also, in many of the stories, skilful pugilists and old masters would impart their skills only if the heroes showed great perseverance and sincerity, so I told myself I needed to have those qualities too.”